I hate when people say “Ask for forgiveness, not permission.”

by Pace on December 31, 2008

You know what I think of people who ask for forgiveness, not permission? I think they’re inconsiderate jerks.

How would you feel if your spouse borrowed your car keys without asking, leaving you stranded at home all day, and then apologized for it afterwards? I don’t know about you, but I’d think your spouse was an inconsiderate jerk.

How would you feel if your spouse cheated on you, let you know afterwards, and asked for forgiveness? Sounds like a pretty inconsiderate and jerky thing to do, doesn’t it? Wouldn’t it be better to ask for permission instead? Discuss what needs aren’t being met and how to make it better? Maybe figure out ways to improve the relationship as-is, maybe consider polyamory? By talking about it rather than acting first?

Okay, this is the end of the guest post from Bitchy Pace. We now return you to your regularly scheduled Pace.

I don’t feel like I’m going out on a limb by suggesting that it’s a good thing to be considerate of others. So why do so many of my friends swear by this mantra of inconsiderate jerkitude? (Or would that be jerkitudinosity?)

I’ve applied Miller’s Law and come up with two guesses.

My first guess is that they believe it’s a good thing to be considerate of others whom you respect. If, for instance, you don’t respect your parents, then just do whatever you want and ask for forgiveness afterwards. Don’t limit yourself by the rules of The Man. Damn The Man and don’t ask Him for permission. I can get behind that. Flout the rules if you disagree with them. Cool, more power to ya.

My second guess is that people apply it in a business setting and don’t carry it over to a personal setting. If your boss gives you permission to do something risky, she’s sticking her neck out on the line for you and she’ll take the fall if your risky venture fails. If, on the other hand, you just go ahead and do it, asking for forgiveness instead of permission, your boss looks good if you succeed and the risk falls entirely on you if it fails. That makes sense. It’s a symptom of a job culture that I think is pretty fucked up, but within that context, it makes sense.

What do you think of the saying “Ask for forgiveness, not permission,” and if you like it, what does it mean to you?

I promise not to call you an inconsiderate jerk. (:


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{ 25 comments… read them below or add one }

Tanya December 31, 2008 at 11:33 am

I mostly fall into your second guess. If it turns out great, your boss can still get credit for “empowering” you, and if it flops, it’s all on you. I’ve worked in a few extremely risk-averse cultures where they brought me in BECAUSE I’m willing to take risks, so I figure I’m just slowly making culture changes one risk at a time. I’m also very VERY careful with which risks I choose to take.

In a personal setting, that is NOT a cool way to behave, especially with a partner. If you and your partner haven’t agreed on whether to buy a houseboat and live on the Mississippi for the next year, DON’T DO IT WITHOUT ASKING.

So, what that saying says to me in a work context is: “there’s some messed up politics around here. Just do what it takes to get the job done and then we’ll figure it out later.”

What that saying says to me in any other context is “I don’t care what the other affected people think about my actions, or I don’t think they have the capacity to make a rational choice about it, so I’m going to go ahead and do this now and deal with the consequences later.” (And if their “dealing with the consequences” means “lying to everyone”, then it’s definitely someone to avoid. RUN AWAY!!!!)

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JoVE December 31, 2008 at 11:50 am

Sounds like a good principle for both home and work. I also think your scenarios for why it happens (in a work context) make a lot of sense. And it would be reasonable to reassess whether one wanted to work in a context that was so fucked up you had to break rules to get the job done and/or where your employer wasn’t willing to protect you from a certain amount of risk.

And Tanya’s right that if this is happening regularly in a personal relationship, particularly if there is lying involved, then one should run away fast.

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Megan M. December 31, 2008 at 2:37 pm

I think that “ask forgiveness, not permission” totally works — IF you’re NOT an inconsiderate jerk. I think it working is dependent upon the person in question KNOWING when the risk is valuable and when it’s a jerky thing to do. I think this might be a big reason that “ask forgiveness, not permission” crashes and burns — and why it works excellently for many people.

So yes, someone who does the things in the first half of your post under the “ask forgiveness, not permission” guise is a jackass. But I don’t think it’s the fault of “ask forgiveness, not permission” — just people who don’t think things through, or can’t be bothered to live in a complex, kind world (instead of an excuse-driven one).

And for every action there can be complicated sets of explanations. So I also might try to figure out why someone nabbed my car keys or slept with someone else before I jump to the badness. That is, of course, if we hadn’t pre-decided that they wouldn’t nab my car keys or sleep with someone else. :D

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Justin December 31, 2008 at 5:30 pm

I actually AM an inconsiderate jerk, so I believe I can comment on this intelligently.

