What’s In A Name?

I think a lot about what defines me. My work…my actions…my legacy; I have a deep longing to be someone. But what does that really mean? I know that I want to be more than someone doing something. It has been a lifelong journey of discovery to chisel away at the qualities and characteristics that do not define me in order to reveal the beauty of my true self hidden within.

I remember clearly as a child wondering what my name told me about who I was. Frankly, I never asked my parents why they selected my name (shame on me) but I am confident when they did they wanted nothing short of the best for me. Like any parent, I am sure when they declared my name they wished for a life of happiness, good will, and contribution. During my youth I would research my birth name, Daniel, in the context of my Christian upbringing and learn about the popular story of Daniel in the lions’ den. I would read of Daniel’s heroism and try to extrapolate what that meant for me. Surely, I thought, there must be meaning there. I also learned that Daniel, in Hebrew, meant “God is my Judge.” Again, I liked the connection to my Faith but I wasn’t convinced it answered any of my questions about the unknown purpose I was supposed to fulfill in life.

As a child, I was called “Danny.” It was a term of endearment and used most regularly by my family members. “Dan” rose to prominence at some point in my teens (I cannot recall exactly when) surely as a way to signify my independence. And “Daniel” was reserved for formal documents or for my mother to yell at me (with middle name included). I do remember some people mispronouncing my birth name as “Danielle” and that embarrassed me. I also remember one of my college professors calling me “Danny” at a time when I preferred “Dan.” Needless to say, I made it clear what my preference was; a moment I still regret 25 years later. As a father of two teenagers, I now hear my name from my children. My first instinct is to correct them and suggest anything other than “Dad” is disrespectful. They assure me it is out of reverence, and a sure way to get my attention when I am “not listening to them.” We’ll agree to disagree. Whether “Daniel,” “Danny,” or “Dan,” I am not sure that I ever landed on a clear and definitive direction the meaning of my name gives to who I am or who I am supposed to be.

What I have come to learn as I have matured is that my name doesn’t inform what or who I am, rather it tells me whose I am. Every time I hear my name I am reminded that I am His. “I’ve called you by name; you are mine.” (Isaiah 43:1) God calls each of us by name, and each time I hear mine I am reminded of my longing to be the best person I can be as created in His image. I recall my lifelong mission to uncover purpose and meaning in my life. When I hear my name I instinctively think of the values and beliefs that I hold so dear. By way of my name I take great pride in doing my best…being my best…giving my best. And my best is invariably tied to God and His dream for me placed in my heart when I was conceived. Through my name I clarify His will for my life and muster the strength to accept His will. My name and His calling for my life are unique to me. No one else, even someone else named Dan, has the same dream in their heart as God placed in mine. We are all children of God and can only live out God’s dream for our lives in a way that is uniquely gifted for us and within our own contexts.

My wife, Denise (whose name is often mispronounced “Dennis”), rarely calls me by name. Most often I am responding to “honey” or “sweetheart.” “Dan” is reserved when she really needs to grab my attention, usually in public. However, I know she uses my name when she talks about me to others. “Dan” is the person others know – her friends, family, and co-workers. I think about what I want “Dan” to mean to them when they hear it. Does “Dan” represent a good husband and father? Do people experience Jesus through “Dan?” Not only am I His, but I am hers. I take the responsibility of husband and the covenant of marriage seriously. Using your name as a reminder that you are called by God can be an effective way for you to frame up your purpose and commitment to being the person you aspire to be, in all walks of your life.

At the same time as I was a youngster researching the meaning of my name I would think about how cool it would be to have a nickname. Sure, there were the common ones like “Danno” and “Dan the Man,” but nothing that ever stuck or was unique to me. Perhaps that was indicative of the purpose my name was meant to have in my life so many years later. So as to always get my attention when “being called by name,” for I am His and He is my judge. 

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.

