The Importance of Names
(or That Which We Call, Arises)

The Importance of Names
(or That Which We Call, Arises)

IMG_8274I was thinking that things were going so well that this blog was going to get boring.

Well that changed last night.

I’m in the midst of a crisis with this blog, my nascent business and the design of my new life.

I discovered something last night that could basically ruin everything.

And I’ll tell you all about it.

But first a few stories and observations.

Origin Story

There are currently three reasons for this blog.

  1. To outline the 3 steps and give practical ways to apply them to whatever.
  2. To draft a book about the 3 steps.
  3. To document the application of the 3 steps to the creation of a company based on the 3 steps.

#3 is inspired by the terrific first season of Gimlet Media’s Start-Up podcast which documented the starting up of the podcasting start-up that became Gimlet Media (very meta). In one episode they talk about the process of coming up with the name of their company.

I love Gimlet Media and all their podcasts but I’m not a big fan of the name Gimlet. I think names are pretty important and I love the stories behind names.

My Son’s Name

My son is called Yogi. Yogi is his grandmother’s maiden name. His official name is actually Robert Yogi Wenk Sylvain in part because we wanted him to have an out in case he hated having a unique name that some people might associate with a cartoon bear and others with an old baseball player. Also, Robert Yogi was the name of his great-grandfather and Robert Sylvain is the name of my father and my brother.

So we have a lot of history and coolness in one name.

I have to mention that Yogi Berra is one of my favorite people ever but as a Red Sox fan I could never name my son after a Yankee. Yogi is NOT named for Yogi Berra.

Yogi loves the name Yogi, by the way and doesn’t like being called Robert.

My Name

When I was born I was called “Sonny” for the first few days of my life and that was almost my name – Sonny Sylvain. Can you imagine? I can’t. What would I be like now if my name was Sonny? I’m pretty sure I’d own a restaurant in Portsmouth, New Hampshire or maybe be in the vending machine business in Ohio or Michigan.

Here’s why I was almost Sonny. I was the 38th grandchild of Henry and Eliza Sylvain. None of my aunts and uncles had named any of their sons after Pèpére (that’s grandfather in Canadian French) and my parents felt obligated to rectify that with me.

The Sylvain Family c. 1941. My grandfather is in the left corner. My dad is the little boy in the front row.

But they hated the name Henry. They thought I would be crippled by the name so they settled on the nickname “Sonny.”

(For the record, I like the name Henry. My favorite Shakespeare play is Henry IV, Part 1. If I ever used a pen name it would be Hal Silver or Hal Prince.)

When Pèpére heard that they were going to name me after him he told his wife of 40 years that his name was really John Stanislaus Henry Sylvain. She didn’t believe him until he pulled out his birth certificate. She wrote a letter to my parents that arrived a few days after I was born. My mother says my father’s relief was palpable. “That’s a nice name!” he said in stunned surprise.

So I’m happy to report that my name is John Stanislaus Henry Sylvain II.

(How someone born to lumberjacks in the woods of Quebec ended up with two middle names is an intriguing detail currently lost to history.)

The Purple Crayon of Yale

I was one of the founding members of the The Purple Crayon, an improv group at Yale that is (I’m very proud to say) still going strong several decades later. The group was started by Eric Berg who had spent half a year learning a long form improv called The Harold from Del Close. The form was called “The Harold” because someone said “what’s it called?” back in the late Jurrasic and someone else said “Harold!” (In the spirit of George Harrison’s answer to a reporter who asked him what the Beatle’s haircut was called. “Arthur,” George replied.)

So we were trying to come up with names (some were leaning toward “Yux et Veritas,” heaven forfend). Eric was training us to keep in mind things that everyone could relate to like myths, legends and great literature (rather than pop culture). I vividly remember that I was walking along right here:

Thinking about naming the group and how it should relate to something everyone had in common.

Everyone knows the stories from Greek and Norse myths. Everyone knows stories from the Bible. What else is there?

Everyone knows classic children’s books.

Like the one about the kid named Harold who creates his world with his imagination.

And his Purple Crayon.

Boom. *Mic drop before mic dropping was a thing.*

Sacred Fools Theater

The naming of Sacred Fools is a terrific story that was in print somewhere once but I can’t find it so I guess I’ll have to tell it again. The short version is that we inadvertently stole the name and most people don’t know where it came from. The long version is below…

Three Simple Steps

All of this is to say that names are very important, not only on a marketing and search engine level but really on a metaphysical level. Names are incredibly powerful things. To a large degree we define our world with language. We identify who we are in relation to the word based on words. That creature is “Mama.” That building is “Home.” That is a “Dog.”