Forgiveness-Not-Permission (FNP to practitioners) is about doing unconventional yet constructive things. Doing something destructive, like cheating on a spouse, isn’t an FNP situation. It’s vandalism.

Whether in my personal of business life, if I want to do something unconventional but constructive I’ll just do it. Forgiveness usually doesn’t enter into it, if it works, because one winds up congratulated on being a genius anyway. If it doesn’t work, again, that something constructive was attempted usually trumps not having asked first.

Also, I never think of myself as working for another person. I work with others, but not for them. So I don’t need to ask for permission to do what I think I need to do to accomplish my job. If my boss disagrees, I can always find someone else to work with. This is less simple on a personal level, of course. :)

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James | Dancing Geek December 31, 2008 at 9:33 pm

My take would be that this, like so many catch-phrases, is an over-simplified way of helping to remember a much more complicated principle. If taken out of context then things go horribly wrong.

My idea on what the lesson is supposed to be: rather than constantly wait for others to validate your ideas, have the guts to try stuff out. This doesn’t mean be a jerk, it means don’t wait for outside validation. It’s for people who would *always* ask permission before acting and need a kick up the butt into a more balanced use of personal power. I guess an alternative for the inconsiderate jerks would be “look before you leap”. They’re both good ideas condensed into sound bites that appear to contradict each other, but don’t when you think about the details.

Short catch-phrases are useful when trying to learn to moderate harmful or unhelpful behaviour, but as a way to justify anything they suck ass and should be beaten wildly with hazel branches and stinging nettles (as should the people who use them as an excuse).

I like it because I’ve been one of those people who will always look for others to validate their decisions. But a better approach is to really think about why I do this, why I give away my power and what I can do to reclaim it. Then the catch-phrases can all be put in a box and burnt.

If someone starts quoting it randomly, I recommend replying with something such as “Please forgive me for punching you in the face”.

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Oliver Danni January 1, 2009 at 1:25 am

I agree with you a LOT.

I personally can’t stand apologizing. Especially when the person knew they were about to do something they would end up needing to apologize for. But the problem with apologizing is that it it transfers the responsibility of the interaction from the perpetrator to the victim. I rarely apologize, because when I do it, I want to be absolutely sure that I am simply acknowledging that I have done something I regret having done, and that I do NOT expect any particular response or “forgiveness” from the person I have wronged. To me, it’s a double blow to hurt someone and then expect the injured person to do something about it to make the perpetrator feel better. I feel like, if you hurt someone, that person is HURT…it may not be your job to make them un-hurt, but it certainly isn’t their job to make YOU feel un-hurt, too.

I’ve thought through the scenarios in which others have asserted it is, in fact, better to “ask for forgiveness than permission”…and I still disagree with that. If I do something that I am confident is the right thing to do, I’m not asking someone to forgive me for doing the right thing! If I’m PLANNING on asking for forgiveness, that’s saying I know in advance that the thing I’m doing is wrong, and have chosen to do it anyway. Doing something that I am confident is right without permission is a different action from doing something I probably shouldn’t do and will need to be forgiven for in order to “right” my “wrong” action. If I know I did the right thing, I don’t need to be forgiven for it, and I certainly don’t ANTICIPATE asking for forgiveness for something I believe is really the right thing to do.

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Sheila January 1, 2009 at 1:34 pm

The way I’ve seen the phrase used is more along the lines of “this is a situation where it was easier to get forgiveness than permission.” For example, when one is dealing with a complicated bureaucracy and getting permission would take far longer than just doing it and dealing with the consequences.

In that light, it clearly doesn’t apply to personal relationships that are based on open communication. If it does, that says some troubling things about the relationship.

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Pace January 1, 2009 at 6:28 pm

@Tanya, @JoVE: Right, the context and circumstances are very important. Perhaps part of my extreme reaction is the usual error: the context that comes to my mind most immediately is a personal and relationship context, so that’s the context in which I interpret the phrase, and so my hackles are raised.

more replies soon…

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James | Megan's Friend January 3, 2009 at 10:02 pm

I’ve been meaning to reply to this post for a few days now, and I’ve finally found time to gather my thoughts. I do strongly disagree with your post, mostly for the reason that I believe the phrase “Ask Forgiveness, Not Permission” simply means that you should always be an active person, rather than a passive one. Others on this thread have already mentioned that actions are what is harmful or not harmful, not the philosophy behind them; so I won’t go into that. Also, if I get started on active versus passive actions or harmful versus non-harmful actions, I’ll be typing all night, and no one will ever read this.

