Guest Post: Become a Name Wizard Overnight

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Photo by Sandy Millar

Excited to share a guest blog today written by my good friend and colleague Dan Duckworth.

I guest-lectured in a leadership class at Westlake High. I asked the 70 students to stand and state their names. Hearts pounded, mouths dried, and lips quivered — but they got through it.

I raised the stakes: would someone recite all 70 names? Polo took the challenge, whipping through a third of the room before anxiety pulled him down. We cheered for his — for his what? his memory? no, his courage.

Then I looked Carter in the eye and promised him, “If you learn and use all your classmates’ names, you will transform this space. When you look back on your high school experience, this room, with its white cinder block walls and ugly brown carpet, will be the first image that comes to mind.”

After class, Abby approached me with an expectant smile. “I noticed you are really good with names,” she said. “Is that something you were born with or something you learned?

Most people who compliment me on names do it with an air of futility, like I would praise an Olympic swimmer. Abby, however, was not padding my ego or excusing her weakness. She was looking for an entry point. She wants to become a Name Wizard. And I think you secretly do, too.

When I became intentional about names…

Once you become a Name Wizard, people will either mistakenly assume you were born with special cognitive powers or mistakenly assume you have mastered a memorization “trick”. That’s why I refer to intentional name recollection by the satirical label “name wizardry.”

Like most of you, I once routinely told myself (and others), “I’m not good with names.” Unlike me, Jolene, my wife, seems to have always been a Name Wizard. Same with Richard, my best friend in high school. In social settings, I coveted their power. I am not shy nor introverted. Yet, where they were confident, I was timid; where they would step forward, I would stand back.

That changed about five years ago. At both work and church, my roles shifted. I was routinely thrown into environments teeming with dozens, sometimes hundreds, of new faces — and names. These weren’t just crowds. They were people looking to me for guidance. If I had any chance of reaching their hearts, I knew the gateway through which I must pass: I must learn and use their names. So I committed. Names became my goal. And just like that — in the blink of an eye — I became a Name Wizard.

The power of a Name Wizard, I discovered, lies in the commitment to learnand use names. That’s not the same as remembering names. Becoming a Name Wizard, then, is much more about the heart than the brain.

The first “trick” is to care.

Remembering names is a difficult memory task, not just for you but for everyone. To recall anything, including names, takes more bandwidth than to recognize something, like a face. What separates Name wizards from name muggles? Muggles bail before their brains complete the recollection process.

It’s not that muggles don’t care, it’s that they don’t care enough to make themselves vulnerable. They don’t want to look bad or make others feel bad. Better to not try at all than to try and fail. Or having tried and failed, better to excuse their weakness than to try again. Hence, the cliché “I’m not good with names.”

I became a Name Wizard when I discovered a reason to transcend my ego. Suddenly, what mattered most was that other people knew that I cared, that I valued them for their divine potential, whether we were strangers, acquaintances, or friends. Driven by that purpose, I could no longer tolerate social pretense. I had to be real. And this is real: “I don’t know [or remember] your name, but I want to.”

I discovered what Jolene and Richard knew all along. Intentional name recollection is empowering. It transcends ego, builds bridges, and initiates community.

The second “trick” is to cross the bridge often.

One of the reasons name recall is difficult is because names are arbitrary and meaningless. “Mike” could just as easily have been “Mario” or “Mallifadungo”. For a name to become memorable, we must first associate it with other features, like occupation, ethnicity, or where we first met. That requires brainwork, attention.

We give attention to what we care about, but we also grow to care about what we give attention to. To that end, I try to use new acquaintances’ names as frequently as possible. It not only revalidates their worth, it centers my attention on them.

For example, when I am teaching and a participant wants to speak, rather than pointing, nodding, or saying “Yes?” to acknowledge her, I say her name. Sometimes people begin speaking before my brain completes the recollection process. I keep the gears turning. As soon as the name pops into consciousness, I say it out loud. By crossing the name bridge often, the individual becomes more than a passing thought. She becomes meaningful and her name becomes memorable.

The third “trick” is to jump into the quicksand.

No matter how hard you try, you are going to forget people’s names, especially in dynamic social settings. Remember, Name Wizardry is not about recitation. Just as the act of learning a name is a sign of genuine interest, so is the act of relearning a name (and relearning it again).

Forgetting a name, it turns out, is more paralyzing than not knowing a name in the first place. So is feeling like you “should” know a name that you never learned. I call this effect quicksand. The normal awkward distance between two nameless people becomes forbidding.

You know the scenario. You forget his name. You are afraid you will look dumb and offend him. You become awkward. He picks up your signal. He either feels diminished because you forgot his name or misinterprets altogether (“Does my breath stink?” he wonders). He becomes awkward, which confirms your fears, making you more awkward, etc.

The antidote to the quicksand effect? Jump in and yell for help! (“I know you told me your name, but I’ve already forgotten,” you confess. “Will you remind me?”) The other guy always bails you out, no offense taken. (“Ravi,” he says. “And yours?”) Bridge rebuilt. Parties re-empowered. Community reintegrated. It really is that simple.

Remember, you’re unlikely to risk safety unless the stakes are high enough. My friend Maria, a cancer patient, talks often of “chemo brain” (forgetfulness). She knows that she knows you, but she frequently forgets your name. Yet she never hesitates to jump into the quicksand. I asked her why she doesn’t just give up on names. She replied, “Because I want them to know they are loved.”

Abby, here are your entry points.

The students at Westlake High cannot be themselves around nameless people. Nor can any of us be ourselves among nameless coworkers and neighbors. Intentional name recollection is the threshold to authenticity. Like hitting zero degrees, social pretense finally begins to melt. The world desperately needs more Name Wizards.

To become a Name Wizard: simply commit to learn and use people’s names.

First, care enough to make yourself vulnerable. Clarify why name recollection is important to you. Then make it your explicit goal in every social setting.

Second, cross the bridge often. Once you learn a name, use it frequently (without being creepy).

Third, jump into the quicksand. When you forget a name or feel you “should” know a name, just relearn it (again and again).

Just like that — abracadabra! — you are a Name Wizard.

Bonus Tips

When someone doesn’t recall your name, don’t make him ask. Be a bridge builder, not a troll.

Don’t just learn a name, learn its proper pronunciation. Keep trying until she confirms, “You got it!” If she shrugs off your mispronunciation, insist. “How does your mother say it?” I sometimes ask. She’s unlikely to feel important if you mumble or garble her unique identifier (i.e. name).

Never make excuses, no matter how many times you fail. Instead, smile, look him in the eye, and affirm, “Your name is important to me. I will not give up until I get it right!” Now he knows you care.

4 comments on “Guest Post: Become a Name Wizard Overnight

  1. I have long been admired Dan’s aptitude with names. I now know this involves work on his part and am grateful for the tips and tricks. Dan, thank you for sharing these! Your story is a great reminder that some discipline and consistency on my part will help me develop this skill.

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