Use the 4 Stages of Fire to Inspire Success

Less is more

Paul Dorsey
Age of Empathy
5 min readFeb 11, 2021


Photo by Katie Dorsey

On a cold January night, flakes glisten in the moonlight as the flurry hints at a storm. I plan a fire before starting to write. Maybe the crackle of dry wood mixed with a dose of binaural music will inspire the missing chapter in my latest book.

I think back to a fire on Christmas Eve when three of us jacked it up too fast to get it to a full burn.

“Don’t pay too much attention to the fire,” warned my brother-in-law. We didn’t listen. The flame petered out.

Left with a pile of scorched logs, we started again from scratch. If too many cooks in the kitchen spoil the broth, too much fuel on the hearth smothers the fire.

Every firefighter knows fire has four stages: Incipient, growth, fully developed, and decay.

As I observe each stage, I soon realize how much we have in common with the flames dancing in the hearth a few feet away. As a financial advisor, I see the same with my clients. Some in their younger years. Others with budding families. And oftentimes, our oldest generation.

To prep the fire, I search the house for paper. I steal crumpled tissues, ketchup-stained napkins, and used paper towels from the kitchen trash can. My wife would be disgusted, but she took off for the beach with the kids.

With crumpled newspapers for a base, I cover the grate with the trash, then shape a handful of twigs into a teepee.

A single match torches the paper. Yellow flames sprout with optimism, but this fire has no base and its legs are wobbly. It lacks experience. I’m tempted to add a small log, but I know I’ll smother it before it can mature. It needs a foundation to grow stronger.

In the early years, parents must build a strong foundation for their children. Nutritious food, reading, and playing all add to well-rounded development. Too little support in the younger stage makes the growth process harder. It’s a balancing act. Overzealous moms or dads can also burn out a child.

When my fire grows, I add thicker branches. The aged wood pops like corn in a microwave. Its embers begin to warm the room. Orange stripes in the yellow flames hint at its strength. The fire doesn’t need much attention. It knows what to do.

And so it is with children. Parents may want them to study a particular subject or play a particular sport. It’s the kids that sample everything that tend to succeed because they can make their own decisions, instead of depending on direction from above.

Take our younger daughter. She wandered down the path of softball, following in her older sister’s footsteps. Maybe one of her parents wanted her to pitch or play second base. But by high school, it wasn’t fun for her anymore.

When she joined the cross country team as a freshman I can remember her saying, “They made us run two miles before practice even started!”

By the end of the season, she still ran with the slowest group, but she didn’t want to be last anymore. I asked her what she had to do to get to the first group. She figured it out on her own. The rest is history.

Before I know it, the mature fire has an appetite for full-size logs. It hisses and breathes like an athlete in training. The smoke changes from white to gray.

I add more wood to keep it healthy. If it simmers down, a quick poke adds enough oxygen for it to roar back to life.

Throughout high school, I thought our oldest daughter took enough science classes to test out of the first year of med school. With a surgeon for a mentor, she was destined to be a doctor.

Fate made her miss the pre-med tour, so she settled for a walk through the nursing school. The curriculum, the simulation lab, and the promise of work with real patients inspired her. Something clicked.

As we left the building, she said, “I want to be a nurse.” Who knew?

At first, I pushed back, but then let go. She had the proper foundation to make her own decision. Halfway through her nursing journey, she is still smiling.

Oftentimes, I meet clients who have settled into a career and started a new family. We meet annually or when they go through a life event. The ones that do what they love seem to succeed the most. They throw more logs on the fire, keeping it strong while their kids grow up, go to college and make a life of their own.

As the night ages, so does the fire. Three big logs simmer above hot coals that offer a tender glow to the room. One log breaks in two, encouraging a youthful flame to pop. After a split-second, it quickly retreats.

An empty Cheez-It box under the grate offers life support, but the ensuing flame breathes more orange than yellow. Older now. More patient. Surviving. By propping one log over another, I help it draw the most from the life it has left. The wood pops sporadically, as if it knows its time is short. All is good.

I think of those clients who are raising their families. Some return to me as their parents age. Maybe they have to take them in or help them find a retirement home. The roles are reversed as their parents begin to fade away.

A final twig invigorates the old fire. A flashback to the paper and matches that started it all. It’s like a puppy or young child bringing joy to the lobby of a retirement home.

I drop the pen and turn off the music to watch the fire consume itself. We can only hope that we are lucky to live like this fire, dying with dignity, using every spark of energy that nature offers.

My wife would want me to douse it with water. I close the glass door and shut the light. It smolders alone.

In the morning the embers and wood have left their memory in ash under the grate.

Outside the window, broken twigs litter the snow-covered yard. A branch has fallen from the maple tree. It will help build a foundation for growth that will make the next fire hum. The woodpile awaits.

Uncle Bill was right. Don’t pay too much attention to the fire. Give it a good foundation, then let it run its course. Too much wood will smother it. Too much cheap fuel will burn it out. With the right upbringing, it will run on its own, warming the world, until it naturally fades away.

And so it is with life.



Paul Dorsey
Age of Empathy

When not working as a Financial Advisor, Paul writes about everyday people.