It's Better to Beg for Forgiveness than to Ask for Permission

I have always believed in the saying, “It’s better to beg for forgiveness than to ask for permission.”  It’s a way of life.  It’s not about abusing situations but about knowing when to push the boundaries.  It’s about knowing that the overwhelming number of people in life are naysayers and “no sayers” and sometimes you gotta just roll the dice and say WTF.

So I have a short story to exemplify my credo and my friend Tyler Crowley has been telling me to write this story for a while so here goes.

Having grown up in Northern California and living near a Japanese family when I was really young, I always had a fascination with Japan and wanted to live there.  And during the 1980′s in California there was also a period of explosive growth of sushi restaurants (introducing Americans to a little bit more of the Japanese culture) as well as a growth in the Japanese economy that had all American companies trying to understand Japanese processes and business structure (Kanban, Keiretsu, etc.).  Both Tyler & I are Nihon-philes.

In 1999 I was working in the London offices of Andersen Consulting.  I had been working on marketing & strategy initiatives for European telcos for the past several years helping them to think through and design Internet offerings.  I had just completed a project for Marconi Communications (then, the Lucent of the UK) and was looking for my next assignment.

I heard word that a new project was starting in Tokyo to work for the board of directors of a very large and well known Japanese electronics company to work on their Internet strategy looking at media, devices and networks.  It was right up my alley in terms of skill sets and interests.  But there was tons of client demand in Europe for Internet projects and very few people with real experience and so my senior partner in the London office was talking about 3 or 4 projects he was considering me for in Europe.  One in particular was in Switzerland and working for the telco there on a “death march” project for which several of my friends were already complaining.

I knew that my request to apply for the Japanese project would fall on deaf ears locally so I knew better than to ask.  If I asked and my partner predictably told me “no” then the only way to go would be to directly defy his instructions – never a great idea in business.  So I didn’t ask.  I looked in the worldwide directory to find the partner in charge of the project who happened to be based in San Francisco.  I emailed him a copy of my internal resume with my relevant experience and asked to have a phone call.  He responded positively.  He told me all about the project and the goals and told me it was likely moving ahead.  They had an internal kick off meeting scheduled for early April and the client would likely sign off on the project shortly thereafter).  He told me that he was leading the project globally and gave me the name of the lead Japanese partner.

He then said, “we would love to have somebody with your skills on the project.”  I knew that this wasn’t a direct “offer” to work on the project but I knew that if I didn’t take matters into my own hands I’d never get to Japan. So I flew out there speculatively without asking anybody.  I knew that worst case I’d have to eat the expenses for the flight & hotels and have to eat some “humble pie” for having been dumb enough to show up.  But show up I did.  I arrived at the Andersen Consulting offices on Monday morning and asked for the lead Japanese partner of the project.

He was flabbergasted.  ”What are you doing here?”

“Um, I spoke with the SF partner on the project who told me that you’d love my skills on the project.”  It certainly helped me that a little bit was lost in translation.  They didn’t know what to do.  They sat me in an office and scrambled around.  Eventually they came out and said that the project wasn’t yet sold and that they hadn’t expected me.  But since I was there I might as well stay for the week and get some work done helping them.  Naturally I worked my arse off that week and by the end of the week we had produced the final output of our proposal.  By then I knew the local team well and they realized that I had done several relevant projects in Europe.  They also knew that I was from NorCal, which in 1999 was a huge bonus to foreign companies thinking about Internet strategies.

They asked me if I would stay 6 months and do the project with them.  I did.  I faced a little bit of the wrath from my partner back home but by then the SF and Japanese partner were telling him for me how critical I was to the project.  He begrudgingly agreed.  At the end of the 6 months the lead partner from the Japanese office asked me to transfer permanently to Tokyo.  I was at the end of my career with Andersen Consulting so I turned him down, returned to London and started my first company.

Had I asked my partner in the first place to go to Tokyo the answer would have been “no.”  Had I asked the Japanese team the answer would have been “well be in touch.”  You know how that usually ends.  So I took matters into my own hands.  I knew that I had the skills to do the job and I wanted to make it happen.  Once you’ve asked for permission and you’re told that you can’t do something you HAVE TO live with the results.  So in life I’ve always operated on the principle that “it’s better to beg for forgiveness than ask for permission.”  It has suited me well in life.

