Ever notice how kids are fond of asking questions? As in, can I have some ice cream? Can I go play in the water? Can I watch some TV? Can we buy a hamster?

We are conditioned to ask for permission from an early age by parents, schoolteachers, and pretty much everyone else.

Music is no exception. Sometimes it’s explicit, as when we ask our teacher if we can play a certain piece. And other times, it’s a little more subtle, as when we play for a teacher, implicitly asking if we can study with them.

Asking permission shows good manners, and one day perhaps my kids will ask if they may be excused from the dinner table, but is there a downside to our deeply embedded habit of asking for permission?

Where’s my roast duck?

I was talking with a friend recently who wanted more performance experience, but wasn’t sure how to get it. He doesn’t have a manager, hasn’t won a big competition, and isn’t particularly well connected. But as we talked, it became clearer and clearer that it wasn’t really these things that was holding him back most. The bigger problem was that he was waiting for permission. An implicit endorsement from some authority figure that he had the green light to go out into the world and make something happen.

But if we sit and wait for that endorsement, or for the metaphorical phone to ring, we could be sitting for an awfully long time. As Guy Kawasaki says, “You have to sit by the side of a river for a very long time before a roast duck will fly into your mouth.”

The naysayer

Chris Guillebeau is a writer, world traveller, and doer of things. He wrote a book recently called The $100 Startup. It is essentially a compilation of stories of regular people who in lieu of asking for permission, simply went out into the world and shook things up a bit. Granted, the impetus for taking action was often something they would never have chosen, such as being fired, but the point is that a moment came when they stopped waiting for the phone to ring. They “chose themselves,” gave themselves permission, and took action.

Of course, when we look at other people and their successes, it’s easy to think of reasons why it was different for them. Oh, they started playing at an early age. They had the right connections. They’re luckier. They went to the right school. They have better hair.

Meanwhile, our inner critic goes into overdrive and effortlessly creates a list of all the reasons why our situation is different. We weren’t a performance major. We didn’t go to a major conservatory. We didn’t start playing when we were three. We don’t live in a big city. And so on.

So we accept the critic’s excuses, start feeling like it’s all futile anyway, and choose not to act. Unfortunately, as important as self-talk and visualization are, there’s nothing quite like taking action, getting real-world experience, and learning from real successes and failures – not hypothetical successes and failures.

But first, we often have to give ourselves permission. And it’s much, much, harder to champion ourselves than to champion another.

A disclaimer

Before you give yourself permission to take over the world, remember that all of this of course requires that you already have something you want to share. Something you believe in.

Not everyone will value the thing you care about as much as you do, but that’s as it should be. You’re not doing this for fame or fortune or to be featured in a Coke commercial (which, ironically, happens when you’re not trying), but to share with a small subset of the population that special something which you care deeply about. The thing you think the world needs more of, whether it’s puppetry, Bach, laughter as medicine, toy pianos, or joggling (no, that’s not a typo). Note that I’m not talking about passion per se, which has become a bit of a cliché as of late, and is probably more misleading than it is helpful anyhow.

A certain subset of the population will value and find this something meaningful too, geek out about the same thing you geek out about, and thank you for the difference you made in their day, their week, and perhaps their life.

This probably won’t make you a millionaire. This won’t end world hunger. But I do think this is how each of us can brighten up our world a bit. To shape it, bit by bit, into the world it could be. The kind of world we’d like to live in.

Take action

How can you tell if you are waiting for permission? With the issue of wanting more live performance experience, it’s pretty simple.

Flutist Bärli Nugent shared with me an exercise she requires of students in her career development class at Juilliard, which is to leave class, leave the building, and before the end of the class period, return having booked a date in some off-campus venue.

Yes, I’m guessing you can’t just show up at Carnegie Hall and tell them you’ve picked yourself so would like a date in the Isaac Stern Auditorium, but there are lots of performance spaces, from public libraries to Apple stores to airports to breweries where you could gain performance experience for unusual audiences.

And it’s probably not going to work so well to go to the NY Phil and explain to HR that you’ve given yourself permission to add an extra chair to the back of the viola section and would like to be included in the program notes. However, the principle of giving yourself permission still applies to getting over the feeling that it would be presumptuous to think that you could one day be playing in such an orchestra, and to the need to take bold and meaningful steps towards making that a reality.

The one-sentence summary

“The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.”  ~George Bernard Shaw in Man and Superman (1903)