What Makes a Hero?

When Shirley Dygert’s parachute didn’t open properly, the fifty-four-year-old novice jumper and her instructor, Dave Hartsock, were falling fast from five thousand feet. Hartsock made a fateful decision, pulling on control toggles to place himself directly beneath Dygert. They hit the ground with a sickening crunch. Hartsock was paralyzed from the neck down, while Dygert was able to walk away despite her injuries. Hartsock had sacrificed himself for someone he’d just met.

What makes a hero? Breakthroughs in biology and neuroscience reveal that the human brain is primed for selflessness. Researchers are applying the lens of science to study heroism for the first time. How do biology, upbringing, and outside influences intersect to produce altruistic and heroic behavior? And how can we encourage this behavior in corporations, classrooms, and individuals?

Contrary to the lore surrounding our cape-clad icons, heroes are not some set-apart species. We all have the power to unlock our own potential heroism, and there are concrete things we can do to build on our selfless capabilities.

Using dozens of fascinating real-life examples, What Makes a Hero? explains how our genes compel us to do good for others; how suffering is linked to altruism; and how acting generous can greatly improve your mental health. The book also reveals how we can encourage our most heroic selves to step forward.

The Life Heroic

Heroes are superhuman. Or, at least, it’s easy to assume that when you read ripped-from-the-news stories of derring-do. But in reality, almost anyone who’s motivated can be a hero, and the heroes who make the biggest impact aren’t always the ones who make headlines.

This approachable, research-backed guide will equip kids and teens with the tools they need to become everyday heroes. Along the way, readers hear from real heroes living out the truth of psychologist Phil Zimbardo’s words: “Most heroes are ordinary. It’s the act of heroism that’s extraordinary.”

Praise for The Life Heroic

“Elizabeth Svoboda’s The Life Heroic is the most masterful treatment of heroism
available today. This book is a must-read for both children and adults―it is a true
―Scott T. Allison, Psychologist and Author of Heroic Leadership

“Everyone should read and begin to emulate some of the truths in Elizabeth Svoboda’s
―Philip G. Zimbardo, Psychologist and Founder of the Heroic Imagination Project

The Life Heroic is a step-by-step guide to helping you develop into your most
courageous self. What are you waiting for? Become an everyday hero!”
―Michelle Werning, Heroism Educator

Elizabeth answers your questions

How did you get the idea to write this book?

After writing my adult book What Makes a Hero?, I started thinking about the idea that heroism has no age limit, so I wrote an article for Scholastic’s Choices magazine about kid and teen heroes. I was so impressed by the young heroes I spoke with that I decided to write a book about their stories—one that could inspire readers to start out on their own heroic journeys.

What are scientists learning about the origins of heroism?

Heroism science is still a young and emerging field, and there are many things scientists have yet to learn. But there have been some exciting and encouraging discoveries so far. One is that, personality-wise and otherwise, most real-life heroes aren’t all that different from the rest of us.

We tend to think that heroes have some indefinable quality that sets them apart from the rest of us, but that’s not really true. As psychologist Phil Zimbardo puts it, most heroes are ordinary people. It’s the act of heroism that’s extraordinary.

Describe some of the amazing kids and teens you interviewed for the book.

The book begins with the story of Graceanne Rumer (now Andreessen), who was only 17 years old when she did something heroic that changed her life. Graceanne’s bus driver had a heart attack and passed out at the wheel just as the bus was heading into oncoming traffic. Graceanne raced to the front of the bus, took the wheel, and steered the bus safely to the side of the road. She saved the lives of the kids who were on the bus that day.

But most of the heroic kids I talked to didn’t perform death-defying feats. Instead, they planned ways to make their communities better and turned those plans into reality, which I call “everyday heroism.” I profiled Max Wallack, who created a non-profit that donates puzzles to care centers for people with Alzheimer’s, and Paloma Rambana, who lobbied the Florida legislature for extra funding to support visually-impaired kids in the classroom

Are there any surprising things that can jump-start a heroic quest?

None of us want to go through difficult times in our lives. But I was fascinated to learn that those tough experiences can fuel our heroic journeys later on. If you were bullied as a kid, for instance, you know just how awful it is to be in that position, and that knowledge might inspire you to speak out against bullying or start your own anti-bullying program. Ask yourself, “What did I learn from what I went through that might help other people in the same situation?”

What’s your advice for people who want to set out on their own heroic journeys?

Build a strong team of supporters around you—people who know about your heroic quest and who can give you moral or practical support if you need it. That support can be invaluable if you’ve never, say, started a non-profit before, or lobbied a legislator, or started a fundraiser for a cause that’s important to you. Make a list of the things you need to do to achieve your goal and check them off one at a time, consulting your team for advice along the way.

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