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A lot of my guests are Nobel Prize winners, actors, well known public figures of some sort. If you’re famous, you can be a little bit less interesting and still keep people’s attention. If you aren’t a household name, then you need to have lived a truly fascinating life. Like today’s guest, Caroline Paul.

PAUL: I’m well versed in adrenaline. Of course, adrenaline had been part of getting up on a wing in midair, but there was something else — and I was not well versed in the concept of awe.

Welcome to People I (Mostly) Admire, with Steve Levitt.

Caroline has been a firefighter and a lifelong adventurer and rule breaker. She’s also incredibly smart and reflective. We talk about everything from facing fear to finding awe to embracing old age. Caroline is basically fearless, but for me, the most interesting parts of the conversation are the moments where she reveals her vulnerability.

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LEVITT: You’ve had so many amazing experiences, incredible adventures that will make people say, “Wow, I wish I could do that too.” But I want to start with something few people would willingly do. And that’s searching for dead bodies in the San Francisco Bay. Can you describe that experience? And I do not want the sugar-coated version.

PAUL: I don’t think there is a sugar-coated version, actually. When I was a firefighter for San Francisco, which I did for 14 years, from 1989 to 2003-ish, one of the things I really wanted to be was on the rescue squad. The rescue squad went in without a hose line just to rescue. But we also did all the bizarre rescues that could happen if you’re trapped in a car, if you fell off a cliff. And one of the things that we were often tasked with is looking for bodies in the Bay, in the San Francisco Bay.

LEVITT: Only a veteran of that would laugh.

PAUL: Or say, “It’s kind of cool.” Which I try not to say to the public ‘cause it does sound weird when I say, “Oh, we had a really good fire.” And people think, “What’s a good fire?” You’re right, there are no good fires, but if they have to happen, when they’re big and we get to be there, that’s a good fire. So I joined the rescue squad pretty early in my career — I was on the rescue squad for 10 years. And one of the things we had to do was look for bodies in the bay. The police would often call us. And the bay is not this clear-watered paradise — it’s very murky. In fact, there’s no visibility after about an inch underneath. You put on your scuba gear and you have to decompress down then you start feeling the bottom of the bay, but it’s not the bottom because there’s about, I don’t know, three feet of silt. So then you have to drop yourself even deeper so that you’re lying right at the very floor of the bay. And then you start very slowly swimming.

LEVITT: Can you see your own hands in front of you? Or it is true darkness?

PAUL: It is true darkness. And it’s not only true darkness, but it feels like darkness because the mud is all around you, so sort of viscous darkness. I would often have to take a couple breaths, because even just scuba diving underwater is so odd, to breathe underwater. You’re holding a rope in one hand, someone else is holding at the top, they’re guiding you in a search pattern because you can quickly become incredibly disoriented. And you just put out your hand and you feel. And you want-slash-don’t want to run into a dead body. And you’re running into a lot of other things underneath, like shopping carts and tires and cans. The other thing that happens, which I can’t remember if they warned me about it when it first happened, but you’re going along and all of a sudden you can feel these tiny little fingers or scratches all up and down your wetsuit.

LEVITT: Oh god.

PAUL: And you realize that it’s tiny crabs crawling all over you. And it’s disconcerting at first, and then it’s comforting. Because you’re like, something else is alive down here with me. Often we wouldn’t find the dead body because the tides would take them away, but just the process of being underwater like that, looking for a dead body — it is about mind control. Because the thing about a dead body is it’s like the worst of bodies. It’s monstrous. It’s bloated, crabs and fish eat eyes first, supposedly. So your worst nightmare.

LEVITT: So you don’t exactly fit the profile of a firefighter, especially a fighter in the mid 1980s. You’re a woman. You graduated from Stanford. You’re a vegetarian. I’m not sure which of those would’ve been most disconcerting to your fellow firefighters. I’m actually guessing that the Stanford affiliation might have been the most problematic thing when you got started. Is that true?

PAUL: No, there were a couple Stanford graduates actually. You know, I became a firefighter very incidentally. I wanted to be a journalist because I thought that journalism would offer me adventure. I could go see the world, and I would get paid for it. And while I was working for a local radio station here called KPFA, there were all these stories coming across my desk about how racist and sexist the fire department was. It was 1987. And there was a test upcoming and I thought, “Oh, I’m a journalist. I’m going to go undercover and take that test. And I’m going to ferret out racism and sexism.” But racism and sexism doesn’t show up that way. You can’t just see it in an hour. It’s way more insidious than that. It’s way more embedded in our institutions But I was young and callow and I thought that I was going to be able to write some amazing story about it. I had absolutely no plan to become a firefighter.

LEVITT: Did you study for the test?

