What Was Your Biggest Career Setback; How Did You Recover?

'In the long run, everyone gets what they deserve'

I had two friends who were partner track at UMM PE-Fund and an MBB firm just before COVID who essentially got pushed out/forced to leave due to circumstances outside of their control. 

A year later, it's been interesting to see how they've re-established their careers. One has struggled, though given his/her temperament and work ethic I know they will end up just fine in 3-4 years. 

We always talk about success and "breaking in...", but rarely talk about what happens when things don't go your way.

For members here 10+ years into their career, who have been around long enough to have taken their lumps, I'm curious to hear...

a) What the (rough) story behind your biggest career setback? How did you handle it? 

b) Reflecting on it now, what advice would you give to younger members who may be in a similar situation? What did it make you value that you had not realized up until that point?

Private Equity Interview Course

  • 2,447 questions - 203 PE funds. Crowdsourced from 750k+ members
  • 9 Detailed LBO Modeling Tests and 15+ hours of video solutions.
  • Trusted by over 1,000 aspiring private equity professionals just like you.

Comments (66)

Learn More

300+ video lessons across 6 modeling courses taught by elite practitioners at the top investment banks and private equity funds -- Excel Modeling -- Financial Statement Modeling -- M&A Modeling -- LBO Modeling -- DCF and Valuation Modeling -- ALL INCLUDED + 2 Huge Bonuses.

Learn more
Mar 16, 2021 - 12:29pm

I only have 8 YOE and am not in PE but I've been through a major setback so I thought I'd share. I'm in tech and about 3 years into my career I experienced a major bout of depression. It's something I'd never experienced and quite frankly scared the shit out of me. I couldn't focus at work, didn't want to be around friends, and became so distant from my gf that the relationship ended. Like many of you here, I'd spent a lifetime hyper focused on achievement and it felt like it was all going to come crashing down.

Some friends had joined a startup and seemed very happy. I decided prioritize my immediate happiness and took a job at the startup to solve fun problems with people I enjoy rather than going to a prestigious unicorn. Lucky for me, my startup became a prestigious unicorn then went public earlier this year. I won't share figures but it's enough of a cushion that I can continue working on fun problems with people I enjoy and never have to worry again.

The biggest lesson for me was to try to turn my setbacks into action immediately.

Mar 16, 2021 - 3:37pm

Great to read it turn out very well for you and you regained your spirits, were able to find meaning and connection to life and found a purposeful occupation again.

...ahh and made some cash on the side as well!

Btw. Have you considered helping others? Your story is worth telling further and helping others in this situation. Coming from "one who encountered similar situation" can get through (better than any counsellor) and get the spark up again. It doesn't need to be a book or a TED speech, it suffices to establish contact with a local group helping people in these situations.

Mar 16, 2021 - 8:14pm

Great story, man. Glad you're happy these days. 

"Rage, rage against the dying of the light."
  • 1
Mar 17, 2021 - 7:25pm

Everything kinda became bad. Then you made a small adjustment and it became great. Great story. So much deep insight. 

I appreciate the story, can empathise and feel happy for you. However, with so limited details and complications, there is very little that I can learn from it myself. Most of the positive outcome in this story was, as told, driven by random luck. It provides no insight that I can apply in my own life to solve problems. 

Mar 18, 2021 - 9:02am


I only have 8 YOE and am not in PE but I've been through a major setback so I thought I'd share. I'm in tech and about 3 years into my career I experienced a major bout of depression. It's something I'd never experienced and quite frankly scared the shit out of me. I couldn't focus at work, didn't want to be around friends, and became so distant from my gf that the relationship ended. Like many of you here, I'd spent a lifetime hyper focused on achievement and it felt like it was all going to come crashing down.

Some friends had joined a startup and seemed very happy. I decided prioritize my immediate happiness and took a job at the startup to solve fun problems with people I enjoy rather than going to a prestigious unicorn. Lucky for me, my startup became a prestigious unicorn then went public earlier this year. I won't share figures but it's enough of a cushion that I can continue working on fun problems with people I enjoy and never have to worry again.

