Quitting what you're doing while still on top
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Quitting what you're doing while still on top

Last month, Jacinda Ardern, New Zealand's 42-year-old prime minister, resigned from 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, Bjorn 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. "Basically, over the years, I was practising, playing my matches, eating, and sleeping," he said. "But there's other things besides those four things."

Barty announced her retirement in a video. 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. "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, Ms 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.

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 Life, by 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 honourable reasons for quitting; but in the case of Ms Ardern and Barty, it was probably an important factor. Ms Ardern was just the second prime minister -- after Pakistan's Benazir Bhutto -- to give birth while in office. 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 recognising 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 fuelled 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. ©2023 Project Syndicate

Peter Singer, Professor of Bioethics at Princeton University, is Founder of the charity The Life You Can Save. His books include 'Animal Liberation', 'Practical Ethics', 'The Life You Can Save', 'The Most Good You Can Do', and 'Ethics in the Real World'.

Peter Singer

Professor of Bioethics at Princeton University

Peter Singer is Professor of Bioethics at Princeton University and Laureate Professor at the University of Melbourne. His books include 'Animal Liberation', 'Practical Ethics', 'The Point of View of the Universe' (with Katarzyna de Lazari-Radek), and, most recently, 'The Most Good You Can Do'.

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