PAUL: It’s not a test you can study for. At the time they were really looking closely at how tests reflect our abilities. So they wanted a test that would be something you could not study for so that they would be recruiting people who had the best common sense and street sense and general IQ instead of education.

LEVITT: What would be on that test?

PAUL: I think the way it went is that they would show you the sequence of putting together this widget, and then they’d stop the video, and then you’d have to rewrite that down or regurgitate or answer the right question about that widget. This was a completely made-up thing that we were compiling. 

LEVITT: You took this test and you must have done well because somehow you ended up as a firefighter.

PAUL: Well, I had an advantage ’cause I knew how to take tests. I had been taking tests my whole life in prep school and in college. And I was also a rower. I had rowed for Stanford. And I also was fresh off of many physical activities. I was a personal trainer. I had been a luger and been momentarily on the national team for lugeing. So I was in very good shape. And suddenly I found myself having passed all the tests. And in fact they offered me a spot on the first class off that list and I was so discombobulated about it that I said, “No, but can I defer?” And I think they’d never had anybody defer before. And I went off and did an adventure. I went to Bolivia on my mountain bike and I came back and the San Francisco earthquake happened in 1989. And I started seeing all these stories in the paper about the bravery and compassion of the firefighters in the San Francisco Fire Department. And I thought, “Okay, I have been as narrow-minded as I’m accusing them of being, and as classist.” And I called the fire department back and I said, “Is that place still open for me?” And I became a member of the 77th class of the San Francisco Fire Department.

LEVITT: What share of the firefighters were female?

PAUL: So I was the 15th woman and there were 1,500 men.

LEVITT: Wow. So 1 percent.

PAUL: Yeah. I didn’t work with a woman for months and months.

LEVITT: How did your radio station take the news when you told them you were switching teams? 

PAUL: They were really shocked. They were sort of a radical lefty Berkley radio station. But I think in the end they were proud.

LEVITT: So you wrote a memoir about your years as a firefighter called Fighting Fire. And you tell one incredibly powerful story after another about your experiences. Do you have your own personal favorite story from that book?

PAUL: That book, it’s got a lot of sort of big fires and I’m crawling through and I almost die. Honestly the fires were not as hard for me as the medical calls because the medical calls asked of you deep emotion as well as competency. And as firefighters, and especially as a female firefighter, I was always trying to be really tough so that I could keep up with the guys. So many of the medical calls moved me profoundly, but I was also somebody who buried her fear very deeply. I was already somebody who was interested in that line between fear and bravery and as a rescue squad firefighter, again, we went in looking for people and animals, and we went in without a hose. Frankly, it’s a lot the same as being in the bottom of the bay is. You’re just crawling and you can’t see anything in a fire. It’s not at all like you see in movies. It’s pitch black. It’s very hot. And — but I loved going into fires. I thought it was exhilarating. But I did have a call one day where we were tasked with searching a building that was on fire and they hadn’t found the scene of the fire yet. I was with my crew, we were crawling down the hallway. It was pitch dark. I, it suddenly got very quiet and then the hall exploded. We were pretty much thrown out of the hallway into the garage or somehow I suddenly found myself with my crew in the garage. And what had happened was that we had been exposed to a flashover. Now, it hadn’t been in the hallway, thank goodness, or we would have died.

LEVITT: So what is a flashover? I’m not familiar with that term.

PAUL: A flashover is when a room gets so hot that all the gasses in it reach combustion simultaneously and it just explodes. It’s a really dangerous situation. Because it wasn’t in the hallway, I was okay, but in that moment, my friend Frank looked around and said, “Where’s Victor?” And Victor was my partner that day and he was missing. And Frank, who’s an incredibly brave firefighter, immediately turns and starts heading back towards the hallway that had just exploded. And I, in that moment, noticed that I didn’t want to go back into that hallway. I had reached my fear limit and that scared me most of all. It only took a split second and then I was with Frank in that hallway looking for Victor. And we found him — he had been blown the other way, so he was fine. But that moment filled me with shame and humility that I had been paralyzed. And it scared me and taught me that I do have limits and that I had to pay deep attention to that, but it made me feel more human, I would say.

LEVITT: It’s interesting how you have this relationship to fear. When I was young, I had a lot of shame around my fear. I have a lot of fears. Unlike you, I have fears and they’re very transparent. I’ll tell you something about my childhood. One of the things I remember is that my dad was reading an autobiography by G. Gordon Liddy, you know, the criminal who was part of Watergate. And one of the things he had done is he had been afraid of pain, and so what he did on a regular basis was to stick his finger into the flame of a candle for as long as he could until he couldn’t take any more to try and heal, toughen himself up to pain. And in my dad’s eyes, that was the ultimate virtue, what people should do. So for a while I would try sticking my finger into the candle.

PAUL: Did that work?

