Most of us are too scared to be the vanquisher.

Because with one small slip-up our precious and carefully-constructed worlds will collapse. I noticed her long before it actually happened. She was sitting opposite me on the 8.05am train to town with her blue eyes carefully made up for work, her straight blonde hair pinned back and her jeans tucked into her pointy leather boots. She was plain and pretty at the same time as she hunched beside the half-opened window texting happily on her BlackBerry. Then we pulled in to Salt River Station and as the train came to a standstill the pretty-plain one let out a short, sharp yelp, like a dog that’s been kicked. I whipped my head around to face her. She looked dumbly straight at me.“What?” I said, looking for an explanation.

“He stole my phone!” She spat as she looked back through the window at the fleeting shape disappearing down the platform. True enough, her hands were now cradling thin air where once a phone had sat – a thief had snatched it through the window. Like a pissed-off cat I leapt to my feet and, together with another man, I sprang from the train and gave chase.

“Stop that man!” I yelled as he casually jogged away. Other commuters simply made way for him and soon I realised that my fellow crime fighter was no longer sprinting at my side. I stopped and turned to find him standing still a few paces behind me. He shrugged: “What can we do?” In that instant the chase was over. I might have carried on if Mr Chicken-Shitpants hadn’t given up so easily; or maybe I was just looking for an excuse to stop. Hell, I didn’t even know Ms Pretty-Plain and, as we stepped back onto the coach, the only thing that had changed was that her phone was gone and her make-up had run so that her now dark gothic eyes looked at us half-expectantly.“Sorry,” I said. “He got away.”

It was such a hollow half-truth that my words hung in the air like a feeble admission of failure. What I really meant was that I cannot fight this good fight and I will not risk my life for you, Ms Pretty-Plain. In fact, I will not risk my life for anybody on this train. Who knows what kind of weapon a lowly thug like that has concealed in his bag? This world is too dangerous for me and I am no hero. That’s a hard thing to admit – that I’m no hero. I raged inside at the phone snatcher’s petty crime and at my own weakness. I had visions of rugby tackling him and pinning him down on the concrete until security came to throw him in jail. And it wasn’t because I wanted everyone on the train to look at me and go, “Wow, Spider-dude is back”. Rather, it was because I wanted to nail the bad guy and save the girl. I wanted to be the dragon slayer, the knight, the noble warrior fighting for the greater good.

These days we’re so afraid of risk that it’s hard to be a real hero. Only the select few get that chance, like Siphiwe Tshabalala when he unleashed that killer goal that opened the World Cup; or that unknown man who swam out beyond the breakers to pull two kids from certain death at Port St Johns; or the security guard who chased down a notorious killer in the backyards of Alexandra township.

But most of us are too scared to be the vanquisher because we know that with one small slip-up our precious and carefully-constructed worlds will collapse. Instead, we have to make do with being lesser heroes like whistleblowers, providers for our families, men who stand up to bosses who bully the weak or guys who take some of their salary and put it towards a good cause every month. After all, these are the people who build stable societies that become places where phone snatchers can get decent jobs. So maybe there is a place for me and my kind to be a hero – it’s just that we’ll have to settle for being second-class heroes and never be the kung-fu fighting saviour of our dreams.

habits of highly-effective heroes

Some heroic qualities from Prof Phillip Zimbardo of Stanford University

It’s a man’s world

Zimbardo’s research shows that males report performing acts of heroism more than females. Zimbardo believes this is because women tend not to regard a lot of their actions as heroic, but rather what they think they’re supposed to do for their family or friends.

Pool your resources

One of the key principles of heroism is that heroes are most effective in
a network not solo. Zimbardo says it’s through forming a network that people have the resources to bring their heroic impulses to life. Think of these people
as the Robins to your Batman.

Use your experiences

Overcoming difficulties and challenges in the past boosts your hero status. According to his research, Zimbardo says that if you have survived a disaster or personal trauma, you are three times more likely to be a hero and a volunteer.

Get city savvy

There’s no place to unleash your hidden superpowers in the suburbs. “Most acts of heroism occur in urban areas,” says Zimbardo. This is because there are simply more opportinities for heroism and more people in need in urban areas, he says.