Gutsy Girls and Emotional Daredevils

Friday, March 4, 2016 - 6:13am
Photo by Javiera Caro
The New Better Off

Gutsy Girls and Emotional Daredevils

Caroline Paul, one of the first female firefighters in San Francisco, is a real life Wonder Woman who has done things like thermal flying, crevasse rescue, luge sliding, and scaling the Golden Gate Bridge in the middle of the night.

She has a new book out this week called The Gutsy Girl: Escapades for Your Life of Epic Adventure. Reading it is sort of like watching an emotionally insightful action movie with a woman as the protagonist. It’s beautifully illustrated by Caroline’s partner, Wendy McNaughton, and has lots of fun journal prompts like:

“When was the last time you built something with your hands?”

The book got me thinking about my own relationship to adventure. I’m pretty fearless in many ways. Public speaking is supposed to be the #1 fear of the general public, but it doesn’t leave my knees knocking in the least.

I’m mostly myself in most situations, which is both a product of privilege — it’s easier to be authentic when much of your identify fits mainstream norms — and also bravery. I don’t mind being a new person in a new situation, as long as people aren’t snobs or too cool for school. I genuinely like receiving feedback when it’s given within the context of a respectful relationship and with the purpose of making me better. Travel has always thrilled me, even if I get a little nervous en route. I don’t fall in love easily, but when I do, I give over my whole heart and know that it might be broken. I somehow decided early on that this was a prerequisite for a worthwhile life, as scary as it can be.

But when it comes to physical risks, I’ve always been a little wimpy or, more accurately, uninspired. My husband runs marathons, and I just don’t get it. I was a pretty serious high school athlete, so I like running after a ball, but put me on a track and I lose motivation. Sky diving? Meh. Just doesn’t feel worth all the money and the logistical preparation. Same with skiing, which I grew up doing, but now find all the equipment a total turn off. I’d rather snuggle up by a fire and read.

Then again, I did give birth. Is there a bigger physical risk/adventure than that? While I’m the first person to embrace a woman’s decision not to have kids — there are so many really good reasons not to have kids), I do feel like carrying and birthing a child was just one totally wild, completely fascinating, so extreme-as-to-be-surreal thing that I’m glad I’ve experienced. It pushed me to my absolute physical limits, to the point that the labor and delivery nurses said they’d never had a woman curse so much. It put me in utter awe at what the human body has the capacity to do and heal from. It terrified me and changed me.

I’ve ducked bullets in Cape Town, debated Bill O’Reilly on live national television, and hiked topless through a desert, but if childbirth counts as adventure, then I guess that’s my grandest one yet.

I look at my daughter and I know that I want a life of adventure for her. A safe life is only partially used up. But the particular kind of adventure or sort of safety she seeks is up to her.

Maybe she’ll be a daredevil like Caroline Paul, breaking bones and gathering amazing tales. Or maybe she’ll be an emotional daredevil — telling truth to power or creating art that cuts to the marrow of the human condition. Maybe she’ll be both. Maybe she’ll sail around the world on a tall ship or put the firmest roots down and take the risk of committing to one beautiful, imperfect community. Maybe she’ll give birth to her own kid some day. Maybe she won’t.

As long as she knows how to taste fear and push through it when it matters, then she’s gutsy enough for me.

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Courtney E. Martin

is a columnist for On Being. Her column appears every Friday.

She is currently working on a book titled The New Better Off, exploring how people are redefining the American dream (think more fulfillment, community, and fun, less debt, status, and stuff). Courtney is the co-founder of the Solutions Journalism Network and a strategist for the TED Prize. She is also co-founder and partner at Valenti Martin Media and FRESH Speakers Bureau, and editor emeritus at

Courtney has authored/edited five books, including Do It Anyway: The New Generation of Activists, and Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters: How the Quest for Perfection is Harming Young Women. Her work appears frequently in The New York Times and The Washington Post. Courtney has appeared on the TODAY Show, Good Morning America, MSNBC, and The O’Reilly Factor, and speaks widely at conferences and colleges. She is the recipient of the Elie Wiesel Prize in Ethics and a residency from the Rockefeller Foundation’s Bellagio Centre. She lives with her partner in life and work, John Cary, in Oakland, and their baby girl Maya. Read more about her work at

Share Your Reflection



This is a really interesting piece, and the book sounds terrific.

However, I have mixed feelings about Martin implying so strongly that giving birth is the ultimate risk/adventure. I did see that she framed this argument largely in terms of her own experience. However, she opens the idea with the rhetorical question, "Then again, I did give birth. Is there a bigger physical risk/adventure than that?" Well...I don't know. Is there? It sounds like she's saying there isn't. Again, I get that Martin follows up with details of her own birth experience, which lightens somewhat the load of generalization. Still, I think there's a strong implication here that A) giving birth really is the ultimate physical risk/adventure, and worse, B) if a woman doesn't undertake this ultimate risk/adventure, it is because she has **chosen** not to do so. Yikes. How many women would have loved to give birth, but due to circumstances biological and otherwise, don't even have that choice available to them?

Still, I hear what Martin is saying, overall, and I like it. I appreciate that she included emotional risk-taking in her discussion of "adventure." I do want my daughters to know that there is nothing wrong or bad about being afraid, and that they don't always have to be brave. And yet I also want them to embrace the many ways they CAN be courageous and take risks.

Courtney, you are the best! That interview with O'Reilly was awesome. I loved your composure and your clarity while you were totally (and unfairly) being attacked. Bravissima. And I couldn't agree more with your essay this morning. I have a 38 year old daughter for whom I wish the same things as you for your young one. Thank you for voicing these wishes.

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