Walking away from buyside after associate years

For those of you who decided to exit the industry (PE/HF), do you feel any remorse for doing so? Does the promise of better WLB today outweigh the benefits you'd see of staying on the path for a few more years given how quickly the comp scales? I know it's a deeply personal question but would welcome different perspectives as I explore my options.

Exit buyside. One could argue that going the hedge fund route may lead to better WLB but my opinion is that the increased stress negates that benefit

I've always thought that HF is purely reserved for the intense folks who are truly passionate about the public markets. It has no wiggle room for the 'see how it goes' types who play to that mentality in IB and PE

My plan was to leave PE after my two-year associate stint, but ended up getting referred to a Corp. Dev. job in a niche industry I've been trying to break into for awhile... so took it after my first year bonus hit. 

Have been in this role 8 months now (so would be about the time I'm leaving PE if I stayed for my second year), and in general haven't felt any regrets. Truthfully, there was a span of a week or two where I worked maybe 5 hours each and got hit with a 'what am I doing here' reset, but things picked up again shortly after and have returned to normal.

Yes, the pay cut is tough -- but if you are unsure if you want it now, you better be sure by the time you are a VP and have carry on the line. You are locked into that role for 5 years if you want to see carry dollars... so you really need to be sure.

Once I saw how much my VPs worked and their WLB wasn't any better than mine (and I saw how hard it was to get into top B Schools from my UMM firm), I was sure I didn't want to be in their place despite the comp. People can and will disagree on how much money / prestige means to them, but for me, it was not worth dedicating my entire life for a job that I didn't love.

I liked finance and am / was good at it, but the stress and requirement to always be on call made it hard to enjoy my life to the fullest. So, while I may be missing out on serious comp, it's nice to be in a place where I can plan things on the weekdays and take weekend trips pretty much at will. I live in a big but non-NYC / SF city so my comp is enough to max out 401k + backdoor Roth while being able to afford a nice apartment and my lifestyle. May not be able to retire at 45 but if I don't hate my job I may not feel the need to!

Hope this helps.

Offering a slight different opinion and experience from above!

Did a year and half as PE associate and then left early due to COVID / unique strategy opportunity in a unique industry. I just felt I may not have the chance again and it was something I wanted to try if I went to bschool as well. 

Fast forward 2 years later - I enjoyed the job, built some great connections in the new industry, and loved the people honestly. However, I came to realize the limit of a corporate strategy role (tends to be more internal facing, hard to get real P&L responsibility, more politics in corporate in general) and actually really miss PE work despite the hours.

While I’m still young, I decided to give PE another shot, knowing the good and the bad. Since I didn’t finish the 2 year program and also didn’t go to bschool, I came back as a senior associate instead of VP (would at least be 1-2 years behind my cohort, but grateful that I could come back given the current market.) 

Hard to tell if this is the right decision yet, especially under this macro environment…but no regrets that I tried other things and figured I wanted a role with more responsibility and greater growth trajectory in the long term. I would strongly recommend to stick through 2 years tho - it gives you more leverage when you want to come back after leaving the industry. 

Definitely feel I’m a bit more mature now in terms of mindset compared to others who have only done banking / PE, but we’ll see how long I survive…(hours haven’t been too bad, but things are pretty slow now…I guess I’m also faster than when I was a first year.)

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Ignore my anonymous title.

I did 2 years of BB banking, 2 years of UMM PE, and am coming up on 3 years in corporate strategy where I work fully remotely.

I really struggled with my decision to leave finance, I loved the work of investing and didn't mind pushing myself hard and working long hours but I really really struggled with the culture and hierarchy of the industry. It was really hard for me to handle having no control of my life, working with people who were condescending, arrogant, mean spirited, and shallow, and having to play politics to get ahead. After leaving PE, I've dealt with existential dread sometimes that I'm shortchanging myself because there is no big upside attached to my current job (no startup stock, no carry - just some options that could be a nice small return) and it's outside of the "big leagues" of wall street that my ego was so attached to. It's hard sometimes to see all your close friends making more money and I sometimes feel irresponsible for not being willing to sacrifice more time and energy for my future family. But, despite all these misgivings, I know for me this was the right decision. 

I was really burned out at the end of my time in PE, I was getting constantly abused in a toxic culture, I had gained weight, my relationships (family, gf, friends) were suffering because I was always in a bad mood and tired and just not present (many of my friends in pe talk about feeling like your mind is still at the desk even when you're away from it). I wasn't happy at all, though it was hard for me to admit that because I thought my unhappiness was a lack of gratitude for my good fortune to be in PE or weakness. But eventually at the end of my two years, through mostly luck, I ended up in my current job rather than lateraling to another firm. 

