Rebecca Minkoff Doesn’t Believe in Asking for Permission—and Neither Should You

July 14, 2021
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At Create & Cultivate’s Money Moves Summit, Rebecca Minkoff opened up about her slow-burn success, working hard and never giving up, and leading a company through tough times. In her new book, “Fearless: The New Rules for Unlocking Creativity, Courage, and Success,” she shares even more learnings from her decades-long career. Below is an excerpt from her new book in which she shares one of the most valuable career (and life) lessons she’s learned so far:

The first dress I ever designed for myself was for my bat mitzvah. A few years before, I had seen a polka-dot dress in a store window and became obsessed. It was just a simple A-line shift dress, but to me it was the coolest dress I had ever seen in my life. Even though I couldn’t touch it, in my mind, I knew it was made with the softest cotton I’d ever felt. The sleeves had just enough pouf to be stylish without feeling kooky or too kiddie. I knew it would land right above my knee if I ever had a chance to try it on. Like most kids, I begged my mom to buy it for me. And, unlike most moms, my mother said, “I’m not going to buy this for you, but I’ll buy you fabric and you can make it.” That was a real light bulb moment for me. I had been crafting and making cutesy, fun things like aprons and pot holders, and I’d been using puffy paint and sewing patches on my jean jackets, but this felt like a revelation. If I designed something fashionable, did that make me a fashion designer? That sounded really cool.

Asking my mom for things and having her turn me down was pretty much par for the course. But the truth is, she just wanted to teach me how to figure things out for myself. She didn’t buy me that dress, but she guided me as we made one—and I thought it was even cooler than the one I had seen. Now, I was twelve, and between the idea of becoming a “woman” for my bat mitzvah and having a size AA training “bra” (think: stretchy cropped undershirt), I very much felt like I needed a dress that would highlight and showcase my chest. (Why, you ask, was my focus on my chest instead of on my Torah portion? Tweens aren’t exactly known for their impeccable priorities.) This became my first design challenge. I decided on an empire waist with a square neck and a little princess puff sleeve, and I made it out of white matte silk. I made it just above my knees so that you could see my gams when I sat on the bima (that’s Hebrew for the stage). My mom wouldn’t buy me new shoes for just one night, so a family friend lent me her cream-colored pumps that matched the color of my dress exactly. I wore them with pride even though they were a half size too small. (But I did spend most of the time up on the bima worried that I was losing circulation in my feet.)

Thanks to my mom shutting me down, I got way more out of the experience than just an amazing (go with me here) dress. Sewing something that I could wear gave me confidence. The idea of turning nothing but a piece of fabric and some thread into something I would actually wear out in the world seemed like magic to me. I would do as many chores around the house as I possibly could in order to earn money and then spend it all on fabric. When I was out of fabric and out of cash, I would go through my closet and find pieces that I was tired of, take them apart, and make something new to wear. Taking the clothes apart allowed me to see how the clothes were made, and then I could replicate the look if I wanted to.

When Life Throws You Lemons—or Florida Oranges

I was born in San Diego in the eighties. It was absolutely as fun as it sounds. My early life in California was a truly idyllic time period. The weather was always perfect, my two older brothers and I could go outside and play at night unsupervised, and I spent weekends boogie-boarding or selling jewelry at the flea market while my mom sold her Amway products. My dad had just finished his residency in pediatric medicine and had opened his own practice. He worked a lot, but when he was home, he was all ours. We were not wealthy by any means, but my life felt rich. My elementary school self already knew that I was going to marry Steve and that Sarah, Caren, Rachel, and Tami would be my bridesmaids. I was going to wear a ruffled one-shouldered white organza minidress, and my bridesmaids would each wear their own unique look that reflected their personality, but it had to be coral pink, obviously, because the wedding would be on the beach. Cue the mic drop.