That said, we may actually agree in principle but have radically different points of view. I would say that “Ask forgiveness, Not Permission” works in all cases where you are not violating a trust (regardless of work or personal life). If you’re in a standard relationship, you by definition trust the other people to be loyal to you. Another example from the workplace, if you work for a research company, you’re under a trust not to share proprietary research with others. I would say that in BOTH of those cases you’re violating a trust and being a jerk. However, outside of situations of trust, I have found that it is infinitely preferable to act, and be wrong, then to not act at all. Even if your action causes harm (within the boundaries of the law of course which I would say is a social trust we all have).

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Nick January 5, 2009 at 10:22 am

i’m well aware of this phrase and i personally like it.

i’m personally frighted by the gobs of people that are looking for permission to do anything in life. oddly enough, i think they are avoiding responsibility for making the hard changes that need to be done. i think this phrase combats the mentality that we must constantly seek permission.

it actually appears to me that the views being represented are polarized. this should be a hint about the real truth.

the principle missing from this logic is trust. (or perhaps we can speak of boundaries) people need to get things done in their lives. i place a lot of trust in people. i encourage them to do what they need to do. so sometimes they are going to need to do things without my permission. i trust in their intent. they aren’t out to hurt me. furthermore, if they make a mess because they didn’t have my consent, i trust they’ll take responsibility for their action.

again, i think you could speak of this in terms of boundaries too. some boundaries are clear cut and as a result pretty much require permission. other boundaries are much more fluid and as such are meant to be open for others to interact within.

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Eirias January 8, 2009 at 6:26 pm

I’ve always interpreted the phrase a little differently from everyone else — I guess because the version I usually hear is “it’s easier to get forgiveness than permission.” I think that statement is probably true. I think that most hierarchies are risk-averse (as addressed by people above) and so the more powerful person will have a strong incentive to say no instead of yes. But once the thing is a fait accompli, another sort of psychology kicks in — people’s general aversion to conflict. I expect that in this situation, people’s standards for acquiescence are lower once the deed has been done, because saying “no, you can’t” becomes uncomfortable then, and maybe more trouble than it’s worth. It’s manipulative, to be sure.

A major difference between this and a romantic relationship is that most romantic relationships aren’t hierarchies, so the underlying psychology doesn’t really apply in the same way. But yes, I wouldn’t expect people who apply this philosophy in marriage to celebrate too many anniversaries.

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Pace January 10, 2009 at 11:27 am

@Megan: Well, sure, actions are the responsibility of the person who does them, not the responsibility of the catchphrase they’re following. But if a catchphrase encourages irresponsible or negative actions, then I still think it’s a bad catchphrase. I have complete and total faith that good people will do good things despite the existence of bad catchphrases, but I don’t think that makes the catchphrase good or okay. Or am I completely missing your point?

@Justin: “unconventional but constructive”. I like that. I like your phrasing much better than “Ask for forgiveness, not permission.” You even say that forgiveness usually doesn’t enter into it. I wonder if we could come up with a better counterphrase. Maybe something like “Don’t wait for permission to do something good.” But catchier. Thanks for your thoughts; this helps me understand much better.

@James Dancing Geek: That makes sense. I just wish it were phrased as taking responsibility for your actions rather than asking forgiveness for them. “Take responsibility, don’t wait for permission.” Or something. I also love “Please forgive me for punching you in the face.” (:

@Oliver: Right… right! Your comment has started some thoughts percolating about apologies, forgiveness, and power dynamics. It’ll probably manifest as a post as some point. Thank you.

@Sheila: Exactly right. And I think it also says some troubling things about businesses where the bureaucracy is so complicated that you NEED a phrase like this.

…more later!

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Pace January 10, 2009 at 11:45 am

@James Megan’s Friend: Right. That makes sense. I see what you’re saying, and I think I can now articulate my objection more precisely. It’s about boundaries. There are three basic places you can set your boundaries. You can set them out too far, where you take responsibility for others’ actions, you can set them in too far, where you deny responsibility for the effects your actions have on others, or you can set them in the middle in a balanced way, where you take responsibility for the consequences of your own actions, but not for the actions of others. The way I interpret “Ask forgiveness, not permission” is “don’t set your boundaries too far out, set them too far in instead!” Or in other words, “don’t let others trample your empowerment, trample theirs instead!” Whereas the better advice would be to hold healthy boundaries — and that’s how the considerate non-jerks are interpreting the phrase.

