The other day, a friend and former coworker reached out to me. We were catching up and he said he wanted to run past by me. His big news is that, after more than a decade, he was finally ready to leave his job.
“I want to take three months off,” he said. He went on to share that he and his wife have been daydreaming of the details, where they would travel, what they would do. He sounded giddy. Then he stopped and very sincerely asked for my thoughts. “You don’t need any extra thoughts,” I said. “You’ve already done the important part. You gave yourself permission.”
Simply exploring the idea was a significant step for him. Many times before, he had walked up to the edge of the idea of leaving the company but then was burdened with everyone else’s rational reasons to justify staying put. He was fine where he was. Perfectly fine.
But big dreams don’t come in small boxes called “Fine.” In fact, they don’t come in boxes at all.
We can convince ourselves that money, comfort, stability, and other people’s approval remove the itch of self-discovery. Sometimes, we even view our desire as a self-indulgent nuisance. We swap out bigger thoughts for smaller boxes of Fine, especially when those boxes give other people expected comfort.
The concept of permission, in this sense, often gets attached to a meaning of consent or authorization. But that’s the formality of the philosophy. Dreams don’t come with documents. Or guarantees. And there isn’t an expiration date. On the contrary, a day can feel like a decade when you’re not in the right place.
Permission serves as a relief valve. And just like the mechanical counterpart in machinery, permission is an outlet in the mind that diverts excess pressure. If we were talking in environmental science, the term of “path of least resistance” is talking about the pathway that provides the easiest route toward forward motion – think of water going around a rock. Now in cognitive psychology, permission is the same pathway that relieves pressure while still experiencing motion moving forward.
The Bottom Line on Top of this episode is that giving yourself permission to explore juicy ideas is a very important brain exercise. Flexing this mental muscle tips the brain into actively seeking ways for ideas to potentially become actions.
That is the power of permission. It scans out to a macro view – and it allows you to see the larger landscape. Because without that larger view, objects in our reality often seem smaller than life actually appears.
Permission is an invitation, it’s not an expectation.
Details follow once decisions are made.
Maps will appear.
This is simply the concept of exploring that idea to begin with.
There are people who have things happen to them and then there are people who make things happen. The difference is who holds the permission in each scenario. When you give yourself room to explore an idea, that alone is a source of power. And there are a few tangible ways to harness that power into forward momentum.
The first way begins, as it did in this story did, with permission itself. To simply allow the spark of an idea to light. This is like playing with mental finger paint. It’s an open canvas on which your brain can be messy and try on the “what if” colors of paint. They’re not all going to work out but sometimes there is a beautiful blend.
The second way to turn up this power is what my friend did. He told someone else. He spoke his idea aloud.
Neuroscientists have explored the link between the conscious brain and our perception of reality. Some studies look at our conscious thinking as a form of a “controlled hallucination,” which is actually how our brains decipher input as it tries to make sense of the world.
So sharing your hallucinations move them further into active consciousness. The idea starts to marinate into possibility.
The third action is to shift the power externally. While speaking the idea is a powerful step, the act of physically writing it down is a critical action for the brain. This is the nudge I gave to my friend. I asked him to spend the weekend thinking together with his wife thinking about which date on the calendar he wanted as his last workday. Then to write that date on a colored sticky note and put it somewhere visible.
This wasn’t just a psychological exercise. The brain sits at the center of our nervous system. It is managing our bodies’ activities and processes internally and externally as it gathers all that data. It is the captain of our emotions and our cognitive abilities, including our daily thinking, long- and short-term memory, and decision-making. Taking this action outside of technology – not just putting down a date through a thumb or through a screen – is also important. The act of writing it with your own hand is an important brain-body signal across those neurotransmitters.
Putting action behind permission changes the map of where you can go. It is in this step that permission turns into perception. The brain combines sensory signals (in this case spoken thoughts, written words, colored paper) and combines that again with new information as it is updating its cognitive GPS. Those downloads are really important.
Hundreds of years ago, map makers would use the term “terra incognita” to indicate unknown or unexplored territories. Some cartographers would decorate unknown parts on the map and parts oceans with fantastical beasts. They would label it “Here Be Dragons” as a warning to future explorers.
Pause there for a second. Someone else made a map and painted over the places that were unknown to them with images of perilous beasts. And then other people picked came along, picked up the map, and followed course.
That’s the modern equivalent of writing “Stay here, it’s fine” under your feet. Or having other people show up and paint dragons across your dreams.
Years ago, I found this quote online and it has inspired me tremendously personally and professionally. I haven’t been able to find the correct attribute, so I share it here today in the spirit of making new maps and hopefully connecting with the previous mapmaker of it. And it goes like this:
“That thing you do, after your day job, in your free time, too early in the morning, too late at night. That thing you read about, write about, think about, in fact, fantasize about. That thing you do when you’re all alone and there’s no one to impress, nothing to prove, no money to be made, simply a passion to pursue. That’s it. That’s your thing. That’s your heart, your guide. That’s the thing you must, must do.”
I love that so much. So this episode is offering one final nudge. Don’t fear the unknown. Steer around the places that are labeled “Fine.”
Find your thing. And if you’ve found it, say it out loud. Say it again. Write it down.
Sail toward the dragons. They are the original explorers, and they will look after you.
As you sail onward, as you push past the path of least resistance, I wish you smooth sailing, lots of dragons, and plenty of good care.