There are two principle prerequisites for mastery of anything: practice and permission. The necessity of diligent practice over many hours is well-known, but the second dimension is often overlooked, if it is considered at all. Indeed, most will likely have never heard of permission spoken of in this way. What has permission to do with mastery?
Initiation by assent
We generally take the need for constant practice to be required for mastering skills as well as ourselves. However, all practice is for something, that is, for some end or other. Accordingly, practice begins not with the pianist sitting down at the piano or the chef’s mise en place, but with choosing the path of the chef or pianist. The pursuit of a path starts with the permission to pursue it.
This observation is not so trivial as it may seem. Permission in the context of life decisions is not a matter of a simple yes or no, but rather of a fundamental reorientation or turning toward a new path. To draw out the contrast between the former, mundane meaning and the latter, existential meaning we may consider an example of each.
Every child knows the experience of asking permission to eat candy or have a friend over. In such cases, the child petitions a parent or other authority figure to aid, or at least not interfere, in the bringing about of some more or less determinate situation. Prior to the request, the desired circumstance is possible and known to be possible by both the child and the recipient of the request. Permission then becomes a matter of adding or removing obstacles to the occurrence of the desired situation.
In contrast, the permission to pursue a course of mastery is not a matter of petitioning nor is it a simple manner of adding or removing obstacles. Rather, permission in this sense is the granting of the possibilty of the course in the first place. Before I can become a chef or pianist, I must grant myself permission to do so, for without this permission, I cannot fully and properly conceive what it means to be a chef or pianist. To understand the meaning of a path of mastery, one must take the first step upon it. The first step of any such path is permission.
The child does not need permission to be able to eat candy, only to actually eat it. The would-be master, on the other hand, requires permission for the path to mastery to open up at all. Thus, mastery begins with initiation by assent, that is, with permission.
In the abstract, any course is possible for anyone. When it comes to life as it is actually lived, however, one’s actual possibilities are far fewer than the theoretically infinite list of abstract potentialities we might imagine for ourselves. Permission is the turning of an abstract possibility into a concrete possibility.
To illustrate the meaning of this, we may consider the example of children asked about what they want to be when they grow up. In all but the most exceptional of cases, a child’s response to this question is the expression of a positive feeling regarding an image. Specifically, it is a kind of shallow intending of a postulated endpoint of a path of mastery in abstraction from the path itself. In replying to such a question, the child is not choosing or permitting themselves to follow a course, but merely speculating about the possible end of some course or other.
Such speculation is about abstract possibilities or, if you’re feeling pedantic, possible possibilities. These are possibilities that have not yet entered into life in such a way that they can move from possibility into actuality.
The phenomenon of permission is rather different. If we think of the aforementioned “possible possibilities” as prospects, then permission is the transformation of prospects into opportunities. Opportunities may be seized or left by the wayside. Prospects, on the other hand, can be considered, but never realized. Rather, they must first become actual possibilities through a grant of permission, at which point they become opportunities.
Turning and transformation
Permission thus plays a transformational role in the course of our lives. Who we become is a function of the possibilities open to us, and the possibilities open to us are, in part, due to the permission we’ve granted ourselves. Accordingly, giving oneself permission may effect a turn in one’s life course.
In a grant of permission, new possibilities are opened up by moving prospects from possible possibility into actual possibility. Since each of us fundamentally is our possibilities, transformation of prospect into opportunity quite literally changes who we are and, in turn, the path our life can and will take. Permission is thus a turning within one’s very existence.
When we say someone has “turned over a new leaf”, such an existential turn is what is meant. In such cases, some possibilities are closed and others opened, in accordance with the character and content of the permission granted. So, while permission is an essential way to open radical new directions in life, it is not yet the creation of a blank slate.
Not all is permitted
Granting oneself permission is not, then, a blanket license to do any and everything one pleases. Rather, it is always the granting of permission to do something. There is a distinct positive content to each prospect we allow to become an opportunity.
Each grant of permission thus contains within itself an implicit sacrifice of some possibilities for the sake of others. For any decision to be meaningful, it must be the choice of something and not another. So too with permission - allowing a new course to become truly possible entails leaving others behind.
For instance, permission to become a painter is at once the permission to unbecome a cubicle monkey. In such a turn, there is a fundamental transformation of who one is by virtue of a radical change in the opportunities open to oneself. In this, opportunities are both lost and gained.
By granting and withholding permission, we direct the course of our lives by opening and closing the manifold paths we may take. At birth, we are all potential. As life goes on, prospects dawn on and call to us, until we permit some into our vision of who we are. Allowed into vision, prospects in mind become opportunities in heart, yet unrealized. Opportunities so granted may then be seized, and the inchoate forms of our lives wrested into gleaming sunlight from the darkness of the youth’s womb.