LEVITT: I think it was probably psychological. You would know better than me. Like when you start to reach things that feel like limits, that’s not really your limit. There’s much, much more you can do than what your body tells you what it’s time to pull back. So I think it worked a little bit, but at a very young age, I decided that there was a better path for me, and that was to just completely concede — to give in to my fears and say, “Look, Fears, you won. I have other battles I’m going to fight, and fear is not one that I’m going to win.” But it’s interesting, from what you just said, it sounds like you didn’t know fear, that this was a new experience for you. Is that possible?

PAUL: No, of course I knew fear. But I’m from New England. I’m really good at putting up walls and then not feeling it. It wasn’t a healthy and mature way to handle this. Now I’ve become really interested in feeling fear and that line between fear and exhilaration or that line between fear and bravery. True bravery is feeling fear and then negotiating with it and moving forward. But fear is a good emotion, it’s there for a reason, and you’re supposed to look at it. It’s just that I have spent my life making sure that fear doesn’t necessarily stop me. I think women and men look at fear and bravery very differently. I really learned a lot from male firefighters. I really admired how they led with bravery and they led with honor. Now that can get toxic, for sure. But later I wrote a book about instilling bravery in girls because it was becoming really clear to me when I looked around that women defaulted to fear and that women were really missing out on something important.

LEVITT: So the book you’re talking about now is The Gutsy Girl. It’s such an interesting book because it’s very adult stories about your misadventures, but aimed at 13-year-old girls.

PAUL: No, before puberty. I wanted to get them before puberty so they would still be okay about getting dirty.

LEVITT: And it has such interesting pieces. So it has these illustrations and one is — I think it’s called the gutsy girl stance. And it’s a picture of a woman and she’s got her hands on her hips. It was just fascinating for me to read it. It’s so different really than any other book I’ve read. I guess I don’t read that many books that are aimed at young girls, but it seemed like it was a really fun book to write.

PAUL: It was an amazingly fun book to write. I had to go back through all my mishaps and misadventures, of which there has been sadly many. Because I knew that I wanted to make a book that was fun, that was readable, that was exciting, and yet in it was embedded this idea that when you lead your life with bravery, all these opportunities come up for you. So it was for girls, but I also had a message for parents. Because it was really becoming clear to me that we teach girls to be afraid and then we teach boys to be brave. But the reason we teach girls to be afraid is that we think it protects them, but it’s becoming clear as you get to be an adult that our fear has actually not helped us and not protected us.

LEVITT: We’ve talked about a bunch of your adventures and I’ve been calling them adventures, but a lot of things you do might be better described as undertakings. For instance, your attempt to make the Guinness Book of World Records when you were 15. What record were you going after?

PAUL: Well, I had no skill, so I had to figure out a record that required no talent, which was crawling.

LEVITT: Crawling?

PAUL: Yep. The record at the time was 12-and-a-half miles. I don’t know why we thought that was going to be easy, because I know that I hadn’t even run 12-and-a-half miles, certainly not walked it even, but somehow crawling it seemed like within our grasp.

LEVITT: So my understanding, if you want to break these records, you actually have to have some representative from the Guinness book there and whatnot. You arranged all of this?

PAUL: Oh yeah, we arranged it. We needed witnesses and we needed media to cover it. Sadly, there’s actually proof that this happened, and a photo of us in the local paper. And at about five-and-a-half miles, my partner in it, Anne Grignon, dropped out because she had stomach pains, which I probably did too, for goodness sake.

LEVITT: You can’t be going very fast if you’re crawling, right? How many miles per hour were you going?

PAUL: I remember that the first lap, which is a quarter mile, took less than 10 minutes. And then my last one took over 30. And my last one happened, I think, about 12 hours later, and I’d gone eight-and-a-half miles. The witness who was logging everything was like, “Look, it’s raining. It’s dark. You’re bleeding” — my knees were bleeding — “and you seem like you’re not all here?” I think I was a little hypothermic, and they pulled me off the track at eight-and-a-half miles. And secretly, I was glad. Outwardly, I was like, “No.” Inside, I was like, “Oh, we got to get….” It really taught me a lesson because during the process of crawling, I started to wonder, “Why am I here?” But I held on to this idea that I had wanted to do this so badly, and I kept that in mind the whole time, and refused to trust this feeling that I was having of, “This is dumb, this is idiotic, I am really hurting.” And that’s a lesson I’ve actually held on to my whole life, is that you sometimes can’t trust your emotions in the moment, and you have to hark back to who you were under less duress that wanted to do this.

LEVITT: Interesting. I thought you were going to say the exact opposite thing, which is: a lot of times before you start something, you have some idealized view of it. You think, “Oh, this is what I want.” But then once you’re in it, you understand that your initial assumptions were terrible and you should bail out. I’m really shocked. Let me take another example in your life that I know you did, which was you took up the luge. And I have no idea why you thought that was a good idea. But if I understand correctly, you moved across the country to Lake Placid because that’s the only place you could do luge and you just started lugeing. And you turned out to be pretty good at it in the end, right?

