How to Stop Waiting for Permission and Become Your Own Leader

I was sixteen years old, sleeping on a mattress on the floor next to my grandma’s bed. Yaya, we called her.

We were spending the summer in the North of Spain. She had a house in the mountains. Upstairs, there were four rooms — one for each of her children (my aunts and uncles) and their families. Each room had a mezzanine where the parents slept.

My siblings slept in the room; my parents in the mezzanine. I, however, did not. I couldn’t stand my Dad at this age. We couldn’t communicate. I just wanted to stay away. So, I slept with Yaya, on a mattress wedged between her bed and a chest of drawers.

At 7:00 am every morning, my dad would come into Yaya’s room. He would open the blinds and bellow “The sun has been up for over an hour! You’re wasting the day.”

I hated him. Every morning, we had to rush breakfast to go for a hike in the mountains. The rest of the day went according to his schedule. No questions asked. He was the leader; we all had to follow. The rest of my family knew not to question my Dad. Doing so was pointless. I was the only one to argue, but every attempt proved futile. He was the leader; no questions asked. At least this is what we all believed.

Curfew was at 21:15; stricter in the summer than it was throughout the year. My friends in Spain wouldn’t even eat their dinner for another hour or two. They would meet every night in a town square, no more than 100 yards from Yaya’s house, and share stories, or watch the stars; they’re beautiful in the mountains, abundant and bright like diamonds.

Every night I would lay awake on the mattress on the floor next to Yaya’s bed, ruminating in resentment. Every night, until the night when everything changed.

It was a night in late August when the summer was nearing its end. As I lay awake wondering whether I was ‘wasting my youth’, I heard the sharp screech from the metal of the old garden fence.

My heart skipped a beat. It was past midnight, and everyone was already in the house; there was nobody left to come in. Yaya’s room was on the ground floor, and it was the closest to the door. If someone broke in, we were in the first room they’d see. If someone tried to come in through a window, ours was the closest window. I panicked.

I didn’t want to wake Yaya abruptly in the night and scare her. Running upstairs to call for help would expose me to the burglar but doing nothing would put everyone in danger. I was frozen still. I lay awake all night and just listened. Nothing happened, not another sound.

Exhausted, the next morning, I told my family. After a quick inspection by my uncle and my dad, they concluded it must have been the wind. Maybe someone had left the gate open by mistake.

I went to bed that night with an old wooden squash racket that I found in the cellar. It was past midnight again when I heard something. This time, it was inside the house. I recognized the sound immediately. Someone had nudged one of the wooden chairs around the living room table. It shrieked against the floor tiles. After that, came a gasp. A very recognizable gasp — my sister’s.

What could she possibly be doing in the living room? Why wouldn’t she switch on a light?

I heard another noise. Subtle this time. She was opening the door under the stairs — the door that led to the cellar. What in the world could my little sister want from the cellar in the middle of the night?

I got up slowly, trying not to lose my balance on the mattress. I whispered quietly that I was going to the bathroom in case Yaya could hear me. I left the room and switched on the bathroom light to back-up my story. I walked past the living room and looked out the window that led onto the garden.

That’s when I saw her. Knowing I had heard the gate open the night before, my sister was pulling herself up onto the garden wall. When she finally got to the top, she turned back. She saw me standing in the window, she waved and jumped onto the path that led to the square.

I couldn’t believe it. My little sister had been sneaking out in the night.

Until that moment, I had always been the protector; the big sister who made friends for the both of us wherever we went. I was the one who argued and negotiated with my Dad so that we could have more freedom. And yet all this time, my sister was living her life on her own terms, without my help, free from my Dad’s non-negotiable rules.

Instead of arguing and stubbornly focusing on the problem, too afraid and obedient to break the rules, like me, she found her own solution. She stayed away from the noise and found a way out.

She’s the middle child, and she was always more independent. She liked to do her own thing. As a toddler, my parents knew, if she wasn’t in sight, she was probably up to something. Never plotting — she was never mean, disruptive or destructive. But she liked to do things her own way. So, in a house full of rules, she was labeled ‘the more rebellious one’.

Ironically, as the more obedient one, I became the most disruptive; my resentment made me argumentative and bitter. I was too scared not to follow the rules; afraid that it would break the ‘good girl’ image I was so often praised for.

Meanwhile, without doing any harm to anyone, my sister was ‘rebelling’. In doing so, in my eyes, she became a true leader. She took ownership.

As I lay incredulous on my mattress on the floor, I began to think. Had I failed to see it this whole time? Was my sister the real leader? She was living life on her own terms. She took action. She didn’t force anyone to follow, she didn’t impose her opinions on anyone, she didn’t care what others thought. She was leading by example. She showed me there was a way to deal with things, without arguing, without judgment, and without affecting others.

Life is too short to wait for others to change. If you want things to change, you have to take ownership. Shape that future you want for yourself.

The situation may have differed had she put herself in danger or broken any laws. But sneaking out to enjoy a few nights with her life-long friends, a stone’s-throw away from the house, in a quaint little village where we know everyone well, hardly qualifies as a hazard.

The following night, I lay awake with my eyes open, letting them adjust to the dark. We met in the living room. Without saying a word, I followed her down towards the cellar, and out through the back door. She helped me onto the garden wall, and I in turn helped her.

As we stood there, ready to jump, we turned back. We saw a silhouette in the window. It was Yaya. Slowly, she nodded. She lifted her arm and gave us a thumbs up. She was giving us permission; permission to take ownership of our own lives, to define our own boundaries, and to seize the opportunities we desire.

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