Stop Asking For Permission

“It’s easier to ask forgiveness than it is to get permission.” We’ve all heard this before in one form or another, right? But how many of us are actually doing it? My gut tells me that most of the time we’re waiting for permission. Or, at least, approval.

So why are we so hesitant to take a stand or stand alone? Why are we constantly seeking permission?

I recently watched The Lego Movie with my family. It was funny and creative. And the story taught a poignant lesson about fitting in and doing things “the right way” and following the crowd and obeying the instructions, versus stepping into your personal genius and capitalizing on your uniqueness.

Now, I fully support obeying the law for the safety and welfare of others. I think we all could agree on that. But what I am talking about are the implied, unwritten rules or beliefs that are subtly, or not so subtly, espoused by the general public. There seems to be a wide-spread, generic definition of what is normal, and anything that deviates from that norm is frowned upon or even thwarted outright.

A few years ago I gave a talk to a group of art students at a local college. We discussed creativity, career development, and living life as an artist. I was shocked at the prevailing mentality in the room. More than anything else, these kids wanted to know the right way to proceed—particularly following graduation. They wanted the instructions, the rulebook. They were afraid of messing up and doing it wrong. They were voicing concerns about failing and not being able to get a good job. They were even worried about bankruptcy and homelessness. Say what?

These kids were in their early twenties. They hadn’t even experienced much real life outside of university. And here they were preoccupied with (mostly) unrealistic fears.

Keep in mind, these were art students. They are already fringe players. I could understand these kinds of concerns coming from accounting or science majors, but art? 

As we dug deeper, we discovered they weren’t really afraid of these things. No, they were actually afraid of disappointing their parents and of looking weird to their family and friends. They had drank the cultural Kool-Aid and were now asking for permission to deviate from the norm. These future artists secretly wanted to throw out the rulebook—and were now seeking approval from a respected outsider.

I said to them repeatedly, hoping it would sink in, “There is no right way. Only your way.”

I continued, “If your way ends up looking like a gallery painter living in a house in the suburbs with a white picket fence, 2.3 kids and a Cocker Spaniel, that’s okay. If your way ends up with you living alone in a yurt on the Mongolian plains brewing craft-labeled fermented mare’s milk, that’s okay too. Just be true to yourself. Follow your path, not the path you think you’re supposed to.”

In a recent radio interview, my hero Steven Pressfield suggested that writers avoid critique groups and requesting feedback from the general public. Instead, he urged writers to master their craft and learn to be their own best critic and editor. Only then do you seek the opinion and help from one or two experts you trust implicitly.

In other words, stop asking for permission. Do it your way first.

The irony in all of this misdirected people-pleasing is that society applauds the outliers. We salute the renegades. We hail the risk-takers. We reward, sometimes absurdly, those who chart their own course. Hell, we may even secretly envy them.

And yet most of us still seek permission and approval beforehand. My advice, said best by Bob Newhart in his famous psychiatry skit, is to “Stop it!”

Stop asking for permission. Get out there and go for it—your way.

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