Shortly after I turned eight, my parents told us we would be moving to Florida, where my dad would be taking a short sabbatical. All I knew about Florida was that there were alligators in the swimming pools. I remember coming home and my parents breaking the news to my two older brothers, Uri and Max, and me. They presented it like it was an adventure, and I was completely not on board. As I sat there panicking about losing my friends, my dad sold us on the move with big talk of a house on the ocean, building sandcastles in the front yard, and promises that he would have tons of time off to play with us. So we packed up. Everything I owned, which primarily consisted of Barbies, Barbie clothes, Barbie gear, and a Barbie Dream House, was in boxes and ready to be loaded onto the moving truck. On my last day of third grade, my classmates gave me a memory book full of photos and drawings from my elementary school friends. I’d never held anything as tightly or cried as hard as I did that day.

The Big Adventure

We piled into our sedan, hitched up the U-Haul, and drove across the country in true Griswold-family fashion. It was the absolute worst. The whole time, I had to sit in the middle seat, squished between Uri and Max, because I could never yell out “Not it!” fast enough. At any given point during our drive, I was either being used as a pillow or an armrest. There were a lot of tears: like when my personal stash of mini candies fell out of the trunk into the muddy parking lot, or when we pulled into New Orleans and I felt completely haunted while semi-lost from my family, or when my dad fell asleep at the wheel in the middle of the night and we did not one but two 360s across the freeway. It was the longest, crummiest week of my eight-year-old life. But at least we were moving somewhere awesome, right? Wrong.

The night that we arrived in Florida, we were tired, it was hot, and I was sure that when my dad pulled into the dilapidated, half-rotted apartment complex, he had made a wrong turn. It was just like The Karate Kid, but I wasn’t Danny LaRusso and there was no Mr. Miyagi waiting to give me a shiny yellow convertible. I remember piping up to say, “Dad, you made a wrong turn. We are not at the beach.” He replied, “Oh no, honey. This is correct. We decided this would be much better.” We went upstairs to a two-bedroom, one-bathroom apartment that was roughly the size of our living room back in San Diego. The place smelled. Mold was everywhere. My heart sank. Even our two dogs seemed grossed out. This was not part of my plan. I woke up the next morning before everyone else. I threw on my Chucks and ran out the door, determined to find the mythical sand and magical beach that Dad had promised. I knew it was all wrong the moment I stepped outside and didn’t feel the tangy taste of saltwater surrounding me. Lo and behold, all I saw was dirt. It could have passed as sand-colored dirt, but it was definitely dirt. That’s what was at the bottom of the stairs. That’s what I was supposed to turn into castles? And where was the water? How was I going to fill the moats of my princess castle without the ocean nearby? I had promised Barbie a beach day, and she was going to be pissed. Even more than me.

I quickly ran back up the steps, found my father, and demanded, “Dad! Where is the beach? And the sand?” His reply: “That’s sand! Right at the bottom of the stairs!” The first few months went like this for everything we did. When I looked for the Floridian version of the fun downtown we had grown up with back in San Diego, where kids could innocently loiter, he told me it was out there somewhere and we would find it. When I looked for the group of really nice, super-friendly girls my age who were destined to be my new best friends, he told me I was sure to meet them soon. When I wanted to boogie-board, there wasn’t even a wave. And what I did find wasn’t helping the situation: I missed the soft green grass of California, but all I had to look at was dry, hard, spiky patches of Florida turf. I had always liked being connected to our Jewish community back home, but the jerky tweens at the temple in our new town made fun of me for my buck teeth and frizzy hair. I was constantly disappointed, and I missed my old life deeply.

The only saving grace was that it was temporary. At least that’s what I thought. Since the plans were up in the air, my parents rented furniture instead of buying it or moving our old stuff out from California. I marked the day our first furniture rental contract was up on the family calendar. When the big day finally arrived, I ran to tell my dad: “Hey, Dad! We have to return the furniture! Does that mean we can go home now?” He turned to me and very casually said, “We’re not going home. We’re going to stay.” My parents had found a small piece of land that was going for a good price and had decided to save up to build a house of our own. I knew at that moment that my fate was sealed. I was stuck there for good. (And, Florida, if you’re reading this, please don’t take offense. I’ve grown to love you, and you know it.)

