How Not to Help—Lessons from Elon Musk’s Thai Cave Response

This article was originally published on Psychology Today.

 Photo Source: Bruno van der Kraan/Unsplash

Photo Source: Bruno van der Kraan/Unsplash

There’s been a lot of coverage about the comments and allegations being tossed back and forth between British rescue diver Vern Unsworth and Tesla and SpaceX CEO Elon Musk over Musk’s response to the Thai boys soccer team trapped in a cave.

According to Unsworth, Musk arrived on the scene uninvited—what emergency managers commonly refer to as an SUV (i.e., spontaneous unaffiliated volunteer)—with a small unmanned submarine. 

Musk has pushed back against these claims, saying he was indeed asked to help and be on scene as the Thai cave rescue unfolded. He has gone as far as insulting Unsworth on Twitter and says he plans to run a demonstration to show that his submarine would have worked. 

Regardless of who said what, what would or wouldn’t have worked, or what Musk’s motivations actually were, this debacle serves as an important reminder that we should pause before jumping in to help. Consider these tips the next time you feel the urge to jump in your car and drive to help those affected by a crisis or send some food or hand-me-down clothes.

Know why you want to help

Musk has in the past been referred to as a Superman-like figure because of his visionary leadership in technology. 

But those helping because of a what some experts call a “superhero complex” help not to meet the needs of others, but instead to meet their own personal needs. This might include being driven by external motivations, like getting “in on the action.” Other people want to be known as a do-gooder. Still others might struggle with anxiety about what happened and want to help in order to alleviate their own negative feelings.

Swooping in to volunteer for the wrong reasons—like wanting to be a hero—is more likely to cause harm than help. You will likely only add to the chaos of the crisis to which you are responding.

Focus on being more other-oriented

Each of us is limited by our own experiences, so one of the most important and powerful ways we can bring aid is by listening to those we are assisting. Don’t assume you know what survivors need. People affected by a crisis or disaster know their own needs better than you do.

If your help is going to make a positive difference, it needs to match up with what the actual needs on the ground are right now, and what those needs will be later.

Truly listening to those you are there to assist will keep you from coming across like a “bull in a china shop.” Listen to local gatekeepers, officials, and authorities about what is needed, too. Doing so makes it more likely that survivors and professional first responders on site will accept your assistance and that you will be addressing actual felt needs.

Remember that no job is beneath you, pitch in wherever you’re told help is wanted. Small jobs sometimes make the biggest difference. And be open to hearing that your help may not be needed. If you make your helping all about you—what you have to give or what you can do—it’s probably not going to help them.

When and how to help

When the next catastrophe happens, there will be a time and place for you to deploy or to give resources. Unless you are helping your neighbor, wait until specifics on what is needed and how others can help start to emerge.

Look for ways to volunteer through established relief groups, ministries, community organizations, and the like. Just showing up on your own accord ends up adding to the havoc by getting in the way of trained responders, diverting resources from survivors, and contributing to the already taxed local infrastructure.

To make sure your dollars go to work, consider giving to trusted relief organizations and nonprofits. Giving money is one of the most effective ways you can help in the immediate aftermath of a crisis. Give to organizations that already possess the skills, know-how, and resources to respond effectively. 

Wanting to pick up and go help or send resources when crises strike is a good thing. However, you need to resist the urge to self-deploy or to send resources until you you’ve considered these tips. Doing so will help prevent you from being a SUV—or, in this case—a Tesla.  

Jamie D. Aten, Ph.D., is Founder and Executive Director of the Humanitarian Disaster Institute and Blanchard Chair of the MA in Humanitarian and Disaster Leadership program at Wheaton College. He is the author of the forthcoming book A Walking Disaster: What Katrina and Cancer Taught Me About Faith and ResilienceFollow online at jamieaten.com or Twitter @drjamieaten.