The Nature of Friendships

When my children were young, I marveled at parents of teenagers. Or maybe I pitied them? Their children had lost their innocence, grown more independent, and faced the temptation of drugs, alcohol, and sex. Parenting a teen seemed like a daunting experience where success required the perfect balance of masterful skill and blind luck. I was very aware that my kids would face unique challenges I couldn’t even imagine when I was a teen – life is different now. On more than one occasion I was told by other parents of teens the most important decision my kids would make when they reached teen-hood would be choosing who their friends are. A “make or break” proposition that I wasn’t convinced a teen is capable of comprehending. Do not be misled: “Bad company corrupts good character.” (1 Corinthians 15:33)

Fast forward a dozen or so years and the fact is I have enjoyed parenting teens very much. It has not been as scary as I feared. It has been gratifying to watch them mature and develop socially and emotionally. I enjoy having conversations with them, and seeing them self-reflect and problem solve. I am very proud and thankful for the choices my kids have made regarding their friends, and I credit the parents of my kid’s friends for raising fine young men and women. You know who you are.

That isn’t to say my kids haven’t had some issues to work through with their friendships. Comparison, judgment, pressure, and the desire to belong have all come into play. I have had many a long conversation with each of my kids about friendships. I am sure I will have plenty more. I am certainly not an expert and can only share what I have learned from my experience. And one way or another, conversations about friendship always seem to end up with me reflecting on my own friendships and how they had evolved over the years.

Friendships are important to me. I derive a great deal of pleasure and strength from being around my close friends. I am comfortable with being vulnerable with my closest friends and accept the risk that comes with it. I like it when others return the same to me. I prefer having a smaller number of close friends rather than numerous casual acquaintances. Friendships can be hard for me to initiate because of my quiet and reserved nature. I often wonder if I am being a good friend and worry about whether my friendships will stand the test of time.

In elementary school, my friends were those boys who lived in my neighborhood. I was fortunate enough to live near several boys about my age and we all loved to do the same thing – spend countless hours playing outside. When you are young and foolish, you assume you’ll be friends forever. Although we were all similar in age, none of the neighbor boys were in the same grade as me and consequently we grew apart. I haven’t been in contact with any of them in nearly 30 years.

In middle school my friends became the boys in my class who I played sports with. Competing alongside each other created bonds that I thought would endure. I was mistaken. And in high school I only had a few close friends who remained. My closest friends in high school weren’t neighbors or teammates, but rather kids who I felt I had a deeper connection to. We shared something in common; values, beliefs, or habits that were meaningful to me. Unfortunately, I don’t see or talk to any of them anymore for no good reason other than we just stopped putting in the effort. You do not reap what you do not sow.

I went to college not knowing a sole. My freshman year was uncomfortable and lonely; I traveled home many weekends. My sophomore year I forged some strong friendships with three other boys who lived on my floor in the dormitory. We became roommates and remained friends throughout college. We shared, learned, and laughed together experiencing some very formative milestones. After college, we went our separate ways. I haven’t seen or talked to two of them in over 20 years, and one I have only talked to on a handful of occasions.

So, to review, I haven’t maintained any friendships from my youth! My closest friends today are people who I didn’t know more than ten years ago.

There has been a certain transiency and relevancy to my friendships. Why is that? Are we too busy for friends? Is it simply laziness? Are we too judgmental and intolerant? Or does it have a little something to do with being a male? Perhaps men are not good at friendships? We are good friends when it comes to fantasy football, beer pong, and moving couches; but not so much when it comes to listening, vulnerability, or compassion. And maybe that is okay? Or maybe, just like God desires, our friends deserve a chunk of our time each day where we talk to them, pray for them, do things for them, or just be with them. After all, if you don’t put any work into the relationship you cannot expect the relationship to work for you.

