Permission To Play

I came across this phrase in a Fast Company article on “Creative Imposter Syndrome”. The reason “permission to play” struck a chord with me is that the author mentioned that she felt like she received permission to exercise her creativity after something her boss said to her. She is not suggesting that she needed to ask for permission, but I think there are lessons in here for anyone that wants to try something new in their careers.

It is important to realize that no one is going to approach you to do something you’ve never done before. They are going to look for people that have done it before. That’s just how the world works. People are always looking for someone that has done the work before.

So if you are trying to pick up a new skill, you have two approaches available:

  1. The Nike approach. Just do it. Don’t step on anyone’s toes. Don’t go over anyone’s head. Don’t negatively impact your or your company’s position. But take initiative and do the thing you want to learn. When you hear a client or colleague talk about an initiative in your area of interest, take a first stab and set up time with your boss to talk about it. Send them an email that says “Hey, I put some thoughts around Client X’s request”. Odds are this new initiative was going to soak up lots of their time, so they will be happy to see someone willing to pick up the ball and run with it. Just make sure this doesn’t interfere with your day job.
  2. Ask. For when the Nike approach would get you in trouble or you need someone else’s help to get started. Ask in a way that will benefit the person’s permission you are asking. Things like “hey – I noticed that department ABC could benefit from XYZ, do you mind if I work with Person X to think about their options?” What’s the worst that they can say? No. Then you are back to where you were in the first place.

There is  third route to be taken, which is to go back to school or take training in your desired subject matter. This is always an option, but much more time and resource intensive. It is essentially your way to earn permission to play as a degree or certificate is often all the permission you will need.

What matters is that you are the only person in charge of your career. Most other people around you want to see you succeed and be fulfilled, but they are also probably incentivized to keep  you doing what you are good at. If something is new to you, you are probably not good at that thing yet. So until you express a desire to do this new thing, no one is going to ask you.

Aside: obviously don’t threaten to quit if you don’t get your way, but by expressing a desire to take new things on (in addition to what you currently do), you are announcing to your company that you want to grow and take on new responsibilities. So if they want you to keep doing the thing you are good at, they should make sure you stay fulfilled. It may not seem like it, but if bring value to your team you do possess leverage in these instances. You aren’t just asking for a handout.

What We’re Good At

In a recent conversation with a mentor, I received a mild scolding for not giving myself credit for one of my strengths. I was praised for my ability to take a project from the strategic phase to the execution phase. This is a core strength of mine, and had been crucial to our team. To me, this is just what needed to get done. In my mind, everyone has the ability to do this, because it seems natural to me. Apparently it isn’t.

I think this is very common. We often think that what is familiar to us is familiar to everyone. This is obviously not the case, and I’m glad it was pointed out to me. I think this is especially true with “softer” skills. We either don’t recognize these as skills that make us valuable, or we downplay them because they don’t come with a degree or certification. It is important that we understand that your soft skills – the ability to deal with ambiguity, persevere in a stressful environment, presentation skills – those are all important.

Since these aren’t easily marketed on our resume or LinkedIn page, it is very important to become good at articulating these. While it is worth pointing out that companies and hiring managers could focus more attention to softer skills, job applicants can’t control that. What they can control is how well they articulate their soft skills. They can organize their thoughts around examples of how this has helped them and their teams succeed.

This requires that we spend time to think about strengths, speaking with friends and colleagues that know us best. Then, sitting down and writing out why this benefits your current or future employer. It is exactly the kind of thing that I hate doing (we can talk about weaknesses later), but it is absolutely imperative.