Should it be Easier to ask Forgiveness Than to Seek Permission?

During my time in the Navy, I was introduced to the concept that “it is easier to ask forgiveness than to seek permission.” I thought that was a catchy concept and it became part of my philosophy. Having grown up in the military, I wondered why I’d never heard this earlier. I was an E-5 when I first learned of this concept.

Normally, this is applied to silly little requests that could just as easily be granted but for whatever reason, it is expected that they won’t be granted by whomever is in authority. As an example, I could ask my wife if I can stop at Wawa tomorrow morning, take out $20, and buy a breakfast sandwich. It’s a silly request, and as an engineer I obviously make enough money to buy a sub $3 breakfast sandwich. It won’t kill our budget at all. I know that if I ask, my wife will at best try to talk me out of it or at worst tell me no. I also have the choice to go ahead and do it. At worst, she’ll notice a $20 withdrawal and ask me what it was for. I’ll explain. She’ll be disappointed but will eventually forget about it. (I’m not trying to pick on my wife; I’m only trying to make a point. I also occasionally throw things out to see if she’s keeping up with my blog).

Often in the context of the military, this has to do with requests that are related to the actual performance of your job that will probably be denied if asked, so you just go ahead and do it. If any trouble comes of it, that trouble will soon be forgotten. At worst, an “I’m sorry and I’ll never do it again” will suffice.

That leads me to the conclusion that any request for which it’s easier to get forgiveness than permission can be defined as “an unreasonable response to a reasonable request”. Consider the following scenario, which probably happened in my lifetime:


Me: Hey, chief, can I take off early today?

Chief: No.

Me: Why not?

Chief: Because I said so.

Me: I finished all of my work for today, and there’s something I need to do.

Chief: No.

As a parent who for some reason spends too much time thinking about topics like this, I often struggle with my own responses to my children when they ask me if they can have something or do something. I have, on occasion, told them no to perfectly reasonable requests simply because I was too lazy or didn’t feel like dealing with whatever they were asking. Other times, I’ve rationalized it with “They’ll be told no for no good reason enough in the world. They might as well learn how to deal with it now.”

There are a couple of unreasonable responses that literally make my blood boil:

Because I said so

Going back to my childhood, few phrases ticked me off as much as this one. I only wish I’d had the ability to verbalize it to my parents. I never responded well to this one, because it was almost always dragged out of one of my parents’ butts as an unreasonable response to a reasonable request. To be honest, I think anybody who uses this excuse pulls it out of their butt. I don’t believe they’ve spent adequate time considering the request or their reasons for denying it. It’s more of an “I’m an authority over you somehow, and I’m choosing this moment to remind of you that fact, just in case you forgot. That or I’m too intellectually lazy to spend 3 seconds pondering this.”  If I could only have responded as such. As it was, my parents told me I should have been a lawyer because I always argued with them when a request of mine was responded to with “Because I said so”. Even as a small child, I was unwilling to accept this. When I first learned about the U.S Constitution and concepts like due process, I began to demand a reason that would hold up in court why my requests were denied. It was often something simple like “Can I spend the night at a friend’s house?” Throughout my life, I have ALWAYS backed down to a reasonable response. When the response is unreasonable, I’ll fight. Consider this post from last year when U.S. Airways stranded me in Maine due to weather. I rescheduled my flight for early in the morning out of Boston, but by the time I got to Boston it was very late at night and I wasn’t going to get up in 3 hours to head to the airport (that flight was cancelled anyway). U.S. Airways expected me to pay a $700 rebooking fee or buy a new ticket for $500. I did not consider that reasonable under the circumstances, and I argued with the manager. I honestly don’t consider the whole “refundable/non-refundable” ticket concept reasonable anyway, but that wasn’t the issue. U.S. Airways had the authority to to allow me this change, and I fought for it. Wouldn’t you know it, that flight got cancelled also, and we ended up driving home.

There was also my saga with Continental Airlines about 3 years ago. I tried to get a flight moved up a couple of days because of a Family Medical Emergency (my mom’s life expectancy changed from 4 months to less than a week). The first representative I spoke to refused to do anything other than charge me a ridiculous price for a new ticket. I called back and got another representative who was willing to speak with a supervisor and change my flight for a much more reasonable fee. That leads me to believe that the first representative I spoke to was using some variation of “because I said so because I’m too freaking lazy or stupid to help you out and I’m in a place of authority over you right now so you can just bask in my control over your life nah-nah-nah-nah-nah!” I hope she enjoyed it, as well as the two days of stomach twisting agony she put me under until I got the idea to call back and see if it was universal policy or just a stupid and lazy call center rep.

