When you were a kid, you needed permission for everything. Permission from your parents to watch TV, permission from the teacher to go to the bathroom. Raise your hand, get in line, wait your turn. Obviously, that goes away as you get older… but maybe not entirely.
Because many adults act like they’re still waiting for permission to do what they actually want, especially when what they want isn’t so easy to reach. They tell themselves they can’t, for all kinds of reasons. It’s not the right time, they’re not ready, they’re not good enough, it’s a silly idea, it’s not prudent. No one else around them is doing that kind of thing. It would be selfish or reckless or arrogant to try.
How would you feel if we said right now that you have permission?
Here it is, in black and white: your permission slip. You have permission to take an acting class, go to Bangkok, paint a mountain landscape, learn to make Ethiopian food. To ask for a promotion. To try something new. To change. Even to fail.
That last one might be the most powerful. Our culture isn’t exactly failure-friendly. People are quick to hide their mistakes and slow to admit them, and rarely is anyone applauded for owning their failures. Mistakes and flaws are for ridiculing and punishing, not celebrating.
It’s a shame, because failing is how you learn. You might already know the story of how Thomas Edison tried thousands of different materials before he created an electric lightbulb that worked long enough for practical use. As he said, “I have not failed 10,000 times—I've successfully found 10,000 ways that will not work.” He understood that each apparent failure was actually a step forward because it gave him more information about what to try next.
The same is true for you as you build your experientially rich life. The goal is not perfection. Our society is so obsessed with perfection that when I was growing up, there was actually a game called Perfection, where if you weren't perfect in a set amount of time, the board literally blew up in your face. What the hell kind of lesson for children is that?! What does perfection even mean? That everything goes swimmingly the first time? That’s not perfection—that’s just avoiding the big risks and challenges that are actually worth taking on. It’s seeking false comfort in, well, the comfortable.
When you give yourself permission to fail, you’re getting permission to try—to take shots, work hard, get creative, and get back up when you fall down. Do you want to start a podcast? Be willing to have no one listen to it. Do you want to join a soccer team? Be willing to be the worst player on the team. Do you want to be featured in an art show? Be willing to have your art rejected by the curator.
It all amounts to putting aside your ego. It’s learning that to fail is not to be a failure, and when you toss that label in the garbage where it belongs, you can open unexpected doors for yourself.
We were reminded of that in a massive way as we flew to Beijing a few years ago. Our LSTN coworkers were with us on the way to a trade show. As we looked around the cabin at people of all races, young and old, they all had one thing in common: they were wearing our product, thanks to our partnership with Delta Air Lines.
My jetlagged, half-in-the-bag self filled with pride as I looked down row after row to see the logo I had designed in my apartment years earlier. It begged the question many had asked us: How did such a small company get a contract with the biggest airline in the world?
Like many of my favorite stories, it all started at a party. A friend of a friend happened to be an executive at Delta Air Lines. A casual conversation about LSTN’s mission intrigued him, and he immediately pulled out his phone to buy a pair of headphones, mostly because he was (and still is) a nice guy. He loved them, and we started talking about what we could do together.
If we had compared our six-person start-up, with its tiny office and almost-empty bank account, to an airline with 80,000 employees, we never would have tried to pull this partnership off. We waited in the lobby for our scheduled pitch meeting, knowing that executives from Bose, Sony, and Beats would go in before us—companies with private jets, 10-figure market caps, and ads with professional athletes all over TV. If we had asked ourselves whether we were good enough or ready for this opportunity, we would have given up right then.
Instead, we put our egos aside and our hearts on our sleeves. After three years of negotiations (yes, it took that long), we landed the contract to supply millions of headphones for Delta Air Lines. We signed a deal for more money than I had ever even imagined seeing… and then we promptly gave it all away. One hundred percent of the proceeds went to charity because we wanted to make a real, lasting impact from the partnership.
That financial decision snowballed into a mountain of experiences we will never forget. To announce the partnership, Delta produced an epic commercial spotlighting two of our patients in Peru, young brothers who could now hear thanks to LSTN and the Starkey Hearing Foundation. Taking them around Arequipa with us and a film crew was an adventure in itself, and through the commercial, their story received millions of views and touched countless lives. One Delta executive who was onsite during filming was so moved that she decided to dedicate the rest of her life to philanthropic causes. Another pledged their commitment to doubling down on the airline giant’s giving initiatives. Who knows how many acts of kindness and giving flowed from their generosity.
That commercial sparked a chain reaction of new experiences. It took us to an awards stage where Joe and I gave a speech sandwiched between Ben Affleck and Aerosmith—talk about imposter syndrome. We cohosted the first ever silent disco at 30,000 feet with our favorite DJ, Questlove (now “Oscar winner, Questlove”). We threw a launch party with some of our favorite Los Angeles chefs, Jon and Vinny.
All this happened because we went for it. Even though it was scary, even though it was a long shot, even though it would have seemed safer to listen to that inner critic asking, “Who are you to think you belong here?” We didn’t let less important things distract us from the goal, even during the years of negotiations. We didn’t let our fragile egos dissuade us from going up against much, much bigger competitors.
We wanted it, so we did what it took to make it happen. Instead of letting the prospect of a bad outcome hold us back, we asked, “What’s the best that could happen?” Now we don’t have to wonder what might have been if we’d taken that leap.
What can you give yourself permission to do? What goal can you give yourself permission to go after?
About Bridget Hilton
Bridget Hilton creates tools to help teams and leaders connect in the workplace through rich experiences and shared goals. Her keynote helps Fortune 500 companies navigate topics of mental health and wellness, burnout, employee belonging and connection, inspiration, motivation, and goal setting. Her book Experiential Billionaire and card deck Treasure Maps is out now. She is located in Los Angeles, CA and is booking keynotes and workshops worldwide now.