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?

Happy Monday, everyone.


Image: Sherbet

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  • Michael says:

    I have always thought of it as juggling. No matter how many things you can juggle successfully, you can only have two things in your hands at any one time. Other balls may be in play, but you can’t deal with them until you toss one of the other two balls up into the air.

    If I were to stretch this metaphor a little bit I would add…

    * Some people can juggle more balls than others.
    * Everyone drops the balls eventually, you have to pick them up and start juggling again
    * If there’s one ball you never want to drop then you are limited to how many balls you can juggle with the other hand.
    * You can learn to juggle more balls if you have someone to help you
    * Juggling in pairs (eg. partner, mentor, spouse) can be trickier but may allow you to keep more balls up in the air
    * If you have enough money you can pay someone else to juggle for you

  • Mike Piper says:

    For me, I typically go for the “combining burners” method. Throughout my life, my friends have often been coworkers or business partners. And I’m certainly friends with my family members.

    Fascinating mental image. I’m sure I’ll be turning that one over in my mind for a while…

  • Sandy Dempsey says:

    For me, it is not so much about turning off the burners, as much as it is turning them down from time to time.

    When I am working on trying to finish a project or even start a new one, that burner gets turned way up, and the other burners, family, friends, health, etc get turned down for a bit.

    When I have a day scheduled to spend with my nephews or nieces, I turn that flame on high and give them my undivided attention, living in that moment. All the others burners are turned way down or off.

    I guess it’s not so much, turning on and off the burners, as much as turning them up and down and using the energy more efficiently.

    Thanks for the thought provoking question.

  • Jeremy says:

    I think that the person who is defining success is only thinking career-wise. Let’s be honest, not everyone has that as a focus for their life.

    Success for me will be different than success for you or anyone else reading this blog. I view my spiritual pursuits and having strong bonds with family and friends as success. There’s more to it than that, but that’s the cliff-notes version. I’ve done everything from tire recycling, to HVAC, to computer support for work. As long as it paid the bills and I focused on my definition of success I was happy (in general).

    So the question is, do you actually need to remove a burner for your version of success? Or can you just move something to a smaller burner?

  • Rebecca says:

    Chris – tough question indeed!

    I think that the best way to experience success on all of the burners is to cross-pollinate them! Play on a soccer team with your friends (friends & health), make cooking dinner a family activity (health & family), form friendships with your colleagues (friends & work), etc.

    The other thing to consider is how to define success in the areas of one’s life. In other words, you aren’t going to be THE BEST at EVERYTHING – so how do you prioritize? I value being athletic, but I don’t need to run a 6:30 mile anymore — I’ve revised my vision of success for that burner, which frees up more time for long dinners with friends.

    Here are some of my favorite resources for this question:

    1) Total Leadership by Stew Friedman
    2) Keith Ferrazi
    3) Coach – David Vittoria

  • Baker says:

    The real issue with this theory is whether or not the absence of any burners is an intentional decision.

    I like the idea of intentionally and deliberately choosing to turn down (or turn off) one of the burners. It seems not only necessary, but healthy, to inform your family and friends that you’ll be a little out of touch during this intense project creation. Or to let your health or work slip as you take a 3 month vacation over the holidays to visit with extended family you never spend much time with.

    Unfortunately, this is not how it happens in my life most of the time. Often, I’ll get consumed by a project and unconsciously neglect my health or family responsibilities. Or I may “burn out” on work to the point where my burner wouldn’t start, even if I wanted it to!

    The key seems to be not only the acceptance of the four burner theory, but the understanding that being able to control each of the burners is the real trick!

  • josh solar says:

    I like to think that it’s possible to have it all. I make my living, along with my wife, as a photographer. We have 3 small children. We have very close relationships with our family and friends. We travel 3-4 times a year. And, while we aren’t rich in the monetary sense, we make enough money by taking pictures of wonderful people in love to pay the bills and feed our children. Honestly, if that’s not success, I don’t know what is. My wife and I wake up every morning to our kids’ smiling faces and snuggles. We go to the pool, we play sports together, play dates a few days a week. The time spent together with our loved ones is what matters. We get a lot of that, and I’ve never been happier! I find time to work out about an hour 5 days a week, and have lost over 40 lbs. since last November, my wife is down 25. Not trying to brag here, but by MY definition of success, I think I’m successful in all 4 areas.

  • Dena says:

    Even the most amazing, ambitious people have flaws. We are not super-heroes. We are flawed, fallible human beings. We get tired, we get sick, we get cranky.

    When business is doing really well, maybe we’re not spending enough time with family & friends. Likewise, when relationships are thriving, maybe we’re losing focus on the business.

    With excellent time management skills, it is possible to maintain a healthy work/life balance. It is possible to be successful. However, the reality will always remain: there are only so many hours in the day. Until we learn to clone ourselves, we will have to make sacrifices somewhere.

    Finally, the most important thing that you said in the post is this: “If you’re not happy with your life, you should change it… If your job sucks and you’re miserable, you should quit.” In reality, there are a lot more than just four burners. Keep happiness & passion on the stove top at all times. That’s my advice. 🙂

  • Matt says:

    I don’t really think that this “four burners” concept works very well, because you can do something that falls into more than 1 category. For example, I biked to work this morning (and will bike home again this afternoon). I will have spent about 45 minutes biking – not bad for my health – and will have not spent 25 minutes driving. It didn’t take much time, but I hit two categories (“work” and “health”). Similarly, going on a hike with my family might accomplish “family” and “health,” or I might work with some of my friends, or… you get the idea.
    Granted, I think we also have to accept that most of us won’t have awesome families and friends who we spend lots of quality time with while becoming the CEO of a major multinational company and looking like an Olympic athlete. But then again… that’s not actually my definition of what success would look like.

  • Jessica Koppe says:

    Family is important if I have trouble with my friends, if I’m ill or unhappy at work. My friends are important if I need another perspective on one of the topics like health, family or work-related decisions. Health is important because this means life quality: I can care more about your family and friends if I’m fit, and my work flows much easier if I’m in a good shape. Work is important because I like to feed/support my family, want to go out with my friends or buying them a birthday gift, and work is important because I won’t be healthy for all of my lifetime, so it’s good to earn some money for recovery, for example. All of it is connected somehow, I think.

    I don’t like the idea of a work-live balance either because it suggests that work isn’t part of our lifes. I don’t think of these things as *burners* because they don’t just take energy away. They also *offering* us energy and other input. So I’d like to think about family and friends and health and work as the four pillars of my life. It’s not about quantity, it’s about quality and what is important to each of us…

  • Christopher says:

    This very idea has been on my mind a great deal of late and I’ve come to the conclusion that it isn’t that we totally sacrifice one of the “burners” over any others in a permanent sense. Rather, we temporarily sacrifice 3 of the 4 at almost any one time. In general, we can only focus on one of these at a time – in a given moment. Of course, there is some overlap – we can build relationship with both family and friends at the same time at certain events, or sometimes a portion of our work could actually be so enjoyable that it creeps into “play.”

    The key is balance. Knowing when to stop focusing on one element and move on to the next. We tend to think that the more I sacrifice of the others, the more I’ll succeed at the one we’re focusing on. I think this is true, but only in the short run.

    In the big picture, we will pay a great price in those neglected areas, and eventually diminish our ability to enjoy the area(s) of success.

    Make little sacrifices evenly and consistently.

  • BT says:

    Interesting concept. I think one way to think about this is to understand that you can turn on and off the burners throughout your life.

    For example, friends and family may be most important through your college years (success is easy up until then and your health is usually taken care of due to your youth). After college, you may choose to turn on your career burner and turn off your health burner.

    As you can see, as life moves along, I think you can adjust your burners to reflect what makes sense for you based on your current lifestyle. Of course, the trick is to have the abilty and will to actually turn burners on and off, i.e. when you have kids the family burner MUST be on.

  • Nate says:

    This is hard b/c it is so completely subjective….especially the term ‘successful.’ What is success anyways? For one it may be buying and building very large buildings (e.g. Trump) and for others it may be selflessly committing their life to the well-being of others (e.g. Ghandi).

    Back to the initial question, I guess I would have to say ‘yes’ and ‘no’ depending on the individual. It’s a definite ‘no’ for me. For me success is being happy with the life I have, which means:

    – Contributing to this world in some way that is beneficial (e.g. helping others)…this can be categorized as work.
    – Cultivating inner health, wisdom and compassion because if we don’t love ourselves, how are we going to love others? This can be categorized as health.
    – Building and maintaining loving and compassionate relationships with like-minded people. This can be categorized as family and friends.

  • Alan says:

    I also don’t like the idea of choosing or cutting off one of the burners. Just as you mention that success is what you define it to be, I’d like to think that Jocelyn’s four burners follow the same logic. Family, friends, health and work–they mean different things to different people. A successful person can absolutely maintain a healthy balance of the four burners, yet his/her definition of friendship, of work, etc. is personal and unique to a given lifestyle. Some of these lifestyles work, and some don’t.

    Do you think the congruence of the four burners is up to the individual, or the people he/she is surrounded by? While “health” and “work” are more dependent on the individual, “family” and “friends” suggest a communal dynamic, where all parties must be satisfied with the particular lifestyle. Does that make sense?

  • Darrell says:

    I would like to think that there are several different pots, one on each of these burners.. While one can make a choice to have burners on or off it is important that we keep a watchful eye on that which is being cooked. If we neglect one area long enough something is going to get burned, messy and smelly.

    While we have the choice to be cooking 4 things at once or not, those ambitious enough will always try knowing that there is a risk that something can be burned or not cooked with absolute perfection.

    The longer we cook, the better we become at maintaining the balance between the four burners.

  • Deanna says:

    Wow, I don’t like the thought of turning off a burner or two to be successful. For me, the definition of success involves balance in those four areas. I know I would be miserable if I only had the work and family burners going, for example. And if I’m miserable, I’m certainly not successful. But that doesn’t mean that all the burners need to be going full blast. I think the key is to adjust those burners as we go through life. Don’t shut off a burner completely, but let it simmer for a while if one or two of the other burners are demanding more of your attention. By constantly adjusting the burners, being sensitive to which ones need more heat at the moment and which ones need less, I think it’s possible to achieve a successful, balanced and fulfilling life.

  • Carrie says:

    I would say it is accurate although I don’t agree that you can only successfully run on two burners. What is more likely is that the success is determined on what setting you run it and how long you run it on all four burners. You can’t run on all four burners on high for very long without needing to eventually replace the stovetop. Also, if you are running on two burners, it will take longer to achieve success in all 4 areas, which is what we want. Someone once told me that it is more about opportunity cost. You will have to sacrifice something to be truly great – the question is what you want to sacrifice. The busy executive who wants to rule the world will likely sacrifice his/her health or relationships. I disagree (or sincerely hope it won’t require this).

  • Gayle Pescud says:

    If success is defined as some kind of extraordinary achievement–above and beyond the standard job, family and going through the motions of comfortable, middle class life–my experience is that “something has to give.”

    I experienced it as the child of someone successful in sport and community development and, later, working for an organisation doing great things to make the world a better place. In most cases, family has to give. When your parents are changing the world, you just don’t see them as much because the rest of the world wants a piece of them, often.

    Nelson Mandela is an extreme example. His children had less time with him than those related to his cause.

    You simply cannot do everything. If you have support, then you may be able to balance competing life needs better.

    We work and live in a part of the world on projects to make a difference. Our health suffers because that’s the nature of the place. Family are far away. We don’t have a choice if we want to succeed.

  • Daisy says:

    The first visual that came to mind was my stove. If I’m cooking on all four burners at once, it works, but it’s mighty crowded, and there’s a danger of the cook getting burned. Creating a balanced meal on a four-burner stove is safer and more productive if the cook makes one item ahead so that he or she is only concentrating on three burners at a time.

    I’m a full time professional (teacher), a disabled adult (hearing impaired), raising a disabled teen son (blind, on the autism spectrum), along with a neurotypical college graduate daughter and an equally busy husband. Balance is elusive, but it is attainable. Sometimes one burner has to be set to low or turned off temporarily.

  • Tracy Lee Carroll says:

    I don’t like this theory at all. I know too many people who have sacrificed one burner for the success of another and that never seems to work out in the end. I think to be complete, you have to have all four of those burners lit. I think anyone who has less than all four lit may have some serious issues in their life.

    The metaphor above regarding juggling is closest to what I feel. I have always said that the first skill a mother learns is how to juggle. I also like to think of it as plate spinning. You have to keep them spinning or else they will drop and break. That doesn’t mean you have to stand there and keep spinning just one or two plates, but you do have to give them all attention as needed. The better you are at spinning, the more plates you can keep going at once.

  • Beth says:

    Friends, family, health & work? And you have to choose? Hell no. No, wait, excuse me, make that, “Hellllll no!” How can I do my best work if my health is crap? How can I keep my energy & motivation up to want to do my best work if I have no friends or family? I agree that you cannot put 100% effort into each of these things at the same time. But personally, if I did not have all of these components in my life, I would be pretty miserable.

    It’s hard work to keep all four pots on the stove. But if I’m not here (aka alive) to work hard & be awesome, what am I here for?

  • Megan Matthieson says:

    I’ve heard this Four Burner theory before. I tend to think it’s true. But for me- Balance is the key. (I’m a dancer) I think to make real headway in any of the areas we have to focus in. And in doing so, the others are not going to get as much attention. I personally had to let go of my career for a long time while I was raising my kids- the pull of focus was too stressful for me and I didn’t feel I was doing either area justice.
    I happen to be married to a very successful man. It is rough! He has one burner brightly lit all the time. I like to think that he appreciates me turning him to the other three burners.
    And now that I’m back to my own interests, I’m hardly cooking. And when I’m really into a project I don’t even want to have lunch with my friends.
    And then there are those perfect days where you have BALANCE. You give your body, mind and emotional life their fair share of time. You love and create well.
    Four burners? Just make sure you can shift your weigh

  • Norma Vela says:

    I have one burner and I keep it on full blast – it’s the Making Sure Life is Fabulous Burner. The pot on the stove is a ragout of my family, creative work, my paid-for work, friends, health, and my animals. My family stews together with my creative work and seasons my paid-for work. My animals and friends keep my health simmering. Every aspect of my life flavors every other aspect.

