When I was a kid, I was obsessed with the Guinness Book of World Records, and I really wanted to set a world record myself. But there was just one small problem: I had absolutely no talent. So I decided to set a world record in something that demanded absolutely no skill at all. I decided to set a world record in crawling.
Now, the record at the time was 12 and a half miles, and for some reason, this seemed totally manageable.
I recruited my friend Anne, and together we decided, we didn't even need to train.
And on the day of our record attempt, we put furniture pads on the outside of our good luck jeans and we set off, and right away, we were in trouble, because the denim was against our skin and it began to chafe, and soon our knees were being chewed up. Hours in, it began to rain. Then, Anne dropped out. Then, it got dark. Now, by now, my knees were bleeding through my jeans, and I was hallucinating from the cold and the pain and the monotony. And to give you an idea of the suffer-fest that I was undergoing, the first lap around the high school track took 10 minutes. The last lap took almost 30.
After 12 hours of crawling, I stopped, and I had gone eight and a half miles. So I was short of the 12-and-a-half-mile record.
Now, for many years, I thought this was a story of abject failure, but today I see it differently, because when I was attempting the world record, I was doing three things. I was getting outside my comfort zone, I was calling upon my resilience, and I was finding confidence in myself and my own decisions. I didn't know it then, but those are not the attributes of failure. Those are the attributes of bravery.
Now, in 1989, at the age of 26, I became a San Francisco firefighter, and I was the 15th woman in a department of 1,500 men.
And as you can imagine, when I arrived there were many doubts about whether we could do the job. So even though I was a 5'10", 150-pound collegiate rower, and someone who could endure 12 hours of searing knee pain—
I knew I still had to prove my strength and fitness.
So one day a call came in for a fire, and sure enough, when my engine group pulled up, there was black smoke billowing from a building off an alleyway. And I was with a big guy named Skip, and he was on the nozzle, and I was right behind, and it was a typical sort of fire. It was smoky, it was hot, and all of a sudden, there was an explosion, and Skip and I were blown backwards, my mask was knocked sideways, and there was this moment of confusion. And then I picked myself up, I groped for the nozzle, and I did what a firefighter was supposed to do: I lunged forward, opened up the water and I tackled the fire myself. The explosion had been caused by a water heater, so nobody was hurt, and ultimately it was not a big deal, but later Skip came up to me and said, "Nice job, Caroline," in this surprised sort of voice.
And I was confused, because the fire hadn't been difficult physically, so why was he looking at me with something like astonishment? And then it became clear: Skip, who was by the way a really nice guy and an excellent firefighter, not only thought that women could not be strong, he thought that they could not be brave either. And he wasn't the only one. Friends, acquaintances and strangers, men and women throughout my career ask me over and over, "Caroline, all that fire, all that danger, aren't you scared?" Honestly, I never heard a male firefighter asked this. And I became curious. Why wasn't bravery expected of women?
Now, the answer began to come when a friend of mine lamented to me that her young daughter was a big scaredy-cat, and so I began to notice, and yes, the daughter was anxious, but more than that, the parents were anxious. Most of what they said to her when she was outside began with, "Be careful," "Watch out," or "No." Now, my friends were not bad parents. They were just doing what most parents do, which is cautioning their daughters much more than they caution their sons.
There was a study involving a playground fire pole, ironically, in which researchers saw that little girls were very likely to be warned by both their moms and dads about the fire pole's risk, and if the little girls still wanted to play on the fire pole, a parent was very likely to assist her. But the little boys? They were encouraged to play on the fire pole despite any trepidations that they might have, and often the parents offered guidance on how to use it on their own. So what message does this send to both boys and girls? Well, that girls are fragile and more in need of help, and that boys can and should master difficult tasks by themselves. It says that girls should be fearful and boys should be gutsy.
Now, the irony is that at this young age, girls and boys are actually very alike physically. In fact, girls are often stronger until puberty, and more mature. And yet we adults act as if girls are more fragile and more in need of help, and they can't handle as much. This is the message that we absorb as kids, and this is the message that fully permeates as we grow up. We women believe it, men believe it, and guess what? As we become parents, we pass it on to our children, and so it goes.
Well, so now I had my answer. This is why women, even firewomen, were expected to be scared. This is why women often are scared.
Now, I know some of you won't believe me when I tell you this, but I am not against fear. I know it's an important emotion, and it's there to keep us safe. But the problem is when fear is the primary reaction that we teach and encourage in girls whenever they face something outside their comfort zone.
So I was a paraglider pilot for many years—
and a paraglider is a parachute-like wing, and it does fly very well, but to many people I realize it looks just like a bedsheet with strings attached.
And I spent a lot of time on mountaintops inflating this bedsheet, running off and flying. And I know what you're thinking. You're like, Caroline, a little fear would make sense here. And you're right, it does. I assure you, I did feel fear. But on that mountaintop, waiting for the wind to come in just right, I felt so many other things, too: exhilaration, confidence. I knew I was a good pilot. I knew the conditions were good, or I wouldn't be there. I knew how great it was going to be a thousand feet in the air. So yes, fear was there, but I would take a good hard look at it, assess just how relevant it was and then put it where it belonged, which was more often than not behind my exhilaration, my anticipation and my confidence. So I'm not against fear. I'm just pro-bravery.
Now, I'm not saying your girls must be firefighters or that they should be paragliders, but I am saying that we are raising our girls to be timid, even helpless, and it begins when we caution them against physical risk. The fear we learn and the experiences we don't stay with us as we become women and morphs into all those things that we face and try to shed: our hesitation in speaking out, our deference so that we can be liked and our lack of confidence in our own decisions.
So how do we become brave? Well, here's the good news. Bravery is learned, and like anything learned, it just needs to be practiced. So first, we have to take a deep breath and encourage our girls to skateboard, climb trees and clamber around on that playground fire pole. This is what my own mother did. She didn't know it then, but researchers have a name for this. They call it risky play, and studies show that risky play is really important for kids, all kids, because it teaches hazard assessment, it teaches delayed gratification, it teaches resilience, it teaches confidence. In other words, when kids get outside and practice bravery, they learn valuable life lessons.
Second, we have to stop cautioning our girls willy-nilly. So notice next time you say, "Watch out, you're going to get hurt," or, "Don't do that, it's dangerous." And remember that often what you're really telling her is that she shouldn't be pushing herself, that she's really not good enough, that she should be afraid.
Third, we women have to start practicing bravery, too. We cannot teach our girls until we teach ourselves. So here's another thing: fear and exhilaration feel very similar—the shaky hands, the heightened heart rate, the nervous tension, and I'm betting that for many of you the last time you thought you were scared out of your wits, you may have been feeling mostly exhilaration, and now you've missed an opportunity. So practice. And while girls should be getting outside to learn to be gutsy, I get that adults don't want to get on hoverboards or climb trees, so we all should be practicing at home, in the office and even right here getting up the guts to talk to someone that you really admire.
Finally, when your girl is, let's say, on her bike on the top of the steep hill that she insists she's too scared to go down, guide her to access her bravery. Ultimately, maybe that hill really is too steep, but she'll come to that conclusion through courage, not fear. Because this is not about the steep hill in front of her. This is about the life ahead of her and that she has the tools to handle and assess all the dangers that we cannot protect her from, all the challenges that we won't be there to guide her through, everything that our girls here and around the world face in their future.
So by the way, the world record for crawling today—is 35.18 miles, and I would really love to see a girl go break that.