I was in Yosemite this past weekend. As I was camping without my kids, I had the luxury of time. I didn’t have to cook or officially watch children, so I took on the chore of making the camp fire. I built a lot of fires this past weekend. It brought back memories of the different fires I’ve built over the years. And it reinforced the primitive yearning to keep our fires collectively glowing & continuously lit through the years. Similarly, fire can be a handy metaphor for our lives and community.
There are 3 simple ingredients to a fire — heat, fuel and oxygen — making up the fire triangle.
One of my strengths is being bold and direct. The same applies to when I build fires — I focused on the heat and fuel. Apply more heat and fuel and the fire will get bigger. Throw on more lighter fluid. Add the bacon grease from the morning’s breakfast. Yet this focus on heat and fuel can lead to a bright intense flame that peaks brilliantly and then burns out, exhausting itself with the effort.
My father passed away last April. I got the call from my sister late on a Saturday night, the last time I was camping in Yosemite. The next morning when I awoke, I built a fire. I must have spent over an hour crouching by the wood, covered in smoke and charcoal. I tried my usual method of heat and fuel. I could light the fire, but nothing I did could sustain the flames. I ripped off countless pages from a magazine and went through books of matches. My daughter, seeing my grief & desolation and desperate to help, went to fetch little twigs and pinecones to serve as kindling. I sat in the smokiness, blowing on the fire and thinking of my dad. My hands were busy and it allowed my mind to free-roam, alternating between anger, sorrow, regret, satisfaction, and happiness that he had found relief from a body that he was no longer in complete control of. Eventually someone else took over the fire-making, and I spent the rest of the morning watching the flames dance and letting my mind be free. I had failed to build a fire, and I was strangely OK with the unfamiliar feeling of accepting help from someone else. Sitting around the fire together with friends felt like a community brought collectively closer with flame and empathy for my grief.
Fast forward to this weekend where I learned the power of oxygen. I learned to teepee the kindling and wood into a structure with a chimney so that oxygen can rush through it. I learned to carefully prepare paper balls to start the combustion, followed by a layer of twigs and kindling, followed by a small dry piece of firewood, all arranged around a chimney or teepee. Once the initial match lights the paper, you can wander away but will need to check back every five minutes or so. Because the carefully built twigs and firewood could collapse upon that teepee structure, depriving the flame of oxygen and suffocating it. I learned to wait, to check back in, and to blow air through the coals with powerful lungs. It’s a thing of beauty to see the flame reignite after a powerful puff to the embers. More instructions on how to start a campfire.
Metaphors are powerful. They help you to learn. And a full-body metaphor—building fire — helps lock in the learning.
The fire triangle of heat, fuel, and oxygen can be translated to a personal fire triangle that keeps us truly vibrant, living a fiery purposeful life. Our personal fire triangle is drive, energy, and emotion.
Heat is the Drive for a fire. It’s the fierce ambition or yearning within each of us. Our drive is the part of ourselves that moves us forward, continuing to live and work and experience our lives to the fullest. It can also be a negative self-critical aspect that pushes for more and drives us to keep going. It is our motivation, and the sense of what we do each day.
Fuel is the Energy we need to sustain ourselves. It can literally be our food choices, made up of a colorful balanced plate of fruit and vegetables or an equally vivid pack of red hot flaming Cheetos or rainbow Lucky Charms. It includes our physical energy management of exercise and meditation. And it also includes the relationships around us — the boss who builds up our confidence, the best friend who holds our secrets, the office gossip whose tidbits can connect or destroy, and also the rival who drives us to be better.
Oxygen is the Emotion and the way we exist or be in our days. (being vs doing) It is the ability to stop and patiently wait for something to unfold. It is the comfort in the not knowing, and being willing to wait, because the answer will unveil itself at some point in time. It is the ability to give up control, to see how the pieces we have put into place will move on their own and grow into something different, and then we can choose to react to this new thing. We can breathe and be. And eventually something different will grow. Some new ember, or flame, or way of being will move us forward.
Creating fires creates community
Gathering around a warm fire is the heart of community. It’s the relaxation of making smores, sharing ghost stories, listening to the gentle strum of a guitar while basking in the warmth on half your body. I was glad to be able to contribute to our camp’s community and warmth this past weekend. Imagine if you were able to keep your personal flame burning strong through the Drive of doing, the Emotion of being, and sustaining your Energy over time. How might your flame be of service to the community around you?
Our campsite was still quite chilly especially as the sun started to fade in the mid-afternoon. We ducked into Curry Village and found the giant fireplaces lit and supplied with wood. One of the fireplaces was smoldering with red hot embers, but the flame was dying. I moved the giant grate and crouched close by the fire. I’d learned that oxygen was needed, so I started to blow. I crouched there for 10 or 15 minutes, stoking the fire with a poker, blowing hard, and re-arranging the logs for optimum air flow. And still it wouldn’t light. Finally, a man working nearby on his laptop walked over with a pile of scribbled-upon notes and offered up his papers. Accepting the help, I balled up the papers and tucked them under my carefully constructed logs. I noticed that I’m getting more used to accepting help. With a whoosh of ignition, the whole fireplace erupted into flames.
Thanks to Amara for reading drafts of this post.
Hello! I’m your host, Tutti Taygerly. I’ve spent 20+ years in product design & technology, leading teams at startups, design agencies, and large tech companies. I left Facebook in summer 2019 to focus on leadership coaching full-time. I write weekly about topics related to design & coaching.
I grew up in seven countries on three continents and am settled in San Francisco as my home base. I spend my time parenting two adventurous girls, obsessively reading, and paddling out for the next wave.
If you’re curious about coaching and how it could unblock your life, learn more about what I do.