My friends today have sprouted from my own kid’s friendships, church, current neighbors, and volunteer work I am involved in. I often wonder if I will still be close to my current friends ten years from now, or will I have a different friend group? I do know that I am older, wiser, and more mature. I love myself more now than I did 20 or 30 years ago, and subsequently can love others more. I cherish the joy of friendship and put much more work into my friendships now than I did in the past. The point is this: “whoever sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and whoever sows bountifully will also reap bountifully.” (2 Corinthians 9:6)

I cannot predict how long my kid’s friendships will last or who their friends will be when they are older. All I can do is trust that they will make prudent decisions based on the values they were raised with, and share with them the universal truth that if you want friends you need to be one. That’s how it works.

The “Made in” Mindset

I started writing a blog about what I thought was a clever analogy for how we should conduct ourselves, and it began like this:

Check the “Made in” label of your favorite shirt, bath towel, or summer sandals and you will find words that read Made in China, Made in America, Made in Vietnam, or other similar designation. “Made in” labels show that a product is all or virtually all made in said country. The labels influence buying decisions, symbolize pride, and contribute to consumers’ overall perception of that country.

Imagine if you had your own “Made in” label that was placed (literally or figuratively) on everything you did indicating it was all or virtually all done by you. This “label” would give family, friends, co-workers, and community members an impression of you, your character, and your work ethic. How would that impact your actions?

I built a bird house tower for my wife several years ago that still stands in our backyard today. It gets a lot of attention, both from the birds who fight for vacancy and guests who wonder where we got it. I am happy to say, “I made it.” I have no problem imagining a label attached to it stating, “Made by Dan.” I value humility too much to actually do it, but you get my point. I am proud of the product and when we are pleased with our work the more comfortable we are branding it as our own. But what about the actions we are not so proud of? What if the bird house looked like a hideous mess? I suspect over the course of our lives we all have taken measures to hide from actions we are embarrassed by.

I try to carry this way of thinking over into other areas of my life. Whether I am in a meeting at work, cleaning the bathroom at home, raising my children, or talking with a friend, I imagine placing a “Made in” label on that task or interaction testifying to my doing it. And if I wouldn’t feel comfortable with that action being attached to my brand then I shouldn’t do it. I am not successful at it all the time, but it serves as a good remember for me to be my best self.

This is where I temporarily stopped writing the blog-or typing, to be accurate. It hit me; what I thought was a clever concept to stay aligned with the person I aspire to be, existed. We literally have a “Made in” label attached to something many of us use every day; it is called a username or profile. Numerous times a day we are sharing thoughts, feelings, actions, and beliefs using the platforms of Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Instagram, Snapchat, and more. Each post is attached to our label proclaiming “Made by Insert Name Here.” And, sadly, it doesn’t keep us from posting rude and inappropriate content we shouldn’t be proud of. So that leaves me wondering, “Where do we go from here?” How do we lesson the insolence when not even the public shame of people knowing what we say or do stops us from doing it?

After a brief stint of despair I return to my original blog idea. I return with steadfast resolve to promote positive, honorable behaviors. I believe it is time well invested. It seems to be, at least in my opinion, there is less civility and kindness today. There are many studies readily available online that affirm my opinion. And there are so many theories as to the reasons and contributing factors it overwhelms me. Frankly, I do not feel the need to put my finger on the cause; I acknowledge there are many and with varying levels of credibility. However, what I am hopeful for is as a people we can agree that there is a problem and we need to get better. I am hopeful we can concede, regardless the rationalized origin, we are a part of the problem and the solution begins within each one of us.

Our oldest and greatest examples show us we are supposed to be a loving and gentle people; to extend mercy and compassion to all. Easier said than done, I admit. Why is it so hard for us? I would argue one of the greatest factors getting in our way is a lack of humility.

