What Makes a Hero?

The surprising science of selflessness

How to Turn Your Pain into Purpose

Your greatest vulnerabilities can fuel your greatest triumphs.

Close your eyes for a moment and let your mind drift back to the first day of middle school. Were you worried about what the other kids would think of you, whether they'd snicker at your beat-up backpack, too-short haircut, and hand-me-down shoes? Did you manage to convince yourself people would find something wrong with you, and that it was just a matter of time before they figured it out?

Jodee Blanco had a similar set of fears—only in her case, a lot of them materialized. During her school years, other students bullied her unmercifully. Once, she found her favorite pair of dress shoes in the toilet. Another time, a group of kids stuffed snow into her mouth and left her on the ground, struggling to breathe. She reached such a low point that she considered suicide. But in the end, she was determined that her tormentors would not keep her down. She flourished professionally, starting a well-known PR firm and writing books of her own. Through it all, though, she never forgot how torturous her school days had been. Driven by a desire to help other targeted kids, she launched an anti-bullying program called It's Not Just Joking Around! Her goal, she says, is to turn her own pain into purpose, and she finds helping other bullying victims enormously fulfilling. “It enables me to make peace with my past.”

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Blanco's experience is no fluke. Regardless of culture or setting, there are countless examples of people who go through hard times and come out of the experience with a distinct concern for others' welfare. University of Massachusetts-Amherst psychologist Ervin Staub, now retired, calls this transformation “altruism born of suffering.” After Staub sent out a research questionnaire about helping, he received responses from many people who explained that they were motivated to help because they didn't want other people to suffer as they had. And in a later study, Staub found that people who had been through cataclysmic events like natural disasters or violence were more likely to say they'd help others in similar situations.

Of course, not everyone emerges from the doldrums of life with a more altruistic mindset. Some turn hard and bitter as a result of what they went through. People who have had time to process difficult experiences—and, crucially, support from others in healing and moving on—are best equipped to draw on their experience to help others. This principle is at the crux of AA's policy that new attendees choose a recovering alcoholic as their “sponsor.” The intent is that the sponsor, having been through tough times as well, will identify with the newly sober person and supply much-needed strength and advice.

Consider some of the hard times you've faced. If you were able to overcome them, how did you do it? Did you learn anything during this trial by fire that might help someone else? If you have hard-earned wisdom to impart based on what you've learned, find a way to pass it on. Not only will you improve someone else's life, but as Jodee Blanco learned, you'll enrich your own in the process.

Elizabeth Svoboda is a science writer living in San Jose, CA. Her first book, What Makes a Hero?: The Surprising Science of Selflessness, comes out in September.

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