Why quit while you’re ahead?

Two golfers have something strange in common. One was male and played more than 90 years ago, the other female who played more recently. Both were highly skilled, and greatly admired. In their twenties they were hard to beat, and had great golfing futures. But the strange thing they have in common happened when they were 28. They both quit.

Bobby Jones, an American, was always an amateur and played while also working as a lawyer. He won his first tournament at age 6, and shot to golfing stardom by winning the US Open in 1923 aged 21. By 1929 he’d won the US Open three times, the Open Championship (the UK’s top tournament) twice, and the US Amateur four times.

Then came 1930 when Jones did what no-one had before or since, he won the Grand Slam of Open and Amateur titles all in the same calendar year: the Amateur Championship (UK), the Open Championship, the US Open, and the US Amateur.

And then he stopped. He stayed involved with golf, such as designing Augusta National Golf Club and launching the Masters Tournament which is played there annually. But he retired from competitive golf aged 28 and practised law.

Lorena Ochoa, a Mexican, also quit at her best. She was ranked number one lady golfer in the world for 158 consecutive weeks (no-one since has got past 109 weeks), winning 30 titles in eight seasons, including two Majors. In each year from 2006 to 2009 she was the Ladies Professional Golfer Association player of the year. Then – aged 28 – she stopped. In an interview just after, she said she wanted to give time back to her family, and added: ‘I am very satisfied with my achievements’.

These are two examples, but ‘going out at the top’ isn’t unique to sport. I’m intrigued why people call a halt when things are going so well. Do they feel they’ve done all they can, and don’t want to see their abilities decline? Has the stress of getting to the top been too much and now they want out? Do they fear they’ll never produce such good work again? Or do they simply have other ambitions to fulfil?

Quitting while ahead isn’t done only by superstars.  Our achievements may be less spectacular, but they’re still achievements and family and friends would expect us to go further.

Why don’t we? Why stop doing what you’re good at doing?

I’ll describe four reasons.

Fear of not being able to repeat    Authors – including the most successful – are often afflicted with this thought. The last book was a blockbuster, and now they stare at a blank computer screen thinking, ‘I can never match that. I can never do that again’. Some get past their writers’ block and produce more good work. Some can’t even make themselves try.

The odd thing is that the more people praise us for doing well, the more we’re afraid we’ll disappoint them in the future. Perhaps an achievement was a one-hit wonder. We can’t sustain that standard and don’t want to fail, so we don’t try again.

Public acclaim comes with unreasonable expectations    I happen to be writing this blog the day before England play Italy in the final of the UEFA European Championship. Unquestionably the England football team has done well to get this far, and if they win the players will be legends in their lifetime. Children will be named after them. Huge financial rewards will flow their way. And, in England, the media and public opinion will declare the team near certainties to win the 2022 World Cup to be played in Qatar.

That’s enormous pressure. No matter how well paid, no matter how skilled, no matter what’s been won before, it’s hard to cope with that level of expectations.

Some thrive on pressure. It’s been true of top tennis players like Navratilova and Federer. But others have stopped while ahead. Björn Borg won 11 Grand Slam singles titles in seven years (including five consecutively at Wimbledon), and everyone expected more from him, but he quit aged 26, telling family and friends that tennis was no longer fun. Constantly trying to live out massive expectations would rob anyone of joy.

Failure to understand why we’re succeeding    Some personality types are happy to go with the flow of whatever happens; others like to feel in control. So when opportunity or achievement occurs, but you don’t know how or why, it’s unsettling.

Stanley Baldwin was Prime Minister in the UK three times in the 1920s and 1930s. Two out of the three occasions he didn’t expect to hold the post. In 1923 Prime Minister Bonar Law retired as soon as he was given a diagnosis of terminal cancer (and died soon after), and Baldwin was appointed PM.

After periods in and out of office, his third term began unexpectedly in 1935. Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald was becoming increasingly senile, and Baldwin deputised for him. Then MacDonald’s health declined more severely, and Baldwin was formally made PM.

That third term was tumultuous, with furious debates about disarmament / rearmament in the run up to World War II, and then almost equally ferocious arguments about the intention of King Edward VIII to marry the twice divorced Wallis Simpson. Baldwin opposed the marriage, and ultimately the King abdicated.

Two times Baldwin was thrust into the top job unexpectedly. The strain on him during those years must have been immense.

I can’t come close to rivalling Baldwin’s situation as Prime Minister of the UK. But two of the major roles of my professional life were unexpected. I became General Director of the Baptist Missionary Society without ever having been a missionary overseas or served on any of BMS’s committees. BMS (now BMS World Mission) was founded in 1792 by William Carey, the first ever society of the modern missionary movement. BMS has an illustrious history. It is also a major charity, channelling millions of pounds per annum to the least evangelised and impoverished countries of the world. After 12 years in BMS’s most senior staff role, I accepted an invitation to become President of Northern Seminary in Illinois, USA. I had the right academic qualifications for the role, but – as I pointed out to my interviewers – I wasn’t American, hadn’t come through the American education system, and though I’d taught at university level in Edinburgh and Aberdeen didn’t have academic roles in my career background. They still made me President. Both those positions were challenging, especially when people assumed you knew things you couldn’t possibly know. I persevered; some wouldn’t.

Many find themselves in roles they didn’t expect or don’t think they deserve. Even when things are going well, they’re uneasy. The result? A level of discomfort that causes some to step away.