PAUL: No, I turned out to be always very bad at it, actually. I crashed a lot. That was my nickname, Crash. But I am very dogged, Steve, and I just kept at it. And it turns out at the time, it was 1985, there were hardly any lugers. There was only one place to do it. That was Lake Placid. Basically after two weeks of lugeing, they had the nationals where they wanted to see who’s the best luger in the country. There were 12 female participants and I was so terrible that I came in number 11. But number 11 in the country luger sounds pretty good when you don’t know that there were 12 people.

LEVITT: How scary is lugeing? It seems like it would be terrifying.

PAUL: It’s terrifying in all the right ways when you’re 20-something. It’s like sledding. You’re a little bit like you’re 10 again. But you have a sort of a suit on that looks like you’re in a garbage bag that’s very tight and you have a helmet. But otherwise you’re 10 years old on the track.

LEVITT: So your nickname was Crash.

PAUL: Sadly, yeah.

LEVITT: How fast are you going when you crash? It cannot feel good.

PAUL: I had to go to the hospital once, my ribs were either bruised or pulled. I was back on the track the next day, if I remember, but I just wrapped them. So do crashes feel good? I mean, they’re exciting. I think back then they were a badge of honor until you do them too much. There was just one turn that was really difficult that I kept — in fact, Steve, this is really, this is embarrassing, but when they heard my name coming up to go run the track, people would gather at that curve to see how badly I would crash. And I think that the only thing you had to do is cross the finish line clutching your sled. So often I would cross the finish line and not be on my sled, but that still counts. But it was also, “Wow, she survived that crash.” I did make the national team in the very end, but by then I had decided that becoming really good at something takes a kind of myopia and a narrowness that I appreciate and admire in other people, but I didn’t want it for my own life. I said “no” to being on the national team. It was clear I wasn’t going to be an Olympic medalist, which was my dream. And I also by then realized that I wanted my life to be bigger. So if you notice throughout my writings, I’m not really good at anything. It’s not that I’m bad. It’s just, I’m not an expert at any one thing. I’m a jack-of-all-trades and I like it that way.

We’ll be right back with more of my conversation with Caroline Paul after this short break.

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LEVITT: You went from being a firefighter — an adrenaline-driven, risky activity — to being a writer. How did that transition happen?

PAUL: I fell in a fire and I didn’t take care of the injury for a year and so I ended up really having knee issues because I was trying to be way too tough, basically. And so I decided to retire. I think I was 40, but I didn’t have any other skills. I knew how to do CPR and I could talk to you about hydrants, but I had nothing else — except I had written Fighting Fire. So I wasn’t a writer — I was a firefighter who had written a book — but I thought I would switch and become a writer. And there are actually similarities. And I say this in an updated version of Fighting Fire, is that, when you’re a firefighter, you really have to look deeply at yourself because you’re constantly confronted with these really difficult situations that ask that you become really fully human. Often as a firefighter, we’re with people at the most traumatic time in their life and it’s a very intimate situation. And so you’re called upon to be compassionate, capable. And I feel like as a writer, you also have to dig deep and look at yourself if you’re going to produce an authentic, powerful piece of writing. Even though they look really opposite, there is a thread that binds both of them. So being a firefighter, honestly, might have prepared me to be a better writer.

LEVITT: You wrote a book about, of all things, your cat running away. It’s called Lost Cat. And I have to say, being just totally honest, in a million years, I never would have read that book if I didn’t know I was going to talk to you today. But just for completeness, I thought I should take a peek at Lost Cat. In principle, there was nothing less interesting to me than you losing your cat, but I have to say that book was hysterical. I was laughing out loud and my wife was like, “What are you doing? Why are you laughing?” I said, “It’s a book about a lost cat. It is so funny.” So now my wife is reading the book.

PAUL: That makes me really happy. It’s actually a book about a lost human, but it’s couched in the story about this cat. Steve, I tried to sell a book about injury and illness and — surprise — nobody wanted it. And I wrote this proposal because I was interested in how frail we feel when we’re physically damaged, and also how our mental health just deteriorates. And there is some science behind this, about how we can really go crazy honestly. Or what happens to us when our body betrays us. So I wanted to write a book about it and nobody wanted it. But I would tell them this just tiny little piece where my cat disappeared and how crazy I got about it. Well, not when my cat disappeared — when my cat came back, how crazy I got. I wanted to know where he’d gone because I felt inordinately betrayed by my cat. And I was under the influence of Vicodin, TV, and immobility. So I got my book published, but it it’s really under the guise of a cat chase. 