The new job I got was a lot flatter, the people were much nicer. It was an individual contributor role, so there wasn't anyone breathing down my neck and it was a lot less structured. Seniors here often ask me what I did over the weekend and if I had plans after work (since, unlike in finance, it's acceptable and encouraged to have personal time every day) and they completely respect my PTO (I get 5 weeks and can take off 2 weeks at a time if I wanted to). I make less money and the path to higher comp will be slower and longer. Being remote means that I get to travel a lot and visit and work from friends' places. I did a few international working holidays that were amazing memories. I got in incredible shape again and repaired a lot of my relationships that I neglected (both were a product of simply having more time and control over my schedule). A friend of mine pointed out that I smile a lot more now than I used to. 

Work wise - It's fun going deep into one company (especially when you really believe in the value of the product like I do) and getting to be on the same team with everyone working toward the same goal - from customer service reps to the CEO. I don't mind doing the work I'm doing (strategy is sort of fluffy but it's fun if you like writing and thinking about big picture things) and I don't get the sunday scaries anymore because I know there are boundaries that will be respected. I do miss the diversity of topics you learn about in PE and I miss learning more about deal structures and finance. It took a while for me to accept that this was fundamentally a different job and that I had to evaluate it for its own merits and not compare it to what I used to do.

Leaving was the right decision for me, but it is really hard on the ego. You have to eventually accept that you're on a path that won't ever lead to you being filthy rich or "special" in any way. You have to admit that, perhaps for the first time in your life, you're prioritizing your well being ahead of your goals. You have to remove all the hustle culture / hyper masculine rhetoric that PE is filled with and accept that there is absolutely nothing wrong with not wanting to work in an abusive environment and that your ability to tolerate abuse is not reflective of your worth as a human being or your ambition or potential. You have to be okay with the fact that, at least in the short run, you will earn less than your peers who are still in finance. 

Would I go back? I flirt with it all the time, especially when I read the news and feel scared about the state of the markets or when I get anxious and existential and insecure and feel like I "gave up" on myself for leaving. But in the end, I know that going back to an abusive environment is actually giving up on myself and my self worth. If you can find that magic PE gig that someone's best friend's buddy's cousin always seems to have (but no one has actually met the guy in real life) where they make $500K, work 9-7 with no weekends, and are partner track, then congratulations. For me, I'm not sure where I'm going or what I'll do in the long run but I know I have to do it in an environment that makes me feel respected and worthwhile. 

Hope this helps. 

Not in PE but I think this post is great for any young professional to read! Thanks for sharing and glad you're in a better place now mentally.

Smoke Frog

Not all IB and PE firms are super toxic, why doesn't everyone on here pretend that is standard?

If you found a firm that is the right culture for you, then that is awesome and sounds like you've got a great gig. 

The overwhelming majority of my friends didn't find great gigs though - it takes a lot of intentionality and thoughtfulness in people management to keep inherently volatile jobs from becoming toxic when everyone is stressed, tired, and overwhelmed. Few PE or IB firms are that thoughtful about culture and people management. LMM and regional city roles seem to be better this way, but a lot of that is because the volume of deals is lower and, even then, there are still a lot of really toxic spots that you can stumble into. In the UMM and MF world, you'd really have to find the diamond in the rough to find a sustainable culture. If hierarchy, lack of control of your time, and lack of respect for personal and professional boundaries isn't something that sits well with you (it didn't for me personally after four years of really trying to make it work and faking it) then I'm not sure working in PE in any capacity is a great fit honestly given the nature of the job. 

It sounds like OP is considering leaving the industry and WLB is something he's trying to justify to himself as being worth the financial / career tradeoffs. I would encourage him to recruit for BOTH finance and non finance roles if he's undecided. But I would tell him to be really thoughtful and strict about finding the right culture - if he can find a great gig like you've got, then that is great. If he can't (like me), then there's nothing wrong with deciding that what he wants for his life isn't likely to be satisfied in this industry and he should give himself permission to explore and seek it out in other industries. There is nothing wrong with taking the great skillset we all developed from years in this industry and applying it in a new setting that is more in-line with his values and that gives him space for other important parts of his life to flourish.

Glad this resonated. It’s always so tempting to think about going back and assuming in simple logic that getting more prestige and more money would solve underlying issues (for me at least) with needing external validation to feel worthwhile. The reality is those are deeper issues that more stress and more volatile hours won’t help me get closer to solving. 

It is scary to not have forward visibility into where your career is going and it can be disheartening to not get social validation from your job anymore after working so hard to get to this point (no one I know socially cares or has any clue what I do all day and my co workers don’t even know or care that I used to work in PE). But, for me at least, this choice made actually living my life day to day a lot more sustainable and frankly a lot more fun. I’ve gotten to make some really incredible memories these past two years that I’ll never forget while making good money (even if it is less) and doing very different but still interesting enough work. 

I do miss investing as a job and subject matter but I’m not ready to give up my newly found self respect and boundaries to get back in unless I find something really special where I can respect myself and my boundaries while doing it. 

