Few people have spent more time contemplating The Journey of Life than Oprah Winfrey, and last week she provided another useful tip in navigating it: Quit while you're ahead.
At the current moment, this is not necessarily a thought for the masses. Unless something dramatic happens on the economic front, most of us are not going to be able to quit - period.
But the greatest decision a stellar public figure can make is to resist the temptation to keep doing the same thing forever. Even if the fans don't want you to stop.
One day you're the champion of the world, the people's choice. Then, next thing you know, you're losing a unanimous decision to Trevor Berbick. Or putting "Dictator for Life" on your business cards.
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We are talking here about a timely and well-planned leave-taking - like George Washington, refusing a third term. Or the end of "The Mary Tyler Moore Show."
This is not to be confused with its evil twin sister, the Abrupt Rogue Departure. You cannot get yourself elected governor, serve for two and a half years, disappear for the better part of another and then announce you're quitting because nobody likes a lame duck. Well, it turns out you can, but it is a really, really bad idea.
"I love this show. This show has been my life. And I love it enough to know when it's time to say good-bye," Winfrey told her fans tearily. She's not actually leaving until the end of season 25, nearly two years from now. Talk about long-term planning.
However, if she really wanted to drive home how much her viewers were going to be losing, she might have picked a more inspiring lead-in to her announcement than a 20-minute interview with Ray Romano. (Along with a promo for an upcoming interview with a woman whose husband was addicted to porn.)
It's been quite a run for the Oprah brand. The uber-guests, the good works. The Obama campaign. Her forays into books (we will really miss the book thing) and spirituality (not so much). She never coasted.
Her next step seems to involve a new cable TV channel. But since Winfrey has - I believe this is an exact figure - a trilliondy-billion dollars, she probably has more than one option.
Her audience, of course, doesn't want her to move on. Americans are congenitally attached to too much of a good thing: "Law & Order." Professional sports. Christmas. (The national calendar seems to be divided into two seasons: Baseball and Holiday Shopping.)
The idea that anything popular should stay around until we turn green at the sight of it is not, of course, confined to our culture. The British have Tony Blair and The Spice Girls Reunion Tour.
We do hate change. Even though we know that our demand for more of the same is a treacherous road that will eventually lead to Sharon Stone in "Basic Instinct 2."
Nowhere is the need for the graceful exit more apparent than in our politics. This week Sen. Robert Byrd turned 92. He has been in office for more than 50 years. That's a record for Congress. In fact, it is probably a record for every deliberative body since Athens in the Age of Pericles.
To be fair, this was not entirely his idea. The Democratic Party begged Byrd to stay and hang onto a seat that will probably fall to the opposition when he leaves. But still, this is not a record that we want to encourage other people to aspire to break.
Nothing becomes a politician like a timely departure. If Rudy Giuliani had quit after 2001, we'd still think of him as America's Mayor instead of the worst presidential candidate in the history of the world.
Imagine how much better Joe Lieberman would look if he had called it a day after the vice presidential run. Or Ross Perot if he had stopped in 1992.
Mayor Michael Bloomberg hasn't even begun his controversial third term and already he seems to have shrunk to a pocketsize.
And what a revered figure Ralph Nader would be if he had called it quits back in the 1990s. He'd be an icon - the pioneer of consumerism who had the corporations' number from the get-go, instead of the guy who robbed Al Gore of the presidency and then just wouldn't stop talking. He could have spent the last 15 years giving inspiring lectures to college students, and now it would be time for the comeback tour. People would be flocking to hear him explain how the structure of the American economy failed its people in last year's collapse.
By the way, you can have a comeback tour if you retire gracefully. Just not one every single year.