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Quitting While on Top

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.”