Imagine your life is a stove with four burners for a second. According to a New Yorker article written by David Sedaris in 2009, “One burner represents your family, one is your friends, the third is your health, and the fourth is your work.” The gist, she said, was 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.” https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2009/08/24/laugh-kookaburra
James Clear, author of Atomic Habits (ranked #17 in Amazon list this week), also wrote an article espousing the four burner theory. James Clear elucidates this theory further and explains, “The importance of your burners may change throughout life. When you are in your 20s or 30s and you don’t have children, it can be easier to get to the gym and chase career ambitions. The health and work burners are on full blast. A few years later, you might start a family and suddenly the health burner dips down to a slow simmer while your family burner gets more gas. Another decade passes and you might revive relationships with old friends or pursue that business idea you had been putting off.”
“You don’t have to give up on your dreams forever, but life rarely allows you to keep all four burners going at once. Maybe you need to let go of something for this season. You can do it all in a lifetime, but not at the same damn time. In the words of Nathan Barry, “Commit to your goal with everything you have—for a season.” https://jamesclear.com/four-burners-theory
I experienced four burner “burn out” first hand, and wish I had heard about this theory way back in 2001. I had a demanding career as litigation supervisor at The Screen Actors Guild, was trying to raise a my 2 year old daughter and was pregnant with my second child and working on trying to stay healthy after weighing in at over 200 pounds. I had not seen many of my friends and had to repeatedly pass on many reunions over the years – so my friends burner was indeed out for all intensive purposes.
I struggled to keep my career on high, raise my children and keep my husband happy and to keep healthy, but I physically and mentally was exhausted and knew deep down I could not keep burning these three burners on high.
I asked to turn down the career burning by gong Part-time, but the Union refused saying it was a “dangerous precedent” to let me go part-time so I had to make a choice. My family or my career. I took the leap into the unknown and chose my family (and community) and my health burner and have kept those two burners on high for the past 17 or so years.
In retrospect, I am still trying to come to terms with giving up my career as a lawyer. I wrote a book, which is really more like a love letter to my children, outlining my struggles with going from a working mom to a stay at home mom. It needs more editing, but at least it’s done.
In 2013, I read, Facebook’s Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg’s book “Lean In” which calls for women to “lean in” to their careers. I felt bad about my decision to lower my career burner. After I watched Serena William’s new HBO series which also shows a full burner career, full burner health and fully burner family dance of Serena Williams, I also felt bad about turning down my career burner. https://www.hbo.com/being-serena
Today is different. Why? The Four Burner Theory makes me feel a bit better. I now try to look at as my career as a “season in my life” that was great, but that was turned off so I could devote my time and energy fully to my family (and community) and to being healthy (competing in over 13 triathlons, 2 1/2 Marathons, 1 Marathon and working out with a Tribe of warriors three days a week for many years.)
My daughter is now in college and my son is a Junior in High School. I am feeling the urge to reignite my third burner again and find myself writing this today. I am hopeful that this article will promote more dialogue and reflection. What’s on your stove?