Six years ago, I quit investment banking. I had known for a long time that I needed to leave. I loved the thrill of the deal, but the unrelenting stress of the process was wearing me down. I should have realized that something was wrong before my third trip to the Emergency Room.
The first trip was for a debilitating migraine that left me curled up in a fetal position in the back of a cab – stress. The next visit followed two all-nighters when my entire left side went numb – exhaustion. Lucky three almost didn’t happen. After waking up on the floor of an office hallway, having passed out and hit my head around 3am when no one else was around, I first slowly crawled back to my desk to send off one last email – stress, exhaustion and foolishness.
Why didn’t I stop after that first trip to the ER? Well, the compensation was fantastic (certainly more than was required to live comfortable), and yet I had no personal time to enjoy it. Many friends were starting families, but I had houseplants dying from neglect.
It wasn’t an easy decision. Even after I had admitted to myself that I needed to move on, it took another two years and multiple good faith attempts before I finally packed my box of belongings and ended my decade-long banking career.
Two years may make me seem pathetically indecisive, but quitting can be extremely difficult. After years of pushing down a particular path, turning around is no small feat. Sunk costs be damned. All of those hours invested are impossible to ignore.
And then there’s the uncertainty. After ten years in investment banking, I had a hard time imagining that I could do anything else. I had other interests (at least I hoped I still did), but I had never determined how they could be turned into viable career options.
What’s more, after working for ten years to build a career and a reputation, did I really want to start over? Wouldn’t it be easier to shut up, put my head down and continue clawing along the same, well-defined path from analyst to associate to vice president to director?
Everything finally ended not in a dramatic declaration but rather during a calm discussion with my boss. He knew it was coming.
I quit without having a new position lined up. I’m grateful for this fact. In investment banking, when every waking moment is dedicated to the job, there’s precious little time to consider any alternatives. And if you do find yourself with an idle moment, it is impossible to be objective with stressful deadlines clouding rational thought.
For those considering an exit from finance, I wish I could say that quitting was the unqualified key to happiness. It’s not. There are some extremely difficult, extremely personal considerations that everyone has to weigh. Any decision requires a compromise. Money, power, free time, health, family… you can’t have them all in limitless quantities. Some sacrifices are necessary.
For those in finance, one of the most challenging areas of compromise is compensation. Anyone considering quitting worries that no other industry pays as well. Unfortunately, they’re right.
But after a few years in banking, compensation becomes less and less about making a living. At some point it becomes more like a score. That annual bonus will never be enough if it’s not more than what the next guy made. But how much do you need live comfortably? Moving to a new job with a pay cut in exchange for new-found free time and reduced stress might be an amazing deal.
The author was a former VP in ECM at JPMorgan.
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