Does that mean that I condone this kind of behavior with portfolio companies in which I invest?  Absolutely!  How else could I sign up the the JFDI credo?  See I still look for people who act with good moral intent and want to do the right thing.  But if you’re waiting around looking for permission from me?  Naw, that would be hypocritical.

  • http://twitter.com/MironLulic MironLulic

    Thanks for the motivation this morning :D

  • http://twitter.com/MironLulic MironLulic

    Thanks for the motivation this morning :D

  • Haha

    Please accept my apology, I just farted.

    I thought it would be easier to beg forgiveness than asking you for permission to drop my guts.

  • http://currentlyobsessed.com/ joe heitzeberg

    Great story, thanks for sharing!

  • http://currentlyobsessed.com/ joe heitzeberg

    Great story, thanks for sharing!

  • http://www.oliverpeiss.de Oliver Peiss

    I stumbled upon this through Derek Sivers and I have to say:What a great story and inspiration! I've experienced that kind of thinking and acting to work positive as well, although it was on smaller occasions. It is wonderful to hear how brave you took the steps towards your goal without being distracted by any negative-thinkers!
    I'll add “it’s better to beg for forgiveness than ask for permission.” to my favorite quotes!
    Thank you.

  • http://www.oliverpeiss.de Oliver Peiss

    I stumbled upon this through Derek Sivers and I have to say:What a great story and inspiration! I've experienced that kind of thinking and acting to work positive as well, although it was on smaller occasions. It is wonderful to hear how brave you took the steps towards your goal without being distracted by any negative-thinkers!
    I'll add “it’s better to beg for forgiveness than ask for permission.” to my favorite quotes!
    Thank you.

  • Kevin OB

    Great story Mark! It definitely helps if you can size up the consequences of the risk you are taking. In other words, if you think of taking a risk as blowing a hole in the hull of ship, are you blowing a hole above the water line, or below the water line? One is much easier to recover from than the other.

  • Kevin OB

    Great story Mark! It definitely helps if you can size up the consequences of the risk you are taking. In other words, if you think of taking a risk as blowing a hole in the hull of ship, are you blowing a hole above the water line, or below the water line? One is much easier to recover from than the other.

  • http://moolave.tk/ Fred T

    How it boils down to me on this outlook is about our perseverance no matter how many times we are told we cannot do it. That's how Colonel Sanders got his recipe through, Mark Benioff when nobody believed salesforce.com at first, Walt Disney, Larry King, Edison… the list goes on.

    Sometimes it is easy to acquiesce and be driven by getting ostracized by such authorities. But you will never get a chance of landing that impossible contract if you never sent out that proposal in the first place. It definitely takes action amidst recurring negatives, because what other people think cannot be done – will eventually take shape and form if you just believe it will happen.

    “If you think you can or cannot, you are almost always right.” – Henry Ford

    Be prepared for the consequences anyhow, but you will never regret that you never did it at all.

  • http://twitter.com/rkteck1245 Fred T

    How it boils down to me on this outlook is about our perseverance no matter how many times we are told we cannot do it. That's how Colonel Sanders got his recipe through, Mark Benioff when nobody believed salesforce.com at first, Walt Disney, Larry King, Edison… the list goes on.

    Sometimes it is easy to acquiesce and be driven by getting ostracized by such authorities. But you will never get a chance of landing that impossible contract if you never sent out that proposal in the first place. It definitely takes action amidst recurring negatives, because what other people think cannot be done – will eventually take shape and form if you just believe it will happen.

    “If you think you can or cannot, you are almost always right.” – Henry Ford

    Be prepared for the consequences anyhow, but you will never regret that you never did it at all.

  • http://www.justinherrick.com Justin Herrick

    Great stuff Mark. I have to say that from my background this is counter-intuitive, but at the same time I agree with you entirely. On a much smaller scale I have had a few of these instances in my own life, and this attitude of making the decision is also part of being an entrepreneur in my mind. You know the consequences if it goes south, but you also know that this is what needs to be done.

    Perfect title btw, love that phrase.

  • http://www.justinherrick.com Justin Herrick

    Great stuff Mark. I have to say that from my background this is counter-intuitive, but at the same time I agree with you entirely. On a much smaller scale I have had a few of these instances in my own life, and this attitude of making the decision is also part of being an entrepreneur in my mind. You know the consequences if it goes south, but you also know that this is what needs to be done.

