By Erick Widman
Volunteering abroad supercharges the path to adventure, growth and impact. For some, helping others overseas for a long or short period of time is the most meaningful and enjoyable experience they’ve had.
The year I spent volunteering as a teacher in Budapest, Hungary ranks as the best year of my life. Many others you’ll talk with will say the same thing: setting aside time to help solve people’s problems in a foreign land will transform your life.
Almost Everyone Can Volunteer
People who work overseas in developing countries as a career truly are superstars who deserve our respect. For this post, I am targeting those intrigued by the possibility of volunteering abroad but don’t see it as their long-term calling in life. For Part 1 in this series, I’ll talk about the personal benefits of volunteering—next week, I’ll talk about the communities we work with and the impact of sustainable volunteerism. I hope to encourage people who are willing to invest at least a week and ideally an entire year (or more!) in a good cause overseas. The longer you spend abroad, the more you will be personally challenged and changed, and your opportunities to make a positive impact will only increase.
My own goal—and what I recommend to most everyone—is to commit to volunteering for an extended period at least three times in life: (1) When you’re “young” in your twenties and thirties; (2) When you have kids or to take a sabbatical in the middle of your career; and (3) When you’ve “retired” from your primary career.
Does Volunteering Abroad do More Harm than Good?
An important preliminary issue to address is whether the overall effect volunteering overseas is a negative one for the people and communities we’re trying to help. Many say that volunteering is a way for naive do-gooders to feel good about themselves and then leave a mess behind them when they leave. Just like liberals and conservatives battle it out over whether welfare is a good or bad thing, there are important considerations about the beneficial or harmful effects of charity.
When not done well, organizations can keep local communities from learning how to do things on their own or can destroy the economy at the village level. Some (Sarah’s note: including myself) love to point out classrooms in Africa stuffed full of donated computers with cobwebs on them because no one knew how to use them. These are critical issues and we should choose wisely—with the macro view in mind—when we sign up with a particular organization.
The Right Way to do It: a Mutual Exchange of Value
When you approach volunteering as a mutually beneficial exchange—say, where the “rich westerner” also receives a huge amount from the local population—then this is ideal. We need to approach volunteering out of genuine respect for so-called “poor” countries. Because they are often “rich” in time, relationships and often are in better health, both physically and mentally. For example, the Massai tribe in Kenya runs barefoot and in the fresh air, and they don’t have any joint pain and or triple bypass surgery.
Indeed, Western people are horrible about over-consumption, materialism, pollution, genocide, destroying the environment, being workoholics, and not being aware of and appreciating other cultures. By sharing what we’re good at, and learning what other countries are good at, you will have an amazing experience.
Done Well, Volunteering and Charity are Good and Essential
It’s certainly true that volunteers need to be involved in projects that actually help other countries over the long run. But for all the setbacks and downsides of international charity work, the smart people who fund and oversee these efforts—like Bill Gates with his foundation or Hillary Rodham Clinton with the U.S. State Department—they see the powerful positive overall impact. I like my Mac way better than Windows, but I trust Bill Gates to be doing the right thing with his massive effort involving charitable work. In addition, I trust Warren Buffet, who is giving all his money to Bill Gates to do this too!
Would it be better that a local doctor repaired a woman’s fistula than a westerner? Yes. Would it have been better for a local Hungarian to teach students than a foreigner like me? Yes, but then they wouldn’t have experienced my superb American accent and I wouldn’t have experienced their culture. In sum, when it’s done well, charity work provides essential benefits that a developing country would not otherwise receive.
What Makes Volunteering Abroad so Powerful?
The best year of my life so far has been the year abroad as a volunteer. I have many friends who say the same thing and my sister just returned from her third extended volunteer trip. This time, she spent a year in Spain and prior to this she spent a year in Honduras and a summer in Guatemala. So why is volunteering abroad such a great experience? Personally, this year overseas enabled me—and helped me—to live out my deepest values by cutting out the stuff that distracts me every day.
