February is Black History Month. Hopefully, most of us can easily name pillars of Black American history that have smashed through barriers in music, art, literature, science, sports, media, politics, and entrepreneurship. However, even though we can recite some names and dates, it can still feel like there is a tangible distance between ourselves and the lives of legends whose contributions were so monumental. The people in our history books appear unknown and unattainable. Heroes of another time, if you will. But not for me. You see, I can draw a direct line from the collective Black American experience, to my ancestors and family, to my uniquely independent nature. In other words: I come from a long line of bad-asses. My people have broken the mold and chose fearlessness on the regular. They had to work harder and smarter than everyone else in order to ensure that not only would they survive, but that they would always be the sharpest guy/gal in any room.
Recently, I was told (by a person whom shall remain nameless) that I was someone who’d, “rather ask for forgiveness, than first ask for permission.” I am pretty sure it wasn’t meant as a compliment. And upon hearing this, I have to admit I cringed. Then I got annoyed (okay, more like p*ssed off). But then, I puffed out my chest a bit. Because after some thought, not only did I generally agree with the assessment, I was proud of the classification. Those who know me in real life will tell you I am not particularly a fan of the words ‘permission’ or ‘approval.’ And for good reason. To me, those words feel limiting and don’t allow me to lean into to superpower (creativity). As my mother would say about my traits, including my pioneer spirit, “you got it honestly.” She and my other relatives who paved the way before me knew that getting ‘permission’ and gaining ‘approval’ would take a long time (if it happened at all). To us, the safer bet was just to go out and try to see what could happen. After all, who was going to give us a chance? Rolling the dice and proving your mettle was much more rewarding. As Janis Joplin said, “freedom is just another word for nothing left to lose.”
I come from a family of innovators and firsts. My maternal-grandfather immigrated to this country alone from Guyana when he was just a teenager. My maternal-grandmother (who was half Native American), was born in Macon, GA. She met my grandfather by chance a party, and after a whirlwind romance, they were married about 6 weeks later. After the wedding, they settled in New York City, where my grandfather worked as an electrician, and she as a nurse (while eventually going on to raise their 8 children). Later during their senior years, my grandfather created his own general contracting business and built (from the ground up!) two of the homes my grandparents lived in (I say two, because their first house burned to the ground accidentally, so he oversaw the rebuild for their second home when he was about 70 yrs. old). At the same time, my grandmother became the moderator of her own cable-access show called ‘Clockwise,’ which aired in the Bay Area during the 1980s. On top of her hosting gig, she also held the title of producer and employed one of her sons (my uncle) to be the show’s cameraman. They were married for over 50 years and along with their 8 children, they had 13 grandchildren and 2 great-grandchildren before they passed away. My father, who was born in the Jim Crow south (which should tell you a lot), enlisted in the Navy immediately after graduating from high school. He was stationed in Oakland, CA, and it was there where he met and married my mother – who was also in the Navy at the time (Semper Fortis!). My dad served in Vietnam and later worked as a pharmaceutical salesman for both Merck and Searle. When he started at Merck, he was one of a few African-Americans on his team and, against all odds, went on to be one of the most successful agents in his unit. He was a talented singer, businessman and natural leader, before he passed in 2000. My mother, who is currently in her early 80s, has been shattering glass since, well…forever. Among her many accomplishments (spoiler: there’s too many to list here), she co-founded a successful non-profit almost 35 years ago, is a national and international specialist on all aspects of child maltreatment, and worked as a staff Director on the Prevention Committee for the White House Conference for a Drug Free America. No doubt, I have only hit the highlights and could write a whole book about each of these four people, and still not capture their incredible lives and careers. Oh - and I am only including four of my relatives! I have siblings, aunts, uncles, nieces and cousins who have been groundbreaking in their own way.
