The Power of Choice: A Boy Named Smoke

“Well my daddy left home when I was three And he didn’t leave much to Ma and me Just this old guitar and an empty bottle of booze Now, I don’t blame him ’cause he run and hid But the meanest thing that he ever did Was before he left, he went and named me “Sue”” – Johnny Cash “A Boy Named Sue”

My whole life I’ve been asked if Smoke is my real name. Born John Smoke Wallin, I’ve been Smoke since memory. This might seem a trivial question, but explaining my name has been a reality for me since as long as I can remember. I attended a Young Presidents Organization (YPO) event last night in West Hollywood and met another member with an equally unique name. We connected on the issue of growing up with an unusual name and the challenges that presented each of us. He explained his story of growing up hating his name, wishing to change it, and then being given a choice by his family. He was offered a color TV or name change and picked the TV. He went on to describe the pivot that happened for him when he chose not to change his name and owning the decision for the rest of his life. “The day after my choice, someone called me a name and we fought. I stood my ground. From that moment on, I owned my name and it empowered me.”

I immediately realized he described my own experience. Growing up in multiple towns, from Hoboken, Boston, Siesta Key and ultimately Longboat Key. I changed schools and moved 4 and 5 times before entering high school. Each move provided the usual challenges of meeting new kids, introducing myself and getting asked (aka challenged) about my name. Kids generally want to be liked and fit in. Having a weird name always came with this challenge up front. As I’ve described it many times, kids can be very mean and I remember this being very upsetting. I can remember coming home in tears. I always felt like an outsider.

I entered yet another school for 7th grade and declared to my mom, “I’m sick and tired of getting made fun of, I am going to use my given first name at my new school”. Declaring that, and having mom’s full support, I entered Sugg Middle School in Bradenton, FL as John Wallin. The first day of school and throughout my 2 years there I quickly realized 2 things: 1. I did not respond to the name John. 2. There were 7-10 John’s in every class. No one made fun of me and I fit right in and yet realized I did not feel like me.

As I prepared to enter Bayshore High School I declared to my mom, “ok, I’m going back to my real name, Smoke”. I’ve owned my decision ever since. Having a unique name from HS through college through my business career is now a source of strength. I embraced the unique gift my parents gave me at birth. Proudly explain my American Indian heritage (very small) and my likely semi-hippie parents at the time. Everyone remembers my name and me. It is a part of what makes me me.

The power of choice in our lives is all powerful. Deciding something for oneself means you own the decision. The greatest gift my mom gave me was to let me choose.

If you are facing a challenge or problem great or small, think about the choices you have made to be in your situation. Realizing that there are many things outside our control, think about the choices you can make going forward that you do control. Worrying about things outside your control adds no value. Remember, once we have identified a problem or issue we all have these choices: to change it, to solve it or to live with it. Doing nothing is a choice. Once you realize this, you empower yourself and own the decision. No one can take it away from you.

By A Boy Named Smoke.

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