I hope you are well. Today I’d like to share some thoughts on the idea that in today’s world of work you don’t need to ask for permission anymore. The rebel in me doesn’t like submitting to any institution and loves the idea that you can be free to start something meaningful without a degree, a license or the permission of an institution.
In the age of Github, YouTube and Substack, you can write code or start a media without the need for anybody’s permission. You can write an article, publish a video and create a podcast without being recruited by an established media company. You can start selling your creations without the support of an established retailer, etc.
The promise is that the old (often conservative, racist and sexist) order can be toppled over by new entrants. A self-taught expert who doesn’t have a degree can write articles on Wikipedia. A great writer who is not a professional journalist can launch a newsletter that will become more relevant and popular than a newspaper. An amateur bass player can show her exceptional skills on YouTube and become a global reference.
What’s not to like about permissionlessness? It’s an attractive proposition. And yet it doesn’t really work for everyone, does it? How come a lot of the most successful “permissionless” enterprises are carried by people who would have had the “permission” of the old order if they had asked for it? For example, how come so few of Wikipedia’s contributors are women (less than 14%) even though everybody is supposed to be allowed to contribute (anonymously)? How come the “permissionless” world doesn’t really reflect the population at large?
Permission seeking and the changing nature of status
Seeking permission has long been my thing. So has seeking status. As a student I worked hard to have the best grades at school, and the best degree to prove my worth, to be recruited by a selective institution and send others a strong signal about my (fantastic) skills. Of course I was fundamentally insecure. But it’s also because there weren’t as many paths to success as there are in today’s world.
Things were really different before this digital age. For example, somebody who wanted to write and be read by others had to send their manuscript to a publishing house (or their article to a newspaper) and wait for their “permission” to see it printed and distributed. And if they did have a book published, they needed the “permission” of critics and media if they wanted to sell more than a few copies.
Needless to say, the people giving permission were overwhelmingly male and white (and straight and cis, and preferably old). So you were a lot less likely to be granted permission if you didn’t look like them. That’s why if you have a look at an anthology of French literature, up until two or three decades ago there were almost exclusively male writers (99%) in it (interestingly, British anthologies have always featured a few more female writers than French ones).
A lot has changed and the old order has indeed been (partly) toppled over. There are no barriers to entry if you want to publish something (it doesn’t mean people will read it, but in theory at least you can be read by others). Prestige and status have changed too. The old order is still there: you can still go to Harvard and be recruited by McKinsey. But there is another one that exists in parallel. So there are two different versions of status seeking now that work quite differently.
Five years ago I started writing about the future of work to change careers and create a new work identity. One of the first pieces I wrote was precisely on that subject. It was titled “From Exclusive to Inclusive: A Short History of Status” and I believe I could write the same thing today:
The highest possible status used to be essentially associated to the institution or company that recruited you. The more selective the club, the higher the status.
Typically the race to higher status would start with your university (or rather long before, but let’s start there): you would compete to enter the most selective one, and derive prestige and status from it. “Harvard College accepts record low of 5.8% to the class of 2017”, the press reported 2 years ago, but “with a 5.69% admissions rate for the 2017 class, Stanford is slightly more selective than Harvard”. So strangely enough, to be most attractive as a ‘status’ school you must be most selective, which is why these universities are in a competition over who accepts the LOWEST percentage of applicants.
The real value created by ‘status’ universities is not education, the quality of their teachers or any of the things they put forward on their websites, but how they eliminate the highest number of applicants. The value is in the funnel.
I also explained that this form of exclusive status was more and more challenged by a new form of inclusive status determined by your ability to be followed by others, to make connections and create a community. Someone with a million followers on YouTube has inclusive status whereas someone who makes partner at McKinsey has exclusive status. Inclusive status increases the more other people are included. Exclusive status increases the more other people are excluded. There’s this paradox (joke) about exclusive status: if you’re not excluded from it then it can’t really be that good. As Groucho Marx said, “I refuse to join any club that would have me for a member”.
The second form of status seeking is open-ended and flexible. It can support a change of jobs and identities. Tom Critchlow insists that in our networked age of “permissionless identities” careers are being reinvented. As he wrote a few days ago on Substack:
This world of permissionless identities flips responsibility for your career, your job description and your identity - it’s shifted from external gatekeepers to the individual themselves.
Taking control of your own identity can be disorienting and unsettling, it undermines our sense of a concrete stable identity as we iterate through and experiment with new identities. Managing your own identity is tough psychological work.
It’s tough, he says, and you need to work on “narrative institutions” to create some stability in your identity:
However in this world of permissionless identity we can (and must!) manufacture stability - especially as we move through transition times. This is especially important for freelancers, indie consultants and free agents who are completely untethered from the old world of gatekeepers and permission.
One way to create narrative stability is through creating “narrative institutions” - these are projects, websites, businesses, side projects, hobbies or activities that you can lean on for stability. While formal things like career, job description or professional label are in flux we can rely on our narrative institution to provide stability.
I really believe the open-ended form of (inclusive) status / permission is gaining more and more ground. At some point exclusive institutions will increasingly turn to people with the second form of status to appear up to date… but as they fail to recruit them, they’ll become less and less relevant. It’s also going to be increasingly powerful for people who change careers. Five years ago I changed careers and built a business after publishing articles on Medium.
So why do “permissionless” enterprises not work for everybody?
