Deciding to end a career to which you have dedicated your whole life is never easy. Even when you’re a superstar athlete like Serena Williams, it can be difficult to know when to move on – especially when you and your sister Venus are responsible for revolutionising the sport.
In a candid Vogue essay published on Tuesday, the 23-time Grand Slam champion revealed how she has been emotionally preparing to focus on “other things that are important to me” after this year’s US Open.
“I have never liked the word retirement. It doesn’t feel like a modern word to me. I’ve been thinking of this as a transition, but I want to be sensitive about how I use that word, which means something very specific and important to a community of people,” Williams wrote.
“Maybe the best word to describe what I’m up to is evolution. I’m here to tell you that I’m evolving away from tennis, toward other things that are important to me. A few years ago I quietly started Serena Ventures, a venture capital firm. Soon after that, I started a family. I want to grow that family.”
By framing her choice to move on as an ongoing evolution, Williams nails a hard truth about these big career decisions: they’re often not a decision someone just wakes up to one day, they can be a series of starts and stops, and it’s OK to feel contradictory emotions about it.
You may not have 73 singles titles and four Olympic gold medals, like Williams does, but everyone will have to face this kind of crossroads or a decision to move on at some point in their career. Let Williams’ insights into the process be an example of how to do it thoughtfully and gracefully.
Framing retirement as an ‘evolution’ shows that ending one career chapter doesn’t mean starting the next from scratch
Tanisha Ranger, a Nevada-based clinical psychologist, says she enjoys Williams’ use of the word “evolution” to describe her retirement, because the word retirement often carries negative, final connotations.
“Her categorising it as evolution, as opposed to retirement, is the difference between looking at it as ‘This is an end, and it’s all downhill from here’ or ‘This end is the beginning of something new. I’m going to grow, I’m going to evolve, I’m going to change,’” Ranger says.
“The word ‘retirement’ often comes with grief and confusion for many,” says Katheryn Perez, a California-based psychotherapist. “Serena’s ability to shift her mindset from retirement to evolution is the perfect example of who she is as an athlete, and her ability to pivot, her courage and strength.”
By framing it as an evolution, Williams is also pointedly showing how ending one career for a new one doesn’t mean that the experience and skills gained from one profession are not transferable to the next one.
Sian Beilock, a sports psychologist and author of Choke: What the Secrets of the Brain Reveal About Getting It Right When You Have To, a book that explores how athletes perform under pressure, says Williams’ essay demonstrates how her decision to stay true to herself and work hard at everything she does goes into what she does as a mother and what she does in her venture capital business.
In this way, choosing to retire one career is “not taking away your entire identity, it’s taking aspects of yourself that you value and putting it towards something different,” Beilock says.
There’s an unfair imbalance in how men and women face big career crossroads like this
In her essay, Williams also calls out how she would not be facing the choice to retire in order to achieve her other goals if she were a man like NFL player Tom Brady, who can un-retire and maintain a family.
“Believe me, I never wanted to have to choose between tennis and a family,” Williams wrote. “I don’t think it’s fair. If I were a guy, I wouldn’t be writing this because I’d be out there playing and winning while my wife was doing the physical labor of expanding our family. Maybe I’d be more of a Tom Brady if I had that opportunity.”
The fact is, working women often bear the brunt of the physical and emotional labour of raising a family. Millennial mothers in the US are three times more likely than fathers to say they’ve been unable to work during Covid because of school closures or other childcare responsibilities, according to an analysis by think tank American Progress.
Women also face what sociologists call a “motherhood penalty,” which happens because they are seen as mothers first, workers second, and are judged, even subconsciously, by co-workers and managers for deviating away from that traditional model.
Williams pointed out the undue burden carried by women who want families and a career.
”Women are faced with decisions that men are often not faced with in terms of how they balance work and career. It’s very clear from the research that women tend to do most of the cognitive labor in the house, whether it’s scheduling or dealing with kids, dealing with ageing parents,” Beilock says, adding later that she appreciated Williams’ essay because “being explicit about some of these gender imbalances is really important.”
It’s normal to have mixed feelings about ending something so important to you. Bottling those emotions is bad
As Williams wrote, she is not entirely ready to move on, and she does not feel relief about doing so, like some of her other colleagues in tennis have felt.
“There is no happiness in this topic for me. I know it’s not the usual thing to say, but I feel a great deal of pain,” Williams wrote in Vogue. “It’s the hardest thing that I could ever imagine. I hate it. I hate that I have to be at this crossroads. I keep saying to myself, I wish it could be easy for me, but it’s not. I’m torn: I don’t want it to be over, but at the same time I’m ready for what’s next.”
Ranger says Williams’ mixed emotions speak to how many people facing this crossroads often feel: “When your life priorities change, you may know what you need to do, but that doesn’t mean that you are going to like it,” she says. “I would say whenever you are coming to a big life transition, to allow yourself to feel all the contradictory emotions about it.”
Ranger used herself as an example, citing how she knew that moving to a different city for a job with a 40% raise was the right move, but she still missed the community and friends she had in her old city, which made her decision very hard.
“It was hard to leave, even though it was the right thing to do,” she says. “I think that we get so caught up in ‘This is good, this is right, I should feel good about it,’ and it’s ‘No, you are going to feel everything about it. It’s OK to allow yourself to grieve that loss even though you know that it’s the best thing for you.’”
By letting us into the process of making a monumental career change, Williams helps normalise the sadness and gratefulness one can be feeling while making such a transition.
“Just like Serena, we can start seeing ourselves and our lives as an evolution,” Perez says. “We can evolve into a new version of ourselves, one that gives us the ability to explore new ways of living, thinking, and feeling. You have the right to evolve, shift and pivot in life.”
Even as she heads toward the next chapter of her career, Williams never stops being a trailblazer, on and off the court.
As Williams herself put it, “Over the years, I hope that people come to think of me as symbolising something bigger than tennis…I’d like it to be: Serena is this and she’s that and she was a great tennis player and she won those slams.”