Two 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?
Those were the considerations that clouded my thoughts for two years until fatigue pushed me over the tipping point. Everything finally ended not in a dramatic declaration but rather during a calm discussion with my boss. He knew it was coming.
Defying conventional wisdom, 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.
I needed time away from the industry to consider what else might be feasible – to give other ideas a fair shot. At first, I thought I would ultimately play it safe, landing in something familiar like corporate development. But with each passing day, my banking career further behind me, I expanded my horizons.
I soon realized that I no longer had anything holding me back. When I left investment banking, I had closed (if not locked) the door behind me. Finance is a fickle industry. It doesn’t take long before you become disconnected with the markets. Client relationships quickly turn stale.
Returning was highly unlikely. So for the first time in ten years, there were no excuses. When the time finally came to move on, the decision was amazingly easy. Just a few months after leaving Investment Banking, I enrolled in culinary school. I would come to learn that this perfect fit had been obvious to everyone but me for years. I never looked back.
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. Surprise, surprise - a chef does not get paid like an investment banker.
Even after years of public scrutiny and pull-backs in compensation, there are few industries that pay as well. Absent strong entrepreneurial drive and a lot of luck, if money is your goal, there’s nowhere you can do better. Then again, a chef does not get calls at 10pm on a Friday looking for financial model updates before morning. Again, it’s a compromise.
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.
If you can come to terms with the pay issues, there’s still the fear of the unknown. And rightly so. Starting a completely new career is risky. After all, just because you were an amazing investment banker does not mean that you are good at everything (although we would like to think we are). Even if it’s your passion, you may end up being a lousy chef.
No turning back
When you leave a job in finance, you need to be prepared to leave that job forever. If you can’t accept that reality, then you probably aren’t ready to leave in the first place. Seats fill quickly. After a few months out of a job, you can rest assured that no one is waiting for your return.
That’s probably a good thing. Starting a new job is always stressful, and once it’s gone, it can be easy to long for the old, familiar (albeit miserable) routine you were so recently desperate to escape.
Even if some doors close behind you, that’s not to say that there aren’t countless options in finance that remain. It’s a broad industry. And while you may never get back on the path to managing director at your former investment bank, something new like working in corporate development for a former client might end up being a perfect fit.
Quit or stay, there’s one undeniable truth. No job will ever be perfect. A dream job is still a job, and even the best positions come with bad days and unique challenges. Annoying personalities, incompetent co-workers unrealistic expectations, poor communication... these aren't features of finance. They’re facts of life.
But if you’ve been honest with yourself and weighed what is important to you, even these unavoidable irritations can be tolerated. If you’re in the right job, you can laugh them off. If you can only scream, take it as a sign.
Mark Franczyk is a former investment banker of ten-years. After becoming a vice president, he finally decided to leave Finance, attended culinary school and became a pastry chef in New York City.