To be humble is to remember it is not all about you. Self-righteousness and hedonism don’t prevail in the long-term. Part of the trouble is that humility is a poorly defined word in our current culture. Humility is viewed as “meekness” or having a “low view of one’s importance.” The fact of the matter is authentic humility comes from a place of strength and maturity. It doesn’t mean you think less of yourself. From a biblical perspective, humbleness is a quality of being courteously respectful of others. Humility means you are sufficiently independent to meet someone more than half way; it acknowledges the dignity and worth of all humans. The attribute of humility is precisely what we need to exist in effective nations, cities, marriages, and friendships. Just because we can literally tell the world exactly how we feel or what we accomplished in any given moment doesn’t mean we should. Modesty prevails.

It is too easy to get caught up in a comparison-based world where the loudest voice wins. We need to be reminded that it matters how we treat people. We need a reminder that to try thy best is a virtue. And so I submit the following paradoxical challenge: to act in such a way you would be proud to attach a label to every task or interaction action stating “I Did This.” And then, of course, to never do so.

To learn more about humility, being kind to others, and responding to the call to be the best person you can be check out my book I Am CXO, Now What? (WestBow Press 2017).

Life Lessons from a Mission Trip

I recently returned home from a mission trip where I was one of seven adult chaperones for a group of nineteen high school juniors and seniors. We traveled to Detroit, Michigan; specifically the southwest neighborhoods. My church does these trips each summer with the teens and this was my first time accompanying the sojourners.

The genesis for my going was my oldest child was scheduled to take part. He will enter his senior year of high school this fall and this was to be his first mission trip outside of our home state of Wisconsin. Unfortunately, a day before we were scheduled to leave he became ill and doctor’s orders keep him home. I was conflicted about whether I should still go or not and ultimately decided the right thing to do was honor my commitment. So off I went to safeguard and be a role model for nineteen young men and women from my parish family, leaving the one young man from my biological family behind. I admit, I was a little salty the first day or so. I was caught up in the unfortunate turn of events that would lead to me spending Father’s Day and my wedding anniversary away from home. Eventually, and by the grace of God, I got over myself and made the conscious decision to be completely present and engaged in the experience. And I am so glad I did.

The trip was a much needed diversion from my “regular life” fraught with my own desires, trials and tribulations, and so-called urgencies. I found it very comforting and centering to have built-in time for prayer and meditation each day. And now, back at home well rested and sleeping in my own comfy bed again, I reflect on what the experience meant to me and how it will impact me moving forward. So here is a list of four things I learned from the mission trip–listed in no particular order.

Be sure you have the right tool for the job.

Do you remember the Spike Lee Nike commercials from the late 1980’s? Lee’s character, Mars Blackmon, helped sell a lot of Air Jordan shoes with the slogan, “It’s gotta be the shoes!” Sometimes the right piece of equipment can make all the difference. On our way east from Southeastern Wisconsin to Detroit, we stopped on the eastern shores of Lake Michigan at Warren Dunes State Park for a picnic lunch and stretch break. It is a beautiful park with spectacular views of the lake and a majestic dune formation rising 260 feet above the water. Naturally, the dune enticed many of the teens who felt compelled to climb it. Some were successful at making it to the top and others were not. What was the biggest contributing factor keeping some from reaching the pinnacle? “It’s gotta be the shoes!” Full of excitement and eager to run after having been cramped in a van for a couple hours, many of the teens began their ascent without their shoes. Those of you who remember your school science lessons know that sand has a lower specific heat than, say, water. This means that sand changes temperature more quickly. The bright summer sun caused the sand to be too hot for many to tolerate. Set motivation and skill aside, without the right planning and equipment you may not reach the apex of your goals. My grandfather used to call it “having the right tool for the job.” An important leadership and life lesson is to take a pause, set your bearings, and make sure you set yourself up to be successful.

Relationship outdoes rules.

