Quitting While on Top

Originally published at Project-Syndicate | February 10th, 2023

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s decision to resign, despite the support of a solid parliamentary majority and no challenge from within her party, stunned the world. Getting to the top of a worthwhile activity is an exciting challenge, and overcoming challenges can be enjoyable, but staying there is a different matter.

MELBOURNE – Last month, Jacinda Ardern, New Zealand’s 42-year-old prime minister, resigned her office, despite the support of a solid parliamentary majority and no challenge to her leadership from within her party. New Zealanders have to go back only six years to find a precedent. In 2016, John Key surprised everyone when, at the age of 55, he made way for his deputy to take over.

A year ago, Ashleigh Barty became the first Australian to win the Australian Open in 44 years. She was 25 years old and the top-ranked women’s tennis player in the world for more than 100 weeks. Two months later, she announced her retirement. Likewise, Björn Borg, the Swedish tennis champion, retired in 1983 at the age of 26, and Anthony Kim, a rising star of golf, was also 26 when he stopped playing competitively.

Why do they do it? Borg and Barty have given similar reasons. At first, Borg said, he had enjoyed playing and achieving the goals he set for himself. By the time he retired, however, the fun had gone out of playing tennis at that level. “Basically, over the years, I was practicing, playing my matches, eating, and sleeping,” he said. “But there’s other things besides those four things.”

Barty announced her retirement in a video conversation with her friend and former doubles partner, Casey Dellacqua. Tennis, she said, “has given me all of my dreams, plus more, but I know that the time is right, now, for me to step away and chase other dreams, and to put the rackets down.” Her happiness, she continued, had ceased to depend on her results on the tennis court, and she no longer had the physical drive or the emotional desire to continue to challenge herself at the very top level. “It’s important that I get to enjoy the next phase of my life as Ash Barty the person, not as Ash Barty the athlete.”

In announcing her resignation, Ardern expressed similar feelings. It had been, she said, “the most fulfilling five and a half years” of her life. But “I know what this job takes,” she added, “and I know that I no longer have enough in the tank to do it justice. It’s that simple.”

Getting to the highest level of a worthwhile activity is an exciting challenge, and overcoming challenges can be enjoyable; but staying at the top as long as one can is a different matter. As Borg said, there are other things in life than tennis, and that is true of life in politics as well.

The Harvard Study of Adult Development has tracked the lives of some of its research subjects for more than 80 years, seeking answers to what makes them happy and healthy. Some of its results have just been released in The Good Lifeby Robert Waldinger and Marc Schulz. Although any one-word answer to such questions is bound to be an oversimplification, the authors nevertheless are prepared to say that the key to both health and happiness is good relationships.

Almost everyone who retires says that they want to spend more time with their family. Sometimes, of course, that is just a cover for less honorable reasons for quitting; but in the case of Ardern and Barty, it was probably an important factor. Ardern was just the second prime minister – after Pakistan’s Benazir Bhutto – to give birth while in office. She has occasionally shared moments with her child on social media, but she will now be able to spend more time with her daughter, and her partner, who has been a stay-at-home dad. For Barty, the desire to become a mother may have played a role, for she is now pregnant with her first child.

Social norms are changing our ideas about a good life. We are paying more attention to work-life balance than we used to do, and rightly so. We are far more open than we used to be about mental health – footballers now acknowledge facing mental-health issues, something that previously would have been considered humiliating. More people are recognizing that career success is not to be equated with living a good life. We should also ask what our career is doing for the world. Perhaps there are better things we could be doing. The website 80,000 hours has some suggestions.

Not everyone can choose to change the course of their life. Some face limited employment opportunities, with few options if they are to continue to feed and house themselves and their dependents. Political leaders may be reluctant to leave office because they believe they can do more good than those who will replace them.

When that belief is well-founded, rather than a form of self-deception fueled by the addictive nature of power, as it often is, staying in office may be what they should do. The rest of us, however, have choices, and we should frequently be asking ourselves if we are living the best life we can – both for ourselves and others.

Peter Singer: Professor of Bioethics at Princeton University, is Founder of the nonprofit organization The Life You Can Save. His books include Animal LiberationPractical EthicsThe Ethics of What We Eat (with Jim Mason), Rethinking Life and DeathThe Point of View of the Universe, co-authored with Katarzyna de Lazari-Radek, The Most Good You Can DoFamine, Affluence, and MoralityOne World NowEthics in the Real WorldWhy Vegan?, and Utilitarianism: A Very Short Introduction, also with Katarzyna de Lazari-Radek. In April 2021, W.W. Norton published his new edition of Apuleius’s The Golden Ass. In 2013, he was named the world’s third “most influential contemporary thinker” by the Gottlieb Duttweiler Institute.

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