  • Alex Harty says:

    Four burners. Family, Friends, Health, Work. Turn off one to be successful. Turn off two to be REALLY successful. Looked at another way, turn off one, be it family, friends, health or work, huge failure (in one). Turn off two, gaping hole in life, depression, anxiety, sleepless nights, drinking ensues. Keep all four burners on, but burn more on the undercooked areas of your life, burn less on the already cooked areas that you’ve mastered. Find balance because all four are interrelated, and the synergy of all four working as a group has a higher overall life success than the sum of the four burners apart. If I neglect friends, my health, work, and family instantly have a lower boiling point. Success without friends, without health, without work and without family somehow isn’t as meaningful as success with the whole life.

  • Michele Adamo says:

    Rather than trying to watch four burners at once (which I’ve found to be fraught with second-guessing about what’s burning), I start with one basic thing…one core belief that centers me and makes all the rest possible.

    For me, that’s faith in a Higher Power.

    I start with the basic faith precept that my HP desires good things for me (usually better things than I could imagine for myself) and then I try to put myself in touch with what that is. Sometimes, I don’t know where the impulse comes from, and I’m not sure I’ll be able to do what intuition is directing, but I try anyway.

    The result? It’s been slow…cumulative…incremental…and amazing! Since adopting this blueprint for living more than 12 years ago, I’ve found a life that is meaningful, joy-filled, and full of the present tense rather than the “one-day-I’ll…” that used to plague me.

    I believe that everything we need is inside of us already…if we have the courage to listen to it. So, stop. Listen.

  • Chase Brumfield says:

    Personally, I’m not a fan of theories that are supposed to encompass all of life. Life is too dynamic, exciting, full of love to be encompassed in a 4 burner theory.

    Why must we cut ties here to begin anew there? A web doesn’t start and end or question it’s integrity if it doesn’t look exactly the same in one spot as it does in another… no… it exists as a meshing of strand after strand, somehow all connected, and just as importantly, somehow all being good and necessary.

    When we create these constructs of “give and take” we start taping into guilty reactions: “I’ve got to give this up to invest myself here, but giving this up hurts the people who are invested in ir.” or “Why can’t I do it all, am I not good enough, smart enough, passionate enough?” The fact is, we’re not meant to do it all or pass judgement on ourselves in this manner. Life is meant to be a mystery, experienced not picked apart. Realize life is a gift… not a burden full of categories.

    Give. Get. Give.

  • Barbara says:

    Maybe it’s because of the shape my life has taken, but I see it as falling into chapters. My kid goes off to college in the fall, so the intensive, daily Momming chapter is coming to a close, and the family burner is turning itself down. Because I had her so young, the job burner has always been steady but hasn’t been as hot as I’d like to hope it will be starting this fall as Career Chapter—I Become Rich and Famous—starts in earnest.

    Here’s a question though. What if you have two kinds of work? For a paycheck, I do one very businessy thing that I do like. For love, I do a completely different kind of work that could not support me at all unless I went back to school for a long time to get the credentials to teach it, which I don’t want to do. I think a lot of people are in this same situation. Do we have two pots on one burner?

  • Michael Pinter says:

    No one can really focus on more than one thing at a time, it is the prioritization that matters. Do I go to my son’s little league game if I have to leave work at 4:30? Do I get up at 5AM to run if it means that I’ll be tired at 9PM spending time with my wife? etc. These questions are what make life interesting, but the idea that I would have to “cut off” health, family, friends or a job, to be “successful” in some of the others, disturbs me.

    I think that family and health are definitely the two more important burners. If you don’t have health, everything else is irrelevant and Family should always be more important than your job or your friends.

    I think that when we cut off a burner, we can do it temporarily. For example, I may not hang out or make plans with friends for weeks or months, if I am busy at work.
    Everyone can have all four burners working and have their own definition of success for each.

  • Sherralee says:

    If you’re happy eating out of the same pot all the time, by all means turn off the three other burners. If you like variety in taste and nutrition, keep more burners on and eat less out of each different pot!

    Seriously, though, why not begin with the end in mind? Fast forward to your death bed: ask yourself what will give you most satisfaction and pride. Put the heat on there.

  • Matto says:

    What do the burners run on? They run on contentment or willpower.

    When you’re content with the kettle you’re cookin’, then you don’t really need to concern yourself with changing that aspect of your life. I mean, who complains that things are just going too smoothly for them and that they’re too happy?

    But when you’re cooking on willpower, and most people’s metaphorical life-stoves do now and again, then there’s a problem that should be addressed. Here is where the perceived need to cut one off stems from, and neuroscience tells us why.

    Willpower is a resource that can be depleted. It can also, over time, be built up. If you’re not content with aspects of your life, it requires willpower to sustain them. The more willpower that goes out, the less you have and the more deflated you feel.

    When your life is out of balance, you want to turn off some burners—to make it easier. But maybe instead just change what, and how you’re cooking. Cook less, and realize your stove has issues.

  • Craig says:

    The problem with the 4 burner analogy is that it focuses too much on the individual. Sure, 4 burners is more than enough to handle when going it alone, but hopefully we all live and work as part of a larger team.

    Perhaps I have spent too much time around commercial kitchens but when I first read this I wanted to know where the other burners were, where is the grill top for when you want to bring it all together, where is the deep fryer for when you want to indulge yourself for a while and perhaps temporarily abandon those healthy veggies steaming on your health burner? And, more importantly, where is the support system?

    Everyone needs a good sous chef and shouldn’t be so focused on trying to take on all of “their burners” at once! Perhaps that sous chef is a family member, perhaps it’s a colleague or friend, or most likely, the roll of sous chef is one that changes over time, assisting us when one pot starts boiling over and we’re too distracted by what’s burning in the oven…

  • Tim says:

    Thanks for another interesting article Chris.

    Their belief system is there’s only one way to do things, and there are no alternatives.

    I am very lucky to have amazing friends who spend their time talking and thinking about things like beliefs, and how, like clothes, you can choose to change them to suit your style, needs and goals.

    Buddha said “with our thoughts we make our world” Dr. Phil says “there is no reality, only perception”.

    The person suggesting this theory believes they cannot have all four torches, therefore they can’t.

    “Whether you believe you can or you believe you can’t either way you’re right.” Henry Ford

    Let me suggest it starts by believing it’s possible, then the way to make it a reality can begin.

    If you don’t have time for all four you need to get paid more, exercise with friends and family, and look for ways OUTSIDE the conventional to make it happen.

    It’s possible, but it may take thought and imagination.

  • Carolyn says:

    All of the four burners are subject to being cut off because of our “perception” of success. What is success? Is cutting off some of the burners part of success? Isn’t having a balance in life that includes all burners working well in fact the best success?

  • Kristy says:

    I agree with others that first, it all depends on how you define success. For me, I am very clear on what my long-term priorities and values are (my burners, if you will), and I can feel when things are starting to get out of whack when, in the short term, I start neglecting those priorities for any length of time (turning off the burners). I use a frame of “proportion” rather than “balance”, as balance to me implies that each burner gets equal attention, which doesn’t fit for me.

    I also agree with Matt, who commented that often an activity can satisfy more than one priority, such as a bike ride–good for my physical health, good for my spirit, and often a social connection with people I care about.

    I think one of the reasons many of us read your stuff, Chris, is that we don’t buy into the traditional definitions of “success” and choose to take our own path, even if that may mean less prestige, or wealth, or whatever else people sacrifice two or more of their “burners” for.

  • Becky Blanton says:

    It’s not about the burners. They’re the straw man. It’s all about choices and consequences and trade-offs. What matters to you? What are your goals? Where do you want to be? You want to travel, you have a goal. The trade-off is you aren’t in the USA to see everything your friends see, or do all the things you could do if you were here. You know you are trading off something to get what you want. As long as you’re happy, who cares if others think you travel too much. Ultimately knowing what makes US happy, whether it’s burning four burners or eight, is what is important. Learning how to balance the burners or demands of our lives in order to achieve our goals rather than be controlled by them is what matters.

  • Rex says:

    It revolves around each person’s definition of success which in my case revolves around all of those areas–family, friends, work and health. In actuality there are other areas as well such as my faith which has to be in the mix or else I’ll never continue to progress toward achieving my goals.

    Do I lower the level of effort/commitment temporarily in each of the areas so that I can concentrate on another area? Most definitely! At one time in my life, I would concentrate very heavily on one area–work. What I found in doing that was that it left out the balance I needed to be truly happy which to me goes hand in hand with my considering myself as being successful.

    Today success to me centers around knowing when to turn the burner down on a particular area just as much as when I need to turn it up. I have to keep all the burners going..switching back and forth on a regular basis. When I don’t that’s when I find each area begins to suffer.

  • Sheryl Karas says:

    Well, for me, it’s always seemed like learning to set appropriate boundaries and prioritizing what makes your life happiest is best. Rather than “shutting off” a burner for good, I’ll sometimes slip away from the noise and distraction of family life to write. As Virgina Woolf once said: we all sometimes need a room for our own. But that doesn’t mean it’s best to lock yourself in that room and never come out! That leads to a different sort of madness — another thing Virginia Woolf could tell people about.

  • Andrea says:

    My initial reaction to the Four Burner theory is “yuck.” Who wants to sever things that are important to them in the name of success? I believe that a successful life is one in which we understand and enjoy each of these burners. As a person who likes doing and being a multitude of things, I would never contemplate cutting one these areas out of my life. I would not feel whole. Granted, I may not be able to experience each of them at the level that I want to at all times but it is enough to know that my health, my friends and family, and my work are important to me – which, to my way of thinking, is also being successful because I know what my priorities are and on what basis I will make my decisions.

  • Rachel Anderson says:

    I agree with Norma; it’s one burner – one life. I might need to do some adjustments to keep it burning clean and strong under all circumstances, but it all still just comes back to me and the choices I make. I choose to live an integrated life and know that if one area of my ‘burner’ is not bright and strong, ultimately it affects the whole burner. No, four burners is not a metaphor that works for me!

  • Jennifer Bones says:

    Great post Chris and thank you!

    This is a subject very near and dear to my heart. I was once a very successful project manager making six figures in the pharmaceutical industry. I was miserable, suffering from depression and constantly had to struggle with moral / ethical conflicts I had with that industry. (I’d like to suggest that “ethics” may very well be a fifth burner for some.)

    I walked away from that career completely and have been working full time as a writer ever since. Recently, I also left my friends and family to move to a more remote location for several reasons not the least of which were to focus more on my writing.

    Since my move last year my business has finally started to take flight as has my creative writing endeavors. As hard as it is, and I can feel the lump in my throat as I write this, to be apart from the ones I love so dearly I also have to admit that it has led (at least in part) to my success. There’s something to the theory, I’m sorry to say.

  • John Sifferman says:

    Just FOUR? What about aspects like spirituality, education, creativity, and the many other facets of living true to our nature? We each define success for ourselves, but I think a definition of success that is lacking in any one aspect will be incomplete and potentially unfulfilling.

    We can either compartmentalize each aspect and hope we cover all of our bases (I’d need an entire restaurant kitchen to have enough burners!), or we can seek an integrated lifestyle that caters to all of our needs through mutually-beneficial practices. I’m still a work in progress, but I think that seeking integration has me on the right track.

  • Eric Phillips says:

    I generally run full blast on one burner at a time. I don’t recommend this method, but I tend to have a one track mind. I’m not sure I agree with the concept. If I was forced to cut one then it would obviously be work. If I had to cut two, I would have to choose between health and friends. Personally, I don’t think health should even be an option.

  • Mandi says:

    As with anything, I think the key to this theory is relative to the individual.

    First it depends on your definition of “success”. For some people success is working hard for 12 hours a day. For others it is small genuine accomplishments. And some people consider genuine happiness to equal an all around successful life. Sometimes my “successful” day is one where I have gotten out of bed.

    Almost everyone else has mentioned turning certain burners up and down at will. I think this is the ebb and flow of any existence, successful or not. It all depends on how much you value each aspect of your life. I guess the secret is to turn each burner up when it starts to get comfortable on simmer. Once you lose control of your burners you will settle into a groove that disturbs your overall balance.

  • Penny says:

    I feel like I am cheating since I read this article @ 99% last week. The four burner concept is good for some folks and not so much for others. We all have such diverse personalities, family beliefs and definition of “success” that it is hard to really fit everyone into one theory. I, myself go non-stop in every direction, I work full time as a 9to5’er, I am a potter and welder in the evenings and I have a retail shop on Friday and Sat.. My husband and I just started P90X in the am, my daughter and I talk on the phone a zillion times a day and my freinds love to hear my stories when we gather. So, see personality plays a huge part in our life, not everyone could do this or even want too. I couldn’t imagine it any other way, well, I do plan on removing the 9 to 5, thats why I joined the Art of non-conformity!!!!
    If you want to keep up with me visit or there is always something going on! Gotta get a plug in when I can!

  • Richard says:

    I love to cook. Sometimes I do a stir fry dish that has everything in the wok, and I can make a balanced meal on one burner. Other times I’m using two or three or four burners, depending on the dining experience I have envisioned. On Thanksgiving we have all four burners going plus the turkey in the oven and peas in the microwave.

    What does a successful dining experience look like, and how many burners does it require? “It depends.”

    What does a successful life look like, and how many burners does it require? “It depends.”

    If someone is looking for a recipe for a successful life, here it is: “There is no recipe. You need to go out and live it yourself!”

  • Michael Knowles says:

    Forget about work-life balance, and forget about burners.

    I’ve reached the conclusion that being where my feet are is the most important thing I can possibly do. That’s the only concept of balance I seem capable of understanding.

    What works in my life is keeping a clear mental image of what I want to have, be, and do. Then I bring my complete attention to whatever I’m working on at the time with the determination to create what I want. Living the creative life means taking life’s raw materials and using them in ways that meet the have-be-do equation. So, even if my house burns down, I can draw with the charcoal.

    Sometimes things get messy. Life’s like that and it’s okay. Sometimes I go over the top with what I’m focused on, be it wife, friend, work, or health. Falling down doesn’t matter. It’s how I stand up that counts.

    I say it’s good to be me.