Rough Writer

Not too long ago I was given a Theodore Roosevelt bobblehead by some dear friends of mine; a couple who I have laughed with, broke bread with, prayed with, and watched our kids grow up with. The bobblehead is the second in my collection of Teddy heads, the first I picked up for myself in Galena, IL. Anyone who has ever been to Galena knows the charming city overlooking the banks of the Galena River is best known for having been a residence to General Ulysses S. Grant. But when visiting the tourist center and gift shop I couldn’t resist getting a souvenir honoring one of my personal favorite historical figures – TR. My apologies to General Grant.
I am not sure where my friends found the bobblehead they gave me. They said when they saw it they thought of me and just had to get it. When presenting it to me, they took a few minutes to tell me why they wanted to get it for me. They said something about a “thank you” for some help I had given them – it was a kind and unnecessary gesture; though, honestly, I wasn’t really paying attention because I was distracted trying to figure out at the moment how they knew about my fondness for Roosevelt. Had I told them? Had they seen my other bobblehead? Did I share that I had read some of his books? Did I mention him during a presentation I had given that they had sat in on? I couldn’t remember. Finally, it came to me; it didn’t matter how they knew! I am certainly not embarrassed by or ashamed of others knowing that I gravitate towards the lessons on character, service, and what it means to be a leader that I learned from Theodore “Teddy” Roosevelt. It is actually great news that they know this about me. It helped to answer the life question, “Do others know what you stand for?”
Aside from being our 26th President, here are (in no particular order) a few other milestones achieved by Teddy Roosevelt. He was governor of New York, Vice President under William McKinley, Nobel Peace Prize winner, captain of the National Guard, cattle rancher, New York Assemblyman, conservationist, New York City Police Commissioner, Assistant US Navy Secretary, prolific author, explorer (see The River of Doubt), Medal of Honor recipient (albeit posthumously), and leader of a volunteer cavalry known as the Rough Riders. And he did all this after overcoming severe health problems as a child; problems that likely contributed to his humble self-image as being a very “average” man. In the biography The Seven Worlds of Theodore Roosevelt by Edward Wagenknect, Roosevelt is credited with saying:
“In most things I am just about average; in some things I am a little under rather than over. I am only an ordinary walker, I can’t run. I am not a good swimmer, though a strong one. I probably ride better than anything else I do, but I certainly am not a remarkably good rider. I am not a good shot. I could never be a good boxer, though I keep at it, whenever I can. My eye sight prevents me from being a good tennis player…I am not a brilliant writer. I have written a great deal, but I always have to work and slave over everything I write. The things I have done are all, with the possible exception of the Panama Canal, just such things as any ordinary man could have done. There is nothing brilliant or outstanding in my record at all.”
There are a number of quotes attributed to Roosevelt that when I take the time to reflect on really makes an impression on my life and serve well as a moral and ethical guide. My favorites include:
  • Far and away the best prize that life has to offer is the chance to work hard at work worth doing.
  • In any moment of decision, the best thing you can do is the right thing, the next best thing is the wrong thing, and the worst thing you can do is nothing.
  • A thorough knowledge of the Bible is worth more than a college education.
  • To educate a man in mind and not in morals is to educate a menace to society.
  • The best executive is one who has sense enough to pick good people to do what he wants done, and self-restraint enough to keep from meddling with them while they do it.
  • Courtesy is as much a mark of a gentleman as courage.”
  • The most important single ingredient in the formula of success is knowing how to get along with people.
  • Big jobs usually go to the men who prove their ability to outgrow small ones.”
  • Character, in the long run, is the decisive factor in the life of an individual and of nations alike.
  • The one thing I want to leave my children is an honorable name.
  • People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.”
I should also mention this list does not include the lengthier, inspirational speech commonly known today as “The Man in the Arena.” Every time I read it I get goosebumps and imagine myself reading it with a powerful voice akin to the likes of Morgan Freeman or James Earl Jones. Check it out online if you are not familiar with it.
But I want to focus my attention today on another quote of Roosevelt’s which touches me in a profound way. It reads simply, “I am a part of everything that I have read.” Read it again, “I am a part of everything that I have read,” and allow it to sink in. Take it to heart and consider everything you have read is now a part of you. Have you read the bible? What about a birthday card? Have you read derogatory comments posted on Facebook? They are all now a part of you. How does that make you feel? Assuming the quote to be true it begs the question, “What are you reading?” What should you be reading? Do you need to make an adjustment to your reading habits? And I am not just talking about novels here; consider magazines, websites, social media posts, and blogs like this one. Each is a part of you. Like a grease stain on a white shirt that you can’t get out, you are a part of everything that you have read. 
Take it another step further and again assuming the statement to be true, what are you writing that others read…which is now a part of them? “I am not an author,” you suggest. Oh, but you are. Take into account every email, text, performance appraisal, and Tweet you draft. Would you approach your writing differently if you were cognizant of the fact that your reader is “a part of everything that he/she has read?”
I interpret Roosevelt’s statement to be an example of a force multiplier. In other words, what you focus on expands. If you read negative, intolerant, hate messages you will have more negativity in your life. Conversely, if you read uplifting, encouraging, and inspirational literature (especially first thing in the morning) you will set the tone for a positive day. And if you write something that is constructive and accepting you just might make someone’s day a little better.

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!