The Magic Formula and Key Ingredient
Here was the magic formula that made this year so great, and I bet this will resonate with you too:
Genuine desire to help others + need for adventure + fear to overcome + very limited income + radical simplicity in my material possessions + new country & culture + intense learning + work that makes a difference + new friendships with locals and volunteers + travel & exploration + freedom from money & consumption + simple pleasures of food, music, reading, talking, writing, walking + gratitude for what you do have in the western world + gone for at least a year + changed habits and priorities = Best Year of Your Life.
My experience is that the most important element in this magical formula—the key ingredient—is taking action to directly help others with serious challenges. What is often missing in our regular jobs is the ability to directly and simply help people with needs much bigger than our own. This concentrated experience of doing so for a year was life-changing.
Surprisingly Great for Your Career
Also, keep in mind that serving overseas actually can be great for your career long-term, whatever that is. You certainly are not doing this to be a martyr. It’s a triple win: you help others, it’s great for your personal growth, and it can truly energize your job opportunities. For me, working in Hungary for a year was instrumental for getting hired at a big international company. Multiple executives mentioned after I was hired that, “you’re young but we liked you largely because of your international experience. In fact, I wish I had that overseas exposure myself.”
Very simply, nearly everyone greatly respects when someone spends time abroad—especially when it’s done not merely to travel, but to work to solve a significant problem in a developing country.
Also, taking time to volunteer often allow people to switch their work focus or their entire career should you choose to do so. In fact, when I was 33, for fun I decided to apply for a job with the Clandestine division of the CIA. I got four levels into the interview process and then pulled out after my wife and looked carefully at what we wanted out of life. But simply getting these interview opportunities was mainly possible because of my overseas experience. Yes, volunteering abroad is great for your career!
Volunteering Promotes Joy and Satisfaction
The key to living well in general—and certainly for having the best experience of your life—is to act upon your deepest values. You will have the most joy when you are pursuing what you value the most.
It is nearly impossible to be happy and do fulfilling work if you’re not acting in a way that is in harmony with what you value most in life. It is therefore critical that each of us clearly identify what we want out of life and what we value. Because when you live out your deepest values—your big “why”—you will be most satisfied and happy in life. Especially when adversity hits (which it will).
An unfortunate quality about human beings is that we can be distracted very easily into living in a way that is out of step with what we actually value. A key reason for this is that we are manipulated by powerful messages that change our behavior to make money for the people behind those messages. The end result is that we aren’t fully satisfied with how we’re living and what we’re doing.
In addition, Westerners—and Americans in particular—often don’t realize the “golden handcuffs” we wear in regards to debt and lifestyle maintenance. An Indian friend of mine told me about some Indian parents who lived in what they described as a “Five-Star prison” in a Texas McMansion. They couldn’t drive and there was no public transportation or human contact during the day. Sadly, even if we can drive and pick up some coffee in a drive-through, we can get used to our five-star prisons.
However, volunteering abroad exposes the five-star prison as unnecessary and undesirable in order to live a truly rich life.
Focus on Your Deepest Values
To help you confirm what you value the most—and see it in black and white—I highly recommend that you compose a dying declaration.
A “dying declaration” is a legal term that means if a person uttered some words while he was dying, then this can be admitted into a court of law and won’t be considered hearsay. For over 800 years, British and American courts have recognized that when people say something when they’re dying, it is incredibly reliable and trustworthy.
So a very accurate way of zeroing in on what each of us value the most in life would be to record what each of us would say if we were convinced we were about to die. However, most of us will thankfully need to use our imagination. Therefore, imagine you were stuck in the snow, knew you were freezing to death and wouldn’t make it out alive, an have the chance just to write one letter to the person you care about the most in this world.
Besides expressing your love, what else would you say? I believe what you’d say reflects your deepest values AND is the key to figuring out what you want to do with the rest of your life, including whether you should volunteer overseas for a period of time.