  • Bobbi Benson says:

    My world opened up when I decide that I didn’t have to choose between things that really matter to me. All the “burners” are important, so I choose them all. But when I’m with my family, or some friends, or doing my exercise, or working, I am all there. I am in the moment. I am present to the experience.

    The struggle stops when my mind chatter is quiet, and I’m in the moment. I have also spent quite a bit if time balancing my life, and choosing what is truly important. It is a day-to-day choice.

  • Lori says:

    i admit that i cut off two burners – friends and health – in order to become really successful.

    luckily that only lasted a few years and after i had achieved financial independence, i was able to get my health back. though i had to make some new friends. 😉

    working on a new business now, i am not willing to give up any of my burners. but then i’m not expecting the same level of success, either. i’m satisfied to have a smaller business, make less money, and have better balance overall. but that’s at least in part because i already made my $ in my 20s when i could afford to burn the candle at both ends.

  • Peter Bilton says:

    You hit it right on the head when you wrote that it depends on your definition of success. And I find that I’m defined more by what I’m not willing to give up, which burners I’m not willing to turn off, if you will, than by what I do. Time and time again I get jazzed by an idea, start working on it, and then realize that to do it right I would have to take myself away from something more important. Usually, that’s time with my family.

    There’s a certain kind of clarity you get from understanding and internalizing that there’s nothing extraordinary about success or skill – it’s mostly just the time you put in. (With a little enthusiasm to make that time count.) In my opinion, success is simply a choice, or rather, a series of lots and lots of little choices. It’s only at the highest level that talent, luck, and genetics play into it. Once you understand that, it’s easier to make the choice about whether the success you envision is worth what you’d have to give up.

  • Susan says:

    I think you inevitably change the degree of the burners depending on what’s going on in your life. Right now fitness is very important to me for a variety of reasons. So it having down time after 2 years of nonstop work and flux. I’m still doing projects, at my own pace, and using the ‘down time’ to get my head into bigger products/projects I want to launch. In about a month, I’ll turn down the fitness/personal time burner and heat up the work burner.

    The only burner that stays consistent for me is my husband. Without him there’s no point in any of the burners being on. But we also ‘get’ what the other wants in terms of love/life/work and our relationship incorporates our creativity, work, passions pretty seamlessly. Most of the time. Sometimes our internal relationship burner needs tending, other times it can go unattended.

    At the end of the day it’s about what’s best for our lives, not what everyone else thinks should be best for us.

  • Rita Roberts says:


    Balance implies that the stove top is teetering atop a steel ball and all the pots must be of equal weight or you’ll have a big mess.

    However, a small bit of perfectly seasoned sauce might bring harmony to the protein, pasta, and vegetables on the other burners. Are we really going to eat the same amount of meat as we do veggies? And sometimes the burners are unnecessary, when I prefer my food raw.

    Balance requires the work of constant adjustment, measuring, thought, etc.

    Harmony is simply there to be enjoyed.

  • Oscia Timschell says:

    As we progress in our careers, we make more money. If you assign time the same importance as money, then instead of always looking to make more money each year, you can look for more free time while making the same amount of money each year.

    Find your sweet spot where you work as little as possible while making enough money to support the lifestyle you want, and then like magic you have enough time to work out and hang out with family and friends.

  • Sandra Lee Schubert says:

    Four burners going at once would make it very hot in here. I think there are too many holes in the idea Sedaris puts forth. We can’t go full tilt on every thing all the time, nor can we turn off parts of our lives. If you read any of Sedaris writings on his life turning off some things would make perfect sense to him.

    We can be fully alive and present. So if I am with my family they get my attention. If its work time my focus is there. On a work day I may have to give some love to a friend in need but that may not be my full out focus. We have to define our focus and be flexible as needed. Or get a stove with six burners.

  • Kirsten says:

    The burner theory assumes no contact between all these parts of your life. Matt’s example of biking to work starts to illustrate this, but you can take it a step further and say that the time you spend on your health contributes to work by relieving stress and providing nourishment so that your brain has the energy to tackle your day. Interaction with your friends and family can provide new ideas or solutions to problems you’ve been chewing on at “work” or ideas from work can provide endless conversation with friends and family. Rather than separate burners, I prefer to think of the elements of my life as part of one organic whole with each one supporting the others.

  • Kieran says:

    Only 4 burners? I run ultramarathons, play ten instruments, speak a half-dozen languages, am in a relationship, have good friends, have a close relationship with my family (in the US and in Ireland), and am a lawyer at a pretty intense law firm.

    To me, if you love what you do, when you do it, that’s the greatest accomplishment. Will I win these ultras? Hell no. Am I a spectacular musician? Not really. But I’m a decent runner and I can make music that sounds pretty good. My main goal is to enjoy the moment and the experience when I’m doing it — where I end up in relation to others is not my concern.

    I don’t play mandolin to be better than anyone else, I play it because I love the way it sounds, and because the process of going from incapable of playing the instrument to playing it reasonably well gives me a feeling of accomplishment.

    I approach life like Caesar approached sex. If it’s something I want to do, I just do it. Then and there.

  • Sarah says:

    Is it true? No idea. As you say, it probably depends on how you define the terms. All I can say is if I have to ‘cut off’ friends and family in order to be successful in work, then work can go take a hike. And if health is one of the things you ‘cut off’ you may not have any choice about having the other three burners prematurely cut off.

  • Don Stump says:

    For me it’s all about perception. I’m an old guy, and have looked at this for years and years. Are my family “needs” much greater this year because of the age of my children. Is work particularly “exciting” this year. Am I getting less exercise because of healing from an injury? I’m pretty good at identifying when I’m spinning out of control, but I have to be very aware of others signals to keep balance between the “big four”. The huge lesson for me is that others are the drivers of this process. I laugh when I consider that somehow I have all the “control”.

  • Miles Free says:

    Critical thinking is the act of recognizing and challenging assumptions.

    The premise of cutting off a burner misses the mark. Am I successful if I lose my left arm but now my right arm is stronger to compensate?

    Success to me is a Qualitative, not Quantitative concept.

    The idea of Quality in this taxonomy is what seems to be missing. If you are truly present and engaged when you are with Family, Friends, or Working, You will be ‘successful” if success is possible for you. If you are merely present, or going through the motions, your success is less assured.

    Instead of focussing on “How Much?” if we focus on “Making a difference” or “Our Best” success will be there.

    The idea of Health as one of the four burners is somewhat novel to me. I believe that Maslow’s hierarchy gives us a better lens to see that, in this particular metaphor, our health may very well be the stove that is (or supports) the burners that are our life.

    Thoughtful conversation. Thanks.

  • Lois Hudson says:

    This is a great discussion and thought-provoker, but no one has addressed the fuel/energy supply. MATTO’s post comes the closest, but what fuels the contentment (a great quality, by the way) and/or the willpower? I would call the fuel source the SPIRITUAL aspect of our lives, which undergirds the pots and pans on any or all of the burners. That may be different for each of us. For me it is my relationship with the Supreme energy source, the Creator of all things; His name is ELOHIM – GOD.

  • Karen Talavera says:

    I agree with Sandy Dempsey who said exactly what I was going to – this isn’t an all-or-nothing proposition involving turning burners on or off; it’s about balancing the distribution of energy by turning them up or down when necessary and appropriate.

    I don’t think one area of life must be sacrificed in order to achieve success in the others, but it may receive lower priority at least temporarily.

    When I’m cooking some of my favorite Mexican dishes simultaneously, like Chiles Rellenos and Sopa de Tortilla, I’m using four burners but they’re certainly not all on high at once. While the chiles are frying on high, the soup is merely simmering. The sauce for the chiles is slowly heating on medium, and the tortilla strips are frying on medium-high. I’m monitoring it all, but giving attention only where most needed. In the end, what’s cooking on multiple burners usually gets combined into one dish, and the most important outcome is that it’s balanced and delicious.

  • tara - scoutie girl says:

    I have a big problem with the idea of “balance.” But like you, I have a big problem with the idea of needing to turn off one of my burners.

    Where most people fail at this is not recognizing all the low quality things they put energy & time into. They spend hours watching TV in the name of relaxation. They force family time that results in little engagement and no bonding. They grind away at tasks that have very little influence on their world.

    If we all focused on quality (and not quantity!) we’d see how easy true balance is to achieve. It doesn’t require shutting off burners, it requires a real sense of what’s truly important at the moment. Nurture the flames that need attention – not the ones you feel obligate to fan.

  • ConsciouslyFrugal says:

    I agree with folks who have mentioned the subjectivity of success. How you define success will determine how true or untrue this concept is, and to what degree.

    It’s also important to note that this is a David Sedaris quote. As a culture, we have a pretty fierce worship of celebrity and often confuse celebrity with being “awesome” and “extraordinary.” For anyone whose ever spent time with famous folk, it really isn’t always so awesome or extraordinary. The most amazing people I’ve met, who do truly spectacular things with their lives, are too engaged in their work/passion to garner celebrity status. Do they eliminate burners? Some do, others don’t. But to acheive the level and kind of success that Sedaris has reached? Yeah, not easy to do if you’ve got all burners going. The vast (and I do mean vast) majority of us will never reach that level nor would it suit many that well. It’s the worship of celebrity that makes it appealing, not the reality of the lifestyle.

  • Steven says:

    I think the four burner theory is true, but it doesn’t consider momentum: if you get a burner hot enough, you can turn it off and still cook for awhile. If you build strong relationships with friends and family, you can neglect them a bit without losing the core. If you build healthy habits, such as running a marathon, you can fall into running as a past time and still be healthier than most. If you build a reputation in your work, you earn the ability to coast a bit.

    You have to neglect burners for success, but if you time it right, you can still find nourishment in your pots.

  • Regina says:

    I would have to disagree with the 4-burner theory. I believe that those 4 things (family, health, work and friends/community) are the cornerstones of a healthy and happy life, and to cut out or completely disregard any one of them will make your foundation unstable.

    First – all things in moderation. Second – you really can have everything. It’s all about focus, like many people have mentioned here already.

    I’m also reminded of a feng shui theory that relates your stove to your prosperity and abundance. The more burners you have, the more abundance in your life. If you shut off burners, you shut off the flow of prosperity in your life.

    I say to keep the burners lit, let some pots simmer and some boil; shift your focus appropriately. That’s the difference between a fry cook and a master chef.

  • Frances Schagen says:

    I used to cook on a wood stove. There were hotspots and not-so-hotspots. The biggest point is that it was continuous. I’d move the pots around depending upon what needed more or less heat. I could jam two pots close together or move several way over to the side.

    That’s how I see it. Not so much as discreet areas, but shared areas with a predictable and even distribution of heat (attention). I’m much more comfortable with the idea of a range (get it?) of attention rather than 4 separate areas.

    I also agree with the combined idea. I’ve had business meetings while hiking; some of my best friends are business associates; my husband and I are starting a business together.

    Happiness theory says that we are more or less happy depending upon who we are, not what our circumstances are.

  • Meg Boone says:

    Simmer down now….

    Seriously, turn them all down to cook properly, then combine into the most tantalizing dish ever, then take it one spoon at a time.

    Each bite will contain a different food(aspect of life, stay with me here) and you get to enjoy the whole experience one bite at a time.

    Forget the burners, life is about the eating, bon appetit!

  • Christine says:

    Not sure this model appeals to me… it doesn’t make sense to cut off a whole “burner”… good relationships will support your health and help you do better work and find better jobs with higher pay which means you have better ways to take care of your health and you can help people better which means better relationships, etc, etc. They all support and feed into each other, right

    However, I’m all for cutting real “burners” like bad health habits, bad jobs, and bad relationships.

  • Sara says:

    I’m a juggler. It doesn’t mean that I juggle very well, but I do know that the moments I enjoy the most are when I’m dealing with the stuff that most matters. I would say that I have three burners: Me, Work, Friends and Family. My friends are also my family so it makes sense to loop them together.

    What I’ve just realized, is that I need to focus on me more at certain times in order to make the rest of the burners work. If I’m tired, I can’t be a good employee to either my full-time company, or my small newly opened company (see URL) and I most definitely can’t be a good friend or family member, so it all comes full circle.

  • Laura says:

    I agree with Keiran, whose concept is do things for the love of them, not to be the best. A few years back, I was so stressed out that someone told me, “You have all your burners on high, just IN CASE you have to cook something…” That’s when I started practicing conservation of my own energy. “Balance” has become an overused concept. There is nothing wrong with being busy as long as what you are busy with feeds your energy and pleases your soul!

  • Kaleigh Somers says:

    As with everything else in life, I think the premise behind the four burners theory is balance. If you want balance, if that makes you feel content and gives you the illusion of a successful life, then you can’t have any one thing become your world. On the flip side, if you’re a risk taker, balance is nothing. Balance stands in your way of being a great mother or daughter or employer or writer. A lot of people feel safe when all four burners operate relatively well. They buy into the idea that a little bit of everything is enough, but for the rest of us, it’s not. I think people are afraid to care about one thing more than something else, like it’s going to personally offend one burner that you never use it because it’s too small and it doesn’t heat up as fast. The way I see it, you have two choices: dwell on it and constantly apologize, or do what you love, what you want, and stop feeling bad about that. Because let’s face it: a lot of people in this nation are selfish already.

  • Sean Canton says:

    I think that like anything, times lead to changes. You can only really do one thing at a time, and in certain circumstances, your family will take precedence, or your health, or your work. You can aspire to all sorts of great things, non-conformist writer, but reality always interferes with our dreams. I think the key is to recognize, accept and drive the fuel for the fires, ala Purpose-Driven Life (great read, thanks!).

  • Zack says:

    Seems that to be successful at something worthwhile takes longer than a few days. Assuming that everybody needs to commit time to each of the four burners in order to keep from burning out, cutting one or more of the burners out could only be a smart move if you are looking to achieve a short term success. Otherwise the long term probability of sustaining a state of extinguished burners quickly approaches zero as time goes on. Thus, a balance of some kind that allows you to function until you are successful needs to be found.

  • Margie says:

    Interesting! I probably define success differently than burner-having people. Maybe I cook over an open fire, because I’m happy and don’t feel the need to close off any burners. We make enough money to keep our family on the road (our house is an RV and we travel the country) and that’s more than enough here!

  • Jesse says:

    Love this one. I agree with Sandy, Darrell and especially with what Craig said about a sous chef.