The biggest lesson for me was to try to turn my setbacks into action immediately.

This is the kind of content that makes me love WSO. Thanks for sharing man.


  • Analyst 1 in AM - Other
Mar 28, 2021 - 3:43pm

What kind of role did you take on at the startup? Product? Corp Dev? Partnerships?

Mar 16, 2021 - 1:34pm

Am only mid-20s, but the biggest career setback BY FAR was not informing myself about investment banking in university. Might have given me the motivation to pursue better grades instead of running after the delusion of opening up a hedge fund myself...

Oh yeah, and not choosing a target school for UG, of course, although I could have.

Apr 3, 2021 - 5:39pm

Same here, but it is not fair to blame yourself for the school system not providing information. In my country, private university have career fairs with top investment banks and BCG, Bain.. whereas the rest of public universities, had the usual Big 4 at most. Obvs, Public universities cost 600 € per year, whereas private unis 60k per year. In addition, you needed very good grades to access the public schools. In Private unis you have direct contacts to achieve interns at BB.

Looking back everything seems straightforward - however, not all start in the same point.

Be proud of what you have achieved.

-- Alpha Seeker --
Most Helpful
Mar 16, 2021 - 2:56pm

Young director in banking at a large bank laid off right before COVID and my bonus. Was part of an underperforming group with junior staff quitting and not being replaced due to budgetary concerns. Was essentially turned into an analyst supporting a MD and having to put my own business development efforts on hold. Easily churning out 80+ hour weeks and regular weekend work, mostly on pitches, while recognizing a lot of the work was a big waste of time and would never generate any revenue. However, I continued to power through thinking more junior support was on the way only to eventually be shown the door. Spent almost a year unemployed reaching out to industry contacts, dealing with hiring freezes, getting ghosted by small banks I previously would've never even thought of contacting. I even received a rejection letter from a Big 4 firm on Christmas Day. Actually had to laugh about this because it was so outrageous. After countless rejections, I was finally brought on by a smaller bank to not only open an office for them but also oversee my sector at the firm. 

Lessons learned:

1.) As others have mentioned, there is zero loyalty in this industry, especially at the larger banks. You may think you are the ultimate team player, working nonstop, sacrificing vacations, churning out work that you have no business handling and in the end it means nothing. 

2.) If you recognize issues with your current group, either address them head on early with your team or start looking to lateral immediately. If things don't improve quickly; leave. Don't stick around thinking things will eventually improve (even if higher ups say they will) because they most likely won't. 

3.) Firm prestige means nothing in the long run. It may open up some more doors early on but you should really focus more attention on the team, making sure that you actually like and respect the people you are killing yourself for. Plus, girls don't care what firm you work at. 

4.) Don't ever give up. I could've easily jumped off a bridge getting a Christmas Day rejection letter, but instead I laughed about it and kept pushing on. This type of experience will definitely challenge your confidence but ultimately hard work and perseverance will pay off and you will come out of it stronger and better than ever before. 

Mar 21, 2021 - 6:14am

Hey so quick question. Loved your story by the way. Good deal.

You mentioned that this industry has no loyalty and to never believe you're the ultimate team player, yet you tell us to find a team that you can respect and kill yourself for. I'm a bit confused - should I be loyal to my team or never trust anyone and always be ready to jump ship? Asking for advice

Mar 21, 2021 - 12:41pm

This is a demanding industry where you will work long hours performing very tedious tasks. That is the job, especially at the junior level. It should never get to a point where it is taking a major toll on your physical or mental health. There are plenty of assholes in this industry but there are also some great people as well who appreciate your hard work, have some respect for your time and want to help you advance your career. Luck plays a big factor in getting paired with these people and some people are able to achieve this a lot sooner than others. No one should stay in a toxic group. You may go to another firm with less "prestige" but it could lead to a far better work environment which is worth a lot more than the name of the bank. People don't really understand this until you actually go through it. And as for trading money for work life balance or opportunity for career advancement, at some point you will be responsible for bringing in deals and if you are any good at it, the money will follow. 

