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TEDWomen 2016

Caroline Paul: To raise brave girls, encourage adventure

October 26, 2016

Gutsy girls skateboard, climb trees, clamber around, fall down, scrape their knees, get right back up -- and grow up to be brave women. Learn how to spark a little productive risk-taking and raise confident girls with stories and advice from firefighter, paraglider and all-around adventurer Caroline Paul.

Caroline Paul - Author
Brimming with insights gained on her picaresque journey from firefighter to best-selling author, Caroline Paul’s "The Gutsy Girl: Escapades for Your Life of Epic Adventure" is a revolutionary guide for raising brave young women. Full bio

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Double-click the English subtitles below to play the video.
When I was a kid, I was obsessed
with the Guinness Book of World Records,
00:12
and I really wanted
to set a world record myself.
00:17
But there was just one small problem:
00:20
I had absolutely no talent.
00:23
So I decided to set
a world record in something
00:26
that demanded absolutely no skill at all.
00:29
I decided to set a world record
00:33
in crawling.
00:36
(Laughter)
00:39
Now, the record at the time
was 12 and a half miles,
00:42
and for some reason,
this seemed totally manageable.
00:47
(Laughter)
00:50
I recruited my friend Anne,
00:54
and together we decided,
we didn't even need to train.
00:55
(Laughter)
00:59
And on the day of our record attempt,
01:02
we put furniture pads
on the outside of our good luck jeans
01:04
and we set off,
01:08
and right away, we were in trouble,
01:10
because the denim was against our skin
01:13
and it began to chafe,
01:15
and soon our knees were being chewed up.
01:17
Hours in,
01:20
it began to rain.
01:22
Then, Anne dropped out.
01:25
Then, it got dark.
01:29
Now, by now, my knees
were bleeding through my jeans,
01:32
and I was hallucinating from the cold
01:35
and the pain and the monotony.
01:37
And to give you an idea
of the suffer-fest that I was undergoing,
01:40
the first lap around
the high school track took 10 minutes.
01:44
The last lap took almost 30.
01:49
After 12 hours of crawling,
01:53
I stopped,
01:58
and I had gone eight and a half miles.
01:59
So I was short of
the 12-and-a-half-mile record.
02:03
Now, for many years, I thought
this was a story of abject failure,
02:07
but today I see it differently,
02:11
because when I was
attempting the world record,
02:14
I was doing three things.
02:17
I was getting outside my comfort zone,
02:18
I was calling upon my resilience,
02:21
and I was finding confidence in myself
02:23
and my own decisions.
02:26
I didn't know it then,
02:28
but those are not
the attributes of failure.
02:29
Those are the attributes of bravery.
02:33
Now, in 1989, at the age of 26,
02:37
I became a San Francisco firefighter,
02:39
and I was the 15th woman
in a department of 1,500 men.
02:42
(Applause)
02:46
And as you can imagine, when I arrived
02:53
there were many doubts
about whether we could do the job.
02:54
So even though I was a 5'10",
150-pound collegiate rower,
02:57
and someone who could endure
12 hours of searing knee pain --
03:03
(Laughter)
03:07
I knew I still had to prove
my strength and fitness.
03:09
So one day a call came in for a fire,
03:12
and sure enough,
when my engine group pulled up,
03:13
there was black smoke billowing
from a building off an alleyway.
03:16
And I was with a big guy named Skip,
03:20
and he was on the nozzle,
and I was right behind,
03:22
and it was a typical sort of fire.
03:25
It was smoky, it was hot,
03:27
and all of a sudden,
03:30
there was an explosion,
03:32
and Skip and I were blown backwards,
03:34
my mask was knocked sideways,
03:36
and there was this moment of confusion.
03:38
And then I picked myself up,
03:40
I groped for the nozzle,
03:44
and I did what a firefighter
was supposed to do:
03:45
I lunged forward,
03:48
opened up the water
03:50
and I tackled the fire myself.
03:51
The explosion had been caused
by a water heater,
03:54
so nobody was hurt,
and ultimately it was not a big deal,
03:56
but later Skip came up to me and said,
03:59
"Nice job, Caroline,"
04:02
in this surprised sort of voice.
04:04
(Laughter)
04:06
And I was confused, because