These, and other members of my family, had to learn how to be successful during difficult eras in American history. I mean, one could argue that all points of history have been hard for black people. So, they had to walk a very fine line between understanding what could happen to them and those they loved, if they were careless and did not follow protocol. While at the same time using their skills in order to exploit the shades of grey that exist around the rules. For all of us, the allure of the American Dream is strong. I was taught both literally and subconsciously that reaching for the gold offered us a chance to achieve beyond what was given. My family was correct in knowing that under the right circumstances, and only if you were careful, loopholes could be used to gain life-changing advantages for generations. These technicalities gave way for businesses to be created, jobs to be obtained, promotions earned and houses bought. It permitted members of my family (and countless other industrious, vulnerable people) the opportunity to prove to society that they belonged. Or at least reassure others that they were not going to be any real “trouble.” In a way saying, “Go ahead, give us a chance!” Not only could we handle the responsibilities, but we were “safe.” If my loved ones waited, or instead asked for permission, in many circumstances they would have been told, “No.” After all, they were black. Or women. Or too old. Or too young. Or they didn’t have a degree. Or they had the wrong degree. The reasons and obstacles multiplying by the day. My deep admiration and gratitude for ‘The Rebel’ originated from them. It is for that reason I will argue that most rebels aren’t merely disruptors. Nearly all of us are actually extremely adept (skilled, if you will) in pinpointing just the right spot amongst those blurry areas to reach for gold. It’s only after watching and waiting, that the proficient chance-takers can sense when the time is right to reach for their shot, soar and stick the landing. Experience has taught them when to push the envelope just enough, but at the same time, not cause permanent damage. The prize? They, and others like myself, can walk the path for a better life. As my grandfather was laying on his death bed, he was asked by my mother if he had any regrets that he could recall from his long, full life. His answer was, ‘Just one. I’d have been slicker.’ The comment still makes us chuckle. Yup, I get it honestly.
Phew, now that the table is set, I want to delve into how the concepts around ‘forgiveness’ and ‘permission’ can be used to understand your own personal courage, and maybe even help you reframe how you view others in the opposing camp. If you are like me, and have been labelled as a person that tends charge ahead and ‘ask for forgiveness’ later, you are might have been tagged as a bull in a China shop person (wrong and unfair). Or, you’re defined as one that lacks attention to detail (also wrong). You could be referred to as inconsiderate (more wrongness). You’ve probably been designated as the one who proceeds, firing on all cylinders without a plan, while forgetting to make sure all of your ducks are in a row (well okay, that part might be kinda true). First let me say that I do believe there is tremendous value in getting stuff in order first, that way you can attempt to prevent confusion, miscommunication and random ducks wandering around the place. But life is not a rehearsal dinner. This is it, we’re in it! If we are to choose to live bravely, we have to appreciate (yes, appreciate) risk if we want to make our mark on the world. We all make choices throughout our lives, and each one carries a certain level of ‘not-sure-what-could-happen-but-here-goes.’ As I mentioned, I learned the value of a respectful rebuttal. I had a front row seat and witnessed people taking a chance first, and asking questions later. Maybe you are a bit like me. If so, I am here to tell you, “Welcome to the Club of the Misunderstood!” We’re not all anti-authority, or poor listeners. We just have a bit of wild card in us. Instead, I would assert ‘forgiveness’ people are just a different type of problem solvers. To be clear, I am not talking about the teen that “solves” the problem of needing a ride to a party, takes their parent’s car without asking, comes home after curfew with a, “Whoops, my bad!” I am talking about the people who are a little bit craftier and maybe a bit ambitious or driven. For example, maybe they applied to the college seemingly out of their financial reach, without telling anyone, just to see if they could get in (see: me and Villanova University). Or maybe, they’ll write a book under a pseudonym, knowing full well that authors of a different gender are more likely to be published, depending on the subject matter (see: E.L. James, anyone?). In both cases, the down side to taking the plunge is, ‘Big deal. I didn’t get into that reach school.’ Or, ‘Okay, back to the drawing board.’ But what if the gamble pays off? Man, to a ‘forgiveness’ person like me, those possibilities are always exciting. Most importantly, we learn more about ourselves and what we are capable of by going beyond the limits imposed on us by others.
My point is that ‘forgiveness’ seekers don’t mean to be troublemakers just for trouble-making sake. My family were trying to secure a future and stake their claim. Trust me, when you have eight kids, you don’t have a lot of wiggle room for making mistakes that could endanger your family. Instead, we encounter an issue, analyze the rules and resources available to solve it, and tend to take the less orthodox route. If you are a ‘forgiveness’ folk like me, acting like an out-of-control hurricane is not in your best interest personally, or professionally. That’s right, you heard it here first: ‘forgiveness’ people have responsibilities. If you want to have people in your life that can stand you, you do have to be strategic with your gambles and how you communicate them. Take too many ill-fated chances, and you’ll be left alone because literally no one will be able to put up with you. You have to learn how to reel in some of those impulses, and understand there is a major difference between deliberate risks, versus plain ‘ol recklessness. If you tend to lean toward, ‘full steam ahead, ask questions later,’ you need to make sure you do your due diligence and lay the groundwork in order to ‘wow’ those around you and gain enthusiasm around possible upsides. Slow down, sweat a little of the small stuff, anticipate questions and concerns, and be prepared to address them. It’s also true, that you should brace yourself for potential blow back. Heck, it could be deserved and should be a part of your calculation when deciding to move forward regardless of the status of the rows of ducks. Lastly, choose your timing wisely and, hopefully, you’ll prove to the ‘permission’ peeps that your wager might not so crazy after all. If you use this tactic sparingly, others will learn to have faith in you and appreciate your honest conversations. If you play your cards right (in keeping with the gambling theme), not only will they encourage you on your endeavors, but they may even be curious enough to see where this adventure is going to take you next and provide support to you in the process.
