8 Reflections on Leaving IB After a Decade
It was recently noted by a commenter that I haven't done much on this board besides fight about politics for quite some time. The truth is, as one of the older posters still around, I'd given most all advice that I could think of as I rose through the IB ranks. However, this year I left investment banking to join a sponsor-backed portfolio company and thought I'd check back in here to share a few reflections after a decade in investment banking for the younger monkeys to consider.
Yes, it was worth it. With one major caveat.
This is the $750 question (you didn't expect me to avoid all politics references, did you?!). I can confidently say that entering and staying in IB was worth it for me. I got to travel the world, sit in with F500 executives, work on interesting transactions, and make significant money along the way that allowed me to experience life to the fullest while setting my family up well for the foreseeable future. The highly anticipated "exit ops" were interesting and plentiful for me, even in a depressed Covid job market.
However, I never in 10 years worked in a sweatshop, and my regular hours were far closer to 60 than 100. I only recall pulling 6 true all-nighters in 10 years and rarely spent a weekend night in the office. Part of this was luck (and sometimes inconsistent deal flow) at the shops/offices I worked, part of it was by design (I passed on approaches from "better" banks for bigger bonuses, knowing I'd be signing away my limited free time). I worked til midnight during the weeks throughout my 20s and never joined a Tuesday softball league or Thursday night trivia, but rarely missed the big events that were important to me (i.e. weddings, bachelor parties, family holidays, ski trips). I considered that a fair tradeoff, and made all of the warped work/life warped balance worth it. Had I missed out on the important things (like I concede so many of you have to do), I don't think I could justify ten years in the investment banking industry, no matter the size of the paycheck.
I stayed in IB the first five years for the experience, and the last five for the paycheck
Pretty self explanatory, but the learning curve flattens out far quicker than you'd imagine. I always worked in standard vanilla sell-side shops, so most transactions looked the same. Once I hit VP, there was very little to learn from each new transaction, and I was on a glide path to a glorified high-paying sales gig. Each bonus season, I had fewer reasons to stick around for another 12 months, but the bonuses kept getting bigger and the hours lighter. A good problem to have, no doubt, but at some point, I knew I'd have to jump off the merry-go-round, because I was far too young to "ride it out".
Golden handcuffs are real, and hit a lot sooner than you'd expect
Usually you hear about the MD who can't leave banking because they have to pay for three mortgages and four private school tuitions (and I've seen that story play out plenty of times). What I'm talking about is the 25-year old who is already making more money than they thought they'd ever see in their lifetime. I passed up a lot of interesting opportunities simply because I couldn't justify rolling the dice and taking a 75% pay cut at a young age. Had I been making $50k, I'd gladly swap that out for a more interesting $50k job, and perhaps I would have found my passion or rose to greater heights in another field. You can count on one hand the number of jobs that offer a 25-year old $250k outside of banking, and it's really hard to walk away from that, no matter how much equity your friend's startup promises you.
Live within your means and always prepare for a life outside banking
On a related note, save your money. I have two watches - one cost $200 and the other was $10. My nicest car was under $30k. I get far more joy knowing I have enough savings to last 10+ years without working, than I ever got from buying bottle service. A career in banking is highly volatile especially as you ascend the ranks, and you always need to prepare to take that big paycut if you ever leave (or get kicked out of) the industry.
Prestige is an empty pursuit, but I understand the allure
I was that college kid who wanted Goldman on my business card like everyone else here. Never happened for me, and I quickly learned that all that stuff wears off quickly. Prestige is something employers sell you to underpay and/or overwork you. It carries no value, and the sooner you discard that from your equation, the more clarity you'll find when making those big career decisions.
Drop the ego as soon as possible
No one cares you're a banker. You're a glorified/Powerpoint monkey, then a salesman going hat in hand begging for your next mandate. Most of your friends think it's pathetic you work so many hours. And truthfully, most of my friends outside of IB were happier than I was. The difference now is I host them at my lakehouse. Who cares? We both get a lakehouse weekend out of it, and theirs is free of charge.
You only live your twenties once
Tying in a lot of the points above - a career in banking is all about delayed gratitude. Work 80 hours weeks in your 20s for that cushy buyside gig or 7 figure C-suite job in the second half of your career. And that is a tried and true path! But I had more fun in my 20s at $1 beer night than I could ever have now with 7 figures in the bank. I'm settled down with a family, and life is great! But it's a different kind of great. That period in your life to live carefree on the weekends, jetting around the country, skiing, golfing, etc. only happens once. You wait to do that as a single guy in your 40s, and you're the creepy rich guy in the bar. Find a balance. Set your limits. Ensure you have something to show for your 20s besides a bank account and work stories.
Learn and practice empathy
If there's one thing that troubles me observing WSO over the years, it's the seemingly lack of empathy conveyed by many posters. Many of you grew up in extreme or at least above-average wealth. Many of you are white males, that yes, still have an enormous amount of privilege, even in 2020. Don't feel bad about that, but be grateful for it. The fact that all of you even found this website puts you in the .01% of the workforce who can expect to live a pretty prosperous and comfortable life. A 22-year old who gets a donut for a bonus will still be in the 97th percentile of income earners for their age with just their base salary.
Have empathy for those who aren't in the same position as you. Yeah, you worked hard. So do billions across the world. You also fell into a hell of a lot of luck along the way. I still don't know how I landed my first IB job - I was in the second round interview before I even knew what role I was interviewing for, and I have no recollection of ever applying to that firm. I didn't even know of investment banking until I caught my senior year roommate browsing Wall Street Oasis and asked a few questions. Internalize how much good fortune played into your story, and you might look at our world's issues a bit differently with more compassion.
Take care WSO! I've had a rocky relationship with the Trump crowd on here the last few years, but I will always be grateful for the education and guidance this website provided earlier in my career. Patrick and team have built a great resource, and you all are lucky to find such a great career resource at your fingertips.