I’m always flabbergasted when I read that less than 15% of Wikipedia contributors are women (only 13.6% to be exact). Why? You don’t need permission to publish an article on the platform, and it’s anonymous. I’m also constantly surprised to see so many entrepreneurs with Ivy-League (and “Grande Ecole”) degrees even though they don’t need it to start their business. Also why are there fewer influential (successful) newsletters by women than men?
Why do the categories of people who suffer discrimination from old order institutions not jump at the opportunity to do more without the approval of these old institutions? Some do seize the opportunity to do their thing without permission, of course, but all in all the world of successful “permissionlessness” isn’t that different from the old order. Many categories are underrepresented. In some sectors, the “permissionless” world looks a lot like the “permission” one.
So why doesn’t the “permissionless” model keep its promise of toppling over the old order? I believe there are essentially 4 reasons that have something to do with psychology and sociology:
If you see nobody that looks like you, with or without permission, you might not want to challenge the old order. Yes, role models still matter to broaden your horizons. Sometimes it’s just about planting a seed in somebody’s mind. Alas, representation is really a chicken-and-egg problem. Some digital platforms that offer the promise of permissionless success do not show much diversity. They don’t necessarily mean to exclude anyone, but find it hard to make themselves attractive to categories of people that are underrepresented because they are underrepresented. One of the hacks is to use algorithms to make the underrepresented more visible (disproportionately so).
You can launch a newsletter, Youtube channel, podcast...without permission, but it will not be received by others the same way if you’re male-white-cis or anything but. Audiences perpetuate societal biases. Racism, sexism, homophobia, etc. have not disappeared, far from it. The little rat in Ratatouille had to hide under the hat of a human cook to create delicious dishes: nobody would have tasted his dishes if they had known they were made by a rat (the restaurant was closed once it was discovered that the cooks were rats). When it comes to publishing texts online, women receive disproportionately more insults, attacks, death and rape threats than men. It may discourage a few…
With or without permission, you still need extra time, and preferably a room of your own, to do anything worthwhile. Poor housing conditions make things significantly harder. As do domestic chores which eat away all your extra time. I’m tired of writing it, but women do significantly more (unpaid) household work than men on average (particularly within heterosexual couples). They spend more time raising children and looking after other dependents than men. They have a lot less extra time. If you’re poor, single, and with kids, “permissionlessness” won’t get you far.
We’re not equal when it comes to confidence and motivation. That’s a much more complex subject than the first three I listed. You may argue that if you really want something, you can (and should) overcome all the obstacles in your way. But what is it that makes you really want something? Why are some people so much more driven and motivated than others? Why are some more ambitious? I don’t have clear answers to those questions but I’m convinced all this has something to do with love and psychological safety. For example, if you were raised with love, it creates some kind of “foundation” of psychological safety that makes you free to want things, and aim high. Your psychology, your desires, even your ability to delay gratification, are determined by the love you’ve received (if you’ve received nothing but abuse you won’t trust the future and want to project yourself in it).
In conclusion, permission isn’t always bad. Some people are helped by it. If you don’t need it, then give others your permission to do things they wouldn’t otherwise do.
For more on the subject, here are a few other pieces you can read:
👉 The Age of Amateurs (Medium).
I’m moving to Munich, Germany with my daughter next week! (October 8). It’s a big move and we’re very excited. After 7 months in the most rural area you can possibly imagine (with a social life that’s just Zoom), I’m hungry to walk in a city and see lots of strangers. We’ll read books in German every day, and visit houses and schools. When everything’s ready, the rest of the family will join us in Munich 🥨 🍻 🇩🇪
Next Monday, Nicolas and I will do a special Nouveau départ podcast to answer questions from our subscribers. So if you’re a subscriber, send us your questions! We’ve also recorded two podcasts about the cultural aspects of pandemic life in France (Réflexions sur la pandémie en France + Sommes-nous condamnés aux files d’attente ?) 🇫🇷 😷 If you still haven’t subscribed yet, give it a try!
As I announced last week, I’m launching a new podcast in English 🇬🇧 to “build bridges” across cultures in fragmented Europe. The first episode will be released soon, so sign in to Building Bridges 🎙️ if you haven’t yet.
👿 Why arrogance is dangerously contagious, David Robson, BBC Worklife, September 2020: “overconfidence is often known as the “mother of all biases”; the Nobel Prize-winning scientist Daniel Kahneman famously remarked that if he had a magic wand that could change one thing about human psychology, he would eliminate our superiority complex. Now, fascinating new research (…) shows that overconfidence can be contagious. “If you have been exposed to an overconfident person, then you become more likely to overestimate your own relative standing” (…) It’s a tendency that could cause dangerously deluded thinking to spread through a team.”
👩🏿🦱 With Or Without Hair, We Send A Message, Ayanna Pressley and Aisha Francis, Elle, September 2020: “Black women have a complicated relationship with their crowns, to say the least. As Black women in America, our very existence is the resistance. The personal is political and our hair journey is no exception. Having hair, whether long, short, natural or relaxed, has long been considered a critical pillar of femininity. It has been a source of criticism, praise, and discrimination. It has represented the resistance and assimilation.”
🇨🇭 Switzerland Votes to Approve Paternity Leave, Noele Illien, The New York Times, September 2020: “Swiss voters on Sunday agreed to adopt a law mandating paternity leave, making it the last nation in Western Europe to do so and beating back strong conservative opposition to the proposal. Fathers in the country had been allowed one day off for the birth of a child — the same time given for moving homes — but the new ruling will increase that to 10 days of paid leave.”
I look forward to your reactions on the subject of “permissionlessness”. See you in two weeks… if my new Munich situation “permits” it 😜