Remember a couple decades ago, when a young pro football player named Ricky Williams quit after a few years, and people freaked out that he was wasting his great opportunity?
I remember feeling that playing football wasn’t Williams’ great opportunity—his short stroke of life on earth was his great opportunity. And grinding much of it away on a football field would have shown a profound lack of imagination, it seemed to me.
I feel the same way about the women leaders who have quit their jobs over the last month or so: First, New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, then Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon and then YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki, who had worked for the parent company Google for 25 years.
“Today, after nearly 25 years here, I’ve decided to step back from my role as the head of YouTube and start a new chapter focused on my family, health and personal projects I’m passionate about,” Wojcicki said. The New York Times lamented that: “Sheryl Sandberg, who was chief operating officer at Meta, left her role last year. Meg Whitman, who led Hewlett-Packard and one of its successor companies; Ginni Rometty of IBM; and Marissa Mayer of Yahoo have also left senior roles in recent years.”
And many of these women are being replaced by men—”a disturbing trend,” said a University of California professor of leadership in the Times piece. When Ardern quit before the end of her term, one of the women I admire most in my professional circles—an Air Force veteran who came up in a truly dangerous and difficult time for women—wrote me to say, “I have mixed feelings about her decision to step down. The military officer in me says that’s bullshit. Suck it up, finish out your term, and help your party or successor transition smoothly. On the flip side, I know dozens of professional women struggling to balance work and motherhood.”
Motherhood issues aside, these women here are doing what I’ve wanted to shake men into doing all these years: Hey, Hoss, you’ve earned $100 million dollars working in the corporate grind and you are 50 or 55 or 60 years old and you can’t think of one other thing to do with your one wild and precious life, than keep slugging it out at fucking Unilever?
Now, I’m a lover of work, and I believe that having good and steady work to do is the single best guarantor of a happy life. There have been plenty a morning in my life when things seemed a mess from the ozone to my own home, but was pathetically grateful that at least I had something constructive to do with my hands. And I’ve written here about my grandfather, for whom not being an Instrumental Man was tolerable only with a fatal flow of Old Granddad bourbon. I don’t write that to insult my forbear; I want to be instrumental, too—or failing that, useful at least. So I don’t ever want to quit working entirely.
But I hope I’m not doing exactly what I’m doing now—as much as I enjoy most of it, most days—until I am dead. And when other people who do have personal projects they’d like to try, I stand and applaud when they take that leap. As I’ve done for that aforementioned Air Force veteran, who not long ago dialed back her client work to try her hand at screenwriting. “Enjoy yourself,” Guy Lombardo sang, “It’s later than you think.”
And if women, either because they can’t tolerate the working or they can’t ignore what they’re missing, are having the good sense to realize they’ve run one race long enough—like the tennis pro Ash Barty who retired last year at 25, or the young LPGA golfer this week who said …
… then they should not be shamed for moving on, they should be envied—or better yet, emulated.
No one should be too upset, though, when they are replaced by less imaginative, less graceful, less secure men (and women) who play on, to feed bricks into their Grand-Canyon egos until they stagger around like Tampon Tiger Woods, trying lamely to look like they still belong. Am I the only one who sees a perfect parallel between Woods’ middle-aged attempt to vamp his virility through vulgarity to the 29-year-old Justin Thomas, and Trump’s grab-’em-by-the-pussy preening with young Billy Bush?
Woman or man—no one can justify giving their whole lives over to terrible jobs—or even just-okay jobs—just because some institution would be a little worse with someone else in charge. Can they? I’ve been studying John Steinbeck lately, and he was forever haunted by his own father’s deathbed confession that he never did any of the things he wanted to do in his life. That’s the one pitch-black regret, it seems to me.
To hell with it. How about we let Doris Day play us out. Cuz she sang “Enjoy Yourself,” too.