Hope you’ve been doing better since getting out too.

This is now in my top 5 favorite takes on this site. I am in a very similar situation as you (IB -> MM PE -> Corp) and you summarized my own thoughts, concerns, fears on my career almost perfectly. Totally agree with your points, and glad to know that I wasn't alone in my thoughts

Glad you could relate to it. Being in our position can feel really isolating and vulnerable and almost no one will relate or empathize with how hard of a decision it was. To people who never went down this route, they see you still making good money and think you're entitled or ungrateful when you feel anxiety about your decision.

What people fail to realize is that what makes this hard isn't taking a pay cut but it is giving yourself permission to let go of what was supposed to be a "Golden Ticket" to a life of financial freedom, interesting work, and an identity as a "successful" person. We trained for years and got to the starting line of the Olympics, but when the gun went off and we did a few laps we realized that this isn't the experience we thought it would be and we don't want to be the person who does this forever and that winning gold comes with a big price to other parts of our life. It can be hard to balance being grateful for all you learned and the rewards you reaped (I certainly am) while giving yourself permission to decide you're done and to cut off the spigot of prestige and money. 

Letting go of a dream you worked hard to actualize when you realize it isn't what you thought it would be or when it has crossed serious boundaries into other parts of your life is something few people our age have experienced. I remember being like all the young college kids on this site who are tunnel visioned and willing to make any sacrifice and work any amount of hours to "make it" and, hopefully, solve all my financial, personal, and self esteem problems along the way. After so many years of making sacrifices and being tunnel visioned, taking a look around and realizing the opportunity cost of that golden ticket has become too high is hard. It feels selfish and irresponsible to your future family who will one day depend on you and benefit from your sacrifices and your parents who sacrificed so much for you to be in this truly privileged position to walk away when you're still young and could still take more abuse and let other areas of your life continue to wither for just a few more years.

In the end, I think we're really lucky to have experienced what we did but now we're giving ourselves the greatest gift we can. We are prioritizing our well being over every goal, ambition, intellectual & academic interest, fantasy, and identity as a "successful" person and recognizing that there is no price high enough or reward great enough to give away your sense of self worth and self respect and boundaries. 

Hope you've been doing better since getting out too.

Happy to and appreciate you taking the time to read it. It's cathartic to share a little bit of my journey to make sense of everything I experienced in my short but eventful time in finance and all the thoughts I've had since leaving. 

Spent some time over MDW chatting with some of my former co-workers (and now close friends) and a topic came up that I thought I’d share here, if only because writing helps me clarify my own thoughts.

Do I regret going into finance and private equity?

The answer for me is no, but there are a lot of things I would have changed about how I approached and how emotionally invested I was in this career path. 

First the pros: I actually learned how to model – my banking (BB coverage group) experience consisted of barely any technical reps and mostly was spent making pretty pictures on PowerPoint (which believe it or not is actually a hugely marketable skill once you leave finance and no one has any ability to express their ideas clearly in materials lol). In PE, I learned how to model a number of different types of scenarios and business models and I left the job feeling confident I could model almost any business. I developed more self confidence from being responsible for taking things from point a to b with limited oversight and instruction. I got more reps of speaking up and leading diligence calls and interacting with and, critically, pushing back on people older than me. I developed a framework for understanding and evaluating business models that I continue to rely upon every day in my current job. I made a large amount of money very quickly which will be the financial foundation for the rest of my life and gives me immense peace of mind. Because my salary was so high, I was in a good place to negotiate a high comp package when I left. 

Now the cons: I did immense damage to my mental health, physical health, and my relationships. Going into finance, I imagined that working hard was like fighting 1:1 against a fire breathing dragon and being willing to forgo sleep and childish fun in the name of transcending my humanity (and insecurity) and becoming a “successful” person. I did not realize that acts of self-sacrifice and porous boundaries rarely only impact you and that more often than not they create externalities that hurt the people closest to you. Throughout my time in finance, I was so lost in my own shit and stress and anxiety that I didn’t have emotional bandwidth to care about anyone else. In my lobotomized existence, I skipped a sibling’s birthday (and never made it up to them) that happened during the middle of on-cycle recruiting, I stopped talking to my parents and sibling other than to occasionally emotional vomit to them and cause my mom and dad extreme sadness (while completely ignoring any problems that might be going on in their lives), I ignored my friends and my roommate (one of my best friends on earth) during the first few insane months of COVID when they needed human interaction and people to talk to because I was so deep in self-pity about a live deal, I emotionally vomited my anxiety and stress on my girlfriend and wasn’t emotional available for her, and I generally assumed my problems were more important than everyone else’s. I drove everyone away because of an inability to compartmentalize and be present and recognize the legitimacy of their problems and needs. Along the way, I gained significant weight and struggled to get out of bed every single morning for four years because I wanted to postpone the shitstorm of passive aggressive and neurotic panicked energy that was waiting for me at work. 