An Actual Dying Declaration
What is very helpful is that we have a gripping and moving letter that a British explorer named Robert Falcon Scott wrote to his wife and young son when he was trapped in the snow (70 degrees below zero) coming back from the South Pole. He knew he wouldn’t make it out. What is most insightful—and motivating—about this letter is the fact he didn’t have regrets doing what he loved to do and valued the most, even though he died doing it. Here are three excerpts from the letter:
“I think the best chance has gone. We have decided not to kill ourselves but to fight it to the last…”
“I do not not regret this journey, which has shown that Englishmen can endure hardships, help one another, and meet death with as great a fortitude as ever in the past.”
[Then about his three-year-old son:] “…I am anxious for you and the boy’s future—make the boy interested in natural history if you can, it is better than games… I know you will keep him out in the open air.”
He didn’t say, “Ah bummer—I really messed up and don’t let our boy repeat my mistakes. Just encourage him to get an office job and live a safe life indoors.” He expresses the exact opposite! Overall, what shows through his example is that he lived out his values: his dying declaration clearly matched up with what he valued in life and he was able to die without regrets.
I encourage you to confirm your deepest values by trying to simulate a “dying declaration.” What would you tell people you care about? What advice would you give? Then go and live that out.
Evolutionary Science Shows Volunteering Makes us Satisfied and Happy
Evolutionary science is showing that if we aren’t actively helping each other, then we won’t be that satisfied. It’s an exciting time to see the application of evolutionary theory to all kinds of issues today. We’re figuring out that we’re better off living as we were designed to live—as we have evolved to live. Our food is a perfect example. It’s shocking how confused Western people have become regarding food. We’re finding our way back by looking at the what we evolved to eat—the natural food we should be eating. Evolution also provides insights into raising kids, exercise, and conducting business, among many other things.
And understanding evolution also lays out a path for making choices that will lead to the highest level of satisfaction for how we interact with others. In short, human beings have been designed to help each other out. In the same way that our bodies look healthy and are healthy when we eat and exercise the way we evolved to, our minds and our spirits will be most fulfilled when we live in the way we evolved to live: to take care of each other and help those in greatest need.
Not convinced? An excellent book I’d recommend is The Moral Sense by James Q. Wilson, a former Harvard professor. He makes a very compelling case that people are moral creatures because we evolved to be that way. A very quick and simplified summary of the origin of morality is that one hunter going after a bear is not going to have as much success as four hunters who collaborate, keep their word, and are trustworthy and brave. Over a long period of time, these desirable moral qualities have become both a part of human nature and of human culture worldwide.
And so just as people who eat Cheetos and soft drinks all day long are going to have bodies that are distorted and never reach their potential, the same is true of people who live selfishly and don’t live in a way they were designed to: helping others.
Volunteering Helps Us Fulfill Our Highest Potential
The reason it is so satisfying to serve others is because in so doing human beings are fulfilling their highest potential—like the horse running or the bird flying. Here’s the pattern and big picture: a group of five hunters collaborating is better off than one. When two villages collaborate and help each other, they’re all better off than as separate villages. Indeed, entire nations are better off when we all collaborate and help each other. So you could call this a common core value of all people or you can simply call it human nature.
OK, yes, but what about all the evil stuff people do to each other? It’s true that people and villages and nations have been doing horrible things to each other for thousands of years. We all know that people don’t regularly choose what is good. In fact, we frequently choose selfish or evil things. But no one—besides sociopaths—actually gets satisfaction from being evil. People are only truly satisfied when we do good and help each other.
Helping Others Can’t be Beat
Also, consider good revenge movies. Tarantino is a master at these and I like them for what they are. On one level, it’s kind of satisfying to watch the underdogs shoot up Nazis or kill slave traders. But we all recognize a better approach that is more powerful, inspiring, moral and truly human: overcoming evil with good. That’s why the civil rights movement and Gandhi are rightly celebrated today. Instead of getting revenge, they changed the system and helped millions of people live a better life.
Most people around the world aren’t rapists or serial killers or genocidal maniacs—instead we’re just passively focused on selfish consumption. It’s very similar to the easy path forward with our diet and exercise. The easy, default way of life for westerners is to eat processed junk and lay around. This is kind of enjoyable at first but definitely not truly satisfying long-term. In fact, we have evolution to “blame” for this. Sugar was so rare—and resting was so rare—back in the cave days, that our bodies will seize the opportunity for both when we can get it.
