We are permission-seeking creatures. We want permission to act, to pursue, to create, to engage. We look for permission from bosses, civil authorities, spouses, parents. The concept of social proof has at its core the idea of permission: that seeing someone like us behave a certain way gives us permission to do the same.
Permission runs so deeply in our psyche we often don’t even notice it’s there. I was on a panel recently about women in business, and one of my fellow panelists was a highly entrepreneurial young lady with grand ambitions. “One day, I want to be CEO of a multinational corporation,” she announced; the panel then went on to discuss how hard it is to achieve that kind of position when all the boards consist of men. But there is, of course, more than one way for her to achieve her goal: she can either wait for an all-male board to give her permission to be the CEO, or she can create her own multinational company.
“May I go on a boys’ weekend?” “I’m thinking of taking painting lessons; should I?” “I have this idea, but I could never implement it myself…” When we ask for permission, we are implicitly creating or buying into a certain kind of power structure, one in which the grantor of permission inevitably holds more power than the grantee. And, like the request for permission itself, the creation of the power structure is often unconscious. The moment you grant someone permission to do something, you are agreeing that you have the authority to do so -- and that the recipient needs your largesse if he or she is to proceed.
The opposite of permission-seeking isn’t screw-you independence. There are lots of ways to have collaborative, input-seeking discussions without subordinating yourself. “I’m going to go on a boys’ weekend; can we discuss schedules so that we can make sure it’s at a convenient time?” “I’m going to take painting lessons. Do you have any experience with painting? What advice do you have?” “I have this idea, and I’m going to implement it. Would you like to join me?”
This last is incredibly powerful. The difference between “Here’s what I’m thinking of doing” to “Here’s what I’m doing” is spectacular. As soon as you say, “Here’s what I’m doing,” you are the leader. You are the one making things happen.
And you may be amazed at how much excitement that can generate in those around you. As William Hutchinson Murray said, “Until one is committed, there is hesitancy, the chance to draw back. Concerning all acts of initiative (and creation), there is one elementary truth, the ignorance of which kills countless ideas and splendid plans: that the moment one definitely commits oneself, then Providence moves too. All sorts of things occur to help one that would never otherwise have occurred. A whole stream of events issues from the decision, raising in one's favor all manner of unforeseen incidents and meetings and material assistance, which no man could have dreamed would have come his way.”
Taking the first step, without permission, doesn’t require you to know you’ll succeed. It just requires you to understand that nobody else knows whether they’ll succeed either, so it might as well be you who gives it a go.
The quote above is often appended with a couplet attributed to Goethe. Although there appears to be some confusion as to whether he was actually the source, the couplet itself is deserving of repetition: “Whatever you can do, or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius, power and magic in it.”
So go on. Begin it. I give you permission.