As you can imagine, chaperoning a group of teens on a week-long trip requires its fair share of rules and regulations. For example, everyone has a job to do each day such as cleaning up after meals; lights out at 11:00 p.m. (the adults need their sleep); and absolutely no cell phones allowed in the sleeping quarters. Needless to say, the rules were a little difficult for the teens to adhere to on a regular basis. And the more the adults enforced the rules the more resistance we saw. It was a few days into the trip before I established enough of a connection with the youth to recognize people rarely do what they are supposed to do because it is a rule, law, or policy. People are more likely to do what they are expected to do because they value a relationship. The more the teens got to know the adults, build trust, and create empathy, the more likely they were to comply. Think about your own homes or workplace; do you assume people will do what they are expected to do simply because it is a rule or policy? Put work into the relationship early and often, and I think you will find people will follow the expectation because they don’t want to let you down and because they care about the relationship.

You can assert yourself lovingly.

At one of our work sites, our challenge was to design, build, and erect a sign for a neighborhood park that hosts outdoor movie nights throughout the summer. We were given some donated scrap lumber, a vague vision, and best wishes. Joining our crew that day was a board member from the non-profit organization that runs the neighborhood outreach program. He is an engineer and confident in his handyman skills. I have about 30 years of experience as a woodworker. We immediately took joint leadership of this task. Also in our group was a young woman, a recent high school graduate heading to college in the fall to study engineering. She enjoys woodworking and working with power tools so she gravitated to the task more so than any other teen in our group. As the two “old guys” problem solved on the fly and figured out the design as we went along, there were a handful of times where our ideas were not practical; they simply wouldn’t work had we pursued them. This young, aspiring engineer caught our imminent errors each time and stopped us before we got too far in the wrong direction. Impressive as that was, the really magnificent part was how she did it. She had the self-confidence to course correct two older adult males and do so in a way that was nurturing. She didn’t say, “Stop! That won’t work. Don’t do that.” Rather, she lovingly asked questions such as, “Have you thought about…?” Or, “What would happen if we tried…?” She was so good at it we didn’t even realize what was happening at first. She was guiding us. She was asserting her intelligence and experience, and never once making the two old guys feel stupid or condescended. I witnessed a great lesson in leadership that day. You can assert yourself and drive a project while also having a compassionate, caring heart. In doing so, you will build credibility and loyal followers.

Find peace by giving a piece of yourself away.

Finally, what I learned (or reaffirmed) from our mission trip to Detroit is we are called to serve. We are anointed to live in communion with God and neighbor. For us to think anything different or to ignore the gentle nudging is self-destructive and neglectful. In my experience, there is no better way to generate more peace and clarity in your life than to give a piece of your life away to others. In our week-long mission trip there was only one part of the day where I never saw any fighting, disobedience, bending of the rules, or disrespectful behavior. That one-time was when we were serving at our work sites. The work was peaceful. The moment we left our sites and returned to our personal desires, selfish wants, limited truths, and social (media) comparisons I could see a change in our group. We became more irritable, competitive, judgmental, and intolerant. At times when you feel like life is moving too quickly, you are overwhelmed, or you are dwelling on your own preoccupations I recommend doing something nice for others-even if it is just a phone call or quick message to say, “I am thinking of you.”

Little did I know I would learn so much from our trip to Detroit. Living and learning go hand-in-hand; life’s lessons are all around us if we look for them. And if you can’t find an example…be the example.

Dad: Small title; big contribution

As we enter into this Father’s Day weekend I am reflecting on my dad and all of the other men who impact their sons and daughters so profoundly. In loving memory of my dad, enjoy this excerpt from my book I Am CXO, Now What? A Job Description for Living a Life of Purpose and Meaning. [Copyright © 2017 Dan Burnett]

My father was born in 1948 and raised in Fond du Lac, Wisconsin, the same city I grew up in and where my mother still lives today. Its name in French means “foot of the lake” because of the city’s position at the base or south end of Lake Winnebago—the largest lake in Wisconsin at almost 132,000 acres. Fond du Lac is a typical Midwestern city that feels smaller than its population of about forty-three thousand people.

