Top-tier politicians are like football managers or CEOs of Waystar Royco: they rarely leave on their own terms. It’s what makes Nicola Sturgeon and Jacinda Ardern’s recent decisions to step down from the highest offices in their respective countries so brilliant and so utterly rare. People don’t walk away from powerful jobs lightly. Usually they cling on until their position becomes untenable and their fingernails rake across the door of their office as they’re dragged out, biting and wailing. Powerful jobs, by their nature, attract ambitious people. And ambitious people don’t go quietly.
Not Sturgeon. Not Ardern. Both decided that their gigs were A Lot and that they wanted to focus on themselves for a bit. Both are stepping out at the top of their game (though in Sturgeon’s case you suspect she’d have liked to have done so having achieved independence for Scotland). Who can blame them? Running a country looks bloody exhausting. It’s constant pressure, constant criticism, constant responsibility.
High pressure jobs are hard, but walking away from them is often harder. No matter how much you tell yourself that you’re “prioritising your self care” or “putting yourself first”, there’s still part of you that will refuse to accept the decision as a good one. Sometimes it can feel like a validating and empowering step into a new phase, but more often it feels like failure. The word “resignation” is pretty perfect. You are resigning. You are resigned.
I worked in a news-based role for a tech company for seven years. You’ll have heard of it. It’s the one with the bird logo and the billionaire tantrum machine at the helm. I loved my job for a long time. The work was challenging, but not necessarily difficult, and the responsibility was rewarding. But there was negativity too. I had to read bad-faith take after bad-faith take. I lived with my head in current affairs, and I knew if I let the side down, if I let a mistake slip though, then it could cause real harm. OK, that’s not running a country, but it’s still responsibility – and there’s still a drip-drip-drip of bad vibes about big topics: abortion, gun control, immigration, trans rights, Brexit. I was living a never-ending episode of Question Time.
Last year, shortly before new management took the reins, I decided to leave. I’d done my bit. The job was impacting my mental health massively. I was exhausted all the time. Messenger alerts from colleagues made me flinch. The Sunday Night Blues had become the Sunday Night Existential Crisis. When that happens, it’s time to go.
That decision was liberating, absolutely. It came with a huge sense of relief. But it also felt like failure. It felt like I’d bailed on a half-run race. Like I’d admitted defeat. I felt like one of those people on a game show who tries to win a car by putting a hand on it for as long as possible; only I’d lasted about six hours and left without so much as the bus fare home. “He couldn’t hack it.” I looked at my colleagues and thought that I was letting them down and that they probably pitied me. Which is nonsense, of course. If anyone understood then it was the people doing the exact same work. Even so, the feeling was there. “I have failed.” “I have given up.” It felt weak.
It wasn’t weak. It was strong. Probably the strongest I’ve ever been. Our lives run on smooth train tracks and have a momentum of their own. Kicking back against that momentum and shunting the train onto another set of tracks takes an enormous amount of effort and courage. No matter how hard staying is, the burst of energy you need to break out is titanic. A personal, internal splitting of the atom. You fly in a direction of your own. You change the tracks. You take possession of your story.
Making the decision to step away from a high-pressure job can be difficult, but it’s important to prioritise your own well-being. It takes a lot of courage to go against the momentum of your life and change direction, but it’s ultimately empowering. We should celebrate the rare examples of Sturgeon and Ardern stepping down at the top of their game. We should be inspired. By taking control and responsibility and putting ourselves first, we can move our sense of value and happiness away from our jobs. Let’s make it a trend.
[See also: Are you mentally ill, or very unhappy? Psychiatrists can’t agree]