The cons were personal failures of mine – a failure to compartmentalize, to put up boundaries that no amount of professional obligations were worth crossing, to be disciplined and go to sleep when I could and to work out regularly, to be empathetic and available to my friends and family. But it’s hard to say that these personal failures could be avoided when I looked around and everyone I knew in the job was making the same ones. If everyone was making the same failures then some portion of my failures had to be inherently structural within the career, a consequence of there only being 24 hours in the day and a culture where you were expected to be blindly willing to let everything but your performance on the job suffer. My selfish desire to pursue the very real rewards of this job came with, seemingly unavoidable, significant collateral damage to my friends and family and sense of self-worth. 

How do I reconcile the harm that my lack of emotional availability and presence caused to those around me with the individual immense professional and financial benefits that I reaped? How do I make sense of something that did so much good for me at the expense of myself and those who I had obligations to? My personal conclusion from reflecting on this is that the benefits I derived from this career path were IN SPITE of how I was treated not BECAUSE of how I was treated. Had I had firmer boundaries that were respected and worked in an environment where there was a baseline of respect that was expected and enforced, I think I would have gotten far more learning and growth out of the job and I would have added considerably more value for my employer. The self-destructive anxiety riddled culture of this industry destroys the value of its human capital instead of enhancing it. 

You may be reading this and thinking that I’m being too self-critical on the costs of this career to those around you. And you’d be justified in saying that, because ultimately what boundaries you choose to set and how much attention and emotional capacity you think your friends and family deserve is a personal decision. You may be like one of my VPs, who decided that ignoring his newborn and relying on his wife and in-laws to raise him during the first few weeks of his life (because taking paternity leave during the middle of a deal was inappropriate) isn’t damaging to your partner or child at all. You may be like my other VP, who decided that seeing his wife and kids 30 minutes a day during the week is more than enough quality time spent with them. Or you may be like another Partner, who thought coming into the office during the pandemic when he had a child with a pre-existing condition at home was justifiable. It’s ultimately up to you to decide what you owe the other people in your life and how much they should have to be effected to enable your “sacrifices” for this career. 

For me personally, over the last two years I have found that I was able to repair relationships with my girlfriend, family, and friends by making time and priority to be available for them and to try and listen to them more than I talked (I fail at this all the time still). My dad and my mom (both in their 60s) have childhood best friends who they talk to almost every day. Those relationships mean the world to them and are an antidote to loneliness in old age. I hope that the choices I have made since leaving about where I set my boundaries and the sacrifices I’m willing to make (and ask of others) will lead me to having relationships like theirs one day. 

From the day I entered this industry as a 22-year-old, I was enchanted by stories glorifying how senior people failed to enforce boundaries in their own lives in a romanticized crucible to achieve “success” and this narrative was bolstered by an incomparable economic reward system and a personal-worth rating system (top bucket / bottom bucket, “Rockstar” analysts) that substantiated everything that was said. I traded time and relationships with people who cared about me for the approval of anxiety riddled middle-aged men who were “winners” in the game of “success” and to appear perfect in the eyes of people who I felt like I had to keep up with, but who didn’t care about me.  

Coming of age in this weird industry, where the highs are short and cynical and never satiating and the lows are protracted and repressed, will change everyone differently. My perspective is only my perspective and everyone will have to decide what their own truth is and where their own boundaries lie for themselves.

100% agree. I love your post and you pretty much summarized most of what I feel about PE.

One thing that's preventing me from leaving PE though is the fact that I'm worried about what the future will bring and wonder if these high paying jobs are here to stay.

If I know I could go to a cushy CorpDev job that will last me for the next 20+ years of my life, I'd take that in a heartbeat - but with AI and all these technological advancements, I'm not entirely sure if the cushy careers today are here to stay. From that perspective, you'd want to accelerate your earnings so you get to a more comfortable place if and when they decide your career is obsolete/replaced by machines.

Maybe I'm just paranoid...

Glad to hear you liked the post and appreciate you taking the time to read it and sharing your perspective as well. 

I’ve definitely had that same thought a bunch of times – given how uncertain the world is and how I’m young now (so there aren’t any immediate tradeoffs that are manifesting themselves immediately in front of my eyes – no chronic health conditions yet and I don’t have kids), doesn’t it make sense for me to optimize for collecting as much cash as possible as a hedge against the inherent uncertainty and volatility of human existence? 

