How to Be a Hero


During the Holocaust, Sir Nicholas Winton arranged for trains to take children out of Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia and for foster families to meet them in London. He saved 669 mostly Jewish children.

Imagine that you are this amazing Sir Nicholas Winston. How satisfying and meaningful could that be? I’m about to tell you that you too can be like this man. It might not be dramatic, but you already have the power to save the lives of some children if you were reading this.

A moral philosopher Peter Singer proposed an interesting thought experiment. Imagine that you’re out for a stroll in a park. There is a shallow pond in this park. As you approach the pond, you encounter a young child drowning in it. You are tall enough to wade in and save this child’s life. But if you do, you will ruin your fancy Italian suit, which is worth more than $500.

Would you save the child?

Sure, you would. It’s monstrous to think that the value of your suit outweighs that of a child’s life.

But here is the thing. In real life, we ignore the child in the pond. Joshua Greene, a Professor of Psychology at Harvard University, published Moral Tribes. In this book, he estimates that we can save someone’s life for a year at about $500. How? A surprisingly large number of kids die because of preventable diseases like diarrhea. Each year diarrhea kills around 760,000 children under five.

Now, is it morally acceptable to spend $500 on any type of luxury if you could instead use that money to save the life of a child? I’m sure most of us have purchased something for pleasure that is worth more than $500. Are we all monsters?

It was shocking to find out that some of my spendings seemed to be incredibly unjustifiable. I’ve hosted a birthday party for my best friend a while ago. It cost us approximately $1,000 (there were roughly 15 people). I could have saved the lives of two children for a year with the money. She was happy, her friends seemed to be happy, and that made me happy as well. But was that more important than two precious human lives?

How much can we allow ourselves to enjoy indulgences? Can we take a vacation? Can we buy new clothes? Can we eat delicious food? Can we take someone on a date? Can we buy luxury for our partner to make her happy? Am I wrong to feel that we are all hypocrites who ignore people who suffer and die?

It is all about comparison. If I don't buy a present for my mom on Mother’s day, I might not be a good son. If I stop socializing with friends, I might not be a good friend. If I stop paying for my education, I might not feel happy. It is hard to judge what is right or wrong when we are aware that our decisions affect the lives of children.

There seems to be no magic formula for this, but surely we should do the best we can. We can easily find something we don’t need. We don’t have to buy another shirt. We can skip some parties. We don’t have to buy furniture just because it is fashionable.

Do you say you are going to donate a million dollars when you get rich? You might want to start small instead. Daniel Gilbert and his co-authors conducted empirical research on happiness. In the paper, they distilled eight money spending principles. One of which is, "buy many small pleasures instead of fewer large ones”. This means making a bunch of small donations might make you happier than making one big donation.

When I was considering a donation, I also thought that it is only for rich people. But it struck me when the financial guru Ramit Sethi said: “Your current behavior is the best predictor of future behavior.” This was his investment advice, but I found it true in donation as well.

That was when I decided to build the habit rather than imagining my virtuous future-self.

I started donating a small amount of money. You don’t have to donate $1000 from the beginning. I started at $50 a month. I will progressively donate more, but if I keep donating this amount for the rest of my life, I can save at least one child. If we donate $500 a month, we can save 10 children.

Imagine that you see a car crash, run through the flames and jump into the car from the window, and then let a child out. That would be the greatest moment in your life. Isn’t it amazing that we could do as much good as that? Don't you think that this is a kind of life that is worth living? We are more powerful than we think we are. We can be a hero. So let’s use that power for a good cause.

Sir Nicholas Winston met the children he has saved in the BBC Programme "That's Life" aired in 1988. You cannot watch this without tears.

To maximize your impact, you can find effective charitable organizations in GiveWell and The Life You Can Save.