If you are a ‘permission’ first person, you are probably reading this and thinking, “Whatever” (and yes, as a matter of fact, I can hear your eyes roll from here). And look, I get it. There are few things more annoying than being the kid in class that colors inside the lines (like you are supposed to), while watching the mini-Jackson Pollack next to you get all the art class accolades for their chaos and lack of restraint. Nevertheless, I implore you to give some thought on who makes and benefits from the rules. For some, if you are welcomed into and follow the establishment, you are likely guaranteed a pretty good life. Therefore, playing it by the book would make a ton of sense. And you might be surprised to learn that even though I am a ‘forgiveness’ person,’ I still have a lot of respect for the social code. What do Kamala, Robert Mueller and Judge Judy have in common? They are all my spirit animals. Trust and believe, I didn’t get that ‘J’ from my Myers-Briggs personality test out of nowhere. Nevertheless, ‘permission’ people should take the time to try to breathe through those eye rolls and practice taking a step outside of their comfort zones in order to be less of the ‘Process Police.’ If it makes you feel better, yes, you were right. Maybe if we all would just ask first, we’d save everyone a ton of grief later. Systems. Methods. All very good and extremely important. On the other hand, if you remain stuck in the ‘I-was-right-all-along’ stance, you aren’t doing yourself or anyone else any favors. Instead of leading with the belief that rules gets us results, you are ummm…well…a hurdle. A roadblock. An obstruction to get around, and definitely not someone to stop and listen to. But what you have to say is valuable, and us crazy renegades need to hear it. So instead, try (emphasis on try) to make it a habit to acknowledge your inner annoyance (inside voices, please), breathe through the irritations and the stray ducks running around, and you’ll likely see possible benefits that could arise from the venture. Because like it or not, a ‘forgiveness’ person does bring gifts to the table. Their approach might be unorthodox, but the outcome just might work. Did the ‘forgiveness’ person make a horrible decision with no regard for you or your feelings? Or, did they approach the issue or conversation intentionally, acknowledging your possible discomfort and concerns, and provided evidence to close you on the deal? Because if it’s the latter, you owe it to yourself to see how you might be able to support the ‘forgiveness’ individual, while giving them some space to fly a little closer to the sun. Maybe the ‘forgiveness’ person in your life is a bit like me – raised by trailblazers who see no problem with making a square peg fit inside a round hole.
There are benefits to both approaches. There’s no doubt that world would be more chaotic if everyone bucked procedures all the time like the ‘forgiveness’ people tend to do. But you have to admit, the advancements would be few and far between if process and order were valued above all else. Progress and change would be in short supply, and life might be a bit boring. Keep in mind, that it’s not the intention of ‘forgiveness’ folks to disrupt and annoy. Maybe we are a bit insecure and strive to impress and amaze. At the same time, we don’t want to fail, and will hustle and grind to avoid that fate. Additionally, most ‘permission’ people do not relish in wet blanket-ness. But just as throwing caution to the wind sounds fun to me, prudence, discretion and taking things slow and steady keeps a ‘permission’ person’s blood pressure on an even keel. Stress can be a motivator, but so can guidelines and roadmaps. In short, we shouldn’t begrudge each other. There’s room and value in everyone. We all come from somewhere, and family and cultural dynamics impact us more than we’d like to admit. However, ‘forgiveness’ and ‘permission’ people can find that perfect sweet spot. We just have to try to understand each other a little bit more, be honest about where we are coming from, and why it matters. On the song ‘Guaranteed,’ Eddie Vedder sings, “I knew all the rules, but the rules did not know me.” Right on. So, let’s break some glass and make a little noise.
"We're All in this Together"