LEVITT: Your most recent book is called Tough Broad, and one of the things I like about your books is they’re all so different from one another. But this one starts with an observation, which I think is 100 percent true, but almost never talked about, which is that our society is incredibly dismissive of older women. And I think it’s such a pervasive thing that we don’t even notice it.

PAUL: Because you’re not an older woman! I think women notice it. I started this book because I was out on my surfboard or I was on my electric skateboard and I didn’t see women my age out there. I saw men my age and men a lot older often, but no women my age. And I started to wonder if I could continue to be an outdoor adventurer. Was there something I didn’t know? Was I supposed to be pulling back? I was also interested in the messaging that I was hearing all around me by my own friends who are really disheartened by their aging. You’ll hear this from women 50 and up, 40 and up, sometimes even 30 and up. I’ve been hearing that women say that they feel invisible. And the messaging that we’ve been getting for our own aging journey is that we should expect frail bones, cognitive decline, and frankly, we’re boring. We’re culturally irrelevant. This kind of set me on my journey with Tough Broad because I wanted to know what my own journey was going to be. All my other books have been sort of declarative statements, but this is really a quest.

LEVITT: I would describe Tough Broad — in the end, it’s a call to action. Would you agree with that characterization?

PAUL: Definitely. I started writing this book in January 2020, and I was just going to huck myself into it. I was just going to interview women who were outdoor adventuring and see what the secret was and whether I should still be doing it. I didn’t really know, to be honest. So I had to do a lot of research on fulfilling aging. And that turned out to be really a blessing. And one of the biggest things I found early on that really turned my head around was the research around how we look at our own aging and how that predicts how well we age. So if we look at our aging as a time of frailty and illness, the truth is we do have a much higher chance of a cardiac incident earlier and cognitive decline earlier, and then the opposite is true. If we look at our own aging as a time of vitality and exploration and possibility — we are healthier, and we live seven years longer. Now this became urgent, that we need to look at our own aging as a time of adventure and possibility.

LEVITT: So the study you’re referring to there, I think that’s the Ohio Longitudinal Study. The studies that you cite that I find even more compelling are the counterclockwise study done by Ellen Langer. Could you talk about that?

PAUL: Yeah, this study was done on a very small group of people, but I think it set Dr. Langer on her journey to see the interplay between the mind and the body. So Ellen Langer asked a small group of men to be together in a house for a week or so. And in that house, they  decorated it to look like like 20 years before. So these men were 70. It was 1979. So they made it like it was 1959 in its decorations, in the old-timey radio they had, in the black and white TV, and the newspapers that were delivered every day were from 1959. The researchers who came in and out  were told to interact as if it was 1959 as well. So these men were basically dropped into who they were 20 years before. Then they had a group of men who also lived in a house together for the same amount of timeand we’re simply told, like, you can wax nostalgic about your younger years, but you’re definitely 70. And when they looked at the men when they came out and measured them physiologically, so their grip strength, their cognitive abilities, there were lots of really tangible metrics, they found that there was marked improvement — hearing was one of them — marked improvement in the men who had been immersed in their life as if they were 20 years younger. And what Langer took from that is that the way we look at ourselves is key to our physiological health.

LEVITT: What I like about that study is that it’s, first of all, so creative and such an interesting idea. And one that beforehand, if she said you’re going to do it, I would have bet her any amount of money that nothing would change. Yet somehow, when these men come out revitalized, I believe it. It’s a really interesting counterpoint. It’s hard to do that with research where you take something that is so counter to someone’s priors, and then you actually produce a result and change their mind. Related to that, you tell an anecdote about your mom in the book, I think she was in her eighties when she said to you, “What I would give to be 60 again.” She didn’t want to be young; she wanted to be 60. And I think it fits so much with the spirit of going back 20 years.

PAUL: They’ve done a lot of studies on older people and turns out we are happier as we age, but the culture doesn’t tell us that. And for women especially, the messages are so toxic. And as Langer is pointing out, it’s the subliminal messages that really make a difference to us, so it’s really hard to counter those because they’re so insidious. We almost don’t know they’re happening and we take them on as beliefs that we hold true. I had a feeling that going outside was an antidote to this. Nature itself is medicinal — and there’s been so many studies on this — not only for your physical vitality, you’re walking or you’re getting your heart rate up, but for your well being. The tree chemicals that are really important for our immune system. And this is crazy, Steve, and I actually asked an ophthalmologist scientist about this, but the rounded elements of nature and the fractal aspect of nature matches really well with our retinal structure, which means that when we’re outside, we process things so much easier, which is very restful for our brain. And people who go on walks come back and they test way better on cognitive and memory tests. Our brain is often doing a lot of work trying to filter out the hard lines of urban architecture, the loud noises of being in the city, and that’s not restful for us. And that’s what nature does for us. On so many levels, it was important that I urged women to get outside. And that’s why this book is a call to action. Because it’s not only boring for us to believe that our aging journey is simply narrowing and diminishing. It is bad for our health, as it shows. But more than that, I saw women who went outside and when they upended their own expectations of themselves that had been set by a lot of this messaging about what they could and could not do as they age, their lives simply opened up because they saw, “Oh, if I can learn to swim at 68,” for instance,, or, “If I can go into the cold Pacific Ocean with a boogie board and have so much fun at 75, what else can I do with my life?” And so on a real tangible level, when you go outside and engage in an outdoor activity, your life is opening up because it’s a direct rebuke to what we’re told our life is supposed to be like.

