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← To raise brave girls, encourage adventure

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Showing Revision 5 created 04/10/2017 by Brian Greene.

  1. When I was a kid, I was obsessed
    with the Guinness Book of World Records,
  2. and I really wanted
    to set a world record myself.
  3. But there was just one small problem:
  4. I had absolutely no talent.
  5. So I decided to set
    a world record in something
  6. that demanded absolutely no skill at all.
  7. I decided to set a world record
  8. in crawling.
  9. (Laughter)

  10. Now, the record at the time
    was 12 and a half miles,

  11. and for some reason,
    this seemed totally manageable.
  12. (Laughter)

  13. I recruited my friend Anne,

  14. and together we decided,
    we didn't even need to train.
  15. (Laughter)

  16. And on the day of our record attempt,

  17. we put furniture pads
    on the outside of our good luck jeans
  18. and we set off,
  19. and right away, we were in trouble,
  20. because the denim was against our skin
  21. and it began to chafe,
  22. and soon our knees were being chewed up.
  23. Hours in,
  24. it began to rain.
  25. Then, Anne dropped out.
  26. Then, it got dark.
  27. Now, by now, my knees
    were bleeding through my jeans,
  28. and I was hallucinating from the cold
  29. and the pain and the monotony.
  30. And to give you an idea
    of the suffer-fest that I was undergoing,
  31. the first lap around
    the high school track took 10 minutes.
  32. The last lap took almost 30.
  33. After 12 hours of crawling,

  34. I stopped,
  35. and I had gone eight and a half miles.
  36. So I was short of
    the 12-and-a-half-mile record.
  37. Now, for many years, I thought
    this was a story of abject failure,

  38. but today I see it differently,
  39. because when I was
    attempting the world record,
  40. I was doing three things.
  41. I was getting outside my comfort zone,
  42. I was calling upon my resilience,
  43. and I was finding confidence in myself
  44. and my own decisions.
  45. I didn't know it then,
  46. but those are not
    the attributes of failure.
  47. Those are the attributes of bravery.
  48. Now, in 1989, at the age of 26,

  49. I became a San Francisco firefighter,
  50. and I was the 15th woman
    in a department of 1,500 men.
  51. (Applause)

  52. And as you can imagine, when I arrived

  53. there were many doubts
    about whether we could do the job.
  54. So even though I was a 5'10",
    150-pound collegiate rower,
  55. and someone who could endure
    12 hours of searing knee pain --
  56. (Laughter)

  57. I knew I still had to prove
    my strength and fitness.

  58. So one day a call came in for a fire,

  59. and sure enough,
    when my engine group pulled up,
  60. there was black smoke billowing
    from a building off an alleyway.
  61. And I was with a big guy named Skip,
  62. and he was on the nozzle,
    and I was right behind,
  63. and it was a typical sort of fire.
  64. It was smoky, it was hot,
  65. and all of a sudden,
  66. there was an explosion,
  67. and Skip and I were blown backwards,
  68. my mask was knocked sideways,
  69. and there was this moment of confusion.
  70. And then I picked myself up,
  71. I groped for the nozzle,
  72. and I did what a firefighter
    was supposed to do:
  73. I lunged forward,
  74. opened up the water
  75. and I tackled the fire myself.
  76. The explosion had been caused
    by a water heater,
  77. so nobody was hurt,
    and ultimately it was not a big deal,
  78. but later Skip came up to me and said,
  79. "Nice job, Caroline,"
  80. in this surprised sort of voice.
  81. (Laughter)

  82. And I was confused, because
    the fire hadn't been difficult physically,

  83. so why was he looking at me
    with something like astonishment?
  84. And then it became clear:
  85. Skip, who was by the way a really nice guy
  86. and an excellent firefighter,
  87. not only thought
    that women could not be strong,
  88. he thought that they
    could not be brave either.
  89. And he wasn't the only one.
  90. Friends, acquaintances and strangers,
  91. men and women throughout my career
  92. ask me over and over,
  93. "Caroline, all that fire, all that danger,
  94. aren't you scared?"
  95. Honestly, I never heard
    a male firefighter asked this.
  96. And I became curious.
  97. Why wasn't bravery expected of women?
  98. Now, the answer began to come

  99. when a friend of mine lamented to me
  100. that her young daughter
    was a big scaredy-cat,
  101. and so I began to notice,
  102. and yes, the daughter was anxious,
  103. but more than that,
    the parents were anxious.
  104. Most of what they said to her
    when she was outside began with,
  105. "Be careful," "Watch out," or "No."
  106. Now, my friends were not bad parents.
  107. They were just doing what most parents do,
  108. which is cautioning their daughters
    much more than they caution their sons.
  109. There was a study involving
    a playground fire pole, ironically,

  110. in which researchers saw that little girls
    were very likely to be warned
  111. by both their moms and dads
    about the fire pole's risk,
  112. and if the little girls
    still wanted to play on the fire pole,
  113. a parent was very likely to assist her.
  114. But the little boys?
  115. They were encouraged
    to play on the fire pole
  116. despite any trepidations
    that they might have,
  117. and often the parents offered
    guidance on how to use it on their own.
  118. So what message does this send
    to both boys and girls?
  119. Well, that girls are fragile
    and more in need of help,
  120. and that boys can and should
    master difficult tasks by themselves.
  121. It says that girls should be fearful
  122. and boys should be gutsy.
  123. Now, the irony is that at this young age,

  124. girls and boys are actually
    very alike physically.
  125. In fact, girls are often
    stronger until puberty,
  126. and more mature.
  127. And yet we adults act
  128. as if girls are more fragile
  129. and more in need of help,
  130. and they can't handle as much.
  131. This is the message
    that we absorb as kids,
  132. and this is the message
    that fully permeates as we grow up.
  133. We women believe it, men believe it,
  134. and guess what?
  135. As we become parents,
    we pass it on to our children,
  136. and so it goes.
  137. Well, so now I had my answer.