@Nick: I swear I wrote my comment about boundaries before I read yours. (: I think the reason that the viewpoints are polarized is that the phrase encourages strongly polarized boundaries, but the best advice is to hold healthy, balanced boundaries. To be empowered, but not so empowered that you infringe on others’ power.

@Eirias: Indeed. It shifts risk aversion to conflict aversion, neither of which are aversions I want to encourage. (: And I think it also says a lot about the business culture that a principle that’s considered wisdom in a business context would spell certain doom in a personal context.

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James | Megan's Friend January 10, 2009 at 4:10 pm

@Pace Ahh I see. Your reply prompts me to make several points that are probably much better done in a cafe or quiet bar. Instead of rambling on, I’ll just say that in principle I do agree with you, but I do believe you’re being too hard on this phrase, and simple phrases in general.

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dennis teel February 12, 2009 at 2:25 am

1.doing without permission -disrespectf
2.asking asking forgiveness- deceitful

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Thom December 7, 2009 at 6:34 pm

I’ve never heard this phrase before.

As Justin|Dancing Geek suggests (a reincarnation), and I think Sheila and Eirias have aptly brought to light, it likely came from: “It’s easier to get forgiveness than permission.” Admittedly, I haven’t heard that one in, oh, how many decades? Two or three? It goes back a ways, for sure. Probably haven’t heard it since then. Makes me wonder if there was an even longer, more informative version before that one, maybe from an essay of a renown writer (of their day). Early 1900′s perhaps? Just a suspicion.

So I’m thinking this shortened phrase was passed on as a succinct explanation for one’s actions in the heat of the moment, you know, when you’re thinking “too busy to explain right now, what’s a short form?” and then say “blah blah blah.” It apparently has gotten a life of it’s own much like the overly-concise phrase “freedom of speech”. Imagine the interpretations once it evolves (devolves?) into “apologize later” or “don’t ask” or “just do it.” Those’ll bring up even more disparate explanations with more exceptional circumstances.

I guess what I’m getting at is the shorter the axiom becomes, the more exact the circumstances for it to be acceptable by the most people. The longer the axiom, the more info it has within it that doesn’t have to be derived through discussion or rationalized much, and the more it fits the common perception of the majority of people (assuming same culture). That is, it’ll fit more general situations without specifying details or rationalizing.

Hmm, I think I just over analyzed it. But it seems to have brought out a response of each of us to discover a fit within our lives. I find when I do that with this phrase, or even it’s ancestor, I end up with a different set of guidelines that pre-existed, and something that just doesn’t compact so readily. I can’t really apply it, which it seems like that’s what’s going on with some of the above explanations, too. It also gets me thinking about my varied approaches for the examples everyone has provided.

Might have something to do with my recent tossing around of the concept of accountability and its differences with responsibility. Since I’ve been associating collaboration with accountability, its not so autonomous as responsibility is made out to be. That is, I’m developing my concept of accountability as a dynamic sharing of responsibility. No need to explain or negotiate, whoever just does whatever is needed when possible. Somebody already doing it? Then do a “me, too!” if it fits in with the moment. Kind of a modification of “you see it, you own it” by instead allowing one to share the experience (i.e. ask for help) or be open to offer one’s participation (i.e. offer help) if someone else has already got it. In that way, a task is less likely to be passed over if the whole weight doesn’t have to be shouldered on one’s own, and perhaps quality is less likely to suffer as someone else is helping (i.e. less shortcuts).

One of the main things with that is credit/blame isn’t so absolute, which displaces the reward/punishment paradigm with perhaps a share/learn paradigm. Another thing is people are sharing experiences with one another through participation instead of merely performing chores or duties. Pretty much the same thing really, just a different mindset, different approach. Kind of like teamwork, except everybody excels through the appreciation of the moment (results cultivated) instead of most everyone being held back (and ignoring the moment) by competing with others for so-so results.

But I’ve digressed. Probably the best way this really applies is indirectly, or prematurely. If people are collaborating, then they learn/earn a trust in each other to make decisions on their own and ask for help (with a decision or task) without shame or blame. IOW, much like Oliver suggested, the need for asking forgiveness or permission becomes a non-sequitur as the question has been supplanted by thoughtfulness and the inclusion of those involved when possible. Of course, trust is built up from communicating expectations and developing an understanding, which I would think is a part of developing a true collaboration, a true non-competitive and self-supporting team, or partnership.

