Permission, who needs it?

I’ve noticed, and experienced, an interesting human need lately — permission. People seek it, or at least I do. The author of Living a FI describes the problem in his process of becoming financially independent and quitting his job. The monster really rears its head when we’re trying to do something that is unusual, such as quit working for money in your thirties, or free climb the granite faces of Yosemite without protection. People question the motives of such decisions because they are contrary to typical behavior.

But is that behavior unreasonable or foolish just because it cuts against the grain? I don’t think it is. Doing something different or unusual from others’ paths is only that, unusual. A foolish or unreasonable decision could be typical or mundane. Living in perpetual credit card debt is a typical, foolish decision. It seems to me that unusual and foolish decisions aren’t necessarily related.

What seems to make folks link unusual and foolish decisions is that unusual things are, by definition, not frequently done, and consequently, we feel there must be a reason that unusual things are infrequently done. The implication is that unusual things are infrequently done because they are foolish, rash, unwise, or any other negative adjective you’d care to use in explaining them.This implication seems to drive us to seek validation for wanting to do something unusual. Enter: permission.

We feel that we need permission for many actions in life. Permission granting is built into our cultures. Parenting is all about permission. Rites of passage are, in essence, ways of granting permission to people by declaring them capable of certain roles or activities. Permission can function in different ways: it keeps us safe from activities that could be dangerous when we aren’t ready for them (e.g. using power tools or kitchen utensils before we’re appropriately trained in their use); permission can also lead us to view the world as a system of control, leading to thoughts like, “I couldn’t do that because I’m not allowed.”

If we look at permission in a negative light, it starts to cast shadows of doubt and fear, which can drive many of our decisions. Permission is one easy way to remove fear through an appeal to authority, “I can do this because my boss/teacher/parents said so.” However, wiping away fear by appealing to authority passes the buck by giving the agency of a decision to the authority who gives you permission. This takes away our own abilities to make decisions for ourselves. The parts of my life that I’m most proud of are the ones that I kept my agency in making a decision, or knowingly and willingly submitted to someone’s authority in order to learn or gain something. My proudest moments are the ones where I contributed to a project that I value, or I achieved something through learning, skill, and effort. I suspect that most folks wouldn’t say that their life highlights involve just receiving permission: that’s a bit feudal, isn’t it?

Permission can be valuable. Some rites of passage could be seen as a type of permission that would be valuable moments in a life, but rites of passage are often the beginning of a larger adventure. They aren’t the end, and this is the point: permission should enable you to do something greater and better, rather than simply serve as a checkpoint that allows you to pass the buck if something goes badly.



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