“Being an adult is so wild… you can just go outside and scoop up a handful of dirt and eat it and no one will tell you that you can’t”
- anonymous internet commenter
Permission is a strange animal.
Children learn in school that permission is everything. You’re not allowed to do anything without permission. Raise your hand for permission to speak, get a hall pass for permission to walk in the hallways, sign out in the bathroom notebook for permission to use the toilet. Permission to eat lunch and talk to friends and walk around. The kids collect more freedoms as they grow older, but the basic pattern of “you must ask for permission before you can do anything” sticks around forever.
In the short term, the whole permission system does achieve the intended purpose– crowd control– but there’s a common, gigantic failure mode that pops up later in life. You’d be astonished by how many people still wait for someone else to grant them permission to live their life, years after graduating from school. (I noticed myself doing this sometimes, too– more on this later.) The weird thing is, the whole “waiting for permission” thing happens even when there’s nothing stopping them from actually doing what they wanted to do. Nothing about the world really changes from hearing the words “go ahead”, and yet things are completely different afterwards.
Big obvious examples of this sort of failure mode include needing permission to fail in public or permission to not be the best at something. If you asked someone explicitly if someone should be permitted to struggle in their endeavors, they’d probably say struggle is a good or even necessary part of getting better at your art.
Yet how often do we see “try-hard” tossed around as an insult rather than a compliment? How many creative types worry about sharing their work because they think they don’t have the permission to be proud of doing something unusual? (Often it’s because someone made fun of their work earlier in life, and they forgot that they’re in a different situation now.)
Every time an internet commenter makes fun of someone showing off something cool, this image gets stronger
The tricky part is that it’s hard to self-diagnose where you might be waiting for permission because those areas are like personal blind spots. To other people it might be clear as day, but hard to see for yourself. That is, until they tell you and then you remember that you are capable of a lot of cool stuff.
I’ve been through that cycle a few times. One helpful piece of advice I received about improving at writing software was essentially permission to not be perfectly well-rounded at every single domain that involves computers, but rather go deep in some areas and less so in others. I hadn’t realized that my strategy of “just try to absorb as much as possible about anything” was holding me back.
Sure, I already knew that you don’t need to be able to do it all, but hearing it explicitly helped. That’s the nature of getting permission. Almost always, you were capable of doing it all along, but you just didn’t realize that you could. People don’t just automagically live up to their potential. It’s not quite that simple.
Something curious I’ve noticed lately is that a lot of otherwise intelligent, hard-working, and curious students all get shunted onto the same sorts of tracks in life. Someone who lives a “charmed” life and goes to a so-called elite school might feel strange about growing up to become a leading expert on how plumbing systems work, even if it would’ve been their life’s work if only someone had given them permission to blow up a few toilets when they were twelve.
This picture will never not be funny
It’s a bit strange how all the popular paths seem “safe” to outside observers. They’d feel a lot of pressure to pick the safe life. But managing risk isn’t so much about avoiding it altogether as it is about picking which risks you’re ok with, and pretending like you can get to perfect safety is just giving someone else permission to decide what you might end up losing.
The more “prestigious” your accomplishments are, the more pressure you feel to chase more “prestige”.
But the story about permission doesn’t end with childhood experiences. It seems more flexible than that. (A good thing, too. I’m glad I didn’t magically stop maturing at age 18.)
One thing that’s helped me a great deal with Doing The Weird Things is to be around people who are, well, good at Doing The Weird Things. These are the sort of people who’ve given themselves permission to life on their own terms and they’re often really good at helping other people with it as well. It’s not about surrounding yourself with the smartest people, necessarily, but rather the people who have agency in life rather than passive rafts floating along in a river.
Another helpful thing is to take advantage of liminal experiences to rearrange the pieces of your life as they’re falling back down to earth. A lot of change happens when you break off a long relationship. Sometimes that change looks like eating a lot more ice cream and watching way more sad movies than we normally do, but it doesn’t have to be that. Big life changes can encourage us to retreat to what’s comfortable and familiar, but they’re also giant permission slips to pick the guitar back up or start taking the gym regularly again or finally go deep into robot soccer or whatever else your ex never liked or understood. Transitional times are weird, so you might as well take the chance to be weird.
May you collect many metaphorical bathroom passes.