“But you can’t save the world,” they say

Me with two of "my boys" in El Salvador

I’ve been volunteering, fundraising, working for charities, and otherwise wearing my bleeding heart of my sleeve for a number of years now. I’ve found that people tend to react in one of several ways when they find out what I do.

There is one common response that I want to talk about today. And that’s the “but you can’t save the world” reaction.

Although I am yet to fully comprehend the logic of this argument, many people seem to believe (or at least want to tell themselves) that if they can’t make the world a better place for EVERY person then they shouldn’t waste their time making it better for even one. And that if they can’t STOP global warming, they needn’t bother even trying to curb it. What a heartbreaking and disempowering story to tell yourself.

It’s not always easy to maintain optimism in the face of global issues – western lifestyles seem to be getting less and less sustainable, human cruelty is highlighted daily in the mass media, and even the most seasoned aid workers sometimes find it hard to keep hope alive when working in places like Haiti.

When I start to feel overwhelmed I always think of a simple story that a fellow volunteer told me when we were both working in an orphanage in El Salvador (and feeling heartbroken about not being able to give more to the children). The story is about a little boy on a beach and a pile of starfish. Have you heard it already?

For those who haven’t heard the story it goes something like this:

Be proud of the starfish you can save

One morning I went for a walk on the beach in the very early morning. The night before a wild storm had passed and thrown thousands of starfish upon the shore. Looking up and down the beach, starfish littered the sand in every direction. As I walked along I passed a young boy who was wildly picking up the starfish one at a time and throwing them into the ocean.

“What are you doing, young man?” I enquired

“I’m saving the starfish before the sun comes up and dries them out,” he replied without pausing his labours.

I shook my head at the folly of youth. “Just look at all these starfish, and the sun is rising already. You will never make a difference.”

The boy looked straight into my eyes and then down into the starfish in his hand. He threw the starfish out into the ocean with a smile. “I made a difference for that one,” he said as he continued to work.

It’s a simple message. And a powerful one.

Don’t feel guilty about the starfish you can’t save. You can’t save them all by yourself. Instead be proud of yourself for the starfish you do save. And try to save a few more each day.

You can’t save the whole world. Neither can I. However, when each of our individual efforts are combined we can make a real impact.  

I can’t promise that if we each do our part to make this world a little kinder, more peaceful, more hopeful, cleaner, safer and more sustainable that one day we’ll be living in a utopia of hugs and butterflies (although I hope we will). All I can say is that if we let ourselves be paralysed by fear or if we fail to act until we feel we can fix everything, then we will never create the future we dream of.

Helen Keller said it best:

I am only one, but still I am one. I cannot do everything, but still I can do something; and because I cannot do everything, I will not refuse to do the something that I can do.
What can you do today to make this world a better place? I’d love to hear your thoughts.
If you’re looking for ideas, you’ve come to the right place. Check out the Inspiration page to read about inspiring everyday folks like you and me who are saving all the ‘starfish’ they can. Or read the Advice page for ideas on how you can contribute to a better world.

About Cassandra

Hi, I'm Cassandra. I work in fundraising, love travelling, and am fascinated by how we can inspire one another to greatness and spread human kindness. Connect with me on twitter @cassandra_nz


  1. I agree. We must all do our best to create a world of difference around us and it always begins with me. I may not be powerful enough to change the world, but I can change my place in it. I can change how I treat it and what I create in it.

    Good post. Thanks!

  2. Great post! While I was reading the initial sentences, the starfish story came to mind immediately. It’s one of my favorites. Keep inspiring people to “make a difference to that one”!

  3. I very much agree and have struggled with much of the same criticism through my work with international development and Social Work. The story of the boy and the starfish has been one of my favorites for many years and is one of my great motivators.
    I recently stumbled upon a book that held an extremely relevant passage. The book is titled, “Kisses for Katie.”

    “People who want to make a difference in the world usually do it, in one way or another. And I’ve noticed something about people who make a difference in the world: They hold the unshakable conviction that individuals are extremely important, that every life matters. They get excited over one smile. They are willing to feed one stomach, educate one mind, and treat one wound. They aren’t determined to revolutionize the world all at once; they are satisfied with small changes. Over time, though, the small changes add up. Sometimes they even transform cities and nations, and yes, the world.”

  4. Ah, that argument always makes me mad. It’s so full of lazyness and ignorance. At least often when I encounter it.

    Reminds me of countless discussions on nuclear engergy, bying at H&M, flying somewhere for the weekend…

    In our intertwined world it is almost impossible to act with a neutral impact. You either change things for the better or the worse. When you act unconsciously, it is often for the worse. And then people tell me, you can’t save the world, well no, but basically what you are doing (not nesseccarily saying but at least doing) is this: Since you think it is not possible to make things right, you choose to make matters worse.

    Instead of changing to a green energy provider you choose to feed your money to the nuclear industry,
    instead of second hand shopping you decide to feed immoral companies,
    instead of spending time where you are, or at least take the more expensive train if you can have fun only miles away from home, you feed the cheap flights market and the cult haloing around it.

    The list could go on and on.

    And then they say, their one flight, one t-shirt, one coffee doesn’t make a difference. I usually respond with the question “Do you vote?”

    How I wish people would take responsibility for their actions!

    But its great to see that for all those who don’t even bother to reduce their negative impact, there are sererval people who spend all their time to make a positive one, fighting hard to reach some balance.

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