How to Be Brave, According to 8 Insanely Courageous Women
Advice from a former firefighter, an Ebola researcher, the creator of the movie Brave, and more.
Back when I flew paragliders, I would stand on a cliff with the wing laid on the ground, shuffling my emotions around. A little fear? Of course. But also many other feelings, like courage, confidence, exhilaration, anticipation. In the milliseconds before launch, I’d hold them all up to the light and push fear where it belonged, to the way back of the line. Then I’d inflate the wing, run toward the edge, and take flight. People think I’m against fear. I’m not. I’m just pro-bravery.
Caroline Paul has flown ultralights, rafted first descents, and fought fires, among other wild capers, which is why she encourages kids to do the same in her new book, The Gutsy Girl: Escapades for Your Life of Epic Adventure.
I conceived the story of Brave from simply having confrontations with my very vocal 5-year-old daughter every morning before heading into work. I thought she was acting like a teenager! What was she going to be like as an actual teenager? Thus, Merida was born. Being brave in the film is for young girls to self-advocate, which is really scary when you’re an adolescent girl in our society—to not follow the norm of what everyone else thinks you should be/look like/behave, etc. Bravery was [also] about relationships between a working mom and a strong-willed daughter. It is brave to actually listen to the other person and then have the self-confidence to change your point of view and accept someone else’s, or meet the other person halfway, without feeling like you’re betraying yourself.
It has taken me years to summon the courage I have now… and some slaps in the face by the unfairness of the industry. I would say to women who are struggling with self-confidence: You are unique. No one can give what you can give. If you feel passionate about something, stand up and say so.
Brenda Chapman is an Academy Award-winning director, animation story artist, and writer. She is the first female director of an animated feature from a major studio (“The Prince of Egypt”) and the first woman to win the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature (“Brave”), from which she was removed as director due to creative differences with Pixar.
My family’s inextricable link to cancer led me to undergo genetic testing and, after being diagnosed with a BRCA1 gene mutation at 22, I became the youngest woman in the country to opt for a risk-reducing double mastectomy. At the time, I didn’t really think I was making the brave decision—I was doing what I had to do in the face of insurmountable odds. Now, as the CEO of Bright Pink, it is my life’s work to be brave for the next generation.
In the movie We Bought a Zoo, one of the characters says, “Sometimes all you need is 20 seconds of insane courage—just, literally, 20 seconds of just embarrassing bravery—and I promise you, something great will come of it.” Whenever I’m scared, whenever I need that extra boost of confidence, I remind myself that anyone can do anything for 20 seconds. It works every time, I promise!
Lindsay Avner underwent a double-mastectomy at age 23. She founded the non-profit Bright Pink in 2007 to raise awareness of breast and ovarian cancer prevention and early detection.
Working as a wildland firefighter on a hotshot crew gave me a lot of practice “acting as if” I was brave. I wasn’t going to admit to my 19 crewmates that I was often terrified. I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to keep up on hikes into the fire. I was afraid of being hit by a falling tree. I was often afraid of burning to death. But I had to pretend that I wasn’t. I had to just keep hiking or digging fireline or doing what was required of me. By pretending to be unafraid, I was able to keep doing the next right thing: and that’s it’s own sort of bravery. It’s a lesson I’ve taken with me. If you are scared of something—be it a looming work deadline, a first date, a big revision—just take the next right action. It’s amazing how thoughtful action helps fear to dissipate.
Mary Pauline Lowry is a former hotshot firefighter and the author of the novel WILDFIRE.
I became confident when I stopped comparing myself to others. I wanted to be the best version of myself—not to change, but to just totally own who I am and work on me. I began embracing my body and celebrating my unique qualities. The first step to being brave is believing in yourself. When you realize only you can hold yourself back, fear becomes irrelevant and thoughts change from "what if" to "why not." For anyone trying to be brave, stop saying "can't" and start saying "I can."
Iskra Lawrence is a U.K.-based model best known for her unretouched ads for Aerie, American Eagle’s lingerie brand. She is also the managing editor of Runway Riot, a fashion and beauty site for women of all sizes.
In August 2014, I volunteered to go to Guinea and participate in the CDC’s response [to] the Ebola outbreak. It was frightening to go to a country that was being ravaged by a virus that was out of control, but I was pulled to be there and contribute. Whenever I need courage, I draw from the love, positivity, and support of my husband, family, and friends, as well as the confidence gained from my previous experiences. With these, I know that I can face any challenge ahead of me. In addition, working at [the] CDC trains you to stay true to the science and to be calm under pressure; you have to trust your training and mission. In Guinea, I was impressed by the strength and the dedication of the local public health and medical communities. It is easy to be brave when you are surrounded by bravery each day.
I would advise women to challenge themselves and often do things outside their comfort zones. That way, when met with unforeseen trials or facing something scary, women feel more prepared to tackle the situation with courage and confidence.
Emily Jentes was part of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention team that traveled to Guinea to help combat the Ebola outbreak that ravaged several west African countries in 2014 and 2015.
I would suggest four pieces of advice for people who want to enhance their bravery. The first is to break the challenge into steps, so each step gets easier as you’ve had an initial success. Most of us would feel overwhelmed thinking about doing something gigantic, but it becomes easier if you break it down. My second piece of advice would be to make sure people give themselves credit. So often, when people make a positive step, they in some way negate it. They say, “Well, it was just really easy,” or, “I only did it because so-and-so helped me.”
My third piece of advice is to encourage people to think about role models they can relate to. So I don’t have to be as brave as Madeleine Albright to be considered a “brave woman”—I can think about the family member who took a risk in her career, or that teacher who I thought really put herself out there, and use that as inspiration. [And] my final piece of advice is to focus on the steps and the rewards for those steps, as opposed to focusing on the negative feelings you might have along the way. The idea is to focus on accomplishments [rather] than the fact that you feel afraid. Being frightened doesn’t mean you can’t be brave. In fact, doing things even when you feel scared — that allows you to really be courageous.
Bethany Teachman, PhD, is a professor of clinical psychology and director of clinical training at the University of Virginia. She is an expert in exposure therapy, which is a form of therapy that helps patients overcome or reduce their anxiety and fear by exposing them to their fear.
You know what can make you feel instantly brave? Your own mortality. The reminder of your imminent death one day is [one of] the best motivators on earth. I have used this fact as my guide whenever I’ve had to make an important decision—when I got a divorce in my 20s, moved countries (three times!) and, at 30, quit my very lucrative job (where I was making $500,000 a year at a Fortune 500 company) to focus on running a business that I truly love. As the old saying goes, this life is not a dress rehearsal. As a result of my decisions, I've met and married my soulmate, live in New York City and have a very profitable business. The universe meets you halfway when you do what you are meant to do. Always remember that courage is not the absence of fear, it is recognizing that your dreams are more important that your fears.
Susie Moore is a life coach and former sales director for a Fortune 500 Company, who made a career change at 30 that involved quitting her six-figure job.
These responses have been edited for clarity and length