For me personally, I’ve made peace with that for a few reasons: 

  1. PE is probably way more vulnerable to AI / automation than most corporate strategy / development jobs are. In PE, you’re working with highly curated datasets neatly contained within one dataroom with a very clear and trainable “pattern recognition” framework for investing. By the time I left PE, I could guess with 99% accuracy if our firm would like a Company or not since we had such clear characteristics we were looking for and we were very risk adverse from looking at anything without business model characteristics similar to prior deals. When there’s readily available deal data in one centralized location and a set framework for evaluating businesses and when most of the processes (models, legal docs) are frankly templatized at this point, I would guess that PE would be far more vulnerable to AI than other industries. 
    1. In corporate world, you have no data or horrifically messy data with lots of input errors that no banker has cleaned on your behalf for you, there are no clear questions, there are no clear outcomes, and information resides mostly in people’s heads (key man risk exists in a profound way at every level within companies, almost nothing has been institutionalized and there isn’t clear succession planning). Most of what I’m doing in an individual contributor role as a “strategy partner” to our CEO is helping them to figure out what is actually going on cross functionally, trying to figure out how to identify what the really key business questions are, how to prioritize the limited resources we have on those key questions, and how to build political support internally to authorize what amount to YOLO bets on new ideas. In PE you’re doing the same tasks and asking the same questions (you can re-use diligence lists for a reason) for every single deal you look at (admittedly with different flavor and nuance for each industry) and there is a clearly defined outcome you’re working towards. In corporate, everything is way less scientific and much more driven by gut feel, even in some highly quantitative areas like marketing. I’m not sure how chatGPT would do my job or what questions to even ask it or how it could be trained. Moreover, in my industry there are serious data security issues that would not allow us to use AI until government regulatory frameworks change and it is almost impossible to find any quality information on my industry on the internet. 
  2. Saving more money has real compounding effects (so the more you save at a younger age the more powerful this effect will be) and my savings have given me significant peace of mind. My financial concerns now are no where comparable to when I was 22 and completely broke. That said, if you go the corporate path you will still make quite a bit of money. If $200K (frankly closer to $300K+ given that you’re a VP, so I assume you have 8-10 years of transaction experience) isn’t enough to cover your lifestyle and still afford you the opportunity to save a lot of money, then yeah I guess staying in PE makes sense. But I think in this industry we sometimes talk ourselves into a false binary: either I stay in PE where I’m guaranteed to make millions (not true) or I go corporate and I have to settle with living under a tight budget without luxuries. There are people who need to be in PE because they’ve been burning 100% of their earnings and have nothing saved and no other way of sustaining the lifestyle they’re living. But I would guess if financial independence is something that matters to you, you’re probably already relatively frugal and can support yourself and save a lot even with a lower salary. In my opinion, getting to FIRE at 50 vs. 45 is worth it if the journey along the way is more fun, sustainable, and doesn’t result in a life with chronic life altering disease (this includes lifestyle borne heart disease - ask anyone whose had a heart attack how much permanent damage it does to their lives and their relationships) and unsatisfying relationships because of years of resentment built up.  
  3. There is a real opportunity cost associated with staying in this industry. You are maximizing one variable (financial success) at the expense of others, notably health and relationships. My dad has chronic illness and may be gone in the next 10 years. If I continued to see him 3 times per year for 3 days, I would have 90 days total left with him (with each successive year being worse quality time spent because his health is declining more). Because my job is remote, I’ve been able to work from home with my parents for weeks at a time. I’ve made so many precious mundane memories of doing chores and running errands with him over the last two years. I’ve been able to finally get to see him and know him for all of his humanity. I have exponentially increased the amount of time I have with him which, to me at least, is worth the opportunity cost of lost earnings. Separately, as you age there will be things that will be harder or impossible for you to do. I’ve taken long international remote work trips with close friends, where, despite all of us working pretty hard throughout it, we made some amazing memories and got to know different cities with tremendous intimacy. I’ve indulged my desire for adventure and have gotten a flavor for what life could be like in Latin America or Europe or in other parts of the US. I will likely never be able to travel like this ever again once I have a family. Finally, on health, from seeing my Dad’s battles with chronic (and to some extent lifestyle borne) illness, maximizing my health is important to me. There’s a false perception that you can always undo the damage of a poor lifestyle and that it’s as easy to get in shape at 32 as it was at 27, both of which are untrue (if only because the relative risk of highly intense training is higher and your metabolism is noticeably slower). The body you build for yourself by the end of your 20s will be your foundation and shield against injuries for the rest of your life. Inversely, the damage done in your 20s compounds as you get older - I had a junior partner in his mid-30s at my old firm get highly invasive back surgery as a result of chronic pain originating from the sedentary nature of the job.
  4. Staying in PE closes you off to entrepreneurship, which is the only way to truly become financial independent in a major city. PE is too time and energy consuming of a career to really explore other projects. Everyone I know who has left PE for corporate has used their extra time to either invest their money better or explore side projects (or hobbies!). We’re type-a motivated people who like to learn and like to work and will use the extra time we have efficiently. The likelihood of you starting the next Facebook or even a $1-5m ARR business is extremely low, but, instead, could you spin up a small side hustle or project that closes your pay gap between PE and corporate, so you can make the same money at a better quality of life? That, from what I’ve seen in multiple instances, is very doable. Taking that first big risk of throwing away your “golden ticket” might make you more comfortable with taking other ones too. Being able to work a stable high paying corporate job with clear boundaries while working on a new side project feels as close to an asymmetric bet as you could make.  

