January 30th, 2018
The Importance of Permission
By Rich Uhl

Starting something new? Making a resolution? If you want to accomplish something this year, in my experience, you first need permission.

Let me explain. In the last few weeks, I have been coaching and mentoring a few people including my team members and children. I have noticed a pattern that I feel needs to be shared. I have found that in order for many of us to move forward with something significant, we need permission.

I have come to realize that many of us operate from one of two personal defaults when we undertake something new; we either give ourselves permission to succeed or permission to fail. For the various parts of our lives—work, personal, etc.—we may have differing default positions. I believe that we need to have both permission to succeed and permission to fail in order to move forward with anything significant.

Let me give an example to illustrate this point. When I was thinking about starting 1Strategy, it required a lot of reflection to determine possible outcomes. In full transparency, I’ll share part of the reflection process I went through to gain both kinds of permission. I hope this illustration might help you understand what your default position is and work through getting the permission you need in whatever you work towards.

When I decided to start 1Strategy, it wasn’t hard work that scared me. I wasn’t afraid of working 12+ hour days, long weekends, or constantly being on-call for my business. I didn’t fear being successful at starting something new. I had given myself permission to work hard, be successful, and do whatever was necessary. I wasn’t afraid of the potential for growth that it would bring. I knew from my experience if I decide to do something and feel it is right, I will give everything I have to complete that task. I will stop at nothing to accomplish it, including making the sacrifices necessary to achieve the outcome I desire.

For me, being granted the permission to succeed was fairly automatic; I set my own expectations and gave myself this permission as my default. I did the research for starting a business, had a good mentor, I interviewed and found potential customers, I wrote my plan to succeed in an Amazon-style “six-pager,” and started toward executing that plan. Permission to succeed was my default position. That was the starting line for me when I began to entertain the idea of leaving my position as an Enterprise Solutions Architect at AWS and start 1 Strategy, an AWS Consulting company.

After I started the process and had given myself permission to succeed, I began the activities required to launch 1Strategy then found myself hindered, at times even paralyzed by something. There were key activities I needed to be doing in order to make a clear directional change towards starting 1Strategy, I just couldn’t bring myself to do them.

I realized later that I was blocked because I lacked permission to fail. I couldn’t bring myself to allow or even entertain failure. I came to a stopping point. I had to move forward or retreat.

As I found myself facing my fears, my wife noticed I was struggling—it seems as though she has an emotion reading IOT device that streams my constant state of mind to an AWS Kinesis stream, that triggers a Lambda function and SNS push notification based upon key emotions or triggers to her phone, letting her know what my current emotional state of mind is (#nerdalert). She could tell I needed to talk, we went for a walk at my favorite spot, Point White Pier on Bainbridge Island.

As we walked along the pier she stopped me and said, “Something is really wrong. What is it?” I paused for long while as we stood in silence, finally I found myself in a blurting out a list of my fears, concerns, and irreconcilable distractions keeping me from moving forward. The list included things like:

  1. I am afraid of draining our savings and struggling financially again.
  2. I am afraid to losing our house and everything we own.
  3. I am afraid of not seeing our children enough; I don’t want my kids to barely remember my being around; I don’t want them to see me choose work over them.

I paused for another minute and finally said it: “I am afraid of failing, I am afraid of letting everyone down including, and most importantly, you. I don’t want to fail.”

At this point I was struggling to breathe, let alone talk. My wife stood by my side and said nothing for a time, the moment stretched into what seemed like an eternity. The time passed as the cold Pacific Northwest air pressed on my cheeks and brought me back to the moment. My breathing slowed, I took a moment to gain confidence, and I finally returned my gaze to meet her eyes.

She waited, then in a firm and determined voice she said to me “Rich, I believe in you. You and I both feel like this is the right thing to do, if, and I mean if, WE are meant to empty our savings, lose our home, and our children see us fail it will be ok. Even if we end up with nothing, we will still be a family. We will start over again and it will be ok. Our children will learn more from watching you try and fail than watching you refuse to try.”

There it was, summed up in a few sentences, written in her face the seriousness and determination of her words. I could see a commitment in her letting me know that failure was ok. She gave it to me, the missing piece: I had permission to fail.

When I couldn’t bring myself to find it, my wife pointed it out, we would be ok. I was allowed to fail. Once I had permission to fail, it unlocked me, I found myself free. In the following week I had all the blocking activities completed and I was moving forward.

The opposite is also true. We might start from a position of permission to fail, and we will need to realize permission to succeed. To highlight this concept, I’ll share an experience I had with “Steve” (identity changed for his protection) whom I have been mentoring. Steve asked me to help him prepare for an important upcoming presentation. He was presenting on a topic he knew well and was expert in. I reviewed with him the approach and begin to ask him questions about his topic and the presentation. At this point, I noticed he struggled to give me answers to basic questions. He even struggled to answer questions I had heard him previously answer. I began to recognize there was something missing, something in his mind that was blocking him.

After a few more minutes of painful responses I stopped and said “Steve, I believe that you know these answers, but you don’t believe you will be successful in this presentation. I believe you have convinced yourself you will fail.” Steve got quiet, very quiet, he said probably 10 more words to me before the end of our mentoring session. I walked out of the meeting feeling like maybe I had failed him in our session. I pondered what to do next. The next morning, still having that situation weighing heavy on my mind, I opened my inbox and received and e-mail from him and read this line “I was a bit overwhelmed by our conversation because I didn’t realize my own self-sabotaging attitude.” After that he outlined the ways he would change and things to do in order to be successful.

We sat down a week later and I had Steve present to me his thoughts and new approach for the presentation. I then began to ask him the exact same questions I had asked a week earlier. Flawlessly, effortlessly he answered each of the questions. I was in total awe of the miraculous transformation that had occurred in a single week. I asked if he had spent the last 7 days studying tirelessly, or if he did anything major to prepare; he said “No.” I then pointed out the only difference between our two interactions was that Steve had already given himself permission to fail and since then had received permission to succeed. There it was, proof that permission to succeed was needed.

From these experiences I learned that permission to succeed and permission to fail work together and that before we can even try to make any fundamental change in our lives, we need to have both. Whatever that change is, we have to give our heart and our minds an opportunity to play their role in gaining permission for any outcome. Innovation requires risk; without being willing to risk failure, we will never realize success. Without permission to succeed, we may sabotage our own efforts and meet our expectations of failure.

May this be a year of giving ourselves permission to move forward!