LEVITT: A lot of people pretend they’re not getting old. They get plastic surgery. They find trophy wives. They do things to create an illusion that they’re not in decline. Other people succumb to that. They’re overcome by the fact that they’re in decline and they become sedentary. What I think is the difficult thing that you’re aiming for in the book is how does someone embrace old age to concede that physical and mental frailty are part of this stage of life, and yet embrace it and go out and understand that fantastic things can happen, even in a process of decline.

PAUL: I think it’s a time, especially for women, of revelation and a reorientation towards the self because, post-menopause, a lot of our endocrine system has changed so much and we’re looking for a new identity. Because those hormones that were so important for, let’s say, raising kids or caregiving for a partner, and what we’re really lauded for in our 20s, 30s, 40s, and then almost 50s — that’s changed. And so now there’s this whole period of our lives where we can reinvent ourselves. Our looks are changing. Some people say they’re fading. Our cultural currency is definitely changing. And so I think the emphasis should just be on the exploration part of this time. I was laughed at by a 93-year-old. I wanted to go on a walk with her because she was a big hiker. And I told her that I was concerned about my aging journey. And she basically laughed at me and she said, “What do you mean you’re aging — you’re not old. The best things in my life happened in my 60s.” And in fact, time after time, the women I talked to said their favorite decade was their 60s. Not the 20s, not the dewy 20s or the 30s or the 40s, but their 60s. And that is not what the culture tells us.

LEVITT: I actually asked my mom, who’s in her 80s, what her best part of her life was. And interestingly, she also said her 60s. She had been someone who raising kids for her was just a task. She played by society’s rules and she didn’t really enjoy being a mom. She always had dreamed of being a writer. And in her 60s, she wrote children’s books that nobody wanted to read quite honestly. But then she figured out that if you contacted the local elementary schools, they loved having local authors come in and give presentations. And so for the first time in her life, she found an audience for her writing. And in her 60s, I don’t think I’m exaggerating if I say she went and did a hundred presentations in different schools. And that was for her, I believe the most satisfying thing that she’s ever done.

PAUL: I love that story. I love that so much. Please give her a big hug from me.  

LEVITT: What are the components of aging well? The commonalities across those who are thriving as they age? So you mentioned one thing which is being outside. You think being outside is really important. What else is important?

PAUL: The fulfilling pillars of aging that I found through my research are mostly self evident: community, purpose, novelty, health, and then I’ve added this positive mindset about your own aging. And where outdoor adventure fits into that is it so successfully encompasses all that, especially that mindset part for women. Going outside is really great for men, and men have gotten a lot out of reading this book, but the aging messages that men get are different than the ones women get. For women, getting outside single-handedly upends those messages in a way that is so empowering. You can join a book club, you can learn a language, and all those are great. You can go to the gym. But they do not hit everything like outdoor adventure does.

LEVITT: The sad coda to my mom’s story is that when Covid came, she didn’t really leave the house for two years. And the changes that took place in her over that time period were really striking. It’s exactly in line with what you’re talking about. Covid really for her stole the opportunity to age well. The loss of vitality I’ve seen in her over that time really is stunning.

You’re listening to People I (Mostly) Admire with Steve Levitt and his conversation with Caroline Paul. After this short break, they’ll return to talk about why Caroline willingly left an airplane cockpit mid-flight.

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Caroline Paul has spent the last few years researching the science of aging well, as you’d expect, given what we’ve heard from her so far, the way she’s applying these lessons to her own life is somewhat different to what you or I might do with the information.

LEVITT: Your latest things are wing walking. I didn’t even realize that wing walking was a real thing.

PAUL: I didn’t realize it was a real thing either until someone sent me a video of a biplane in the air and a woman in the front seat and a pilot piloting from behind and then all of a sudden she gets up out of the cockpit, to my surprise as I’m watching the video, and clambers onto the wing and attaches herself to the king post in the middle. And I had to call her. Her name is Cynthia Hicks. She was 71. She had recovered from cancer. And she said, “Caroline, you can’t imagine the courage you feel when you first get up on that wing.” And I thought, oh gosh, now I have to go do this because I should write about courage. And I was not happy about it, Steve. Because I’m a pilot, I don’t get out of perfectly good cockpits. But I did go wing walking in order to find this elusive courage. But of course, like in every adventure I went on, I found something far more.