the fire hadn't been difficult physically,
04:09
so why was he looking at me
with something like astonishment?
04:13
And then it became clear:
04:18
Skip, who was by the way a really nice guy
04:19
and an excellent firefighter,
04:23
not only thought
that women could not be strong,
04:25
he thought that they
could not be brave either.
04:28
And he wasn't the only one.
04:32
Friends, acquaintances and strangers,
04:35
men and women throughout my career
04:37
ask me over and over,
04:39
"Caroline, all that fire, all that danger,
04:41
aren't you scared?"
04:45
Honestly, I never heard
a male firefighter asked this.
04:47
And I became curious.
04:50
Why wasn't bravery expected of women?
04:53
Now, the answer began to come
04:57
when a friend of mine lamented to me
04:59
that her young daughter
was a big scaredy-cat,
05:01
and so I began to notice,
05:03
and yes, the daughter was anxious,
05:05
but more than that,
the parents were anxious.
05:08
Most of what they said to her
when she was outside began with,
05:11
"Be careful," "Watch out," or "No."
05:15
Now, my friends were not bad parents.
05:20
They were just doing what most parents do,
05:23
which is cautioning their daughters
much more than they caution their sons.
05:26
There was a study involving
a playground fire pole, ironically,
05:31
in which researchers saw that little girls
were very likely to be warned
05:36
by both their moms and dads
about the fire pole's risk,
05:40
and if the little girls
still wanted to play on the fire pole,
05:44
a parent was very likely to assist her.
05:47
But the little boys?
05:51
They were encouraged
to play on the fire pole
05:52
despite any trepidations
that they might have,
05:55
and often the parents offered
guidance on how to use it on their own.
05:58
So what message does this send
to both boys and girls?
06:05
Well, that girls are fragile
and more in need of help,
06:09
and that boys can and should
master difficult tasks by themselves.
06:13
It says that girls should be fearful
06:18
and boys should be gutsy.
06:21
Now, the irony is that at this young age,
06:24
girls and boys are actually
very alike physically.
06:27
In fact, girls are often
stronger until puberty,
06:30
and more mature.
06:32
And yet we adults act
06:34
as if girls are more fragile
06:36
and more in need of help,
06:38
and they can't handle as much.
06:40
This is the message
that we absorb as kids,
06:42
and this is the message
that fully permeates as we grow up.
06:45
We women believe it, men believe it,
06:49
and guess what?
06:51
As we become parents,
we pass it on to our children,
06:53
and so it goes.
06:56
Well, so now I had my answer.
06:58
This is why women, even firewomen,
07:01
were expected to be scared.
07:03
This is why women often are scared.
07:05
Now, I know some of you
won't believe me when I tell you this,
07:09
but I am not against fear.
07:12
I know it's an important emotion,
and it's there to keep us safe.
07:16
But the problem is
when fear is the primary reaction
07:19
that we teach and encourage in girls
07:23
whenever they face something
outside their comfort zone.
07:25
So I was a paraglider pilot
for many years --
07:29
(Applause)
07:33
and a paraglider is a parachute-like wing,
07:35
and it does fly very well,
07:37
but to many people I realize
it looks just like a bedsheet
07:41
with strings attached.
07:44
(Laughter)
07:46
And I spent a lot of time on mountaintops
07:47
inflating this bedsheet,
07:49
running off and flying.
07:51
And I know what you're thinking.
07:54
You're like, Caroline,
a little fear would make sense here.
07:55
And you're right, it does.
08:00
I assure you, I did feel fear.
08:02
But on that mountaintop,
08:05
waiting for the wind
to come in just right,
08:06
I felt so many other things, too:
08:08
exhilaration, confidence.
08:10
I knew I was a good pilot.
08:13
I knew the conditions were good,
or I wouldn't be there.
08:15
I knew how great it was going to be
a thousand feet in the air.
08:18
So yes, fear was there,
08:22
but I would take a good hard look at it,
08:24
assess just how relevant it was
08:27
and then put it where it belonged,
08:29
which was more often than not
08:32
behind my exhilaration, my anticipation
08:33
and my confidence.
08:37
So I'm not against fear.
08:39
I'm just pro-bravery.
08:41
Now, I'm not saying