    I’m cooking on all four burners of a gas range. (There’s more control with gas vs. electric.) I’m happiest when I don’t have any burners turned off. Yes, it can get hot. Yes, it keeps me on my toes. I would love a constant sous chef, but I’ve become very independent.

    Sometimes I resort to putting lids on a couple pots, to maintain a real slow simmer. I lift the lid occasionally and give a little stir, and then go back to the more active rolling boils of the other two pots.

    It’s a dance. It’s creative.

    And the house always smells great.

  • Kelly says:

    I like the four burners theory as a new perspective on my life, but I sense a few flaws in it for me. First, I agree we can’t do everything well. That is no reason to stop trying though. There is always room for improvement. Second, I think we all shut off burners in our lives at different times. The key would be to do it consciously. I’ve seen too many people who focus on one burner (usually career) to the detriment of all others and tell themselves, “I’ll have more time for other things soon.” Before they realize it they have alienated friends, family, and lost their health. In my mind, the burners should be on one at a time (maybe more if you combine them as others have suggested). Whatever burner is on needs to be on full blast. If you are spending time with friends, just spend time with friends. If you are working, just work. Put everything you have into what you are doing right now and don’t worry about the others until it this there time. Aloha!

  • Andy Dolph says:

    ok – let’s go with the stovetop metaphor for a bit, though I’m not convinced that I like it anyway…

    Why would you have to turn a burner off, to heat up another one – assuming this is a zero sum game the way it’s described why not turn some down to turn others up, then none are off, and you keep rebalacing depending on circumstances…

    But here’s the problem I have with this metaphor –
    #1 Every stove I’ve ever used can run all the burners on high – turning some off doesn’t help anything, but that’s nitpicking.

    #2 more importantly, I don’t think it’s a useful or accurate way to think about life. For instance, In my life, I don’t see my friends every day, or even every week – but when we do get together, we’re not just hanging out to hang out – we’re really THERE, and generally doing something cool – so it’s not as much time, but it’s an awesome experience – which, to me counts for a lot.

    So yes – my attention and time are finite, but I balance.

  • Althea says:

    Love and passion are the fuels of success. And if I love my family (and they love me back), I love my friends (and they love me back), I love my work, and I enjoy perfect health, then that, to me IS success. I could say more, but I’ll leave it there, and I’ll leave the burners behind too. 🙂

  • clare smith says:

    The notion that you have to sacrifice (cut off) one or two burners to be successful is the epitome of a lack of success. How do you define success? What is your primary focus? Is it the illusion of financial security / esteem at all costs or is it the following of your life’s goal (your purpose) which if sound should incorporate all – friends/family, health & work. If you are having to cut off burners you need to be questioning your vision of success and reevaluate.

  • Greg says:

    The Four Burners theory is interesting but flawed. I think it only applies if you define successful as financially successful. Even then you’re actually talking about allocation of labor hours.

    I know plenty of people who work long hours for little ROI. Even if you sacrifice family, health and friends, you’re not necessarily going to be wealthy. I’d also argue that many times wealth is entirely due to someone making the right connections, through family and friends. To be truly successful, you need to know how and where to focus your efforts, on all fronts, not just focus on a single work-related goal all hours of the day. More hours does not equal success. If you’re exhausted and depressed, you can waste a ton of time on tasks that you would have completed quickly if you had been healthier, physically and mentally.

    Lastly, here’s the story of the Mexican fisherman and the American businessman. It’s based on an old Chinese story.

  • Christine Livingston says:

    Are we talking success or happy?

    The two are not necessarily the same thing.

    Sure, I can see that to be successful by a set of traditional western standards, if you focus on only one or two “burners” you can pull it off.

    But will you have a happy, meaningful life? Will you be able to take a sense of fulfillment and gratitude from your successes?

    To me, if you want the experience of being alive to your success, you need to attend to the things that make you happy, and these things need to harmonize with one another.

    And, forget balance, that’s just a corporate term that’s aimed at keeping people in jobs.

  • Monica says:

    I agree that it depends on what you define as “successful.” If you want to be a CEO and make a 7-figure salary, then yes, you will probably be sacrificing sleep and time with your family and friends. If you want to be a professional athlete and need to be extremely healthy, you will have less time for other things. However, I think you can have an amazing life while still having a balance and keeping all burners lit. If you walk a lot, you will keep your health in good shape. If you keep up correspondence with friends and see them a few times a week, you will have a healthy social life. If you see your family every day, you will excel there as well, and hopefully have a job that makes you happy while giving you flexibility. But it’s true that there are only so many hours in a day, and people have to decide for themselves what is and isn’t worth sacrificing.

  • John K. Lunde says:

    I think you’ve hit the key with your idea of definitions. I’m an analytical type so I tend to take a pretty logical approach.

    First, define your idea of long term success in each area (I’m taking it as a given that the four burners of friends, family, work and health are the four broad groups to start with, which I’m sure some people would argue). For example, define your health success as living to 120, or staying at a certain weight, or running xx marathons per year, etc. Define work success as income, net worth, fame, etc.

    Once you have your long term definition of success, the short term plan will almost invariably involve prioritizing burners over short stretches to achieve your long term goals. In the truly short term, you can really only be serving 1-2 of these masters at any given moment, so you absolutely have to choose which goals for immediate focus and how long to focus on making meaningful progress.

    It seems that everything is a matter of time scale and focus.

  • Tessa says:

    I think that our focus on the burners themselves is what’s tripping most of us up.

    The thing is, if the value you place on your work and that which underlies the other “burners” are in conflict, balance is virtually impossible. I believe that what we call balance is the act of finding the common ground of everything we live for, and then leveling that common ground as much as possible!

    I don’t think any of us truly ambitious people are going for 100% perfect burner alignment here. In the words of my favorite hairstylist: “So we’re going for balance, not necessarily symmetry.”

    So if you can ask yourself exactly Why it is you value the four abovementioned things (compared to why “time to lie on a beach drinking beers” might not be prioritized), you may find that you’re unraveling the essence of your answers to the “Most Important Questions In The Universe”!

    And if you let the truth behind your actions feed your fire, its flame might just warm all of your burners!

  • John K. Lunde says:

    Balance is intense, singular focus directed at various distinct goals over time.

  • Natalie says:

    The Four Balls Theory

    “Balancing your burners” is a juggling act; you could just as well say those four burners or areas of your life are four balls that you are throwing in the air. In order to keep them all aloft, you have to know where all four of them are at all times. You have to give each ball an equal amount of attention in its time, without losing sight of the others. And the key to keeping the balls aloft is a rhythm and a flow that ultimately results out of a process of trial and error. But the great thing about this metaphor is it’s possible.

  • Trixie Rioux says:

    LOL….I’ll take fame and glory. Paradoxyly, i’ve been thinking recently about how to be “famous” and “responsible” can’t just not go together. If the “to be successful” is to be “famous” in fact, you certainly have to cut off some burners….I like simple, so may you read between the lines and get the “idea”…..;)

  • Sheila the Wonderbink says:

    What about burners for spirituality, creativity, learning or pleasure?

    I either need a bigger stove or a better metaphor.

  • Jim says:

    All of us would love to do everything and have everything that we desire. None of us has enough resources (time, energy & money) to do it all. It comes down to choices and there are a lot more than 4. We have to apply our energy and actions to the things that matter the most at the time that it will do the most. Sometimes we have to “settle”. Galagher (the comedian) had a line about why the people who went West were called settlers. He said they went as far as they were willing then said “I’ll settle for this”. Some on got as far as Kansas, others went all the way to California. It’s an individual decision, one that is made moment-to-moment. What do you want and how badly do you want it? Every time you make a decision of this over that, you are deciding to “turn off the burner” under what you decide against but it can’t be compartmented as simply as your 4 burner theory. Nothing in life is that simple.

  • Ben H. says:

    This an interesting, albeit simplified, perspective on life. I think “love” could be another burden, as I noticed I did much better in school before entering in a committed relationship, where I can’t always make the selfish decision to spend a lot of time studying.

  • Leah McClellan says:

    I have some problems with the four-burner idea of balance because I think it’s assuming shared or understood definitions.

    What is “successful?” Are we talking business and money, fortune, and fame?

    What do we mean by family? What if someone doesn’t have kids, spouse, parents?

    Health? And are we talking physical, mental, emotional…

    As for friends—not everyone has the same friend needs. Some people need lots of friend time; others don’t.

    What if my work/success is a family business—and we’re in retail sports equipment? That’s three burners if part of my job is running the skating or kayaking club—if health means getting exercise and friends come along. But suppose my family is really dysfunctional and I’m miserable…

    I prefer this life balance model: Emotional, Spiritual, Physical, and Mental. If you feel out of whack, you probably have some need—by your definition—in one area or another. Are these 4 needs met? If so, chances are high that you’re feeling pretty darned good.

  • William T.J. Kerr says:

    Like any oven, one does not always need to have all the burners on to cook a meal. Or, using the juggling metaphor, a person does not always need to have the full bag of balls in the air at any one time.

    Where I would add a caveat is that most of the balls we juggle are rubber, and if you drop any one of them will most likely bounce back as some point. Unlike most of these balls, the relationship ball is made of glass and if you drop it, it shatters.

  • April Moore Skelton says:

    I think it is a fairly recent cultural myth that you can “have it all.” But we’ve all bought it. I keep trying to believe that I (and what an arrogant thing to think!) can do everything. This is not true. I think sacrifice is undervalued and over-complained about. I get very frustrated with myself at times–one of the biggest parts of maturing is learning to MAKE CHOICES, which I find extremely difficult. Making choices–that is, saying ‘no’ to something in order to say ‘yes’ to something else–goes against my selfish nature. But I think the four burners idea is indicative of a very contemporary approach to life, where these areas are compartmentalized. Why must health be separate from work? I guess because no one does a job that enhances their health anymore. No one works with their family, or friends. Maybe if we chose to to make life and work choices that were non-conforming to our consumption-driven society we wouldn’t be forced to pit these things against each other.

  • Rob says:

    For me health comes first..when you’re healthy, you are loving yourself and you can love others such as friends and family. When you love and are being loved, you will have the power and support to do anything and be successful..

  • Sarah-Jane Dalby says:

    It’s not the burners but what sits above them that is my focus. If we hold a pot of some (metaphorical) design above our burners – what does it contain? What is your life’s recipe?

    For me it’s excitement, discovery and enjoyment. This is what I am aiming for, my definition of success. The recipe for me to obtain that changes all the time, dependent on what projects are getting the most focus from me right now, which is often dictated by external inspiration and the ever elusive creative muse.

    The flames that keep this pot bubbling are not always even either. Sometimes a family event means that this flame grows at the expense of another, temporarily. The thought of being pool-side in summer can bring focus to health, temporarily.

    I don’t think any of the flames needs to be sacrificed in order to achieve your definition of success, but the strength of each flame will change continually, as and when needed.

    I think there may even be a 5th flame – your creative/spiritual self.

  • Jennifer says:

    It is kind of a half-baked theory. 😉

    First, I think there is at least one burner missing. I’d add ‘Passion’ for all of those things we’re individually pursuing and cultivating for ourselves. Reading, the arts, travel, learning a language to name a few on my list. These don’t rest on either of those 4 burners and they’re some of the most important things.

    Second, if we do go with the burner theory I agree I want all of my burners to be “all-around amazing and my life to be amazing all around.” Realistically the burners are set to different levels at different times and this is what keeps the pots from boiling over or getting cold. I call that balance.

  • Lisa Gentile says:

    Sedaris’s metaphor is intriguing. It probably is a resource management topic, as Talavera and Dempsey say. Kiernan’s passion for doing what he wants, when he wants, suggests that he keeps all burners going at all times. Is that really what happens? To do something “then and there” probably requires turning off other burners temporarily. To enjoy the moment we have to shut out everything not-of-the-moment.

    Research shows that too much multi-tasking makes us dull. That’s a high price to pay for leaving all burners on 24/7. Chris’s point that not everyone wants to be well-rounded or average is provocative. Alex Linley calls warns us of the Curse of Mediocrity in “Average to A.” I see my clients struggle with this until they do only what really matters to them. If running a burner for the sake of keeping it on means that we give energy to actions that are not our strengths, aren’t we detracting from areas where we can make our greatest contributions? Big question for a Monday!

  • Marvin Abisia says:

    As always, a very thought-provoking and challenging post. I love this four-burner concept. It would be a great disservice to ourselves to employ the “cut off one or two” strategy. Life is meant to encompass all four burners. Sure, you could go with a two-burner stove…but you’d be missing out on 50% of the utility of four burners. Besides…”cut off” sounds too permanent, like amputating a limb. How about “using the burner that’s most important to me right now, and saving the others for later”.

    Sometimes we need the full burner, other times the smaller one. Life is an adaptive experience, and we need all four burners at different intensities during different times and chapters of our lives. It’s nice to know that we can turn on/off the proper burners as our goals continue to evolve through life.

  • rob white says:

    Nobody ever did anything extraordinary unless they were marvelously obsessed with their passion. If you want balance in your life go ahead and become marvelously obsessed with living a balanced life. If you want to become the greatest writer, blogger, artist, businessman etc. etc… it takes an unwavering focus on that one thing.

    Any successful person does not know how they did until they can look back. David Sedaris was too busy being a great writer to worry about balancing his burners.

  • Dustin says:

    I suppose it depends what your definition of success is. For many running a successful small business, having a family and having time to pursue the things they love is all they need.

    For others ambition runs rampant and unfortunately some paths don’t allow you to have it all. At least not all at once.

  • Sue says:

    Like other readers here, I also found this model to be flawed. It assumes that you have to make sacrifices in significant areas of your life to be “successful”, but sacrificing any one of those areas is likely to put you out of balance in ways that will spill over and damage the other “burners”.

    I like William T.J. Kerr’s metaphor with juggling the balls and might add that “health” (or maybe we can define it more broadly as wellness) can only be dropped so many times before it, too, breaks. I look at life more in terms of either four quadrants of a circle (the same as Leah) or as making sure that all 7 chakras are in balance,with the understanding that if the needs related to wellness (physical and emotional) are not taken care of, not much else in life is going to run smoothly, either.

