Previously published on Forbes
The question of when to walk away isn’t always an easy one to answer. When you’re starting out, you’re full of optimism and hope. You see that bright, shiny job, relationship or fresh pursuit over there and you move toward it with abandon. New beginnings are fun.
But endings, not so much. It takes guts to leave with that same level of self-assurance.
Jacinda Ardern’s bold decision to resign as prime minister of New Zealand is a recent example of what it looks like to walk away with personal clarity and courage.
“I’m leaving, because with such a privileged role comes responsibility — the responsibility to know when you are the right person to lead and when you are not,” she said. “I know what this job takes. And I know that I no longer have enough in the tank to do it justice. It’s that simple.”
It’s that simple, and yet, as we all know, it’s not that simple at all. It’s a brave act to know yourself, to lay it all out there, and forgo your own ego in service of something bigger than you, to be confident in your choices and trust your instincts.
Ardern went on to allude to her legacy, as a leader and a role model, saying, “I hope I leave New Zealanders with a belief that you can be kind, but strong, empathetic but decisive, optimistic but focused. And that you can be your own kind of leader — one who knows when it’s time to go.”
At one time or another, all of us have had to sacrifice something — for the job or a relationship or other pursuits. But how do you determine when and where to draw the line? I think of my grown son with his two children under two and how he and his wife have both unwittingly sacrificed their sleep and their leisure time to these two unruly, yet darling, beings. That sacrifice seems well chosen.
In work, however, you may discover that the lines are often much blurrier. You’re not alone in feeling that way.
In a Harvard Business Review article on this topic, Gianpiero Petriglieri points out, “The workplace is full of people struggling with mixed feelings about the painful pace of work. Many people I know feel as if they have to choose between their body and their work. This is even truer for artists, scientists, entrepreneurs — ‘makers,’ as we call them — and for senior leaders. They sense that their creations might survive them and benefit others, and work themselves to death for immortality of sorts.”
In my mind, what matters most is that the choice you make — and it is a choice — is yours and aligns with something you care very much about. You sacrifice for something you value, something that matters to you, whether that’s providing for your family, helping to end gun violence or bring the arts back into schools. Whether it’s finding alternative energy sources or growing the perfect carrot in your backyard. You are willing to get up and do the extraordinary for this thing.
Until you aren’t.
You will be the one who determines the timing of both. Overstay and sacrifice beyond your caring and you will enter the territory of suffering. This is hard on the body and soul. I don’t recommend it. The telltale signs will be everywhere: heavy sighs as you make your way to work, fantasies of long vacations and freedom, an overwrought mind full of thoughts of escape. Listening to these telltale signs is the work.
Of course, your quitting, ending and walking away probably won’t be as welcomed as your starting and staying. Jacinda Ardern will surely hear all kinds of people pontificating on her departure and the particular pickle it puts them in. But her choice remains hers to make. She gets to choose.
When the thing no longer calls to your heart and soul, know yourself enough to know when to say “enough,” like she did. Move on to the next thing you care about and are willing to sacrifice for.
I, too, hope that you can be your own kind of leader — one who knows when it’s time to go.