your girls must be firefighters
08:46
or that they should be paragliders,
08:49
but I am saying that we are raising
our girls to be timid, even helpless,
08:51
and it begins when we caution them
against physical risk.
08:57
The fear we learn
and the experiences we don't
09:01
stay with us as we become women
09:03
and morphs into all those things
that we face and try to shed:
09:05
our hesitation in speaking out,
09:09
our deference so that we can be liked
09:12
and our lack of confidence
in our own decisions.
09:14
So how do we become brave?
09:18
Well, here's the good news.
09:22
Bravery is learned,
09:24
and like anything learned,
09:26
it just needs to be practiced.
09:27
So first,
09:29
we have to take a deep breath
09:31
and encourage our girls
09:33
to skateboard, climb trees
09:35
and clamber around
on that playground fire pole.
09:37
This is what my own mother did.
09:41
She didn't know it then,
09:43
but researchers have a name for this.
09:45
They call it risky play,
09:47
and studies show that risky play
is really important for kids, all kids,
09:49
because it teaches hazard assessment,
09:54
it teaches delayed gratification,
09:56
it teaches resilience,
09:59
it teaches confidence.
10:00
In other words,
10:02
when kids get outside
and practice bravery,
10:04
they learn valuable life lessons.
10:07
Second, we have to stop
cautioning our girls willy-nilly.
10:12
So notice next time you say,
10:17
"Watch out, you're going to get hurt,"
10:19
or, "Don't do that, it's dangerous."
10:21
And remember that often
what you're really telling her
10:24
is that she shouldn't be pushing herself,
10:27
that she's really not good enough,
10:30
that she should be afraid.
10:32
Third,
10:36
we women have to start
practicing bravery, too.
10:37
We cannot teach our girls
until we teach ourselves.
10:41
So here's another thing:
10:45
fear and exhilaration
10:47
feel very similar --
10:50
the shaky hands,
the heightened heart rate,
10:53
the nervous tension,
10:56
and I'm betting that for many of you
10:57
the last time you thought
you were scared out of your wits,
10:59
you may have been feeling
mostly exhilaration,
11:02
and now you've missed an opportunity.
11:05
So practice.
11:07
And while girls should be getting
outside to learn to be gutsy,
11:09
I get that adults don't want
to get on hoverboards or climb trees,
11:12
so we all should be practicing
11:18
at home, in the office
11:21
and even right here getting up the guts
11:24
to talk to someone that you really admire.
11:26
Finally, when your girl is, let's say,
11:30
on her bike on the top of the steep hill
11:34
that she insists
she's too scared to go down,
11:36
guide her to access her bravery.
11:39
Ultimately, maybe that hill
really is too steep,
11:42
but she'll come to that conclusion
through courage, not fear.
11:46
Because this is not
about the steep hill in front of her.
11:51
This is about the life ahead of her
11:55
and that she has the tools
11:58
to handle and assess
12:00
all the dangers
that we cannot protect her from,
12:02
all the challenges that we won't
be there to guide her through,
12:05
everything that our girls here
12:09
and around the world
12:12
face in their future.
12:13
So by the way,
12:18
the world record for crawling today --
12:20
(Laughter)
12:23
is 35.18 miles,
12:25
and I would really love
to see a girl go break that.
12:30
(Applause)
12:33

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Caroline Paul - Author
Brimming with insights gained on her picaresque journey from firefighter to best-selling author, Caroline Paul’s "The Gutsy Girl: Escapades for Your Life of Epic Adventure" is a revolutionary guide for raising brave young women.

Why you should listen

Before launching her career as a writer, Caroline Paul embarked on a long list of unlikely adventures, ranging from flying experimental planes to whitewater rafting unexplored rivers in Borneo and Australia.

Paul was one of the first women to work for the San Francisco Fire Department -- a job that inspired her first work of nonfiction, Fighting Fire. Her latest book, The Gutsy Girl, uses stories from her own life as a gutsy woman to inspire girls to break the rules, take risks and accept seemingly insurmountable challenges.

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