  • Sunny says:

    As a working mom, I find keeping all four burners going challenging. It’s hard to successfully and sanely run a business, raise kids, cook & clean the home, etc. without burning the house down? And yes, I’m married to a helpful husband, but still…! I know that my health burner has gone cold; it seems like the easiest thing to drop although it makes everything else harder when I’m sluggish.

  • Jenn Brockman says:

    I’ve been contemplating this for some time now.

    I’ve always looked at balance as a constant ebb and flow process. The flow may be in one area which means the ebb comes out of another area.

    Like one reader said about turning down the fire on some burners when the fire is up really high on others.

    Success is fully defined by you and it does apply to all aspects of life. Whoever said success is only about work/business? If my children make it through school and actually graduate, regardless of accomplishments, I will call that a success!

  • Melodie says:

    I like the combining of all burners.

    I feel that all of them provide propane for the flame that i am.

    Sometimes my family provides me with more propane than my friends.
    Sometimes focusing on my work provides me with the propane to wake up everyday with a smile.

    To me they are all connected. My heath is my work. My work is my health.

    I don’t turn the flame up on the burners they give me more or less fuel at different times and i focus on whatever one is making me feel the best at any given moment.

  • Peter says:

    We run our 4 burners on tanks of gas, some people have bigger tanks and can go roaring for longer than others. The burners have valves which you can turn up or down which affects the amount of gas used (and therefore how much is left).
    Keep the pilot lights on (using little gas) and the flames will re-ignite easily but turn them off and it is always hard to get the flames going again. Run out of gas and you’re in trouble!

  • John Bulmer says:

    Interesting topic. What is absent in the excerpt from the theory is how success is defined and how long of a timeframe is being used to evaluate success. For me, the theory is also tempered by age – being able to declare I am successful in all areas at the age of 47 is very much different that what I perceived as being successful at the age of 22.

    I am successful in all 4 burners and I don’t have to pick and choose which to pay attention to. I have an awesome life in that I have decided what is important to me and how I define success. I will add however that I do not think it is possible to give 24/7/52 to all 4 burners without running out of energy.

    I disagree with the work-life balance because that is what employers and economists promote. I prefer to having a life-work balance. My life, and living it, is far more important than work. I work enough to be able to live the life that I want.

    Keep up the good work.

  • D.esigner says:

    Hard question really. Personally I can’t combine my burners at this time, but ideally I would just move them all closer together so instead of having four moderate flames in my life it would be one awesome inferno.

    If I had it my way I’d do something worthwhile as my employment, that DID involve my friends and DIDN’T damage my health, and I’d spend time with my loved ones at least 4 times a week. That would be a grand way to live.

  • MutantSupermodel says:

    I don’t think this is a conscious thing. As much as we’d like to think otherwise, we’re just not great at multi-tasking.

    I’ve experienced this personally. To have a family I sacrificed my career, my health, and to a lesser extent, friends. This proved unhealthy. The marriage was a disaster and coming out of it I have found myself with few friends, starting from scratch in the career area, and health-wise I’m not proud. Too many burners shut off, I guess.

    This reminds me of the saying, “jack of all trades, master of none.” You have to choose– success at one or competence at all.

  • tracy says:

    I liken the four burners to how we sometimes use all four burners when cooking. we sometimes use all four and are building up a dizzying sweat, trying to flip chicken on one burner, simmering noodles on a second, sauteeing broccoli on a third and watching cream sauce on the fourth.

    i believe in life, we sometimes have all four burners on and we sometimes have them all turned off. success can come to us when we’re madly balancing all for burners (notice how some burners are merely set to low or medium and that one or two set to high) or when they’re all turned off and there’s that stillness, a different type of success can manifest out of your work. you can begin to work on something different. what about those (like myself) that like to keep their hands in a little bit of everything? not necessarily being “successful” in one type of work? what if your success is dependant on your health, friends and family and thus the burners must always be somewhat turned on?

  • Jonathan says:

    I guess, as many have said, whether you succeed depends on your definition of success.

    Personally, I wouldn’t be able to consider myself successful if I had to achieve that success in two areas by giving up the other two. I can consider myself successful with moderate success in all four areas more than I could consider myself successful with extraordinary success in only two.

    For others, it makes a lot more sense for them to give up a burner or two. Goals, priorities, and dreams will determine how you measure success.

    But I could never give up, for example, being a dependable friend for being a rich businessman. I’d rather be moderately wealthy with true friends than filthy rich with no one to trust because no one likes me.

  • Jay Zenner says:

    Analogies are useful for understanding things but it gets a little wacky when we treat them too literally. Saw a comments discussion get out of hand recently describing life as a pendulum. What David Sedaris has on his 4 burners may be different than what you have on yours. Maybe you have six burners. Maybe everything for you is exclusively microwaved. Maybe you have two big burners and two little burners. Maybe one of your burners is burned out. Maybe for breakfast you only need one burner. Maybe you store your pots and pans in the oven. (Figure that one out.) An examined life will use lots of analogies; after all, building a life is like building a home…

  • alexa says:

    Isn’t this the classic sleight-of-hand, or sleight-of-mouth? Define something (success) within a particular metaphor (burners) and then stand back and watch everyone discussing the metaphor’s component parts as if the metaphor were reality? People will even expand on the metaphor for you: stove-tops, pots, lids, dishes, spoons, simmer, fast boil, hot spots, a ‘range’ of attention, heat up, close off, extinguish, fry-up chefs, sous chefs, master chefs … What do you think, asks Chris? I’m thinking that I choose not to work within someone else’s metaphor to define (or even approximate to) my life. I will choose my own.

  • Rocky Tilney says:

    This reminds me to the speech given by Brian Dyson, CEO of Coca Cola in the 1990s:

    “Imagine life as a game in which you are juggling some five balls in the air. You name them – work, family, health, friends and spirit … and you’re keeping all of these in the air.

    You will soon understand that work is a rubber ball. If you drop it, it will bounce back. But the other four balls – family, health, friends and spirit – are made of glass. If you drop one of these, they will be irrevocably scuffed, marked, nicked, damaged or evenshattered. They will never be the same. You must understand that and strive for Balance in your life.”

    I tend to think this is the most accurate analogy. You never want to turn off a burner!

    Keep on fighting the good fight, Chris!

  • Kristine says:

    You’re born alone and you die alone and what you get out of life is from what you put into it. I like the idea of being loyal to yourself first. You can’t give others what you don’t have for yourself, if I’m not happy I can’t make anyone else happy. I must be concerned to know myself, my values, what’s important to me, what makes me tick, what brings me joy and do that as my first priority. I can’t be here and share with you if I don’t keep my physical body, so taking care of it is my second priority. The doctor is not responsible for my health, I am. Then I learn the most from the loved ones in my life, family and friends are my barometer to give me feed back on how I’m doing at loving myself and giving love to others. They bring fulfillment and challenges in all varieties of ways. You know, they are the ones who know how to push your buttons. Then when you have that it line is when you can step out to share your best with the world. You are confident and know yourself.

  • Vanessa says:

    We are all one thing, therefore we truly need but one burner because that represents everything: family, friends, work, health, environment. Success is what you make it 😉

  • Julie Bernstein Engelmann says:

    David Sedaris’s choice of burners tells us about his life and world. For one thing, that he probably has a wife to take care of the home.

    When I analyze it, my burners are: creating art; encouraging & promoting art; home; and family.

    I thank God my health goes without saying; my work is my passion; and my friends are woven into the above pursuits.

    For me, only one burner is on at a time.

  • Joe Oviedo says:

    I believe that if you think that you need to cut one or two to be successful and have no other reference point you’ll do it. But if you think you can have all four while being “successful” and have references or examples to back that out, you can keep the four. No one says it’s going to be easy, for me requires a lot of focus and be constantly moving but I can be achieved.

    As always your post come to my life like if we were connected or something. I also been thinking on cutting burners, but there’s a bigger part of me that say that it can be done. I can have the life all around, and also I been thinking that I am young, not married and without children, so for me now it’s the time to master it, to stretch and go for the four. It’s a nice quest, I am up to the challenge.

    Take care.

  • Johanna says:

    We choose, whether consciously or unconsciously what we want to get out of life; this may mean sacrificing areas of our life that are important to us. The theory that what you water will grow and what you focus on will benefit would lead us to believe that if you have endless energy and fantastic focus you can be “successful” in all areas of life. For everyone else, there are always going to be choices which will benefit one area or burner and not another. It does not however mean that we have to completely cut off a burner. No human is perfect anyway, some will strive for balance on all four of those burners others, I would argue the more creative people, will bounce back and forth or perhaps choose to keep only one burner on.

  • Kenneth Tabak says:

    It’s an interesting concept but unsustainable in my life. I value all four areas and need that balance to be happy. It may be one category has a greater influence on any given day, but omit any one and I know it would not make me or anyone around me happier.

  • Cathy Krizik says:

    I get the burner concept but couldn’t disagree more. My life is successful when I am able to live big and life is bigger than any ole stove top.

    Career, friends, family, health? Those are end results – nouns. I prefer to think of life as an experience. Creativity, love, joy and vitality….My success rests with my capacity and willingness to experience these qualities in my life.

  • Steven Joiner says:

    I agree with the folks who are saying to not cut off a burner but to sometimes turn a burner down. After all, when you’re cooking, sometimes you need to cut the heat on one burner so you don’t burn the content while you’re getting the content on the other burners up to the same temperature. The challenge is the balance and timing and you only cut the burner when something is done. But, like eggs, somethings things continue to cook of their own internal temperature so factor in if something is cooking on its own accord. It is much more about finding balance than ‘cutting’ anything off. I think of that balance as a continuum of compensation: what are you giving and how much are you getting back? It is when you’re applying all your heat and not even getting water to simmer that you need to readjust your burners.

    Flame on!

  • Kristen says:

    This post definitely struck a cord with me. I think the points you address are the root of a lot of fear people have towards moving out of their comfort zone and into a life that may not conform with the ideas you listed above.

    I would give a resounding No to the idea that you can not have all four burners and still be successful. However, it certainly depend on your personal definition of success. To me, success is living with passion and without fear. Being able to move outside of the box that society puts people in and embracing life for everything it has to offer.

    Obviously, very few people are raised to believe in this version of success. Being a 25-year old who still has the world in front of her, I hear every day from my loving parents that a steady income and a good job will offer me everything I need in life. That I need to keep my head up, work hard and enjoy life later. For some, this may be true. I choose to believe there is another option out the

  • Jane Pellicciotto says:

    I started with an 8-burner stove, so luckily I only have to turn 4 off. How I wish that were true. I read the same Sedaris piece and have been thinking of burners a lot, not the least of which reason is that cooking is one of my “burners.”

    I decided that I’m not getting the kind of satisfaction you get from digging deep enough, but as a generalist, this is always my struggle. Finally my need for digging deeper has eclipsed my scattered interests. And little by little I’ve brought the remaining interests into line, and life and work are more seamlessly integrated…in a good way. I gave myself permission to put some things away, realizing I can pull them out when I want. I think it’s too limiting to view the burners as life, work and family. And as many have said, it depends on your idea of success. Some of us pick competence at several things to experience a certain richness, rather than excellence at one.

  • Marie Monteux says:

    I love David Sedaris, but he does a lot of bits on family and the dysfunction and guilt that family gives us, and, well, he makes it hilarious. It’s funny because it’s so true. Who has never been guilted out by their mother, even once?

    Sure, you can have it all, and I know plenty of people who do. I look at them and go, “how the heck do they do that?”

    Some people are happy being in management at a large company; I was miserable working in a corporate office. Couldn’t stand it! I was a theater major in college! So I did quit my miserable job. Now I’m not so rich (yet), but I have time to think and create. I also know how to make cotton candy now.

    And I would gladly accept frequent flyer miles anytime. If you feel the guilty need to give them up, that is. Otherwise, you can donate them to charity.

    Stop worrying. It’s okay to be who you are, as you are, right now! I’m a mother & I said so.

  • James Wilding says:

    Burners, Turners, Learners etc. Over the pond in the UK, us educators have remembered the old Blooms’ Taxonomy stuff, which reminds us of the variety of layers that exist and the relative difficulty of tasks within those layers. Some tasks are easy, though could be laborious; others mix the labour with some critical thinking skills, yet others go full out and ask us to make judgments which bring to bear our own knowledge, opinions and skills. I have been a school leader for over 30 years, and what might be regarded as a 4 burner day in the past might now be just a skill of keeping 4 pots on the same burner, with some geometry and pyrotechnics skill to keep them bubbling. Recent weeks have been full on for 14 hours a day, what with pre school meetings, teaching, post school entertainments and celebrations plus lat evening meetings with stakeholders who make a huge contribution to the business I run. The good news is that I enjoy it all. :0)

  • Nicola says:

    I’m really saddened by this theory and think it’s typical of our culture of instant gratification. I would seriously question whether anyone can consider their life a success when they’ve switched off even one of these burners, let alone two. Career success may come more slowly when you maintain focus on health, friends and family but it’s the true success of a well rounded existence. I’d also debate whether a well rounded existence is anywhere near average. For me, it’s much closer to average to believe that you can or should defer your personal life for your career. I have experienced this first hand and it was an empty success. I would much prefer a successful life over a successful career and I’m sad for anyone who would say otherwise.

  • Jackie says:

    Keep every burner heated (at different temperatures if need be) and you can make one hell of a meal for yourself and for others -more so than you’d be able to make with only two burners.

    Just learn what temperature works best for each part of whatever ‘meal’ you wish to make.

  • Kramer says:

    Four burners (family, friends, work & health) aren’t useful just by themselves- like the stove- turn on a burner and all you get is heat. It’s what you do with that heat- place a pan with something in it that requires the heat to make it better or different. You can waste a lot of energy if you don’t have some kind of plan- a recipe. Being conscious about what you want from this stove of life can make a huge difference. What ingredients are you putting on what burner? What are you making? When that one is done, dinner is ready. Turn the burner off. You have 3 left. The stove doesn’t need to be kept on 24/7. Life is knowing when things are al dente- just right. rare to med-rare. Still juicy, flavourful and leaves you wanting more. The health burner…ahhh- that’s that eternal simmering stock pot utilising all the tasty morsels you think are just too good to throw away- The laughs, the tears, the memories, the purpose, the joy… the soup just keeps getting better 🙂

  • Pam Green says:

    I don’t think you need to “turn off” one burner, I think you need to add a fifth one. A “God burner.” Once you put the One True and Living God first, you can excel in all your other relationships.