LEVITT: So let me just be clear, so wing walking, you are literally standing on the wing of an airplane. And it’s not just flying, right? It’s doing loops and doing all sorts of crazy things. And you’re strapped on, so you presumably won’t fall off.

PAUL: There was a lanyard that we had attached to ourselves that was attached to the plane, but we never asked what would happen if we fell. We’d be dangling under the plane. They didn’t really explain how they were going to land the plane. 

LEVITT: The dangerous part is you’re in the cockpit and then when you leave the cockpit, you’ve got to crawl up and hook yourself on, right? And that must be the time of real danger is crawling out of the cockpit and crawling back into the cockpit when you’re done. Is that correct?

PAUL: Yeah, I think any time you get out of a cockpit and you go on top of a wing while it’s 3,000 feet in the air, that seems dangerous. But in reality, the chance of you actually falling is pretty small. There was things to hold on to the whole time. There was no turbulence or anything. But again, your brain says, “You’re at 3,000 feet, you dummy, what are you doing?” And certainly that’s what my brain was saying.

LEVITT: Sometimes when you talk about outside adventure — and I don’t want to give people the wrong idea. It’s not that you’re saying that women as they age need to do crazy things. Some of the examples in your book are things like birdwatching or orientering.

PAUL: I will admit that when I came into this book that I had a definition of adventure that was high octane and that I’d often done things that almost killed me and thought that was part of adventure. I wanted to cover things for people that did not have the same adventure adrenaline needs that I did, because I understood how important it was for people just to get outside. Honestly, I didn’t think birdwatching was going to be an adventure, but I interviewed someone named Virginia Rose, who was in a wheelchair — she was in a wheelchair since she was 14 — and she had founded this nonprofit called Birdability. I didn’t think it was an adventure, but I was going to include it anyway. I was so wrong. Birdwatching has all the rhythms of adventure. It has the quest of looking for birds. It has the anticipation. Then you see it, the exhilaration. It has the physical vitality. She wheeled six miles. I walked six miles. So I really got schooled during the writing of this book about what adventure was. And adventure really is accessing your own exploratory spirit and whatever exhilarates you and pushes your comfort zone and offers you physical vitality. And over and over again, I saw that it can come in so many different ways.

LEVITT: I think you use the word “awe” in place of “adrenaline” at some point — that really awe, in some sense, is the most powerful force that’s out today.

PAUL: As I got older, I realized that I wasn’t that psyched when I was flying and I’d hit rough air. It used to really exhilarate me. As I got older, I just didn’t really want that as much. And I wondered if I was getting boring. Was this the pandemic? Was it because I was getting older and more sedate? And when I went wing walking and I strapped myself to that center post and then the pilot began to do barrel rolls, loops, and hammerheads, I went from being pretty surly about having to do this to being ecstatic. And when I got on the ground, I was really curious about what had happened because I’m well versed in adrenaline. Of course, adrenaline had been part of getting up on a wing in midair, but there was something else. And I was not well versed in the concept of awe. I did read Annie Murphy Paul’s The Extended Mind, and she talks about awe in there. It turns out awe is really good for us. And it’s really easily triggered by going outside. Awe basically is that feeling you get in the presence of something bigger than you. It’s a mixture of, like, wonder and fear and a little dread. And scientists call it a reset button because it, really it just blasts you neurally open. Your brain can’t quite grasp what’s happening and so you become open to a new neural pattern. So on a real physiological level you are open, but also more open minded. So it’s a really creative place to find awe. We’ve usually associated it with religious experiences, but of course, when you go outside and look at the night sky or the Grand Canyon, you can access this awe. And that’s what had happened to me. I had been basically thrown right into an awe situation when I was wing walking. But it turns out you do not have to wing walk to find awe. Thank goodness. It turns out you can just walk. 

LEVITT: So my role model for aging has always been my grandfather. He was a mess. He had cataracts and he couldn’t see very well, and he had broken his hip, so he limped around. But I would go over to his house for dinner once a week, and he walked, and with a childlike fascination he would report the things he had seen and what he had experienced. And something about that, this is now 50 years ago, is still completely alive in me today. I’m not good at all at myself, but I understand the power of it. And I, and as I get older, more and more, I think about my grandfather and how amazing it was that he had awe for the everyday. And I think that’s one of the greatest gifts you could possibly have.

