Some of us spend a great deal of our lives waiting for or seeking “permission to begin” from others. It’s a subtle thing. It actually stops us from starting. Waiting for permission—or even allowing others to give permission—for us to realize our dreams, sometimes even to begin to dream rather than simply be safe and dutiful, can be a great waste of self and human life energy. When one realizes this, questions abound. One question is “How important is that permission, really?” Another one might be, “Are we willing to be gated by others in our dreams?”
It’s certainly important to listen to trusted members of your community. And, of course, that community can be selected for self-endorsement—a community of “yes-persons” rather than real friends and colleagues. One of the greatest challenges for any change agent is that the core group so many theorists recommend that we assemble to buttress ourselves against the stiff winds opposing any change or progress can be just as deluded as we ourselves are. In evaluating your pantheon of supporters, you might want to think about whether there are those among your advisors who are willing to ask you difficult questions and provide contrarian feedback in a way that is useful to you. And, you might want to ask yourself whether you are open to such information.
I was surprised recently by a Harvard Business Review blog network post that recommended To Succeed, Forget Self-Esteem. The author, well-credentialed though she is, seemed to be flying in the face of much established understanding of self-esteem, indicating that self-esteem is outmoded in the pursuit of success and ought to be replaced by self-compassion, itself a worthy capacity. Authentic self-esteem is based on a bedrock that includes a history of testing one’s limits so that one understands one’s capabilities. The process of achieving self-esteem is also profitably enriched by recovering from failures of those tests in a manner that adds to our self-knowledge and knowledge of the world around us and how we are in it.
The permission we most need comes from within. To go forward with confidence, we need the self-esteem that comes from risking, failing and recovering (no matter how difficult and embarrassing), or succeeding with grace (not hubris).
Yes, self-esteem is often built through good child rearing practices, but many of us were the early experiments of our parents who may not have been quite grown up themselves, yet, so that good old-fashioned pulling yourself up by your own bootstraps tenacity and openness to learning is essential for pretty much everyone. Coaches can help, therapists can help, teachers, mentors, getting certifications and degrees can help, but ultimately, none of this will be enough if you do not decide for yourself that you are enough to meet the challenge before you.
Permission seeking can be a way of avoiding taking the first step in contributing what we have to offer. As one wise mentor said to me at a critical moment: “It looks like you are missing opportunities to lead.” Hmmm. Well, that sure sounds irresponsible if leadership is needed at the time. R.K. Greenleaf wrote that the greatest danger was that of “strong natural servants who have the potential to lead but do not lead, or who choose to follow a non-servant.” The desire to serve may sometimes best be fulfilled by leading.
Whether what you wait for is permission to begin to lead or permission to begin a gluten free custom baking service, know that you are at the center of this permission giving process. Permission given by others can be taken back just when you need it most. Yes, it’s important to have comrades and supporters—friends who will care and have the courage to hold up a mirror for you in the way that you can really see yourself. But ultimately, we all walk alone at some point, and if we don’t realize that we can work the switch and carry the flashlight for ourselves, we will stay in every dark night until the dog standing at the door begging for a walk grows old and dies—and then we follow suit.