  • Angelique says:

    I think turning off one or two burners is a way to limit your growth. What if you start of like a well known chef starts. Unskilled at keeping all burners going at the same time but with practice, persistence, education and understanding you learn to balance all four on full flame. It just takes time.

  • Etsuko says:

    A few thoughts came to my mind:

    1. In the movie “Up in the Air”, George Clooney’s character was having a successful life with probably just two burners on and he thought things were going great. If he lived and died that way by choice, there is nothing wrong with that.

    2. “What do you want to get out of your life?” Knowing the answer to this question will help you to have however many burners you want to work at in your life.

    3. To me personally, health is a foundation that I build the rest upon, friends and family will give you inspiration and reasons, and work (in my case my business) is a way of expressing myself, earning living and contributing to the world. So yes, I choose to have all four burners, if not more. As for whether it’s possible to have all four on or not? “Whether you think you can or you can’t, you’re right”. If someone looked at my life and said “if your all four burners are all-round amazing, you are not successful enough”, that is fine by me.

  • Gail Blesch says:

    Having all 4 burners ablaze is a seductive construct of our times, sustainable only if your stove is plugged into the full power grid, not a single outlet. Those who are successful aren’t the sole energy source. They have someone keeping the home fires burning while they set the world ablaze at work and when they focus on family, they have a team keeping their work going. As for friends, family, and colleagues, there is little separation amongst the tribe. People who have achieved 4-burner success are supported. None of them would say they did it alone. Instead of asking how to keep all 4 burners on, looking at the world as something to conquer, or take from to power our individual success, ask how to to your energy to the bigger power grid and collaborate in the success of ALL.

  • Lex Garey says:

    Why not combine everything and turn it into a delicious soup? You’ll save energy and get a taste of everything without getting bloated.

  • Heather Allard says:

    As an entrepreneur and a mother of three, I don’t think you have to choose two burners, but I do think you have to constantly adjust the temperature on all four. One might be simmering, another frying, another boiling, another searing.

    The ability to do this well makes you a top chef in the restaurant of life. Until then, we’re all just prep cooks.

  • Diana says:

    It took us years to figure out that removing any one leg of the chair would make it topple. Why are we now suggesting that we get our chainsaws out? It’s ridiculous to think that anyone can survive for very long without a rounding out of all four areas (and there are probably more than four areas).

    I’m old enough to have seen and heard so many different theories on “what works”. But these theories all depend on what it is you are searching for: happiness, fortune, long life? Success these days is so involved with finance as to be indistinguishable. That’s too bad. We are all the worse for it. And we are all pitted against each other in the race (and I’m tired).

  • Janee says:

    Sorry, you’ll have to cut off a burner or two to read all of our responses, but here’s my two cents:

    *Family and friends should be an easy part of your life. (SHOULD BE)… If they are healthy relationships, they will only add to your ability to juggle and enjoy the other things in your life. It can be a great stress relief to hang out with good friends. If you’ve cut off that burner and focused only on work, you have no place to relax -even if you happen to work at a 5-star resort. It’s our relationships that are the most fulfilling part of life itself.

    *If you have to categorize things and decide where to focus your energies and time, you are not living. Even if you cut off 3 burners and LOVE the one you are focusing on, … you must not have the fuel to do much… which to me, would mean that you are not happy inside.

    *Enjoying life comes from an inner view of yourself and the world. The fulfilled person doesn’t need to categorize or put things on burners.

  • Evan says:

    I think the four burners approach is part of the problem not part of the solution.

    It also shows quite starkly that a focus on success is unhealthy!

  • Liz says:

    The Four Burners Theory sounds to me like another product of reductionist Western thinking. If I had for instance, work/financial success, but my family life were in shambles and none of my friends would talk to me, I wouldn’t consider myself any great success. In fact, that pretty much describes the kind of people I don’t like to hang around with.

    Instead of the Four Burners Theory, I’d prefer to embrace a sense of wholeness by bringing attention and *intention* to each of these four areas. Who I am is a combination of all four facets and if I ignore one, how could I call myself complete?

  • Eva says:

    I like this analogy because this is what I’ve been noticing in certain successful people for years. I’m not sure that they all ‘cut off’ their burners, but they certainly let some of them dwindle to nearly dying while they stay focused on the others. I love Gail Blesch’s comment as I find this to be a more accurate truth – having the right support around you in each of the burner areas is what will keep you going in the long term.

  • Jason Fonceca says:

    Chris, I’m not surprised you deliver such insightful thoughts on interesting theories. Thanks so much for getting me thinking man.

    My take:

    1. *Anything is possible.*

    2. Imagine the goal, and take steps towards it.

    3. If the goal is “all four burners rockin’ in balance, in a reasonable time period.” — no problem.

    4. Might it require a bit more time, or some miracles happening, or help from others? Sure it might.

    But is all four burners, burnin’ brightly…possible? See point 1.

  • Stephenie Zamora says:

    To be an absolute master of something I do think you do need to focus on that thing with all of your time and energy. But I also think it’s a matter of finding routine and balance in a way that works for you.

    For me, working on my career (my businesses and passions) are essential to my health and being healthy is essential to my ability to do the work. I am also someone who only needs small amounts of time with family and friends, but those times need to be high quality and connection.

    That said, I believe my health and career burners would be on most of the time, lowered for the short bursts of time I need to spend with family and friends.

  • Vivian Rodriguez says:

    I never thought work-balance had anything to do with having a crappy life. Like you, I don’t agree that we have to settle for bad jobs, etc. If we want a life that is enjoyable we gotta go out and build it, as it were.

    As for the four burners, I think the person (sorry, I’m feeling too lazy to go look up your name) who posted about all of it being a juggling act probably has it right. Some days I miss my family terribly; since they live in the same town, I just make it a point of making time to spend with them. Some days I like to work non-stop, etc. In the end, not everything has to be planned; and work-balance in my life is whatever balance I choose to strike.

    BTW, I love you blog and all the quirky stuff you throw in. Thanks.


  • Jaime @ Eventual Millionaire says:

    Wow, a ton of comments!

    I agree that turning off a burner sucks. No one wants to fail.

    Like Peter, I want to think about what is fueling the burners. When you run out of gas all of your burners go out, so you want to get the most out of the tank you have.

    If that means cranking one burner as high as it goes, and giving it 10,000 hours for ultimate success then do that. But if you want to have each burner on medium and you are happy and content, great!

    I think this is the problem that I am currently trying to solve. Can I hit a million dollar net worth while working part-time and making my family, friends and health priority number 1 2 and 3?
    I can’t wait to find out 🙂

  • Jackie says:

    For me its all about focus and energy flow. If you spread your focus accross all areas of your life evenly you are encouraging mediocrity.
    I think we all rotate through our burners determined by what is needed at the time. Sometimes that requires us to turn burners off or down, which is fine providing you are not entirely neglecting or ignoring those particular areas of your life.
    Hey even Feng Shui encourages using your stove burners in rotation to increase prosperity…mmm maybe there’s something in it for us 😉

  • Tim Jones says:

    I never reply to these, but this was such a good post that sums up everything important. When I started reading, I had lots to say. Then, you said 90% of it for me!

    My 10% would be: first to think about what ‘amazing’ means. Isn’t that just passing the buck of ‘successful’?

    Don’t get me wrong – I have my own idea of amazing, as we all do. If you have zero ‘amazing factor’, you’re a bit boring; but that’s o.k. too.

    I love your combining friends with family thing; if your partner’s not your friend (for many, not all mind you), you’re stuffed. And what the hell is ‘work’. Never understood it, despite having done a fair bit of it. Nearest I can get is ‘something you have to do to live’ – i.e. make money. Wish people would come clean on that. Folk should remember all you need to retire is ‘enough’. Take a mo’ to consider what your enough might be.

    So. Sedaris’s framework is a good starter for ten – no more.

  • Jason says:

    I love the post. Back in May, I started looking closely at my own life and what I needed to do to balance everything I had going on. I ended up with four buckets (family, self, work, career outside of work). I lumped friends in with family, health fell under personal, and split work into two buckets in order to draw a line between my 40 hour/week day job with the projects I am currently developing on the side.

    Looking at your list is interesting and I might have to rethink some of my decisions. Thanks for sharing.

    Having the four categories has helped me. I am better able to prioritize my work week and time at home. I also made a drastic shift in my lifestyle and ended up waking up a 5:30 a.m. six days a week to lift weights.

  • Sarah says:

    Due to my current balancing act, I’m unable to read all 147 comments before mine. So please forgive me if these thoughts have been expressed already!

    For me, the four burners are quite an accurate visual, and I don’t think it’s a bad thing.

    There are times, for instance, when I need to focus on work (or health) so it gets pulled to the front burner. During those times, the work I’m doing, though not directly related, is actually FOR the family and friends who are simmering on the back burners.

    At other times, my family and friends are front and center as I’m cooking away at life. And these are the times I stand at the stove for in the first place.

  • Del says:

    Hey Chris, great question. I would say that it depends on what stage of life you’re in. When I was single, I could easily have all 4 burners on. Marriage & kids have made it more of a “simmering” balancing act. There are times where 1 burner is more intense than the other and one is really low. The key for me is that they are all on (even though they may not be all at the same level) because they are essential to my sense of well being.

  • sharon sellet says:

    Perhaps it is how you focus on these four qualities every day – Spiritual, Intellectual, Emotional, and Physical. How do you add to your spiritual being, what are you doing to challenge your intellect every day, to contribute to emotional well being, and optimize your physical being? These are the human core — the others- work, family, projects — are categories that overlap the essence of you.

  • Rob says:

    I find from what you have written that the four burners theiory to be relatively true for me. I always seem to have some form of project going on in various areas of my life, and it always results in more energy and time going into that area while other areas tend to get neglected. I find that, for me, business/work is the biggest time/resource consumer. My relationships suffer greatly whenever I am determined to try a new business concept. I’llcome home from my 9-5er and be straight into working on my latest business experiment, and if I had it my way I’d be working on it until I went to bed. But I have a girlfriend, and I have freinds and family and to be honest, it can feel like they are frustrating road blocks getting in the way of my progress. My justification for all this is that if I can succeed with my business idea(s) I will have more time for them in the long run.

  • Elaine Huckabay says:

    I like to think of the four burners as four fires. Much like kindling, success, passion, and energy in one burner actually invigorates the other areas. If the work burner is burning very brightly, then that motivates and energizes me to be happier and more fulfilled with family, friends, and health. On the other hand, if my health burner is just burning dimly, that will likely have a negative effect on the burners.

    In physics, energy cannot be created nor destroyed – it can only be transformed. While I don’t dispute this in physics and science, I think that energy (in the sense of creativity, passion, and invigoration), can be created in a human. Energy begets more energy.

    I think I’m in the minority in saying that I think it’s best to keep all burners burning full throttle at all time. If I turn down the friends burner to focus on another burner, I think I’m just decreasing my overall happiness and energy. Harness the power of positive momentum.

  • Steve Roe says:

    I liked this question and it made me think. Maybe we need to see if we are maintaining the stove properly. Sometimes, we can have the stove turned all the way to high and it is still not operating at peak performance. Regular maintenance and tuneups can make the stove last longer and operate more efficiently. Also, we could read the instruction manual for more ideas on how to make our stove operate more efficiently. We could also ask for friends what ideas they have to use the stove more efficiently. We could look on the Internet to see what other stove users do to use their stoves more efficiently. This is the same thing we could do for our work, health, family and friends. Also, adjusting the burners from Off, Low, Medium and High is sometimes needed depending on what is happening in our lives.

  • Colleen Clifford says:

    One thing everyone seems to have overlooked — it never said that any of the burners had to be turned off permanently, or even for any specific duration.

    One of my favorite sayings is “If you try to be everything to everyone, you’ll be nothing to no one.” If you try to keep all burners going at once, you’ll never have anything more than an ongoing fire hazard in your kitchen. Just like in cooking, you only keep the burners on that you’re actively using. When you’re with family and friends, turn the work burner COMPLETELY OFF. When you’re at work, keep that burner on high and turn the friend one off; focus on the task at hand instead of being distracted by what your friends are doing on FaceBook.

    If you turn them on and off at the appropriate times, you’ll never need to have more than two burners going at once. Strike a good balance between friend, family and work flames, and you’ll be able to leave the health burner on more – both physically and mentally. 🙂

  • Waverly Fitzgerald says:

    Seems to be the very definition of success is fulfillment (or satisfaction) in all four areas represented by the burners.

    That said, I do see value in emphasizing one over the other at different times, perhaps stages of your life cycle or maybe even the seasons (the field in which I work).

  • Mike says:

    Hi Chris, long-time reader, first-time commenter. Thanks for a great site!

    It looks like you’re trying to create a simple recipe for a wicked problem (one with interacting variables). But to solve wicked problems, you have to understand how the variables interact.

    If friends are ambitious, that will help with work. If not, it will drag you down. Same with a healthy, supportive family.

    If work is something you’re passionate about, that will help you build relationships with similarly passionate people. If not, you’ll only meet people you don’t have many real ties to.

    Short term, you can sacrifice health for a boost in the other categories. Long term, poor health will drag down everything else, and the stress from bad work and family environments will drag down your health.

    I don’t think the answer is to turn off one burner. It’s to build each aspect of your life so it supports the others.

  • Christina Yu says:

    These four aspects here are essentials for any individual, in my opinion. For ‘family, ‘friends’ and ‘health’, there’s no easy switching back on once the cut-off was done – at least you are in no position to force them back on.

    And surely there’s more to life – if one could neglect maintaining relationships with friends and family, how could one care the least for the rest of the world?

  • kei says:

    we all like easy explanations. nothing wrong with that.

    when we treat easy explanations (and their implicit assumptions) as gospel, that’s when it may be harmful.

    when you think of 4 burners, you subconsciously think these 4 are equally important. is that true? if true, is it true you should devote time/resources equally?

