“Here we are talking about fear again.” Caroline Paul stops throughout our conversation several times and makes note of this—trying to reposition the discussion to focus on bravery. I like it, and make a mental note to change all of my future interview questions to focus on bravery instead of fear. I first came across Caroline Paul in a New York Times article in which she talks about the ethos behind her best selling book, The Gutsy Girl, illustrated by her partner Wendy MacNaughton (who, by the way, is an incredible artist—check out her work). The book serves as a guide for young girls to live a life of epic adventure. Prior to being an author, Caroline was one of the first female firefighters in San Francisco in 1989, serving for 13 and a half years. Her past and current hobbies include paragliding and flying experimental planes. She might cry at commercials (“It’s terrible. Definitely animals or anything where families are united”), but if there is someone who can talk about having guts, it’s Caroline.
“Fear has become a go-to emotion for women. Young girls are introduced to fear so early on, whereas boys are given encouragement to ‘be brave’, to ‘try this’, to ‘try again’. Boys grow up steeped in this idea of bravery, whereas girls are given the word ‘fear’ in the exact same situation. So, obviously, I’m all for changing that and telling parents, “Please look at what you’re saying to your girls.” Turns out, my mom had a really fearful mom herself, which I didn’t know until I wrote that New York Times oped. I showed it to her right before it was going to the editor, and she said, “You know, my mom was really fearful. She stopped us from doing anything even remotely rough and tumble. It wasn’t until I went on a ski trip when I was 21 and had so much fun, that I realized everything I’d been missing. So I wanted you to have a more exciting childhood than I did.” So we were very free when we were young. We just got on our bikes in the morning and came back for dinner.
But in general, it’s so common for parents to discourage their girls from physical activities because they’re afraid for them. And yet, why aren’t they cautioning and discouraging their boys? Certainly they don’t want their boys to be hurt. From a young age, we girls are often treated as if we’re physically weak, and that we need people’s help. The irony of this is that boys and girls are the same until puberty. I remember being able to beat boys in arm wrestling until the beginning of the eighth grade, and my twin sister could too. So it’s really odd that we are told at such a young age that we have to be careful because we’ll break, when boys break just as easily. What parents have said to me in defense is, “I’m just protecting them.”
But you’re not protecting them. You’re limiting them!
At one point in time, these traits of timidity and deference in women were important. In the 1950s, say, when we didn’t have legal rights, when no one believed us when we walked into a police station and said we had been assaulted, when there was no such thing as domestic violence because the husband could do what he wanted—yes, then timidity and deference were crucial because they didn’t rile the powers that be. Especially if we were women of color. So, that was important then, but guess what—it’s not freaking useful now. It’s a totally different time. Yes, there is still racism and there is still sexism. But now we must use a different tactic to confront it—gutsiness.
In my book, I try not to mention the word fear at all, but when I do, it’s because fear is relevant. Obviously, it keeps us safe. I’m not against fear. I’m just pro-bravery. I think having a paradigm where you approach things without fear being the dominant emotion is really important. There’s a lot going on when you face something new and potentially scary, and it doesn’t have to be in the outdoors, it can be in the workplace, in a relationship. There are so many emotions involved. There’s exhilaration, excitement, anticipation—and if it’s a physical activity, as in when I was a firefighter, it’s an assessment of your skills, so there’s confidence there too. So there’s all this stuff and fear is just one part of it. It’s a little flag that pops up, and you’re supposed to look at it, but you shouldn’t pay it so much attention that it becomes front and center and stops you from doing anything. Because most of the time it’s not relevant to the situation. I mean, screaming at the sight of an insect is something that drives me crazy. My partner does that so she’s bummed that I’m so annoyed by this, but what are you actually screaming about? Do you think you’re going to die? I don’t understand. Yet, as young girls, we’re given a lot of positive reinforcement when we titter, scream and whimper—it’s considered feminine.
And we have to stop that, and begin claiming bravery as feminine too.
When I was young and tackling adventures, I didn’t really use fear in the right way. For instance, I was part of a white water team that did first descents down rivers around the world. I didn’t actually feel any fear. That doesn’t mean it wasn’t there, but I buried it so deeply that I didn’t use it as a warning signal like you should. Luckily, I was with super competent women who knew what they were doing, so nothing terrible ever happened, but I’ve since learned that that’s not a heathy approach. As I got older, I started to let fear come up so that I could use it as a flag, especially because I got myself into some really tight spots, some of which I talk about in the book.