My dad met my mom at a CYO (Catholic Youth Organization) dance when they were both barely teens. In the fall of 1967, my dad was drafted to serve his country in the Vietnam War. If not for failing a physical examination because of a previously undetected condition, my dad would have joined anticommunist allies to support the South Vietnamese counter to the North Vietnamese, Soviet Union, and other communist allies. He made all the preparations to go. He said goodbye to his family and fiancée, got on a bus, and traveled about an hour south to Milwaukee. This is where he took, and failed, the physical. After getting sent back home, my dad had surgery to fix the ailment, married his sweetheart, and started a family. He was called to service again in the summer of 1968 and got a waiver because my mom was pregnant with my older sister.

I came along four years later in 1972. President Nixon called for the withdrawal of US troops from Vietnam in 1973, and the war officially ended with the fall of Saigon in 1975.

I heard the story about my dad almost going to Vietnam a handful of times as a child without ever stopping to recognize the magnitude of it. If my parents were captivated by how close my dad had been to going to war, they never showed it. As an adult with a wife and children, I think about it and can’t get the precariousness out of my mind. And I fully know if my dad would have gone to Vietnam to serve his country, it would have set in motion a series of events undoubtedly changing the time of his marriage (assuming he made it home alive) and subsequent children. In other words, I would not exist if my dad had not failed that physical.

And it wasn’t even a big, scary medical problem that caused it. I recall it being a hernia. My mom can’t remember, and my dad has since passed away so he cannot resolve the debate. But in my mind, I am alive on this earth because my dad failed a physical exam due to a hernia. I suppose I could send away for a copy of the Selective Service System records to verify the facts, but I like remembering it this way.

I can’t even imagine how different things would have been if my dad had gone to Vietnam. Life as I know it: vanished! For me, that failed physical was a gift from God—the gift of life. It is up to me to detect what He had in store for me with that priceless gift and this one wildly precious life.

My dad had a long career in the grocery business and had been, in many ways, defined by his career. He proudly worked for Schultz Sav-O Stores in Sheboygan, a city on the shores of Lake Michigan about forty-five minutes east of Fond du Lac. Schultz Sav-O distributed food and other grocery items through franchised and corporate retail supermarkets, which operated under the name Piggly Wiggly. To people who knew him, my dad was synonymous with Piggly Wiggly. He loved what he did, never complained about work, and was loyal to his company. I often joked that he had a big pig tattoo on his chest. He worked for the company for over thirty-five years. Yet he always told me that people will remember you for who you are as a person and not what you do for a living. After all, what’s in a title?

During my youth, I must have spent hundreds of hours standing at my father’s side as he carried on conversations that seemed like would never end. Invariably, errands to the service station or local home improvement center would lead to my dad running into an acquaintance, co-worker, old neighbor, bowling buddy, or high school classmate he had not seen in years. And there I’d be, a relatively quiet child, resisting all temptation to plead with my father for us to leave. I waited at his heels amazed that there could be so much to talk about. My dad, as the joke would go, could be dropped by helicopter in the middle of Timbuktu and in short order run into someone he knew. His hobbies introduced him to an array of people from diverse walks of life. He connected with them all. His work kept him traveling rather frequently from grocery store to grocery store throughout Wisconsin and northern Illinois. Again, he met quite a few people and built a rapport with all of them.

My dad’s mission at each grocery store, grossly overgeneralized and oversimplified, was to affect change. He learned the best way to do that was to start with the person. My dad believed employees are more influenced by relationship than by policy or procedure. He didn’t have a college education and worked his way up through the ranks from humble beginnings as a butcher. But he had a way of making people feel comfortable with him.

I didn’t appreciate it until I got much older, but the lesson I learned in my youth from my father was how important it is to put work into meaningful relationships. He was a CXO.

To learn more about how to be a Chief Experience Officer (CXO), check out I Am CXO, Now What? A Job Description for Living a Life of Purpose and Meaning. Happy Father’s Day!