Apr 3, 2021 - 11:45pm

"one for the money two for the better green 3 4-methylenedioxymethamphetamine" - M.F. Doom

  • 1
Mar 16, 2021 - 5:12pm

I'm slightly underneath the age cutoff, and I haven't been treated poorly yet at work or had to deal with super-tough circumstances, but I was essentially ushered out of my first job for underwhelming performance. Haven't told anyone besides my parents, but it was a huge blow to my confidence at the time.

It was a standard X year program after grad, and I was so focused on exit options that I essentially sabotaged myself/my work and made myself so anxious it was impossible to perform. 

A lot of younger folks I speak with are incredibly impatient, and remind me of myself back then - they want the megafund job in PE now, a job at a top VC firm, or a corp strat role at a sexy company. They want to have an answer for their career path in that instance. 

I wish I knew how long careers actually are - my old boss is now 70+ years old, spry as a bird, and CEO of rapidly growing new company he and his friends founded. It's so easy to lose sight of the fact that very few careers are straight up and to the right. Many of the most successful folks that I admire took non-traditional paths and found success in their 40s after multiple adventures and/or failures.

Lastly, there are ALWAYS better exit opps and there are ALWAYS people who are doing better than you. I could have avoided my greatest setback by focusing on my work at the time and being grateful for what I had. It wasn't a great fit for my skills/strengths, but I wish I could have been a bit more patient and present.

Mar 16, 2021 - 6:23pm

Great point. Something I think many undergrads overlook. At the school I am I find so many kids want -> Goldman/EB -> Blackstone/KKR -> next henry kravis....... meanwhile that is literally 4 years while a career is 50. Moreover, only 1% of kids who do that will reach partner and actually be good at what they do, gain carry and excel, etc. Thanks for the insight

Mar 16, 2021 - 8:07pm

You hit on another point - obsession with prestige. I see so many people insanely obsessed with working for a particular firm that they make themselves perenially miserable until they get XYZ (whether it's a H/S/W/ MBA, a MF PE gig, etc.)

Most successful people I know work at small/lesser known firms in their field and just crush it, or got lucky and timed joining a startup/fund at just the right time. They weren't jersey-chasing. There are then some that went Ivy undergrad, MBB/BB/FAANG, etc but most of these folks were never prestige oriented/made their decisions without that in mind. 

Of course prestige has its place in optionality, signaling, etc. but I largely think it's value has declined precipitously over the past 10-15 years (especially non-finance fields).

Mar 16, 2021 - 8:09pm

Alcoholism / Rehab.

Several years into my career I was working at at and up and coming alternatives firm and performing well when my drinking really started becoming unmanageable. The firm sent me away to a wonderful treatment facility on their dime but my dumbass didn't take it as seriously as I should have. A year later I was back to my old shady behavior and ultimately let go.

I spent the next year hanging out in church basements and walking dogs around NYC to pay rent before I was gainfully employed again. It was two years before I was back in a seat similar to what I was doing before my misadventures. Part of me still gets frustrated when I see my peers landing promotions and other opportunities that would have been available to me had I kept my act together but over time those feelings have become background noise and I've more or less come to terms with where I'm at.

The experience was humbling, and frankly I needed it. I have a lot more gratitude in my life now than I ever did previously. As others have pointed out, your career, and your life, is marathon not a sprint. There isn't any place you're "supposed" to be by 25, 30, or any age, other than where you are. Also, a few years over the course of a 30-40 year career is a rounding error so don't sweat it too much.

Mar 16, 2021 - 10:12pm

25+ years.  God, where the hell did it all go?

I'll share some pearls of wisdom and some stories.  Some might be repeat advice, but...get off my lawn!!!

Family first.  Wife in ICU.  Boss peppering my blackberry (Yes.  A Blackberry) with 15 emails why the calls have not been setup.  He knows where I am. Proceeds to tell me," Well she wont be awake ALL the time, and since you have all that EXTRA time..."

