Compartmentalization vs. Integration and How to Have It All.


My girlfriend sent me an article about the four burners theory. The idea is that you have four burners in life: family, friends, health, and work. The overall idea is that in order to be successful (whatever that means), you have to cut off one burner. And in order to be really successful, you have to cut off two.

The idea that you have to cut off an entire area of your life, or even two, in order to be successful brings into question our very definition of success.

As a word, success is vague, at best.

Before we consider whether it’s possible to “have it all” and whether we have to cut out entire areas of our life, we first have to define what success means to us.

For me, I know I’m being successful when I feel like I’m being true to myself and that I’m making a contribution. I also feel successful when I have choices and I feel free.

It turns out none of these aspects of my definition of success has a monetary value applied to it. Success is a feeling, not an income level. {Tweet it.} success-is-a-feeling-not-an-income-level-tweet

I haven’t talked to the originator of the four burners theory, but based on the fact that he thinks you need to cut off parts of your life in order to have success, I think it’s safe to say that he and I don’t agree on what success means to us. And that’s fine.

I sat this morning around a picnic table with a group of nine remarkable women at our weekly Team Northrup/Freedom Family coffee hour.

Each of these women has carved an unusual life for herself based on making a choice to leave the structures and systems that told her that what she knew to be true wasn’t true and that she couldn’t have a career and a life that she loved at the same time.

We talked about how the pursuit of balance is bullshit, how we never feel ready for or capable of the things our souls are most calling us to do, and how we really can’t have it all.

But we can have the things that matter to us.

No one actually wants it all. We simply want what matters to us. {Tweet it.} no-one-actually-wants-it-all-we-simply-want-what-matters-to-us-tweet

The pursuit of having it all will make you crazy. The pursuit of balance will likely leave you feeling like a failure.

Yet I have to believe that it’s possible to create our version of success without completely cutting off any of the most vital parts of our lives: our family, friends, health, and career. (Not to mention our spirituality and sexuality, which didn’t even make it into this theory. No surprise there as these tend to be the most mysterious and powerful, and therefore the most feared, areas of our lives.)

In fact, this is not a belief. This is a knowing. I have built a life that meets my criteria for success and all four burners (plus a few more) are cooking with gas. Are they all at the same intensity? Nope. But they’re all on.

Here’s the key that’s worked for me:

I strive for integration rather than compartmentalization.

How does that work/look?

I take walks with girlfriends and our babies. Health? Check. Friends? Check. Family? Check. Sometimes we even talk business during these walks. Career? Check.

I work with some of my friends, my husband, and many members of my family. Check and check.

I’ve built beautiful, close relationships with the people I work with who didn’t start out as friends, but have become friends over time. I consider them my chosen family. Check, check, and check.

Part of our business is in the wellness industry. Being in integrity and growing our business from a point of authentic attraction requires me to be actively participating in my health journey. (Notice I didn’t say it requires me to be in perfect health. That’s unattainable and puts way too much pressure on me or anyone else in the wellness industry.)

What if we lived so that there weren’t such clear delineations between the different parts of our lives? What if we moved towards integration instead of compartmentalization? Would we still feel like we have to cut entire parts of our lives off in order to attain “success”?

I don’t think so.

A life well lived can contain all the things that matter. The key is that each of us has to decide what matters and then be willing to let it run together so that we don’t always have to feel like we’re cutting something off when we choose something else.

I get that there are trade-offs and that we can’t have it all all at the same time.

But if we blur the lines more between the things that are important to us, I think we’d find that we can have more than we ever thought. Take the things that matter to you out of their little compartments and let them play together. Then watch as your beautiful, successful life emerges.



What do you think of the four burners theory? Do you compartmentalize or integrate your life? What does success mean to you? I’d love to hear from you in the comments!


  • Dimitra Doupi

    Dear Kate,
    I could not agree more with your version of reality which allows for flexibility, a lessening of comparison and an acceptance of what is at the moment on the way to what we each choose as an improved version.
    It is telling that so many well meaning folks who strive to understand life and its expressions often offer methods and tools that may be useful to some but could not possibly stand as the end all version for everyone.
    It is telling that regardless of that there is always room for looking at life, success etc from multiple vantage points and more and more leaders, wellness experts and influencers are shifting their work towards intergration in the way they offer their teachings, products etc.
    It is my understanding that it comes from a deep desire to improve on what we so far know to be the way to create meaning and joyful life experience for ourselves and others.
    In that I am deeply appreciative and eager to see how far we go and how many new expressions of and ways to manifest our joy we discover.
    Thank you for sharing your thoughts.
    Happy Hump Day!

    PS: I look forward to reading “Pussy” myself and perhaps we shall meet at Mama Gena’s launch.

  • Was literally just talking about this over lunch with a girlfriend. Amazing article Kate. You’ve hit the nail on the head with so many points, not to mention spirituality and sexuality! Integration can be messy, but it’s so much more fulfilling at the end of the day! Much love to you and your girls for bringing conversations like this to the world! xxx

    • Kate Northrup

      It’s so true that integration can be messy – but I’d so much rather live a whole, messy life than a compartmentalized clean one!

  • I turn 41 tomorrow, so for some reason this morning, I Googled “Cameron Diaz” and read reviews of The Longevity Book. My search also took me to a video of Ms. Diaz talking about “The Five Pillars,” and although it’s similar to the four burners theory here, it’s WAY more about integration. She says that each one needs to be tended to in order to live a healthy life. I don’t remember them all in order, but I remember that “loving relationships” was one of them.

    Maybe the four burners theory is for someone just starting out. A young one. There are times in our lives when we need to focus more on one burner than another, but as we age, all four burners seem (almost) equally important.

    • Kate Northrup

      Happy Birthday Amanda! I agree – there are seasons of life for sure and we’re in a season where we’re cooking with all aspects of our life I guess!

  • Colleen

    I love integration and your thoughts in this context.
    You should read “Let my Peopl go Surfing” by Yvon Chouinard the founder of Patagonia.

  • Until today I did not think of my life being in compartments.
    I have a soap business I see my family, I go dancing and I see my friends not as much as I would like however I never really feel that I am successful or i am living a full life it always feels stressed and I always feel I fall short.
    I am getting ready to launch a small seminar series and I feel like if I do this it will take away from the other things I am already doing and after this I want to get coaching clients to suppliment my soap business.
    So i wonder am I really successful and am I really happy and satisfied with who I am. You made me ask questions I had not asked myself in a long time thanks

    • Kate Northrup

      I’m so glad you’re asking yourself new questions, Ruth! “The quality of our lives is determined by the quality of questions we ask ourselves.” Rock on!

  • Yes yes yes. This is the perfect way to realize we have it all, at any given moment. Thank you for sharing this perspective.

  • Odette

    I love this post Kate! I feel totally in alignment with what you have shared about how you run your life with all burners on! Life is so much more fun and pleasurable like that. Living this way makes me feel WHOLE (as opposed to fragmented) – and wholeness, to me, is the definition of success! One example of ‘integration vs. compartmentalisation’ in my life which resonates with what you shared, is that I have recently organized regular time for walking with my dear friend and business partner, where we also meditate and engage in spiritual practices in nature which allow us to face our fears and channel creative insights in order for our business to flow and grow. Friends – check. Health – check. Business – check. Spirituality – check. FUN – check!!

    • Kate Northrup

      I absolutely LOVE this example of integrated living – and that your version of success is feeling whole. Gorgeous Odette!

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