Owning Your Authority in a Permission Culture

Rather than request permission, you can define your own goals and standards.

Posted Sep 10, 2019

Photo by Logan Weaver on Unsplash
Source: Photo by Logan Weaver on Unsplash

If you’ve worked in your profession long enough, I suspect you have learned the value of doing a good job by others’ standards. You’re knowledgeable, personable, hard-working, even-tempered. You’ve learned the rules, followed them, and exceeded expectations. You might have even met with great accomplishment. But whether you’re self-employed, or part of a company or organization, odds are that you’ve gotten comfortable. You’ve settled into the status quo or blended in. Maybe you’ve unconsciously settled for your own “good enough” standards of sub-excellence.

Then, perhaps, you have a bold idea, or a desire to shake things up. The only thing holding you back is fear: Fear that you’ll be wrong, look foolish or fail. All of these fears are based on external judgments, on what you believe others think or will think about you. But if you feel strongly enough about your idea, you persist. And rather than risk rejection or failure alone, you get someone else to co-sign. You ask permission.

We Live In A Permission Culture

Permission reassures us when we venture into the unknown because it sets us on a defined path and diffuses responsibility for the outcome of our actions. But today, when the pressure to innovate and stand out is greater than ever, we confuse permission with purpose and seek validation from others, rather than search within ourselves to find meaning and stand confidently in the authority of our ideas. We live in a permission culture.

Permission culture is the idea that, in many aspects of our lives, we feel the need or desire for someone to authorize our agency. It assumes that we need the approval of people smarter, or more powerful than us in order to go forth and bring our most important ideas and dreams to life. 

Certainly, others may have more experience and valuable insights to share. In fact, a major premise of the Tracking Wonder community is that our creative work can’t be realized if we each work in a vacuum. It’s only through collaborating, finding the right mentors, and knowing when to seek experts in specialty areas that we can advance our most meaningful endeavors. It’s through such deliberate relationship-building that we grow businesses and achieve the greater good of our culture.

In the Seed Stage of any project, your most important goal is to get intimately connected with your endeavor and to give yourself permission to nurture it forward. If you seek other people’s approval in this early stage, you run the risk of affirming your self-doubt, undercutting your own potential, and stalling your efforts.

How then, can we learn to trust our own ideas enough to bring them to fruition? 

In the early stages of pursuing an endeavor, we can emphasize personal accountability over permission and intention over hesitation. In this way, we can cultivate a growth mindset that empowers us to pursue innovation through experimentation.

But first, how did we get this way? And why does permission seem to matter so much?

How Permission Became Our Compass

As children, we are hard-wired for action. Free from the concept of failure and without enough life experience to warn us of risks, we leap into every endeavor with gusto and oftentimes, we stumble. Just think of a toddler learning to walk. They stand up, wobble, take a step or two, and fall. Maybe they let out a shriek, or wail with dry eyes, but they get right back up and try again. Children are mini scientists, ever experimenting to discover new experiences.

This perseverance is admirable, but it’s also essential to our development. Embracing the unknown strengthens our muscles, teaches us balance, and widens our world. But as we grow older and wiser, we are taught how to behave, which actions are permissible and which are not. Our exploratory nature is tempered by fear (of real or imagined repercussions) and we begin to construct an internal, behavioral code of ethics. We come to know right from wrong, and desirable from undesirable behaviors based on what our parents (or other authority figures) allow us to do. 

We are taught that permission is a privilege, and often one we must win through good behavior, making the risk of failure that much greater. For this reason, the freer we become and the more uncertain our lives are, the more we long for someone or something to define the boundaries of our existence: To define our purpose. Our belief system determines our reality so if we are taught to earn approval before exploring our ideas, we’ll come to value that validation more than our own creative genius. We hope someone will give us the green light to pursue our passions because on our own we can’t help but obsess over the “What If’s:” What if I’m wrong? What if I fail or disappoint? What if this isn’t right for me after all?

At first glance, the questions provoked by this self-doubt can seem legitimate. The “What Ifs” can frequently masquerade as pragmatism or realism. Though all too often, they can lead to playing it safe and letting your bold ideas wither on the vine. Sometimes permission can give us the nudge we need to pursue those ideas. But more often than not our fear of standing out and deferral to another’s authority undermines our own, not to mention undercuts what we believe ourselves capable of. It sends unconscious messages to those around us about what we expect for ourselves, and what we think we deserve.

Though it may seem daunting, embracing accountability can actually liberate you from these imaginary fears and relieve you of the stress of uncertainty to set you on a path toward greater fulfillment. 

Personal Accountability 

Personal accountability is foundational for success in advancing your endeavors. This may seem counterintuitive since “to be held accountable” for something has a bad connotation. But accountability is not an admission of guilt: It is taking ownership and acting with intention. It is no coincidence that “owning it” is an admirable trait for the healthy self-confidence it exudes, or that to “give yourself permission to…” seems to be the mantra of the moment.

When you hold yourself personally accountable, you establish order on your own terms rather than ask for someone else’s order to guide you. You define the parameters of your authority so that, within those bounds, you are able to make decisions without permission or punishment. You are able to bypass bureaucracy and put your ideas to the test — so long as you are willing to take responsibility for the results. 

This type of thinking, this growth mindset, encourages experimentation and the continual development of a broader skillset based on the belief that our skills are learned (not innate). As psychologist Carol Dweck’s research in the field and countless studies have shown, a growth mindset can lead to higher levels of achievement and innovation. It also helps you to better understand yourself and where you’re headed.

None of this is to say that personal accountability precludes collaboration. In fact, the autonomy that personal accountability fosters can actually empower us to collaborate more effectively by encouraging us individually to put our unique skills toward a common goal, thereby creating a shared sense of purpose. A more recent study by Dweck show that when entire companies embrace a growth mindset, employees also report feeling far more empowered and committed. What’s more, they feel that they have greater organizational support for innovation and collaboration.

Own Your Authority

You’ve likely heard the saying “It’s better to ask forgiveness than permission.” While it’s true that innovation often requires bending or breaking the rules, taking accountability for your actions negates the need to ask for either. Rather than request permission, you can define your own goals and the standards by which you judge their success so that you can bring your full potential to the table.

By claiming ownership, responsibility, and your own sense of wonder in working toward manifesting your ideas, you begin to define your own sense of purpose. And by looking within for that purpose, you can determine your own path toward a more focused, creative, and resilient life.