Even now it stings. I say this fully aware, as an adult human, that I was very lucky to have a roof over my head, to have a loving family, and to always have food to eat, but San Diego was all I knew. When everything you have ever known as a child is ripped from your life, it has a huge impact, whatever your circumstances may be. This was like a bad after-school special, but it was my real life—though it wasn’t the last disappointment I would face, so technically it was training.

So why was Florida so bad? Let’s unpack this:

All of this is to say that I found myself flying solo. A lot. Depending on my mood, it either felt as if I had all the me-time in the world or as if I had been forced into isolation. The upside of it all is that it gave me the space to discover creativity. Crafting saved my life. (Does that sound dramatic? I hope so. I really want it to.) I was a mini Martha Stewart always ready with my Mod Podge and handful of puffy pom-poms. My mom had given me an old sewing kit and showed me the basics. It wasn’t long before I was making scrunchies for myself and avant-garde outfits for my dolls.

Out of everyone at school, my favorite person was Miss Laurie, the art teacher. She had moved to Florida from New York City, where she had been a print designer. Now she handed out construction paper and was on scissor patrol for a bunch of kids. Miss Laurie was kind and soft-spoken, and she used validation and encouragement to keep you going. She could always find something in whatever mess we kids were working on to compliment. After school, she taught art classes out of her home. For twenty dollars an hour (her rate was actually thirty dollars an hour, but my mom insisted that I negotiate her price down), she would teach me whatever I wanted to learn. Over five years, we drew, painted, illustrated, sketched, knit, and crocheted, and, most importantly, she taught me to follow a pattern and use a sewing machine. Thanks to her (and the extreme nothingness of Florida at the time), I found my love of fashion, art, and design.

Don’t Ask; Do

From then on, I was hooked on doing things for myself. When I decided I wanted to go to the performing arts high school that was forty minutes away, I mapped out the bus route and got myself there and back. How much I earned doing chores around the house or scooping ice cream at the local ice cream shop, where I worked after school and on weekends, was how much I could spend. The responsibility was on me. At a certain point, making things, doing things, and figuring things out on my own became second nature to me.

With my love for all things fashion, it wasn’t a surprise that, when I was eighteen, I decided I wanted to move to New York to work in fashion. My mom said, “If you want to go, go.” That was all I needed. She wasn’t giving me permission. She wasn’t saying yes or no. She was putting the responsibility exactly where it belonged: on me. A few years ago, I finally asked my mom why she didn’t help us kids out more. She explained that when she turned eighteen and moved out of her parents’ house, she didn’t know how to do anything. She felt like too much had been done for her, so she had trouble knowing how to live on her own. As a parent, I’ve learned that is the greatest gift we can give our kids—just a push in the right direction. (Thanks, Mom. Love ya.)

I didn’t have a plan. I wasn’t sure how I was going to make it happen. But I knew I was going to figure it out.

Sign Your Own Permission Slip

We spend so much of our lives waiting for permission. As little kids, we ask our parents if we can do just about everything. We ask for snacks, for toys, or if it’s okay to go out and play. We even ask our teachers if it’s okay to go to the bathroom. By the time we’re adults, we’ve been conditioned to look outside ourselves for someone to give us permission to do even the little things.

But do we really have to? No.

Really, the only person you need permission from is yourself. Not your parents. Not your friends. Not society. When we ask someone else to validate our choice before we make it, it puts the responsibility on that person. Suddenly, it’s their problem if something goes wrong. Getting outside validation protects us from feeling like it’s all on us if we screw up. And on some level, we’re all afraid of screwing up.

But here’s the thing: if we get permission to do something, or validation before we do something, we aren’t off the hook. We still have to deal with the fallout. We’re still the face of the mistake. Often, the only person who actually cares, or even knows, that someone gave you permission is yourself, so if you want to do something, do it. If you want to wear something, wear it. If you want to try something new, by all means, go for it. Whatever happens next is yours to own. It’s all you.

Taken from Fearless by Rebecca Minkoff. Copyright © 2021 by Rebecca Minkoff. Used by permission of HarperCollins Leadership. www.harpercollinsleadership.com.

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