  138. This is why women, even firewomen,
  139. were expected to be scared.
  140. This is why women often are scared.
  141. Now, I know some of you
    won't believe me when I tell you this,

  142. but I am not against fear.
  143. I know it's an important emotion,
    and it's there to keep us safe.
  144. But the problem is
    when fear is the primary reaction
  145. that we teach and encourage in girls
  146. whenever they face something
    outside their comfort zone.
  147. So I was a paraglider pilot
    for many years --

  148. (Applause)

  149. and a paraglider is a parachute-like wing,

  150. and it does fly very well,
  151. but to many people I realize
    it looks just like a bedsheet
  152. with strings attached.
  153. (Laughter)

  154. And I spent a lot of time on mountaintops

  155. inflating this bedsheet,
  156. running off and flying.
  157. And I know what you're thinking.
  158. You're like, Caroline,
    a little fear would make sense here.
  159. And you're right, it does.
  160. I assure you, I did feel fear.
  161. But on that mountaintop,
  162. waiting for the wind
    to come in just right,
  163. I felt so many other things, too:
  164. exhilaration, confidence.
  165. I knew I was a good pilot.
  166. I knew the conditions were good,
    or I wouldn't be there.
  167. I knew how great it was going to be
    a thousand feet in the air.
  168. So yes, fear was there,
  169. but I would take a good hard look at it,
  170. assess just how relevant it was
  171. and then put it where it belonged,
  172. which was more often than not
  173. behind my exhilaration, my anticipation
  174. and my confidence.
  175. So I'm not against fear.
  176. I'm just pro-bravery.
  177. Now, I'm not saying
    your girls must be firefighters

  178. or that they should be paragliders,
  179. but I am saying that we are raising
    our girls to be timid, even helpless,
  180. and it begins when we caution them
    against physical risk.
  181. The fear we learn
    and the experiences we don't
  182. stay with us as we become women
  183. and morphs into all those things
    that we face and try to shed:
  184. our hesitation in speaking out,
  185. our deference so that we can be liked
  186. and our lack of confidence
    in our own decisions.
  187. So how do we become brave?

  188. Well, here's the good news.
  189. Bravery is learned,
  190. and like anything learned,
  191. it just needs to be practiced.
  192. So first,
  193. we have to take a deep breath
  194. and encourage our girls
  195. to skateboard, climb trees
  196. and clamber around
    on that playground fire pole.
  197. This is what my own mother did.
  198. She didn't know it then,
  199. but researchers have a name for this.
  200. They call it risky play,
  201. and studies show that risky play
    is really important for kids, all kids,
  202. because it teaches hazard assessment,
  203. it teaches delayed gratification,
  204. it teaches resilience,
  205. it teaches confidence.
  206. In other words,
  207. when kids get outside
    and practice bravery,
  208. they learn valuable life lessons.
  209. Second, we have to stop
    cautioning our girls willy-nilly.

  210. So notice next time you say,
  211. "Watch out, you're going to get hurt,"
  212. or, "Don't do that, it's dangerous."
  213. And remember that often
    what you're really telling her
  214. is that she shouldn't be pushing herself,
  215. that she's really not good enough,
  216. that she should be afraid.
  217. Third,

  218. we women have to start
    practicing bravery, too.
  219. We cannot teach our girls
    until we teach ourselves.
  220. So here's another thing:
  221. fear and exhilaration
  222. feel very similar --
  223. the shaky hands,
    the heightened heart rate,
  224. the nervous tension,
  225. and I'm betting that for many of you
  226. the last time you thought
    you were scared out of your wits,
  227. you may have been feeling
    mostly exhilaration,
  228. and now you've missed an opportunity.
  229. So practice.
  230. And while girls should be getting
    outside to learn to be gutsy,
  231. I get that adults don't want
    to get on hoverboards or climb trees,
  232. so we all should be practicing
  233. at home, in the office
  234. and even right here getting up the guts
  235. to talk to someone that you really admire.
  236. Finally, when your girl is, let's say,

  237. on her bike on the top of the steep hill
  238. that she insists
    she's too scared to go down,
  239. guide her to access her bravery.
  240. Ultimately, maybe that hill
    really is too steep,
  241. but she'll come to that conclusion
    through courage, not fear.
  242. Because this is not
    about the steep hill in front of her.
  243. This is about the life ahead of her
  244. and that she has the tools
  245. to handle and assess
  246. all the dangers
    that we cannot protect her from,
  247. all the challenges that we won't
    be there to guide her through,
  248. everything that our girls here
  249. and around the world
  250. face in their future.
  251. So by the way,

  252. the world record for crawling today --
  253. (Laughter)

  254. is 35.18 miles,

  255. and I would really love
    to see a girl go break that.
  256. (Applause)