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The Four Burners Theory — Your Thoughts?

I did an interview for the nice people at The 99 Percent last month, and Jocelyn shared an idea that has stayed with me ever since.

Here’s the idea —

I like this quote from a David Sedaris article. Sort of an adapted ‘carpenter’s triangle’:

“One burner represents your family, one is your friends, the third is your health, and the fourth is your work.”

The gist is that in order to be successful you have to cut off one of your burners. And in order to be really successful you have to cut off two.

The question that followed was something like, “Is that really true?” I wasn’t sure what to say, so I made something up that sounded halfway intelligent, then moved on. Except I kept thinking about It later, and more than a month later, I’m still thinking about it.

I’ve said all along that life-work balance is overrated. If you’re not happy with your life, you should change it like plenty of other people have done. If your job sucks and you’re miserable, you should quit.

These ideas always strike some people as offensive, as if we should be grateful for bad jobs and unhappy lives. Maybe things will magically get better! Meanwhile, other people are somehow able to embrace change and pursue lives of meaningful adventure. (We tend to focus on the second group over here.)

But then again, perhaps the four burners theory is another way of looking at the same concept. I’d like to be healthy, and I’d like to have good relationships with my family and close friends, while also being successful at my work. I don’t like the idea of choosing or cutting off one of the burners.

I also know that success is what you define it to be. You can define “success at work” to be something very small, and then say you are successful. You can decide to group friends and family into one burner to save space on the stovetop. You can compare yourself to other people who aren’t as healthy as you are, and then decide that you are, in fact, healthy.

These days I don’t run marathons anymore, but I still run. I don’t go to yoga class very often, but I try to stretch before I go to bed. See what I mean? Slippery slope, meet non-conformist writer.

Another word for comparison is “rationalization.” We’d all like to think we can be successful without cutting off one of the burners. But when you start deconstructing it, I’m not so sure.

What about all the ambitious people of the world? Many of us aren’t satisfied with redefining success to suit a small vision; not everyone wants to be well-rounded or average. I know I’m not alone in wanting my four burners to be all-around amazing, and my life to be amazing all-around.

So I thought I’d put this tough question to all of you smart people. What do you think? I’d really love to know.

I could bribe you with Frequent Flyer Miles or Lufthansa Amenity Kits, but instead I’ll offer fame and glory by reprinting some of the best comments in a follow-up post next week. Just don’t cut off one of your other burners to answer it, OK?


Photo by Andrea