Ashleigh Barty’s retirement shows us the difference between happiness and success

Does happiness equal success? World number one Ashleigh Barty’s decision to retire from tennis this week is reflective of a wider movement of twenty-something women in pursuit of greater life fulfilment. 

When three-times grand slam champion Ashleigh Barty announced her retirement from tennis earlier this week, aged just 25, the sports world reacted with shock and disbelief. 

Fresh from her triumph in the Australian Open this January, Ashleigh said on Instagram that she did not have “the physical drive, the emotional want and everything it takes to challenge yourself at the top level any more”.

“I’m so grateful for everything that tennis has given me,” The Australian world number one told viewers, in a video message. “It has given me all of my dreams, plus more. But I know that the time is right now for me to step away and chase other dreams and to put the rackets down.”

Ashleigh’s move is striking not only because of the insight it demonstrates; the Australian tennis player has the self-awareness to know that she is not entirely fulfilled, despite the many trappings of her high-profile career. 

More tellingly still, this perceptiveness forms part of a wider movement in which many of us are questioning how and why we work. Dubbed “the Great Resignation” by associate management professor Anthony Klotz, the shift has seen record numbers of us quit our jobs in search of a better work-life balance, or more flexible working options, over the past year. 

According to Klotz,  the step-change is driven by a global mass of “pandemic-related epiphanies” over “family time, remote work, commuting, passion projects, life and death, and what it all means”. 

With burnout rates also soaring, perhaps it’s no surprise that more of us are drawing a line under what we are willing to accept in the name of career development. With a work life that has long been defined by a toxic culture of presenteeism and overtime – research shows that Brits put in some of the longest hours in Europe – this is a transformation that, in the UK at least, is perhaps well overdue.

Yet, the trend may be more than merely a reaction to Covid, and the myriad of new behaviours that it enabled. As Ashleigh’s announcement indicate, it may also be that a new generation of workers are waking up to the realities of career fulfillment at a younger age than most. 

Traditionally, we’ve seen career changes take place when people are aged in their mid-30s or beyond; as their initial enthusiasm for a high-profile or high-paid job straight out of uni wears off, and individuals start prioritising other values – such as time, or a stronger sense of purpose.

Now, however, it seems that this wake-up call is happening earlier as women in their 20s, including Ashleigh, are recognising the pivotal difference between happiness and success. 

“The problem, in a nutshell, is that we mistake success for happiness,” says Dr Rangan Chatterjee, in his new book Happy Mind, Happy Life (available now on Audible).

“From a tender age we’re taught that, in order to thrive, we need to be better than the people around us [… ] we’re given the impression that in order to succeed at life, we need to excel in our exams, so that we can get a better job and earn more money. This is how happiness is defined for us. 

“Society takes us as soon as it can and puts us through its brainwashing programme,” Dr. Chatterjee adds. “Don’t get me wrong, I’ve got nothing against success; but success is not the same as happiness. “

With work lives that have been marred by one global crisis after another, it’s very possible that women like Ashleigh in their 20s are weighing up the definition between happiness and success in their careers – and realising that they come up short.

To take action on this realisation takes some amount of reflection, as Dr. Chatterjee explains in his Instagram post, above. It also demands courage – as tennis star Ashleigh has shown us. The reward, however, is a life that is true to your own values and happiness, separate from anyone else’s expectations or pre-conditioned beliefs.

As Ashleigh said this week, “I know that people may not understand it [her decision to retire], I’m OK with that. Because I know that Ash Barty the person has so many dreams she wants to chase after that don’t necessarily involve travelling the world, being away from my family, from my home, which is where I’ve always wanted to be.”

Images: Getty

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