    To be successful, you need to cut off 1 or 2 burners.

    does that mean you need to cut off your ties to those? OR you reduce your time in those without reducing your effectiveness in any?

    so many implicit assumptions. so much left to your imagination or discretion.

    NOT saying the advice doesn’t work. sometimes it is not what the lesson gives us but what we bring to the lessons. for those who have tried to please everything and everyone in their life, the Sedaris quote is like an oasis in the desert. Cutting off 1 or 2 areas ironically gives those people ‘balance’.

    What assumptions you see in notion of work-life balance?

    Like Chris, i reject the easy explanation

  • jules says:

    funny, when I used to work as a corporate slave one of the head guys told the story that for him, his life was divided into 4 balls.

    His family and his health and his friends were all glass balls. But his job was a rubber ball, so if he had to let one drop that was the best one to sacrifice…Even though I’m now self employed, I couldn’t agree more with him.

  • Nevin Danielson says:

    The analogy seems to presume that the essential component for “success” in any area of your life is intense focus… thus the need for a dedicated burner.

    I don’t think the intensity with which you apply your efforts to an aspect of your life is the most important part. The key to success is the thoughtfullness with which you commit yourself. Success at work, first and foremost, is through inspired ideas. Success with family, before everything else, is a commitment to each other’s happiness. Health is primarily about a commitment to a healthy lifestyle and diet.

    If we devote our time to thinking about how we portion out our time, we’re not talking about the big picture. Less talk about burners, more talk about what we’re cooking.

  • Joel says:

    I think you have to make priorities but that doesn’t mean you have to cut off any of the burners. I think you need to make some of the burners bigger than other but if you feel the need to “cut off” one of the burners, then I think you need to rethink things.

  • Natalie Wilson says:

    The majority of my blog is devoted to this topic! As an artist with more ambition than is always good for me, I always struggle for balance. All too often it feels like a choice between my relationships and my artistic ambition, but what kind of choice is that? As the couples therapist said in the last session my ex and I had, asking me to choose between my career and my marriage was like asking me to choose between killing my mother and killing my father. An impossible choice.

    But since then I found a much better balance in my life. I keep all my burners lit, but on any given day I decide which ones to turn down and which one to fire up. I can’t fire up the same one every day or it uses up all the fuel and the others might go out completely. It’s much harder to relight a burner than to adjust the flame. So today I write, tomorrow I exercise, the day after I spend time with my boyfriend.

    Another secret: have people in your life who can lend you a light now and then.

  • Celia says:

    Feng Shui says all four burners [on a cookstove] must be used, preferrably equally, but not necessarily at the same time. All four must work equally well, too.

    My life motto is “‘take truth where you find it, even if it’s a small grain in a big pile of sh**, and leave the rest behind.” Seems from the comments, this idea is a pile of sh** for some….

  • Doniree Walker says:

    This is definitely something I’ve been exploring lately as I sort of redefine (or more specifically refine?) my values and priorities. Maybe I’m naive, but I believe you don’t have to cut off any burners to be successful, but my idea of success is love, joy, and balance – and the things that bring me those? My friends, family, and health – I’m not leaving work out because I’m working towards a life that I’m redefining what ‘work’ means. I’m almost teaching something I’ve been wanting to teach for years, and I’m writing more (for money!) than I’ve ever written before. These have been dreams of mine that don’t feel like work, but feel like FUN except I also get an income. So… I don’t know if that really answered that except that success to me is balance in all parts of my life, in which case – love, health, and ‘work’ – are nicely tied together.

  • Robert Oceans says:

    A key mentor in my life (a former professor) once told me that in order to really be successful at something, he had to put whole aspects of his personality on hold for up to a decade at a time. I’m struggling with the same problem in that I am a multi-tasker and finding it difficult to make consistent progress on all my goals. I don’t know what the optimal number is though, be it 4 areas of focus like the interview implied, but I think there is a finite amount of time that can be spent doing certain tasks without sacrificing on the quality of other actions. I’ve met a few geniuses (which all share a focused drive on a specific goal or area of interest) but I’ve yet to meet a modern polyglot / renaissance man (or woman). Another theme that I’ve seen crop up in a few successful people is that in order to add levels of interest with focused time, they usually have to sacrifice something: those unwilling to sacrifice family time tend to sacrifice sleep. Good article and question.

  • Matt says:

    For me these 4 burners represent my essence. I cannot imagine life without some aspect of these 4 pillar stones. Friends offer the needed social aspect of life. Family is needed for a firm grounded base. Work is what offers up meaning. And without health none of it is possible. Many people seem to be concentrating on each of these “burners” individually but for me it seems more appropriate to concentrate on the source. What is the source that powers these burners and allows them to burn? How does my tank of liquid fuel get filled and refilled? In my case it is my Faith in God. For others it may be something different but without a source to draw from none of these burners will glow and produce the heat of life.

  • Rich Dixon says:

    “Four burners” seems a little like a scarcity model–there’s only so much gas, so you have to ration it. So that doesn’t work for me.

    However, I believe balance is the key to a quality life, but not work-life balance. Life can’t be compartmentalized into work and life and relationships. It’s ALL life.

    I believe life is seasonal. The writer of Ecclesiastes (or Pete Seeger) said there’s a season for everything. I picture it like a circular piece of plywood with the different aspects of life on its perimeter. If your child is struggling, that part gets a little heavier and you shift the balance point toward that part of life. On a product release day, that section is really heavy and the balance point moves almost directly under it.

    This re-balancing is the way life works. We get in trouble when we let others put weight on the circle and then pretend that we have to respond. That’s how a job that’s bad feels.

  • Miles Free says:

    @Robert Oceans “I’ve yet to meet a modern polyglot/ renaissance man (or woman).”

    In my life I continue to meet amazing people who meet what I think is generally meant by the term “renaissance man or woman.”

    Would you mind sharing your definition of this with us?

  • Todd Clarke says:

    I like this metaphor and think of it in this complimentary way.
    Often, project members ask aloud when are they done with the project. Often the answer is when there are no more features to incorporate into the product before the next release.
    I find it much more useful to ask what more can we remove. You’re done when you can no longer remove any more features or tasks in order to increase simplicity, quality and to ship faster.

    I believe the real message is the active act of simplifying as much as possible, and this more often means the ‘removal’ concept over the ‘include’ concept.

  • Ulli says:

    Interesting Theory, but it has it’s pitfalls, one of the biggest is blame. If one of your burner is not functioning well do you ‘blame’ one or all of the others and cut them off? Do you ‘decide’ to cut them off? Is there a distinction ?
    As you move through life everything changes, your goals, aspirations and your idea off all changes, never mind on how many or few burners you have or think you need.
    To me, all that matters is the person who looks back at me from the mirror in the morning. I f I like her than that is success. It does not matter if I am happily balancing on one so called burner or lying down on all four.
    Theories are just that, Theories. To be adapted or dismissed.
    But what a great blog!

  • Karl Staib says:

    I partially agree with the 4 burners theory. Like any 4 burner cooking stove you can turn some off and turn them back on when you need them. You don’t dismantle one burner because you don’t have time to cook with it.

    As I grow my business I’ve learned to use every burner at various times. I’ll have some weekends that I work very hard and don’t spend as much time with my family as I should. When I do this I make sure to make it up with them and give them quality time next weekend.

    It’s all about harmony. The more that I use one burner the more I tire out on it. I then switch to another burner to refresh. I just keep switching burners like a master chef. Yes I sometimes get burned. (couldn’t resist the metaphor) But that’s what life is all about. We have to push outside our comfort zone, go for amazing stuff then relax and spend time with family and friends.

  • Justin Mares says:

    I like this metaphor but don’t think it shows how each of the burners can affect the others. In my life, if I am unhappy with one of my burners it has a negative impact on the other aspects of my life. For example, if I am not enjoying a project I am working on, it makes it harder to enjoy and be present during my interactions with friends and family.

    Work is also a burner that cannot be sacrificed. Regardless of how much time you want to spend with friends or family, the fact is that everyone has to spend time making a living. Instead of eliminating some burners to achieve success in others, I try to focus on the burners that make me the happiest (friends and family), while doing enough with health and work so that I get some enjoyment and am not negatively impacted. Since I am young, I eventually want to reach a point where I can make a living with my passion and not have to settle for above-average with my work (EBK shoutout!).

  • Pat Chiappa says:

    I don’t like (or believe) the idea you need to turn one ‘burner ‘ off to be really successful in life.

    In keeping with the stove top analogy…

    I think having all 4 ‘burners’ going at the same time is completely doable. Maybe all 4 burners are on medium, but sometimes you have to crank one up to high for a period of time, and one can be simmering on low. When the job requires more attention, crank that burner up to high for a while. If the family needs special care and more time than usual, that burner gets turned up to med-high for a while. Your friend is in a crisis, that burner gets the juice. So all 4 burners are always on – we adjust the hearty, low, med or high.

    (Ever notice than on a traditional 4 burner stove top the cooking areas are different sizes? Two large, 2 small…)

  • Sean says:

    Wow. Very thought provoking and great comments from everyone!

    I’m all about harmony.

    Family, friends, work, and health can all play together but each needs their turn to shine. You really can’t have any of them without the other.

    But we all know this right? The key then is to allow time and energy to all of them in the right kind of flow. And the flow is different for everyone.

    Figuring out your particular flow is vital. Some people need a rigid schedule with a set amount of time for each daily. Others work for days and then take days to relax with fam and friends. Still others have figured out to incorporate all four!

    Find our your rhythm and let the harmony flow!

  • Shirley says:

    In my opinion, the “four burners” theory is an oxymoron. How can it be considered successful to have to cut off family, friends, work or health? The way I see it, a person with the ability to do a great job at work, always be there for family and friends, and have excellent health, is the success.

    Personally, at my house, the stove always has at least one burner that just won’t light. Last year, I was working on my degree, so school was my work. I was falling behind in classes, while worried about my father’s health, and fighting with my significant other. Then, I had a stroke. Now I’m diagnosed with severe depression.

    OK, so I’m no expert on success.

  • Paul Noonan says:

    It’s a catchy metaphor. But it’s not really true as a life rule. It’s too reductive to imply that everyone must turn down one or two burners to be successful. I’ve known people with all four burners kicking and they’re loving life. It seems like more of a choice than a rule. Often people like to try on beliefs to see if it solves whatever challenge they’re having. But, you can’t escape who you are no matter what metaphor you use.

    People are individuals with their own talents and challenges. Ultimately I think people find their own way in life. The trick is to use your talents to strengthen your weaknesses and to achieve a sustainable balance. What may be true for you may not be true for someone else.

    It’s a simplistic metaphor, and my brain loves simplicity. However, in order for the logic to work I have to adopt the belief that it’s not possible to live a balanced fulfilling life and be successful. That’s not a belief that is going to add any richness to my life, so no thanks

  • neil keleher says:

    I think if you are aware of the options you can choose from among them. Four burners in one way of looking at life. You can switch between each of the four burners throughout your day or week or month, paying attention to whichever one is most convenient at the time and then switch or you can focus on one or two of those burners to the exclusion of the others so that you can complete whatever task you are working on. Some people may have three burners, others may have 5 or 6, depends on how you break up your life. Some people may prioritize one burner over the others. Over all, if you are aware of the elements in your life and you are aware of you want out of your life, and you are aware of different possibilities for getting what you want you can make informed decisions.
    to that end, it may pay off to take a step back every once in a while, decide what you want out of life and how to get it. Then go to it.

  • Chase Brumfield says:

    It’s very interesting that this particular post has SOOO many comments. Perhaps this speaks to people’s real struggle with trying to invest themselves fully in all they desire but falling short and then questioning their worth.

    Perhaps it strikes a chord with that little something inside us (or at least in me) that says, if I can’t give 100% to everything I’m involved in then perhaps I’m not good enough. Ahh yes, there it is, that age old question… “Am I good enough?”

    This theory cuts right to that question… Once again I think it comes back to that irrational construct that our worth lies in what we do or what areas we choose to invest ourselves in. These areas are only facades, our real worth lies in our ability to perceive ourselves as capable of anything and everything… even after failure.

    It’s a challenge to realize that we are worth the same amount, whether failing or succeeding at 100 different categories of our life. There’s only one burner that matters, love…

  • Ann Kurz says:

    Anne Morrow Lindbergh, Gift From the Sea, illustrates how different times and events have shaped her, like special shells on her desk. One shell, the oyster shell, with small shells clinging to its back, is one she chooses to describe her life as a wife and mother. It was when she was adding on, gathering possessions, having her babies, entertaining friends and family, as well as nurturing her relationship with her famous husband! She probably had all those burners, 4 or 8 or more, turned on high power!
    Later in her life, after her children leave, she begins to reflect on the Argonauta shell (Paper Nautilus), where the mother uses the shell simply for a cradle for the young, until the eggs hatch and the young swim away. At last, like the mother Argonauta, she is free to pursue the most important relationship of all–the one with herself–free to dance in the “winged life of relationships, of their eternal ebb and flow.” Life is intermittent, and so are the burners!

  • Jenny Hones says:

    If everyone’s definition of success is different, can we compare answers equally?

  • Bruce says:

    After thinking about it for a bit, I think what I am going to try is to do 30 minutes minimum of “quality” time on each burner each day. Then the rest of the time goes to whatever burner(s) are a priority. If I can start implementing it as a daily routine it would likely stick.

    I already try to spend 30 minutes of quality time with my wife each day. Even when I am on another continent skype and 30 minutes go a long way.

    And 30 minutes of exercise isn’t bad. Won’t make you super fit but it would at least give you a base. I try to do something like that already (at a minimum that would be: 30 minutes running, next day 30 minutes biking on indoor trainer, next day 30 minutes of lifting using body weight exercises//bands that can be used anywhere, then repeat 3 day cycle)

    As a self-employed person, at least 30 minutes a day should be mandatory anyway.

    And 30 minutes a day on friends (and I’d add non-immediate family to this list), I definitely need to work on that.

  • Matt says:

    David Sedaris tends to have a bit of dark humor in most things he says. I think the four burner theory is absolutely true in a descriptive sense, but that doesn’t mean it should be prescriptive.

    When a person runs their “work” burner at full blast they end up stunted or unhealthy in at least one of the other areas, the vast majority of professional athletes have had to sacrifice family, friends or emotional health in order to achieve their success, but typically we look to workaholics and athletes for our definition of success.

