Permission: To wait, or not to wait?

Generally, if you wait around for permission to change in your professional career, to start a creative project, or to improve yourself in some way, you’re going to be waiting a long time. It’s better to try to make a change today, as soon as you can—even now, if possible.

The adage, “Ask forgiveness, not permission,” is one extreme version of this, encouraging you to bias towards taking responsibility and risk disappointing someone, in order to seize an opportunity you notice and don’t have time to wait around for. If you’re risk averse, this is best applied towards small changes, nothing you wouldn’t be able to back away from or explain to other people.

Over a year ago, I highlighted a mental model I called the four inner beings of a writer—drawing inspiration from Susan Sontag and professor Betty Flowers, the latter of which I also highlight in my book Creative Doing

The action driven by chaotic energy, unrestricted by permission, is best left up to the aspect of you that Sontag and Flowers call the moron and the madman respectively—two candid, albeit unflattering, names for the critical role of the playful, curious, inner child in the creative process.

However, this aspect of your personality is only one of the four. Even as your moron/madman aspect grows stronger, it will inevitably clash with the other aspects; the stylist/carpenter, the critic/judge, the architect. 

This is when deliberately seeking out permission—not just asking for it, actively searching for it (and, very occasionally, demanding it)—is most effective. It rallies the rest of your subconscious mind to actually buy into and believe what your moron/madman is trying to suggest, and you’re able to take action in a less confused way. You will be consistent.

On the occasions you do find permission—and you will, through the frequency illusion or dépaysement!—these new pieces of information can create lasting permanent changes. You’ll find you no longer have to put forward so much effort to convincing yourself—or other people—that what you’re doing makes sense. 

To me, this permission doesn’t have to come from someone. It can show up as evidence I find in my reading, conversations, or listening to people. For me, some recent pieces include:

  • When a conversation with friends recently shifted to the topic of work, they mentioned not worrying about stepping on toes in order to get things done in a team; optimizing for impact and outcomes, making sure to communicate, while also not following processes perfectly. While this sounds obvious enough, it resonated with me; I have worked mostly as an entrepreneur where I largely didn’t need permission from anyone, so it requires some adjustment and practice.
  • I’ve read or listened to 50 Cent’s memoir over five times now, and learned how he prioritized living a clean lifestyle, including abstaining from alcohol and drugs, and preserving his body through working out and eating clean. I no longer experience conflict or embarrassment when I decline drinks; I know I’ll feel better about the decision later that night, and definitely in the morning. In the long run, I also know that my body—particularly my stomach, in my case—will take better care of me in the future as I take better care of it now.
  • After several years of trying to write notes on index cards, and believing there must be a better option, I finally started making it work after skimming How to Take Smart Notes. In It’s About Damn Time, Arlan Hamilton writes, “I didn’t go to college, and everything I knew about venture capital I learned myself, at home, with a whiteboard, handmade index cards, and that blow-up mattress.” It was inspiring for me to learn that being efficient wasn’t the goal; developing expertise, at any speed, was. Forget trying to do it a new way or finding a lifehack or shortcut; take the longcut.

It’s an advantage to get permission from people; treasure it, make sure you do something with it. In so many ways, they are making a deposit into your bank to take action (just like you make a deposit into your bank of confidence when you review positive memories).

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