The first thing that God had Adam do was to name everything.

“And out of the ground the LORD God formed every beast of the field, and every fowl of the air; and brought them unto Adam to see what he would call them; and whatsoever Adam called every living creature, that was the name thereof.”

-Genesis 2:29

In fact naming is so important that it was only after all the animals were named that God and Adam figured out that none of them would make a good companion for Adam. This suggests a comedy sketch that writes itself.

GOD: How about this one. I think you two make a great couple.

ADAM: I don’t know. It’s not really my type.

GOD: Well what type is it exactly.

ADAM: I think I’ll call it a Komodo Dragon.

GOD: Well, when you put it that way I can see what you mean. Not really a good match.

ADAM: No. The deadly bacteria infesting the mouth kind of puts a damper on kissing.

GOD: Kissing is important to you then?

ADAM: Well. I was thinking maybe once in a while.

GOD: How about this one. I think you would be great together. What’s her name?

ADAM: You mean the hedgehog?

GOD: Hmmm. Let me ask a seemingly unrelated question. Do you like ribs?

So now we come to the crisis.

I came up with the idea and the name of the three simple steps about a decade ago but I didn’t do very much with it. A little over a week ago I launched this blog with all kinds of fanfare and excitement (that fanfare and excitement was mostly inside my own head so you’re forgiven if you didn’t see it on the news).

Last night I published the latest post and then did a google search to see if “three simple steps” would lead to my site.

I found this.

A man named Trevor Black has written a self help book called Three Simple Steps. He published it a few years ago.

WHAT?!?! How did I miss that?

So after kicking myself a bit and doing a little whining to my poor sleeping wife I realized that ‘simple’ was a nice appealing word but it wasn’t REALLY accurate and it wasn’t essential.

How about three super steps or three smart steps?

My wife grunted in disgust and fell back asleep.

Purple Crayon? Hedgehog? Komodo Dragon?

Wait. What about Essential?

Three Essential Steps. That’s a NICE name!

So I immediately got and then Now I have to figure out how to move everything over there.

So maybe that’s it.

But I’d love more ideas. Let me know if you got a good one. I’d also like to hear any stories about great names.

And finally, if you want to get a weekly notification of new blog posts along with news and links to interesting tools and content, sign up for my newsletter. It was going to be The Three Simple Steps Newsletter but now I might just call it Arthur.

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PS The Longer Version of the Sacred Fools Name

We started the theater and needed to establish a non-profit corporation so we could open a bank account and take donations and exist. The sadly late and fantastically great Jim Ponichtera (a fellow Purple Crayon) was our pro-bono lawyer and to get the organization to exist we needed a name. Michele Dunn and I brainstormed about 200 ideas for names and many people added suggestions and at our third meeting we had a series of votes to get to the name. We were down to the last 10 (“The Candy Store,” heaven forfend, was the clear leader at that point) when a guy named Mark called out “How about Sacred Fools.”

A young Jim Ponichtera making fun of his own handsomeness

Late to party as it was, the suggestion got added to the final rounds and ended up winning. I voted for it because it seemed to allude to the special and crazy place that artists hold in society. Traditionally the fool was the only person who could make fun of the king and tell him thing he didn’t want to hear. That’s what I thought I was voting for.

The next day Jim did the name search and shortly thereafter filed the Sacred Fools Theater with the Secretary of State.

A couple weeks later we had the name. A day or so after that Mark came up to me after a meeting and said “we can’t use the name Sacred Fools.” Turns out it was the name of a group he had been part of in New York and he’d stolen the name. “Jon Kellam came up with it and he’s pissed.”

Jon Kellam and I had a talk and I apologized and he reluctantly accepted. He and I later became friends. Jon actually named Zoo District Theater and Wolfskill Theater so he’s got some naming skills.

Some old Sacred Fools at the old Sacred Fools space.

The irony is that the name Sacred Fools refers not to medieval fools or to artists in general but specifically to the sacred clown shaman of the Lakota people. That’s what Jon was referring to when he came up with the name for his short-lived company in New York. There have been thousands of Sacred Fools over the past 20 years and 99.9% of them have no idea where the name came from or what it means.

Post Post Script

Extra Credit: What does the punny title refer to?





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