    The world is full of wealthy, athletic, popular people who are also broken and hurting because they don’t have balance. You can be successful, but that doesn’t mean you will be content.
    I don’t think I want to prescribe to turning off one or two of the burners in order to achieve “success”. I would rather recalibrate my understanding of success and think more in terms of sustainability and overall health in all four areas of my life. Everyone has a te

  • Christian Henrik Nesheim says:

    You CAN keep all burners going strong, but only a handful people manage to do so. That’s because it’s only feasible if all four burners replenish your energy rather than deplete it. Even if only one burner is draining your energy, it can topple the whole balance, but if all four give you positive energy, they’ll reinforce each other.

    If a pot is draining the energy of one burner (e.g. a naysaying friend or an uninspiring job), simply remove it and replace it with something that revitalizes you. Don’t think twice, drop the energy-drainers like a bad habit. I think you’ll find the synergy effect of a four-fold positive reinforcement can take you to unknown heights.

  • Damon says:

    Whether you have four burners or three or two or even just one, we are still taking about one stove top… better yet, one source of fuel. The gas lines that supplies each burner all come from the same source. I believe that the source is what is important. This is what is at our core. What drives us, motivates us and inspires us to burn brightly? Sure, we can build a facade of a remarkable kitchen with stainless steel appliances, but if there is no fuel, then we are left with something that is actually inoperable and rather useless. I suppose the question is, what is at your core?

  • Casey Friday says:

    Clearly defined goals will automatically adjust each of your ‘burners’ to their required temperature. I think that far too often, we overload ourselves with projects, goals, deadlines, personal improvements – and we end up disappointed. Goal achievement works just like they used to teach us how to do homework – smallest to largest. It’s the same way you effectively pay off your debt. You get a number of small wins, they hop on to autopilot, and then you move on to the the bigger goals.

    Our brains chunk all of our goals into a large collage, but the second we can start focusing on a single bullseye, rather than blindly throwing darts, we really start to achieve. By no means should you need to give something up – your focus just needs to be clearly defined.

  • Cate says:

    I once read that you can do something 100%, but you cannot do a multitude of things at 100% each. To me, life is made sticky by the choices we make, not the balance we keep. We have schedules, timelines BUT we choose every day, every hour, what will garner our most attention. Since the burner theory is just a metaphor, the commenters have give us a window into what is important in their lives, and that is the real lesson; for each to discover what is important to them. In mine, the chicken on burner one has to be constantly watched, and if the rice is burnt; well, that’s what has to happen (metaphorically speaking). I parent teen boys pretty much alone, and find that some burners (my dreams, my passions) must sometimes take what oftentimes seems like a permanent back seat. Many who have written are young and have not had their life ripen fully and those of us who have, know that burners change, priorities change.

  • John Sherry says:

    My rebellious head thinks why does there have to be four? Why not 6 or 7? The real point is to question if there is anything that can be ditched (or burned off) from life. Guess so. And also guess that it’s a regular process to be fitted into the diary. So long as it’s not burning bridges at the same time.

  • Lori Cronwell says:

    My four burners are: health, spirituality, writing and friends. I believe in leaving all my burners on, but not all on high at one time. Most weeks my writing is boiling, while I’m stirring my pot of friends, and simmering my spirit and health. My definition of success is a balanced meal.

    There are weeks when, due to a deadline, writing takes all my focus and I skip my morning meditation, don’t take the daily walk, eat junk food and decline social invitations. But if I shut the other burners off for more than a day or two, it’s a recipe for disaster. The result is lackluster writing, lost productivity, procrastination, dissatisfaction.

    When I take time to be with friends, spend quiet moments with myself and exercise, energy and ideas flow, creativity and inspiration are enhanced and the writing comes easy.

  • Dante says:

    The truth is there can be as many different burners as are necessary in a persons life at any one time. Some people will have more burner, some will have less. The more active the chef, the more burners he needs.

    But it is important for people to shut specific burners off or turn them down from time to time lest the stove unit blows up in their faces and leaves everything a burnt putrid mess.

    The key is recognizing which burners are endangering the situation and reacting accordingly so that at the end of the day the best possible feast can be prepared.

    A person may be able to keep four burners on today, but maybe that ability only manifested after running eight burners blew up in his face yesterday.

  • Shelley says:

    I like what one of the commenter’s said earlier, that it’s all about the balance, different ‘burners’ at different levels, depending on the circumstances. I don’t like the turn a burner (or two) off, in order to be a success, but it does depend on how you define success. If you define it as an all or nothing proposition, does the “four burner” theory then apply? This kind of reminds me of the power hungry days of the 80’s, where it was gain power & wealth at all costs, nothing else mattered, kind of sad, really. Those who gained the wealth/power weren’t any happier than those who didn’t & they sacrificed friends, family & more to achieve their goals, so were they really successful? Interesting discussion, thanks for starting this great dialog.

    I also have to agree with your thoughts on the whole “you should be happy” thing. Maybe you shouldn’t. Maybe, you’d be happier without that bad job, etc…

  • Daniel N. says:

    I don’t agree with the “four burners theory”. The Universe is all about abundance. Life is plentiful enough so that we don’t have to limit ourselves and impose non-existent limits to give us an impression we are controlling our lives.

    Four burners? I can combine all in a bonfire and enjoy it!

  • Liz says:

    I think this is a very accurate theory in that a lot of people feel the need to “sacrifice” in some way – either through family/friend relationships, job success, or health – in order to excel at one of the ‘turned up’ burners. However, I feel the TRULY successful are the ones that manage to balance all four burners. For example, having good family and friend relationships improves your mental and emotional health. Solid mental and emotional health promote physical health, and job success because you tend to be in a more positive mindset. I feel that having one burner on high and the rest turned off is not healthy – you are not achieving balance in your life, which will likely come back to haunt you.

  • Sean Giorgianni says:

    This is your best post in months! Here’s all I can add: consider defining success as daily effort to eradicate blame, guilt, and justification. It’s one thing to have the awareness to think these things; yet another to have the freedom to write them; and the ultimate courage to act on them.

    Keep doing great things, Chris!

  • neil keleher says:

    One other thought, I was just in the process of wrapping up a newsletter, and because of that I cancelled out on a friend.
    At critical moments, near the end of a product cycle, a special moment in one’s love life, or family life, then it could be very useful to be able to cut off other burners for the sake of one.
    It all depends on context.
    If you are ticking along in all four (or five or six) areas, then its probably cook to keep them all going at once.

  • Timothy Morris says:

    Okay 2nd comment – sorry. Is this, if your goal is balance it will never work. There are just to many hats. The goal I have found that is way more practical and more enjoyable is to braid them together. Think of a rope – if one strand is alone you have to spend a ton of time on it or it will snap. However, it you take the four strands and braid them together then they all strengthen each other. Think of it a different way – if my family is doing well, I have a healthy relationship with my wife and kids then that strengthens my ability at work. If I have a good financial situation or work relationship with my colleagues it supplements my family life and does not break it apart.
    So many times, we focus on one then walk through the door to focus on the other, acting as if they do not influence each other. We carry some kind of baggae into the next part of the day or week and then spend extra time focusing on it because we feel that one lone strand is reaching it’s limit. It does not work.

  • Dave says:

    Just add a fifth burner, coffee, and it becomes much easier to keep the other 4 burners going strong.

  • Graeme says:

    hmmm I really like posts like this. I`m travelling and I`m in North Argentina at the moment with not much to do of a night, I brought up this theory and we were debating it for ages!

    There were a lot of different opinions, definitions of success, alternative burners etc… then we realized, we`re all travelling – this experience is something which we have all saved for, dreamt about, anticipated and are really enjoying.

    However… Our families are at home, forget about work, health (backpacker diet isn`t always lovely local cuisine really is it? Combine that with some hefty liver punishment in B.A.)

    The result? The friend burner is on red, and im making the most diverse and interesting friends, crazy northern english barman/gaucho characters who found themselves stuck in argentina for 14 years, to brazilian jewel trading world travel extraordinaires!

  • Clayton Foor says:

    I once met someone who was a published author. Two years earlier, his goal was to write his first completed manuscript by the time he was 40. His commuting route included a ferry trip every day, and so he simply started making his daily ferry ride into his (only) writing time. Not only did he finish writing this book and others, as well as getting them published, but last I heard his first book is going to be made into a movie.

    I think this goes to show you that it need not be all-encompassing timewise to make great results happen. How many of us consistently spend an hour of focused work daily on a creative or entrepreneurial project, as well as on, say, exercise? Those two consistent hours could be enough to take care of 2 of the 4 burners quite nicely.

  • Cris Buckley says:

    To me, it’s not about the burners, it’s all about the meal you’re making. What are you making? Most meals don’t require four burners at full heat, but maybe one will be at a boil, one will be simmering, one sauteing. Some foods don’t require a burner at all.

    Another meal will have a totally different combination.

    There’s a flow, and it’s dynamic, changing, alive. Not static. Not prescribed.

  • Abhi says:

    My view is that how the burner I am cooking my main disk has not problem and performs well, it impacts the way we react to the performance / non perfomance of the other burners to a big extent.. I mean if say I give most priority to my work life, then if its going on great, we tend to be little more tolerant of an impact on the personal or social life.. but if the burner we cooking our main dish on ( the thing we give most priority) is not working well, then it impacts the whole dinner since the main dish itself was not cooked properly..

  • Hannah says:

    If I look at my life, the four burner theory rings pretty true. When one burner is running really hot, e.g. falling in love or hitting career success, I feel great and because of that I keep putting my energy there to the detriment of the other burners. In the back of my mind, I know they will be there and I feel I can tend to them later. What I forget, is that it’s impossible for things to run really hot for long periods of time and the longer a burner is turned off, the longer it takes to heat it up again.

    The focus shouldn’t be on the burners, it should be on the stove, us. Having self awareness – of our goals, opporunities, and how much fire we have to give – will help us determine what each burner needs and gets. Life gets much easier when we stop looking to give the fire to everyone else based on their needs and start looking at how best to use our heat.

  • Hersh Kalles says:

    It’s never been about the burners… we all have the same 24 hours in a day and yet some people seem to be able to do more with it then others.

    To me it comes down to what you fuel the burners with in order to keep them burning. Of course in its most simplest form this can mean eating and sleeping and exercise but more importantly are the power fuels like passion and gratitude which can provide a huge amount of emotional fuel to keep your burners hot and can often provide fuel enough to upgrade to the professional 6-8 burner stove top!!!

  • Jen M. says:

    I’ll tell you what: I’m all for cutting off the “job” burner and going it on my own. I would do that in a hot minute, EXCEPT that I have financial obligations that cannot be eliminated and cannot be met by my own projects alone. That’s just the concrete reality with which I’m living FOR NOW.

    Instead, I do a lot of “Star Trek” type juggling (Re-route energy from one system to another.)

    My family (chosen and blood) come before all else, and then my health. When push comes to shove, work just has to understand.

    If I had made different choices in life, I’d have a VERY different point of view, but I have to live in the house I’ve built.

    That said, I don’t find it offensive when people talk about pitching it all to strike out on one’s own. I would definitely do that if I could.


  • Janice Tennant says:

    I can’t say I understand why you need to ‘cut off’ a burner or 2. A good range has all 4 burners, not all the same size or power, in good working order. And I agree with others who said they just don’t all have to be turned on at the same time or all at once. Some need to do the simmering for a while while the others cook or rest, to take the analogy a little farther. Sometimes all the burners are off and the oven is in use, maybe a little romantic music. You know what you need.

  • Jenna says:

    I think the four burners theory is very true but that we shouldn’t get too bogged down by it. If you are doing things that you love and don’t mind stoking the fire under all 4 or 5 or 6 of your burners, it becomes easier to do so. When you think of life as a chance to experience the world and live the richest experience possible, you can stop beating yourself up for having a hobby outside your family or for turning down the burner on one once in a while. If it’s not making you happy, it needs to be fixed or turned off.

  • Amanda says:

    Not quite burners, but I heard this quote a screenwriting panel, of all places: “Life is choice, choice is loss.” (Isaiah Berlin) I like this because it acknowledges why we don’t like having to choose — we genuinely lose something when we discard one option or path.

    But, as the speaker suggested, we must always choose a direction or we’ll never get anywhere.

    So yes, you absolutely have to cut off a burner, or two, or three, depending on how driven you are and what you want from life. It seems to me that people today are absolutely phobic about making choices — they really do think that they can keep all their options open in life. This is simply not true.

  • Teri says:

    I wholeheartedly agree with Kieran and Christine. We are like our thumbprint, and whatever defines success or happiness to us isn’t always going to be what our loved ones, friends or work related folks feel is important. Four burners aren’t enough to define my life or what means the world to me. I must commend this wonderful group of thinking people. Love this blog people :). Thanks for all perspectives. This is the best time to be alive on this planet.

  • Jennifer says:

    I have to say I disagree with this burner theory. Turning one or two off is the equivalent of neglecting an important aspect of your life, and could also be a detriment to one’s quest for success. When you turn off the family and friends burners, you inevitably end up alienating the people close to you, and for what…success? Turning off the health burner is just plain irresponsible . For me, being successful is being mindful of how you treat people, doing what you love for a living – even if it doesn’t make you wealthy, and taking care of yourself – mind, body and soul. I think leaving those burners turned on is what fuels us to push toward success.

  • Lea Woodward says:

    I’m with you, Chris – I don’t like the idea of choosing or cutting off one of the burners either and I’m not sure you have to either.

    An interesting experiment we’ve been conducting recently is something along the lines of a 1 week on/ 1 week off approach (a version of the one described by Steve Pavlina).

    The premise is simple:
    1) You focus on work with no distractions for 7 days;
    2) Then for the following 7 days you put as much focus & effort on your personal life.

    For us so far, it’s worked brilliantly because:

    – Health, family & friends become are the primary focus during an “off” week; work & business are the focus during an “on” week. Neither suffers from neglect for more than a week.

    – You go into each week knowing that you’ve closed everything off from the previous week (work tasks, personal admin tasks, etc.) and can throw yourself 100% into whatever is on the agenda for that week.

    I’d highly recommend trying this approach if you can swing it.

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