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achieving balance and the four burner theory.

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achieving balance and the four burner theory.

Jen Mcgowan

“to have it all, you must do it all” is a truism that i’ve held close for as long as i can remember.

the only child of two hardworking parents for whom college was not an option, i would like to think that i was cognizant at a young age of the gift my parents were giving me—their all.

“all” for my mother meant working hard enough and smart enough for the funds that would allow me to pursue such whims as baton twirling and pottery to later sending me to college at Cornell. she didn’t use the “all” for herself, but gave her all to me.

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okay ladies, now let’s get in formation, i slay…

always stay gracious, best revenge is your paper.

-young me in the beyhive circa 1983. laugh all you want. #skillz

everyone’s “all” is different, as everyone has different priorities and those priorities are apt to change along with our circumstances at present.

i often beat myself up for what i label as “low self productivity” (i.e. not finishing this or that, not giving such and such my 100% effort, etc…). so, after a morning spent in self flagellation over not accomplishing a seemingly simple task, i rang my dear friend with whom i can wax on the laws of diminishing returns for what seems like hours. without beating around the bush, she alerted me to the following: to be a truly successful person, you have to make do with only three of the “burners” on the four burner stove that is your life. in short, you can’t have it all.

i felt like i had just seen behind the curtain at Oz. i felt a bit crumpled, internally.

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the theory that my friend was espousing had roots in a 2009 David Sedaris essay in the New Yorker which was later published in one of my favorite books “Let’s Explore Diabetes With Owls” by the same author. that my dear friend’s jostling “new” view on what it takes to succeed at the game of life came from my favorite author lessened the sting a little but i listened with prejudice as it was essentially shattering the truth that i held dear since I read Helen Gurley Brown’s (revolutionary at the time) “Having It All” published in 1982.

the theory goes like this:

visualize a four burner stove. gas or electric, you choose the brand. no pot filler spigot, no fancy hood, just a simple cooktop with four burners. clean or food-spattered, this stove top is your life.

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.
— an except by David Sedaris, originally published in The New Yorker, August 24, 2009

when the cooktop conversation with my friend came to end, i solitarily debated the variables at play in this new-to-me formula for balance and wellness. i have a four burner stove in my kitchen, whereas many of my friends have 6 or 8 burners on theirs. i wondered if theirs fired at higher a higher BTU than mine did, and if they were achieving a greater level of personal productivity than i was. i wondered if their cooktops were clean and pristine and if that meant they truly had their shit together whereas my cooktop definitely needed a wipe down and i’m often at loose ends. comparison is truly the thief of joy, isn’t it? “compare and despair” is what i throw out in response to a perceived inequity brought to my attention by the little people i share my home with, and for whom i fire my burners for.

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maybe you’re not seeking balance today. perhaps you’ve found your peace on the back of a kashi goLean cereal box with their interpretation of Tolkien’s original “Not all those who wander are lost.” from his poem “All that is gold does not glitter.” good on you. i’d like to have cereal with you sometime, be your grasshopper, wrap my mind around your wise ways. can we make a date?

for the rest of us, the question remains: do we have to do it all to have it all? what is the “all”? what’s the endgame? who’s the end consumer of the all we’re seeking to provide? who stands to benefit, and at what cost to ourselves? when i revisited the topic with my friend she reminded me of another pearl that raised every perfectionist hackle on the back my neck: “done is better than perfect.”

with love and genuine anticipation for our next heart-to-heart, i hung up the telephone and walked over to my stove. as i wiped down its enamel cooktop surface it came to mind that i rarely, if ever, have all of its four burners firing at the same time. it gave me peace to know that i had been doing it “all” all along as God or the universe intended…one day at a time, in my own way.

xoxo,

jetty betty AKA jen mcgowan