Physical, emotional or spiritual exhaustion    I’ve always loved the biblical account of Elijah. He’s a triumphant hero but that’s not the whole story. In the book of 1 Kings, chapter 18, he challenges hundreds of false prophets to prove their god’s strength against what the Lord can do. The true God will be able to light a sacrifice without human intervention. They meet on Mount Carmel. The prophets of Baal dance around their altar calling on their god, “But there was no response, no one answered, no one paid attention” (1 Kings 18:29). Then it was Elijah’s turn. He organised his altar and sacrifice, dug a trench around it, and had everything soaked with water three times. Then he prayed, and the fire of God fell and burned up the sacrifice, wood and stones. And the people cried out “The Lord – he is God! The Lord – he is God!” (1 Kings 18:39).

It was complete vindication about who was the true God and who was the true prophet. A great day for Elijah. That’s 1 Kings 18.

But 1 Kings 19 is very different. The Queen was furious her prophets had been killed, and threatened Elijah’s life. Elijah ran. When he stopped he left his servant, and went on another day into the wilderness. He was at breaking point. “He came to a broom bush, sat down under it and prayed that he might die. ‘I have had enough, Lord,’ he said. ‘Take my life; I am no better than my ancestors’” (1 Kings 19:4).

At first glance, his running away seems strange. If God hadn’t sent fire, Elijah’s life would have ended on Mount Carmel. But God did send fire and Elijah saw what God could do. But that was yesterday, and today he couldn’t cope, ran away and prayed God would take his life.

We might now call that a form of post traumatic stress disorder. Elijah had been through a hugely difficult experience. He’d survived but it had left him exhausted mentally and physically, overwhelmed and unable to cope. He couldn’t go on, and just wanted out.

Now five responses to these four reasons for quitting.

One   It’s okay to stop. Just because you do something well doesn’t oblige you to keep doing it. Besides, there will be other things you’d be good at. C.H. Spurgeon was a brilliant preacher during the Victorian era, packing massive crowds into churches. He founded a college (Spurgeon’s College is still operational today) to prepare more pastors and preachers, and in the early days interviewed all applicants himself. If a prospective student said he knew he was meant for ministry because he’d failed at almost everything else, Spurgeon always refused him. Spurgeon believed anyone who would be a good minister would be good at another six professions as well. He was right. And it’s true for more than ministers. If we can succeed in one thing, we can succeed in others. Moving on to something else isn’t the end of the road, just a junction at which we choose to turn.

 Two    Self-esteem and self-confidence are fragile things in almost everyone. I suspect someone who never self-doubts isn’t super competent but incapable of honest self-analysis. So when we doubt if we can be successful again we’re being normal and natural. And it might be right just to press on. I have a coffee coaster which includes words that have meant much to me down the years: ‘Believe in God; believe also in thyself’. I have believed in God since a child, and the coaster constantly reminds me to believe also in the self God made me. There is such a thing as righteous self-confidence. It’s not pride, and not mere positive thinking. It’s saying ‘I can do this thing and keep doing it. And I can face whatever comes next’.

Three    You might imagine successful people hear nothing but praise. You’d be wrong. I’d preached to about 2000 at a national gathering, and many gathered afterwards to thank me. Then came a lady in tears. During my talk I’d told the story of how my daughter nearly died when caught in a strong tide, and that had triggered memories in her of how her son was murdered by drowning. I couldn’t have known her situation, and my story was appropriate to my message, but I was deeply sorry I’d upset that lady and spent time talking with her. Afterwards I remembered almost none of the kind words said to me that night, but vividly remembered that lady’s pain. She was right to speak to me, and I learned lessons from how deeply she’d been affected. But the criticisms of some others are not legitimate, and I’ve tried not to be too affected by foolish comments. And, whether the negative criticisms are foolish or wise, still to face forward and do what I’ve been called to do.

Four    There can be a streak of perfectionism in high achievers. When our projects are going super-well, we imagine everything is exactly as it should be. But rarely is that true. Most things contain flaws or mistakes. The perfectionist can’t cope with that. If it’s not remedied immediately, the temptation is to get out. But none of us can escape the real world in which things are hardly ever entirely perfect. They’re good, but they’re not 100 per cent as they should be. So, especially when there’s more to be done than can be done, we must accept that good enough is good enough. Life is a balancing act of competing goals and responsibilities, and to give more time to perfect one is to steal time from another. Good enough isn’t perfect, but often it’s perfectly acceptable.

Five    There are two very down-to-earth reasons Elijah ran away when Jezebel threatened his life. 1) It wasn’t just spirituality that had sustained him on Mount Carmel, it was adrenalin. When he came down the mountain the adrenalin drained away, leaving him deflated and vulnerable. 2) He was exhausted, and therefore less able to cope. By the time he’d fled into the wilderness and prayed to die he was beside himself with tiredness and hunger. So, after he’d slept, an angel wakened him and gave him food and drink. He slept again, and a second time he was wakened to eat and drink. Only then was he fit to move forward, learn lessons and accept new challenges. I’ve learned not to look for super-complicated explanations when very ordinary factors are staring us in the face. Elijah didn’t need to die. Rather, after giving out so much, he needed time, rest, and a renewed vision for what was ahead for his life.

Most likely you’re not a golfing, tennis or football superstar. Nor a Prime Minister or a prophet. But you may feel you can’t keep doing what you’re doing even though it’s going well. I meant what I wrote earlier that it’s okay to stop. But often it’s also okay to keep going.  Reaching a ‘Stop’ sign usually means ‘Stop and check’, not ‘Stop and never move forward’.

May God make you wise with your decisions.