Your concerns are completely valid. The value of making more money when you’re young so it can compound for longer is mathematically indisputable, unlike the value of relationships, health, and experiences which are inherently subjective. There are a lot of scary changes in the world and I don’t think anyone knows what the future will hold and money feels like the ultimate shield against uncertainty. What I will say though is that every year since graduating I’ve had people I know my age die from everything from suicide to freak accidents to health problems. The snuck premise in planning your life around compounding is that you will see it through to the end, which isn’t guaranteed. In the end, for me, I want to find balance between planning for the future and living in the moment in case the future doesn’t come. What that balance looks like and when you choose to start looking for it will be different for everyone though. 

Really awesome set of posts man. I posted above but this was way more in depth and think adds a lot of helpful framing of the decision.

I think you nailed it on the head -- it's hard to find that perfect firm where you don't have to make your entire life your job. And once you leave that role, it's eye-opening to live a life that isn't 100% dedicated (or maybe 90%, to be fair) to your job and that is really hard to put into perspective for folks who are still in the industry and trying to rationalize a pay-cut.

Appreciate the positive feedback and thanks for taking the time to read through it. 

I think “mental gymnastics and reconciliation” is a really great way of putting what you experience when you leave the industry. 

I think at its root, it’s a conflict between romanticism and realism. From the time I first learned about this industry, everything I imagined it to be was dripping in romanticism. The money, the crucible of banking, the glory of making it to private equity. The realities of the difference between what “hard work” was in college (where you set your own schedule) and the raw unromantic, frustrating, and demeaning reality of what a near-complete loss of autonomy every day is (when you no longer control when you wake up or when you go to sleep) was completely lost on me at 22. I assumed the work was interesting and exciting (when recruiters said things were “fast paced” I naively assume it would feel like an action movie (or like “Barbarians at the Gate” at least), instead of the reality that is some neurotic balding VP yelling at you to type faster) and there was deep camaraderie in the trenches with glorious celebrations (with money and booze) at the end of a hard deal. At every step of my career, I imagined the next stage with so much romanticism and when it didn’t end up being an experience that aligned with what I read on places like WSO, I felt like there was something wrong with me. 

This was further heighted by the fact that at my fund, we were constantly told how amazing our fund was, how we delivered “top decile returns”, and how amazingly smart our partners were. People would talk in awe about how much money the partners had and they would describe the partners’ careers as if they were the pinnacle of all that a human could desire out of life. Anyone not in PE was a moron who needed to be bossed around and could not be trusted to do their work correctly without micromanagement (bankers, consultants, lawyers, and even PortCo execs). In the midst of this, I was looking around and seeing the people I worked with as being George Costanza like personalities who would occasionally let slip insights about failed relationships, health problems, children who didn’t respect them, and deep insecurity in their choices. It was incredibly hard to reconcile what I was observing and what I was experiencing on the job with the deeply romantic narrative around PE that was beaten into my head and the constant adulation of the career and the firm every time I spoke with anyone more senior than me. 

PE firms (and law firms and IB) are built on a common myth. They’re highly commoditized offerings differentiated by only human capital. To keep human capital around there has to be near term money but there also has to be a fundamental belief in the value of the firm and the senior people running it – you have to believe that you’re hitching your horse to the right cart. If that belief is questioned the entire system can fall apart. These firms’ existence is dependent on the continuation of cults of personality (you see it more frequently in IB when one senior deal maker leaves and the entire group implodes). For the firm to last, everyone has to buy-in to the fact that good money can be made here and that becoming a partner is fundamentally a desirable thing for your life, worthy of any sacrifice. As a result of this, no one will ever endorse an associate leaving the career field and those that do are derided as being “weak” or “not good enough” or even “immature”. There are cautionary tales told about people who leave the firm or PE as a whole and end up in some shitty place in life where they’re a failure and a loser. 

So for a 24-26 year old associate who is constantly being told that being in PE is the greatest way to live your life, that the rewards are so sweet, and who has peers constantly being bombarded with that same messaging, deciding that the reality you experienced is undesirable is difficult. If PE is this deeply romantic career path and you didn’t experience that romance, something must fundamentally be wrong with you right? You fucked up somewhere along the path if your experience just led you to getting fat, lonely, and anxiety riddled instead of being some bad-ass who is confidently on a path to riches and greatness. 