For example, I was a paraglider. I was paragliding in Brazil with a friend of mine, Lars, who I wanted to impress. He was my adventure buddy, was an incredibly skilled kayaker and mountaineer, and although paragliding was a new thing for him, he had quickly become more experienced than I was. I looked up to him in a lot of ways. He made everything seem so easy. I was learning how to thermal fly, a special flying technique, and Lars gave me this super brief lesson. I, of course, was like, “Yeah, no problem, I got it. I’m cool,” acting like it was no big deal. And I’m really not a quick learner. I know this about myself. So I launch and start to head toward what looks like a fluffy, cumulus cloud. I start rising, and I know I’m rising because you have this thing called a variometer on you—otherwise you can’t tell you’re thousands of feet in the air. It’s audible, so it rises in pitch as you rise through the air, and drops in pitch as you lose altitude. It basically started to scream at me, so I was like, “Yay! I’m going up and up and up. That’s exactly what I’m supposed to do!” But then I reach the bottom of the cloud, and I don’t stop, I keep rising, and my variometer keeps screaming and I’m now thinking, "What the hell, I’m supposed to be stopping.” Then I realized I hadn’t picked a thermal under a cumulus cloud, which is a fluffy, white one. I’d picked a thermal under a cumuloNIMBUS cloud. In other words, it’s a frigging thunder cloud. So there I am, getting sucked into one of those monstrous black anvil shaped things thinking, “Oh my God, this is BAD.” The short version is, I got out of it before dying, but it became starkly clear to me that I’d been too intent on impressing Lars, and too intent on looking cool, and I hadn’t though enough about safety. So I started to stop burying my fear so deeply. I began to use it as one of the many things I would use to assess a situation. In that way, I believe bravery is learned. Fear is also learned, and it takes practice and common sense to understand the emotion you should be using.
One of the big pressures women face that begins as girls is that we have to be perfect. I don’t really know where that comes from. I know where pressure to be pretty comes from, and I understand where pressure to be nice comes from (again, that’s something that I think is a vestige of older times), but I think that the pressure to be perfect is an interesting one. It seems like more of a modern pressure, and the result is that girls don’t want to try anything that they might fail at.
And that is such bad training for life, because resilience is such an important trait.
I think boys learn it so young because they’re rewarded for the journey. If you try a new trick on your skateboard and you wipe out, your friends are like, “Cool! That was an awesome wipe out!” You know? You get credit for that. This is why I really hope girls get into the outdoors. Mother Nature is throwing stuff at you all the time. So being perfect, forget it. And being pretty—totally irrelevant and often impossible. Try going on a sea kayak expedition for a month and staying on top of your hair or your eyebrows. Ha! If girls get into the outdoors young, they’ll see that there is life—a fun life—beyond trying to be perfect and beautiful and popular.
You know, when I became a firefighter in 1989, there were so few female firefighters in the country, which meant that whatever you did wrong was not just you, Caroline, doing something wrong—it was all of womanhood who had just made a mistake, proving to all the naysayers that we could never be firefighters. So there was a lot of pressure and it was tough to laugh at myself if I made a mistake. I’m not talking about mistakes that cost people’s lives, I’m just talking about doing something dumb or simply learning as I went along. It was hard to learn because missteps were taken as proof that you couldn’t do the job and, of course, learning is all about missteps. On top of that, I had a lot of pride, so not being able to do something in front of all these men who were already judging me, was humiliating at times. I think in that case, pride worked well because I think it prevented me from making mistakes when the stakes were high. But in general, I don’t think pride is particularly helpful.
There was one situation that occurred when I was very new, only a few months in, and I was at a medical call. We were at an elderly care facility with an elderly woman. It was really grim. The woman was unconscious. Her eyes were open and she was alive but she was dying. I remember thinking, “I should take her hand. I should hold her hand,” but I looked around and saw all of these dudes. I was the only woman and I thought, “Nah, if I do that, it will look weak.” And I didn’t, and she died. And I regret it. To this day, I think of that woman. They couldn’t find her chart at the facility, so when she died, they didn’t even know her name. I think about her and how, in that moment, I turned my back on compassion in order to look strong and tough. I remember watching firefighters, both male and female, in highly emotional situations with people dying, and they could at once perform the technical aspects of their job (CPR, bandaging wounds, packaging the patient into the ambulance), and also connect with the patient. That was something that took me a long time to learn. It wasn’t until after I retired from the SFFD and I hurt myself very badly that I really learned the value of that. I crashed an experimental plane I was flying and it was not a pretty situation. I was being loaded into the ambulance and the paramedic that took care of me kept leaning over and saying, “You’re going to be OK, dear. You’re going to be OK, sweetheart.” He was half my age, he was a kid, but he was calming and comforting. In my stupor and delirium I still had the wherewithal to think, “I hope I was half as good when I was in your shoes helping people as you are helping me right now.” I really wanted to go back in time and be like him through all the medical calls I had ever had.
Like anything learned, bravery needs to be practiced.
In The Gutsy Girl I include an exercise that asks readers to practice micro-bravery. You write down small acts of bravery and you go forth and tackle them. This can be raising your hand in class, speaking to three people in one day who you don’t know, or biking down the hill that you think is pretty steep. It can be physical and it can be emotional. But you need to practice! I didn’t realize this until I was an adult, but fear and excitement feel chemically the same. The sweat, the beating heart, the shakes. So you need to practice not only to understand the bravery in you but to understand the nuances of fear and of excitement. I see too many of my friends jump to the conclusion that they are feeling abject fear in a situation and so they don’t want to do it, when actually they are really feeling exhilaration. As a kid you’ll be missing out on a lot of fun, and as a woman you’ll be missing out on a lot of opportunities.“