Or tribe? Maybe I have something else on my mind… But I think I’m suggesting “asking forgiveness, not permission” may not need to be an issue.

[ Yikes! How'd I miss the last post date on this one?
Hmm… Resurrection, or saved as personal note?
Well… I guess I'll be pulling the lever: zzzzzzzap!! ]

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Pace January 15, 2010 at 4:20 pm

The shortening of phrases sounds like of like “cold readings” in scammy fortune-telling.

And what you say about responsibility and accountability versus reward/punishment sounds a lot like the connection paradigm versus the control paradigm!

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HARDWORK January 3, 2011 at 3:48 pm

If a person told me: never ask for permission, just forgiveness, i wouldn’t consider them an inconsiderated jerk, just someone that doesnt need to second guess themselves or need approval from someone else to accomplish a goal, you usually wouldn’t ask permission first before cheating on your spouse, an example of this magnitude doesnt belong in this discussion. I’m not saying do what ever you want even though it might cause harm to others, but when opportunitites in life come along and you feel that gut feeling telling you not to miss out, i feel this particular quote gives us more confidence in making the decision. It more on a personal level, for all of us to become greater human beings we have to make impulsive desicions and build off the good ones and learn off the bad.

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HARDWORK January 3, 2011 at 3:52 pm

PLUS LIFE IS NOT ONE BIG FIELD TRIP; WE DONT NEED PERMISSION SLIPS ON EVERY ACTIONS WE TAKE AS HUMANS, NOT ASKING PERMISSION IS NEVER A FORM OF DISRESPECT NOR IS ASKING FOR FORGIVENESS DECITFUL, ON THE CONTRARY, ASKING FOR FORGIVENESS ALLOWS US A HUMANS TO UNDERSTAND AND ACKNOWLEDGE THAT WE ARE IN FAULT AND ARE WILLING TO AMEND THE SITUATION.

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ak January 11, 2011 at 12:07 pm

You’re taking it too literally. And taking it out of context .Ask for forgiveness and not permission just like everything else we do in life should have some moral code of conduct, rely on gut instinct, good intentions, doing the right thing…it just give people who are less self confident or who were brought up in an overly strict consevative household to actually do things they believe in without always asking for someone’s approval — but again.. you can’t twist this saying…just like with everything in life, you have to do the right thing. If you need guidance on what is “the right thing” then this motto will not be your magic pill.

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john August 9, 2011 at 12:48 pm

I don’t agree with this article. I believe that the author of this article completely missed the purpose of the quote. The author has a one sided view of this quote, to which I hope to shed some light on. the quote is figurative but the author has a literal interpretation of this . Just think about it, sometimes in life you must break the rules to achieve a greater good. If you stop to ask “permission” along the way you will never achieve what you wish to achieve. so sometimes you don’t ask permission just ask forgiveness, do what must be done and face the consequences later.

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Just Me May 24, 2012 at 5:33 pm

It depends on who is hearing that phrase. I think people who are raised to doubt themselves, “confidence is for other people” and self-defeating notions like that, the phrase is perfect–it’s a valuable lesson to be bold, make mistakes, be daring. There is a lot I could say on that front, but I can’t type a whole lot right now. I hope people get what I’m saying. It’s unfortunate that rude people like stupid saying like that for all the wrong reasons. I also dislike the same types of people saying they are “keeping it real” by saying something truthful in deliberately hurtful ways, when in fact they are simply throwing tact out the window.

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jaing jokalan May 30, 2012 at 9:06 pm

In some cases, “it’s easier to ask for forgiveness than for permission” :)
I live by the phrase, still within the context that respects for others are upheld.

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Bob October 23, 2013 at 12:40 am
Melissa March 2, 2014 at 8:40 am

I’ll be short and sweet, I am married to a one sided man. What ever he wants to do is fine, every time I ask to do something that doesn’t consist of laundry, cooking, cleaning grocery shopping, kids doctors appointments, etc it ends up in a fight. Yesterday I wanted to bring the kids to see my mother, their grandmother who we haven’t seen in over 2 years. If I had asked he would have said no and then bitched at me for day’s for wanting to go out. The truck is in his name, even though I paid him back, he originally put up the money for it. I haven’t returned back to work yet after having his child 5 months ago. I was going to go back, but now every time I even speak of it he gets pissed off and says its not fair to the baby, I should be home with him. That part I’m fine with, but I’m not fine with him throwing money in my face every time he gets the chance. So yesterday I didn’t tell him until I was ready to leave that I was going, of course he was pissed. But I’m sorry, I refuse to beg for permission to visit my family!

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