    Perfect title btw, love that phrase.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    thanks. fixed.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    thanks. fixed.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    Thanks for the interesting stories. Especially loved the first one about the Bristol Zoo attendant!

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    Thanks for the interesting stories. Especially loved the first one about the Bristol Zoo attendant!

  • Tania_k_suster

    I love this story! And remember it well. When I read the headline, though, I thought it would be about how you managed to get from CA to Europe in the first place! I have to say you use the M.O. at home quite successfully too :)

  • Tania_k_suster

    I love this story! And remember it well. When I read the headline, though, I thought it would be about how you managed to get from CA to Europe in the first place! I have to say you use the M.O. at home quite successfully too :)

  • gaganbiyani

    Wow. So I was in consulting at Accenture no less, as you may remember. I'll say that the moves you've mentioned in this article are hella gutsy. Folks who are not in consulting may not realize this, but that's not even close to common. The common thing, in fact, is getting stuck on crappy projects because of “business need” and the lack of initiative to find projects you'll truly love.

    Great post, Mark.

  • gaganbiyani

    Wow. So I was in consulting at Accenture no less, as you may remember. I'll say that the moves you've mentioned in this article are hella gutsy. Folks who are not in consulting may not realize this, but that's not even close to common. The common thing, in fact, is getting stuck on crappy projects because of “business need” and the lack of initiative to find projects you'll truly love.

    Great post, Mark.

  • http://asalesguy.com Keenan

    I got to circum-navigate the world on a scholarship using this theory. Japan was one of the countries I visited. I also went to China, Taiwan, India, Russia, Ukrain, Greece, Morrocco, Malaysia, and Turkey. It was incredible.

    I didn't meet the scholarship requirements. If I had asked permission to apply, they would have said NO!

    Great story Mark!

  • http://asalesguy.com Keenan

    I got to circum-navigate the world on a scholarship using this theory. Japan was one of the countries I visited. I also went to China, Taiwan, India, Russia, Ukrain, Greece, Morrocco, Malaysia, and Turkey. It was incredible.

    I didn't meet the scholarship requirements. If I had asked permission to apply, they would have said NO!

    Great story Mark!

  • http://andybryant.squarespace.com/ andybryant

    Love it. Inspirational concept.

  • Milos Solujic

    Agree on that one Mark. I find this quality as one very important for every entrepreneur. And like your parallel to marriage – agree on both. It is always necessary to measure well before taking cuts, after all you may cut some bridges as well.

  • Samej

    When I realised that I had made a huge mistake taking someone the wrong way I truly felt I had to 'beg' for forgiveness when it dawned on me what I had done…fortunately for me the person forgave me almost immediately and now I am wondering if I can forgive that person for playing mind games with me at a later date or myself for keeping it going…time will tell…hopefully yes…

  • http://www.edge-asia.com/ Erik Posthuma

    Completely agree with this and it’s something I tell my team as well. It’s tough for people to adjust to this. I’ve had calls where I’m just about to board a plane and I tell them that the options they have presented all seem great, now they can make the decision and I’ll hear the outcome when I land hours later.

    Doing this a few times has helped them take much more ownership.

    Now I need to apply this more to my own work!

    Nice one Mark.

  • HPM3

    There are exceptions to every rule, and your story meets the criteria (or you would have given the power to determine your future to someone with whom you did not wish to continue working with).

    Yet, most often, to forgo obtaining permission from stakeholders in a relationship or business –because it would be easier/better for you, is a move that completely lacks integrity (and courage). It intentionally robs the other person of an opportunity to “speak now or forever hold their peace” and instead forces them to accept the consequences of an outcome without their consent. To assign yourself the powers of clairvoyance or precognition (to claim that you have the ability to accurately predict what a another person would do) such that they should not even be given the chance to act or have input in matters that concern them, is beyond arrogant…and perhaps a wee bit insane.

    I do everything in my power to put distance between myself and people who habitually use others in this way -as do many people who have the character and self respect to engage in crucial conversations (rather than avoid subjects because you have projected an outcome that may or may not be to your liking). What this means is that you are driving ethical people away from you, and someday you will look around and wonder why you are surrounded by scumbags.