It takes a lot of “mental gymnastics and reconciliation” to be able to accept that your experience was as valid as anyone elses and that your perception of the raw unromantic boring realities of the job may have been accurate and not a result of your lack of ability or personal failure. 

You will never get anyone to endorse your decision making (especially not anyone you work with) and you will be made to feel ungrateful and incapable for choosing a path that requires less “sacrifice” (ie: a career with reasonable boundaries and respect). For the first time in your life, it will be up to you alone to accept the truth of what you experienced and why you made your choices.  

I’m sorry you experienced poor work culture in your career. I think you made a good decision for yourself. I also think it’s true that not every firm and experience is as such: if you find the work interesting and are okay with the expected WLB, trying to lateral to a firm with better culture should also be strongly considered. Just something for juniors to think about as well imo. I have seen investment-oriented finance roles where hours and pay are competitive with the IB/PE comp, maybe a few years later in life, and don’t suck your soul.

I completely agree - if you can find a gig where the culture makes sense for you, you’re able to set and respect your boundaries, and the WLB trade off is right, then I think you hit the jack pot. These are super interesting jobs with a lot of great positives to offer (that we talk about all the time on WSO). 

Like I mentioned in another post, I strongly agree that you should explore other finance roles (I did) along with looking outside the industry. I personally wasn’t able to find that right fit gig (I also don’t think what I personally want is possible to find in finance), but if you can find it then that’s fantastic. But if you can’t (like me) then there’s nothing wrong with giving yourself permission to seek out those intangible things (culture, balance, boundaries) elsewhere.

I hope my perspective was helpful. Therapy (or some other form of coaching / counseling) is something I would encourage everyone to try (you will have to shop around for the right professional who is used to working with high performers - like anything else, quality may vary). When you can make sense of your experiences and emotions, it'll help you to make more rational decisions and to free up space and emotional bandwidth in your brain to focus on other priorities, including your performance at work (if that is important to you) and, more importantly, your interpersonal relationships. All the most elite CEOs, athletes, musicians, and actors have great therapists for a reason, there's no reason for you not to have one as well.

Most insurance plans will cover the costs of therapy and your employer will not be notified unless you tell them. You can get telemedicine appointments that can be scheduled in the morning before the work day or whenever is most convenient for you. You don't have to have anything in particular in mind to talk to them about - you can just say you work in a high pressure job and want some tools to help you feel and perform your best and let things go from there. 

Two books that also helped me were "The Untethered Soul" by Michael Alan Singer and "Set Boundaries, Find Peace: A Guide to Reclaiming Yourself" by Nedra Glover Tawwab.

From a professor of mine who did PE, got really lucky, and retired before 50:

There are many paths to investing. IB, PE, HF, marketing, operations, customer service, jobless, homeless, dish washer, etc. (I think he's exggerating a bit...but anyway). Eventually, you want to be an investor, not an investment professional. You are less likely to get top dollars for being an investment professional. 

German professor? (Just guessing to see if with the very small chance we might have had the same professor)

This anonymous poster deserves a “mentor” title; I’ve very rarely read or heard something so articulate, thought provoking, therapeutic, and genuine in our crazy world. 

I have the same level of experience, albeit still stuck in the PE self worth side where my entire value as a human being is tied to having a prestigious job that can make me millions…which still requires 10 years…is not guaranteed…and where I comp myself to more successful peers on a daily basis…yet the vast sea of of knowledge and introspection between us is legitimately astonishing (and borderline concerning lol). 

Man. Good stuff in here. 

I turned down a $300K PE job after my 2 years as an associate to take a corp dev job making a bit more than what I made as an analyst. I wrote a post about this a few months ago ("Saying Goodbye To Finance?"). I was really scared I had made the wrong decision at first, but I'm very happy with it. 

Reasons I like my new job:

  • Work Life Balance: my WLB in banking was a warzone (almost all my friends in banking ended up going to therapy afterwards). I took a PE job that was more relaxed but it was still PE. Even when my hours weren't long there was still the finance urgency to everything, and I was expected to be reachable outside working hours. My new job is far from 9-5. I've been on an international deal that has required early morning (730am) and late night (830pm) calls the last few weeks and everyone keeps apologizing to me. We had a call yesterday to discuss that we can't have calls from 5pm-8pm anymore so people can have dinner with their families. I like that my hours aren't just shorter, there is really a culture of prioritizing your life outside of work.
  • Industry Focus: In PE I was focused on three sectors and several verticals within each. I developed a lot of mile-wide, foot-deep knowledge. My new role is in one of the industries I spent the most time in. It's only been a few months and my knowledge of the industry is already so much deeper than it was in PE (when it felt like I had a good grasp).
  • Learning: This one was probably the most surprising and most valuable. Working in a corporate job has underscored for me how narrow finance can be. When I do diligence now, I'm not churning out 50-page datapacks or reviewing an SPA draft overnight, but now I need to know / or need to work with who knows how to merge the target's ERP into ours, combine out tech stacks, manage employee transfer in different countries, etc. That all sounded boring to me when I first started in finance, but it's been very interesting and it's developing soft skills and knowledge I wouldn't have gotten if I had taken that Special Situations job. I think this will be more valuable for where I want to take my career long-term.