PAUL: I feel like I’m more awe-prone as I get older. Maybe I would have felt awe, but I wouldn’t have been able to recognize it as something different from adrenaline when I was younger. Now I’m just more able to be open to it. And that’s part of the beauty of being in my 60s and being older, just like your grandfather. Every single adventure I went on — and they ranged from scuba diving with an 80-year-old to simply walking with Dot who is 93 — there was this element of awe that I was asked to engage in. They elicited it. I mean, go walking with a bunch of bird watchers and try not to feel awe because they feel awe every time they see a bird. They’ve probably seen that bird hundreds of times and yet they’re amazed. Because they allow themselves to feel amazed.  

I have a two-year-old son. There are lots of bad things about being two years old. You can barely talk, so it’s hard to get what you want. You have almost no control over anything. But there is one thing that is amazing about being two. The days are filled with awe whether it’s an anthill or blocks of towers crashing down, wild turkeys, or a first experience with Pop Rocks candy for my son Lucas, awe lurks around every corner. I just wish his pursuit of awe didn’t have to start at 5:30 a.m. Then I’d have a little more energy for my own awe-seeking. If you’re interested in learning more about awe and its role in aging gracefully, pick up Caroline Paul’s book Tough Broad: From Boogie Boarding to Wing Walking—How Outdoor Adventure Improves Our Lives as We Age. But if you were thinking of signing up for wing walking bad news, as you can read about in our show notes, the FAA recently shut down the operation where Caroline wing walked.

LEVITT: And this is a point in the show where my producer Morgan joins me and we take a listener question.

LEVEY: Hi, Steve. So a listener named Ed wrote, and he wants to know how you decide to end the podcast. He is not advocating that People I (Mostly) Admire ends, but he just wants to know how you will know when it’s the right time to end the show.

LEVITT: Well, I think Ed has a point that most things do go on too long. Quitting’s hard. A really important element of this podcast is that I don’t have to do it. I just do it because I like it. And I think the risks of going on way too long and producing a terrible product are much greater when you actually need it, when you rely on it financially. And so for that reason, I think the chances that this podcast becomes worse and worse forever are really low. Obviously when we started, it was really hard to get anyone to come on a podcast that had no audience and that had no reputation. And the only real way to get guests then were to call in favors. We had a lot of people who I just knew were interesting that no one had heard of, and so they were happy to come on the show. And then we had a few people, like Steve Pinker, who I knew and who liked me and I liked him, so I was able to twist his arm into doing it. Once you’ve had a bunch of Nobel Prize winners and Arnold Schwarzenegger, then when you go to the next guest, it’s a lot easier for them to say yes. But of course, the stock of really interesting, amazing, unknown people has gotten depleted, so it’s harder to find more of those diamonds in the rough.

LEVEY: One way we find interesting guests, these diamonds in the rough, as you say is people who have written books. That’s how we found Caroline Paul. She is essentially on tour, trying to promote her new book Tough Broad. And I think your conversation with her proved that just because someone is promoting a book doesn’t mean that the whole conversation — our whole episode — has to be about that book. Your conversation with her was wide ranging and it covered a lot of her other work and a lot of other parts of her life, which I thought really made it successful. It can be a challenge, however, because sometimes getting people off script when they’ve just written a book is really hard.

LEVITT: You’re exactly right. If people have been on their book tours, giving interview after interview, it’s much harder, but the goal is: How do you get them off their script? How do you get people to talk about things that they’re not expecting or in new ways? And that’s what I take as my personal challenge. I don’t always succeed — Arnold Schwarzenegger being a great example, where I tried a hundred different things to get him off his script and he did not deviate one word off the script the entire time. That was my most frustrating interview in the sense that I felt like I completely and totally failed to get him to talk to me as a person.

LEVEY: Thank you for writing, Ed. If you have a question for us, our email is That’s Please send us your guest suggestions for curious, self-reflective, good-talking people, and we will look into them. We read every email that’s sent and we look forward to reading yours.

In two weeks, we’re back with a brand new episode featuring Suleika Jaouad. Her incredible book, Between Two Kingdoms, documents her battle with cancer, and she’s also the subject of the recent documentary film American Symphony. For me at least, the conversation I had with Suleika was really, really special.

JAOUAD: I didn’t know if I was going to survive long enough to see whatever the end result of this footage would be. And honestly, we weren’t sure what we wanted it to be.

As always, thanks for listening and we’ll see you back soon.

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People I (Mostly) Admire is part of the Freakonomics Radio Network, which also includes Freakonomics Radio, No Stupid Questions, and The Economics of Everyday Things. All our shows are produced by Stitcher and Renbud Radio. This episode was produced by Morgan Levey with help from Lyric Bowditch, and mixed by Jasmin Klinger. We had research assistance from Daniel Moritz-Rabson. Our theme music was composed by Luis Guerra. We can be reached at, that’s Thanks for listening.

PAUL: Please call the fire department, Steve.

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