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Advice / Career Paths / Career Change

Why I Quit My Dream Job, Left My Big Salary Behind, and Never Looked Back

I started my senior year of college on a pretty high note. After spending the summer as an investment banking analyst intern, I left with a full-time offer in hand. I remember strolling onto campus and thinking to myself, “Wow, my future is pretty set.”

Here I was, graduating from a great school with a dual degree to move on to this coveted job that paid really well. By societal standards, I had it made. Not to mention, for every finance major, landing a gig on Wall Street at a bulge bracket bank is the equivalent to landing a lead role on Broadway: near impossible.

Fast forward to a very similar Saturday morning a year later and I’m months into my job as a full-time analyst. I was just about to sit down with some out-of-town friends when I felt a familiar haunting buzz of my Blackberry in my coat pocket. I pulled it out, already knowing the fate before me. I turned to my friends, “I’m really sorry guys. I hate to do this, but I have to go into the office. Again.”

While this had happened several times before, it struck me as unacceptable this time around. I didn’t want to go into the office, I didn’t want to leave my friends, and I didn’t want to continue living a life dictated by my phone.

Even though this feeling had been lurking below the surface for weeks now, it bubbled up in full-force that day. Investment banking may be many people’s dream job, but it wasn’t my dream job. At least not anymore.

Having that realization terrified me. But more than that, it relieved me. Months of stress and anxiety disappeared immediately. While the next step scared me, I knew I needed to take it. So I quit my job and entered unchartered waters—never looking back.

OK, fine, it wasn’t quite that easy. Life isn’t a movie and one epiphany doesn’t move mountains overnight. I spent several months thinking about my decision, recalculating my new budget, and honestly, figuring out what it is I even wanted to do in this new career.

And along the way, I picked up a few life lessons. Corny? Yes. True? Incredibly so.

Success Isn’t One-Size Fits All

Coming out of school I equated success with a fancy title and a fat paycheck. But for what? What validation was I seeking? What stamp of approval was I looking for to solidify my intelligence and worth? After realizing that particular dream wasn’t for me, I saw that success comes in many shapes and sizes. One person’s six-figure paycheck is another person’s four-day work week. As corny as it may sound, success is truly what you make of it.

Work-Life Balance Isn’t Nice, It’s Necessary

For my first year out of college I didn’t live in NYC. I lived in my company’s office building on the 32nd floor. My only friends became co-workers. I worked upwards of 80 hours a week (yeah, it’s possible) and ate all of my meals at my desk. I didn’t date, could barely take time off to see family, and had zero hobbies. Now, I firmly believe you should be dedicated to your job. And yes, you should take pride in your work. But there is a fine line between being dedicated to your work and letting it envelop your life.

Both Sides of Your Brain Need a Workout

On Wall Street, I lived in the world of Excel, PowerPoint, financial statements, and the stock market. Numbers all day long. And while I enjoyed that to an extent, I could feel my creativity turning to mush. Everything always added up in my work, and while that’s definitely reassuring, it wasn’t challenging the right side of my brain to create or innovate.

What I’ve discovered since my investment banking days is that finding work that utilizes both sides of the brain has actually improved my performance. In fact, a 2008 study documenting 74 employees participating in creativity training found they “increased their rate of new idea generation by 55%, brought in more than $600,000 in new revenue, and saved about $3.5 million through innovative cost reductions.” So it’s not just me—it’s science.

Money Isn’t Always Worth It

Sure, no one’s going to deny that getting paid handsomely is nice. But at what cost is it really worth it? What good is having all that cash if you never leave the office? I can personally attest that having more doesn’t make you any happier. (But yes, I’ll admit that it does make it easier.)

Since leaving I’ve actually taken jobs that have paid me significantly less. Why? Because I’d rather be working for a company that values work-life balance, encourages a great office culture, and allows me to do work that’s meaningful to me. Does looking at my smaller paycheck make me want to cry? Yes, sometimes—I’m only human. But a few tears aside, I’ve never looked back or regretted my choice.

I’m not telling you my story as a humble-brag, instead I’m telling you this because I wish someone had told me. I wish someone had sat me down before I signed my offer letter and said: “There’s so much more to your career than brand-name companies, money, and titles. It’s about working someplace where you feel that you’re valued and are valuable, a place where you’re proud of the work you do and are even more proud of the work your company’s doing.” Because that’s the job I have now, and it feels pretty damn good.

Photo of sunset courtesy of Shutterstock.