Why I was nervous to leave finance:

  • My self-identity intertwined with my job: I spent much of college getting a banking job, spent my first years out of school (literally) working 7 days a week almost every week, and I thought I was going to be the big man one day. I will admit I felt some sort of superiority working in finance and I thought of myself as a finance guy. To all my friends and family, I was the one who works in finance. It was tough mentally to leave that behind after it became such a major part of my identity. On top of that, I was convinced I was going to climb the ladder or at least get rich if I didn't make it to the tippy top (delusion). It was hard to decide to take a normal sounding role at a normal sounding company and walk away from the self-perception of being special. 
  • Inertia: this one is related to the self-identity piece. I turned down my offer when I sat down and realized yes, I like finance and yes, I found investing interesting. But was that what I wanted to do with my career when I was 40 or 50? The people above me at my PE fund seemed to have nice lives, but the work just wasn't what I wanted to do for the next 30 years, and I knew the odds I stayed at a place with fine WLB the whole time was low. In short, I was about to take another finance job, because I had just always been doing finance.
  • Fear of the unknown: there's a theme of self-identity here if you haven't noticed. Leaving finance felt honestly a bit scary. Scary in the sense of "am I making the right choice?" Most of my friends from my analyst class are still in banking or PE, or something like IR or Secondaries. I was the first of my close friends to leave finance and that felt like I was the first one on the high dive, but uncertainty is a good and normal part of life.
  • Pay: Honestly not much to say here since everyone is aware. I make ~60% of what I would have made at the job I turned down. If we zoom out, I'm 26 and still make a lot of money and my life is very comfortable. I have a lot saved already and my comp is heavily base weighted (more certain than in 50/50 in finance). You'll almost always take a pay cut when you leave finance and the longer you stay the harder it hits – e.g., an associate makes $250 and leaves to a job making $175 (-30%) and a VP making $450 leaves to a job making $225 (-50%). I picked those numbers to make a point, but the 'worked in finance' premium doesn't scale linearly with corporate pay grades and esp. not for a VP with 6-7 years of experience. Unless you strike it big, you're taking a paycut eventually and I chose to take mine when my only depedents are a cat and I don't have a mortgage.

So no, I don't regret my choice at all. The tradeoffs have been worth it to me so far, and I'm glad I was able to put aside my worries and concerns to make the decision that was best for me. That being said, it is a very personal decision. Some of my friends are getting promoted at their banks/funds and genuinely enjoy it. They wouldn't be happy taking a giant paycut to sit on calls with the APAC HR team to discuss employee integration at 7am – even if it meant they would turn their computer off every weekend.

You have to do what's right for you and not what you think you should do or what other people are saying is right for you.

Addendum: Also, I realized no one knows what we do or cares (fair enough!). My family and friends think my new job is cooler because they've heard of the company and my title has 'Global' in it. I was trying to mentally d**k measure with a bunch of other guys also doing jobs no one understood or cared to understand.

This thread is GOAT’d 🐐for the quality of discussion. So thought provoking & puts into words so much of what I’m sure many folks here contemplate on a daily basis… SBs all around 👏🏽

Don't break yourself on the way to making yourself

I appreciate the perspectives of those who posted so far. At the same time, I would also value the perspective of any who chose to stay in pe/hf. I realize there is a natural selectivity bias on this thread. Nevertheless, I hope to hear from you associates/vps who continue to grind

I'm choosing to stick it out mainly because the tradeoff of leaving a LMM PE job for a corporate job hasn't been worth it. While my current role has been kind of a drag and deal flow has basically ground to a halt (leaving me to do a lot of glorified corporate work like process improvement and fund accounting), it doesn't really make sense for me to leave and take a 30% paycut for maybe a 5% improvement in job quality. And at the LMM level I'm not really getting access to the truly interesting and fairly well compensated corporate exit opps that other have mentioned here. 

Professional services in any capacity tends to be extremely hierarchical and volatile - even if the frequency of that volatility is lower. I'm sure you can find a relatively "chill" product group but, in my opinion, you'd still be working in the same hierarchical, sterile, and boundaryless work environment that I personally disliked. If you liked the interpersonal culture of banking and doing client service work but are looking for a slightly toned down lifestyle within that same culture, then yeah I think that makes a lot sense. But it's worth remembering that how "chill" a product group is can vary dramatically - the ECM group supporting my coverage group got grinded really hard and was generally treated pretty horribly by the coverage team (granted this was pre-COVID).

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