When dealing with customer service or human resources, “that’s our policy” can be considered similar to “because I said so”. The results and the amount of mental energy expended in returning the decision of “no” is the same.

You don’t need that (also you don’t need to do that)

This seems to be my wife’s favorite. In the dark ages before I got an iPod, we had to listen to the radio in the car. I still shudder when I think of being subjected to the same idiotic commercials over and over again followed by inane DJ chatter and maybe a good song mixed in with a bunch of songs I can’t stand. In those dark, evil days for a while we listened to New Jersey 101.5, which was a fairly amusing local talk radio station. I guess it still is. One afternoon, the hosts were discussing a businessman who bought up a bunch of land around Exit 2 on I-295 in the 80’s. When he bought the land, he had an agreement with the state that he could develop it. A few years ago, he decided it was time to develop, but New Jersey in it’s infinite support for local business decided some obscure insect lived there and he couldn’t build on his land that he bought specifically to build on. He took out a billboard along I-95 in Delaware that said something like “New Jersey is a horrible place to do business”.

The hosts were discussing this with callers. One woman called in and said “He doesn’t need to build there.” Something about that really set me off, especially since my wife uses that phrase a lot, and being the Stand Up Philosopher, I spent some time thinking about it.

I came to the realization that responding to a request with “You don’t need that” is completely subjective and unreasonable. Not every decision every person makes is based on need. When I ask for things, my wife often responds with “You don’t need that” (I’m slowly breaking her of it), but if I were to look at a long list of things she’s bought, I could probably make a case that she didn’t need most of it either. Is the only criteria for any decision whether something is genuinely needed or not?

That’s why this is subjective. If I tell my wife I “need” an iPhone, she’ll tell me that I don’t “need” it. But how accurate is that? Certainly, she believes that she doesn’t need an iPhone, but then she projects that need (actually lack of) onto me. That’s why this is a totally subjective criteria and is probably a logical fallacy.

Can need be objectively quantified in all cases? If I ask for a beer, and my wife tells me that I don’t need one, can she really objectively quantify that I don’t need a beer? I’m sure I would have trouble objectively quantifying my need for it also, but I would consider it a reasonable request and her denial to be unreasonable.

That takes me back to my children. I avoid as much as possible denying their requests with “Because I said so” or “you don’t need that”. Yes, though I am an egghead that spends too much time thinking and blogging about subjects like this, I am human and occasionally both of these pointless, idiotic phrases pass my lips before I can stop them. I try to explain to my boys why I won’t let them get something or do something with a reasonable response, or I’m just honest and say “You can’t g
o outside because I have to watch you and I’m too lazy or busy to go outside and watch you.” I’ll tell Caleb “You’re going to have to watch Cars because I don’t feel like getting Nemo out of the living room”.

Lasting Effects

Here is one final thought before I end (or go back and edit this post endlessly): I would like to submit for discussion that placing either your family members or subordinates in a situation in which it is easier to get your forgiveness than permission is poor leadership. I think it also fosters a climate of dishonesty. It encourages your children, spouse, and subordinates to go behind your back, even for small matters (like a sausage, egg, and cheese biscuit at Wawa). In the matter of the Navy, there were plenty of situations that should never have been a problem but we knew better than to ask. Consider something as stupid as eating lunch at McDonald’s. If we’d asked, we would have been told no. We simply left the ship, went to McDonald’s, and came back ON TIME. It was the same with naps. If you stood the midwatch, and have time during the day, asking for a nap will result in a “no”. Chief got a great night’s sleep last night, so you don’t “need” a nap. In the military, naps are like showers: you just take them when the opportunity arises. Chances are, anybody who will deny your request does the same thing. Come to think of it, I’m sure if I’d asked permission to take a shower, some idiot insecure in his ability to lead would have denied my request just to bolster his own ego and demonstrate his ability to micromanage my life.

It also occurred to me that this is also an example of maintaining too much control over another person’s life. In the case of small children, OK because they don’t yet have the tools to make decisions, but in the case of grown men having to sneak off a warship to eat lunch at McDonald’s, it’s kind of bullcrap.

When it comes to my children, I operate under the philosophy that I will lie to them and fail them often enough just by being human. I shouldn’t be looking for excuses to do it.

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