Similarly, the reason people are so often dissatisfied with their work is because it’s like the modern diet: not the way it’s supposed to be. We should be eating healthy and helping others directly because it really is “our pleasure” to do good things for others. When we devote a substantial amount of time to helping others it is like going on an all-natural super healthy diet for the soul. We feel great, like we’re getting back into shape. When we have a service deficit in our lives from doing work that’s not helping others as much as we’d like, volunteering overseas will get you back in equilibrium.
To sum up this evolutionary argument: helping others is not a value for some and not for others; it is a common value at the foundation of human nature. It is what makes us human. This is not something a person can say is “my value.” Instead, it is “our value.”It’s also easy to get sidetracked with fights that don’t actually help people or the planet for that matter. We should choose Martin Luther King’s approach over Tarantino’s approach to securing justice and happiness. Similarly, just as it is very easy to get out of shape, eat junk food and lay around, it is very easy to live a consumption-focused, selfish life where you passively let other people make money off of you by following the crowd. Many people fall into the trap of not doing anything meaningful – and truly satisfying – to help others.
Indeed, the most satisfying, exciting, and fulfilling way to live is to be actively others-centered. Volunteering overseas can quickly get you living in a way that is most enjoyable and meaningful. Then, as a changed person, you can bring back your new perspective and lifestyle to your long-term career.
An Inspiring Example
I’d like to share the example of Patrick Chang, who is a remarkable person who shows how to focus intensely on living out our shared, most important value: helping those in need. The distractions that most of us have to deal with were cleared away for him. He could see clearly that the most joy and meaning in his life would result from helping others.
Patrick was a classmate of mine in junior high and high school in California. He was an excellent athlete—a swimmer training for three hours a day and aiming perhaps for the Olympics. He was a very nice guy and a great student. Sadly, in 8th grade he had a terrible accident and he broke his neck in a swimming pool. He became a quadriplegic and was able to use his hands in a limited way to guide his wheelchair.
What was amazing about Patrick was that all the way through high school he had a peace, maturity, depth and friendliness to him that far exceeded his age. He was smart and he poured himself into his studies. I’d ask him for help with chemistry.
He got into Stanford and when he became a freshman there his father gave him control of a $200K trust fund. Patrick was very interested in economics and investing and his father knew the money would be in good hands. Patrick told his dad, in essence: “This may be surprising but I’ve read about thousands of disabled boys and girls in China who are nowhere near as privileged as I am. I got into Stanford and I’ll be able to get loans and pay them back. These disabled kids have no options whatsoever. So I’d like to set up a scholarship fund with my $200K and I’ve calculated that simply by giving the interest to these students I will be able to help 100 of them go to college every year.”
Patrick set up the fund and young people in China have been benefiting ever since. He’s helped about 2,000 college students thus far. Patrick got his Ph.D. in economics and he didn’t stop with finding creative ways to help others after setting up the scholarship fund. He asked himself: “Besides my money, what else can I give?” Well, he has an excellent voice and also speaks Mandarin. So he created the “PEN” network (Patrick English Network) that helps underprivileged Chinese kids learn English—and he was able to eventually visit China and meet the students he helped. As you can imagine, he was received like a rockstar.
The big lesson from Patrick’s example is that due to the circumstances of his accident, all of the stuff that typically distracts the regular person was stripped away. Patrick chose not to simply feel sorry for himself, but chose a life of joy and meaning by devoting himself to doing what he values most—what we all truly value the most—but think about doing later on “when we will give back.”
Instead of “giving back,” Patrick gave up front. He’s made the most of his opportunities to meaningfully help others. The result is that he received all kinds of wonderful rewards as he gave: joy and satisfaction that the lives of hundreds of people are better off because of his own life.
Not all of us on the planet are destined to volunteer overseas. However, if we have the interest and the ability to do so, we can make a powerful positive impact and have an amazing experience.
After focusing extensively on “why” to do it, I’d like to transition now to sharing the expert views of a seasoned international volunteer. We’ll take a look next week in Part 2 of this series!