3 min read

Unsought Permission

It sounds sad that a 40-year old man needs permission from his parents, but we all look for permission in one form or another.

In my case, I needed permission to leave my career. The problem was that I didn’t know I needed their permission.

For ten years, I had wrestled with leaving my finance career but hadn’t pulled the trigger. It was always one excuse or another. Need to save more money, I can find a better boss, find a better company.

In 2019, after working for almost eighteen years, I gave myself an ultimatum, either quit this year or quit complaining (and stay at the job). I decided to leave after Christmas. My preparations were set, there were no excuses left. I had cut down on expenses and saved enough money for a few years. I didn’t have a plan, but I had time. Like any good Chinese son, it was time to inform my parents.

I was at the same dinner table I sat at when I was a kid, in the same chair I sat in for many hours fighting over whether to eat vegetables decades ago. I told my parents like I was confessing taking the car out without permission in high school.

The response wasn’t “Ok, can you pass the rice now,” but it was close.

My dad was confused.

I was confused why he was confused.

I don’t even remember what my mom’s response was.

I realized I had been expecting an argument. I had an expectation that my parents wouldn’t approve and I would have to convince them this was the right move.

My dad had actually quit a stable job when he was 33 to effectively apprentice himself. I always assumed he had a huge argument with his father when he quit. And I assumed I would have to go through the same process.

“You don’t care? Didn’t Yeh-Yeh (my grandfather) care when you quit?”

He replied, “Why would your grandfather care what I did?”

The question hung in the air.

Finally, a wave of relief came over me. Tension left my shoulders, tension I hadn’t been aware of. I had built myself up for an argument that would never happened.

My dad’s confusion was soothing. It meant that he didn’t give a shit. The acceptance was even more surprising because while my parents are on the low end of the Tiger Parent Spectrum, they’re still tiger parents. No, I wasn’t forced to practice violin for 3 hours a day, but the defining characteristic of tiger parents isn’t about practicing piano or disappointment over 2 points on a test. What defines tiger parents is the constant judgment. Growing up, I would constantly hear my parents criticize people’s life decisions, like my cousin that had a job lined up in a bad economy but decided to go backpacking for six months instead.

The judgment stems from the sacrifices they made. My grandfather left his family to come to America when he was 13 with the possibility of never seeing his family for the rest of his life hanging over his head. He left to give his family more opportunities. [1]

My parents also sacrificed a lot for my brother and I to go to college. Every dollar they made was first for food and shelter and then our college savings. They bet their entire life savings on moving to the suburbs so we could go to great public schools in the high interest rate 80's. My mom would spend hours clipping coupons to make the mortgage.

This history lived in my head rent free. Every decision I made was in the shadow of my ancestors' actions being in vain, whether I realized it or not.

I had unwittingly built a gate in my mind. An unrealized permission stops us from doing what we want to accomplish. It could be thinking you don’t have the skills. That you don’t have the time. That you want respect from other people. Maybe approval from a mentor to go out on your own. To unlock a gate, we need to find a specific key, we need to realize the permission we need.

We all have different keys that we need, some at different times. The most important thing is to realize the specific permission that is holding you back. If you need permission from your parents, no number of courses will let you start your grand idea. If you don’t think you have the skills, no amount of saved money will let you start your project.

Knowing the permission that you need allows you to seek it and accept it. Only then can you take action.

I wonder if stasis from needing permission is new to the modern world and driven by the loss of traditional coming-of-age ceremonies.

Most cultures had a tradition of a coming-of-age ceremony, which served as a form of permission. The explicit granting of the title of adult was a signal that you were now responsible for yourself. It’s a sign that you are able to give permission to yourself.

Perhaps this is what’s missing today.

Whatever you think, the permissions you seek are all in your head. This doesn’t mean that they’re not real. It just means you need to identify them and confront them. What's holding you back isn't a lack of skills, motivation, or certifications.

  1. Yeah, he also missed 30 years of civil wars, the japanese invasion, and the cultural revolution, but he didn’t know that. ↩︎