Being young and stupid and scared, I caved...badly.

Fast forward 2 months.  80 hour weeks. We lose the deal, get blamed for not giving 100% "for the cause" and got canned.

Wife just out of ICU, two other kids, mortgage, car, medication. Digging through couch cushions, AGAIN, for Ramen noodle money? Oh shit.

Went to bar.  Got loaded like Prom night with an ugly date and free Scotch. Feeling sorry for myself.

Stagger home and told the wife.  Looks at me up and down and snarls in her loud Jersey accent, "Ya hated that job anyway. I wouldnt piss on that asshole if he was on fire.  Now get off your drunk ass, start that god damn business you always wanted to do.  Meatloaf in the oven. Love you."

Its been tough.  Had to back burner the business at times and take other jobs.  We finally are turning the corner after 7 YEARS of hard work.

Other friends have RETIRED. Others bought BTC at 300, when I had no extra money to spare.  Others own refineries.  Others run F100 companies.

 I own a wife, 5 kids, 2 dogs, a reasonable mortgage in a third tier city.

I also have a chance to make a difference in real peoples lives, create hundreds of jobs and help them make the world a better place.

...oh and the eight figure payday won't hurt either if things happen to work out.

Life is way to short to let a firing or two get you down.  Envy is a deadly sin for a reason.  The Jones' are not real people.  The clock runs our on all of us, make your time count.



  • 24
Mar 17, 2021 - 8:25pm


Genuine question, how did you manage to keep your cool with that boss? I feel like if I got that request in those circumstances, the next time I saw that boss there would be a physical altercation 

Working in the pits as a young dude teaches you a lot about patience.  The job changes most men for the worse.   Get me coffee.  Pick up my dry cleaning. One boss threw coffee on me after a trade error he made.  Flipped out 3 hundreds and said...go get a new suit too.  Day ended, he reached out, looked me square in the eye, shook my hand and said sorry.  Then we got absolutely hammered.   The ICU boss?  It was the LAST time, I ever backed down.  He was not worth going to jail over.



  • 2
Mar 17, 2021 - 5:08pm

okay all good and stuff but why'd you go from struggling with 2 kids to popping out 3 more lol

Triplets, dude.  Triplets.



  • 5
Mar 16, 2021 - 10:21pm
  1. I stubbornly believed that the actual work mattered more than the job title. I focused on landing roles that were more prestigious, while other friends jumped for higher job titles but in shit roles / shops. I always mocked how fake their titles were. But they managed to use this titles to circle back around at higher level roles in more prestigious shops, while I was still trying to fight my way up the ladder. My stubborn insistence on substance over form, while other colleagues used a seeming cheat code to jump ahead quicker. That has always pissed me off. I'm good enough that I've been able to catch up, but I felt a few years behind on the leadership ranks because of that.
Mar 16, 2021 - 10:27pm
  1. Believing that quality of work was the most important thing. I was a delivery beast. My work product was perfect. I got outstanding performance ratings year after year, and was always in demand as a top performer on deliver. I could communicate and network and lead perfectly fine also, but with only so much time in the day I focused on delivering quality. I smh at colleagues that I thought were shit and just spent all day brown-nosing and socializing and talking about how good they were, rather than just actually delivering good. I wanted to let my work speak for itself, while they were actually speaking up for themselves. And the higher up the ranks you get, the more you realize how much value is placed on being "in the club". And as much as the senior folks would value the quality of my work and reward me accordingly, they would then promote someone else instead. Admit them to the club. One of them, one of them. Because they made a dedicated effort to get in to the club. I sucked it up and played that game and was fine after, but I was a few years behind if I had done that much sooner.
  • Analyst 1 in IB - Ind
Mar 17, 2021 - 12:40am

Right out of school, things were looking tough at home and I needed to make real money (at least 50k). Fortunately, I got a job opportunity at a French bank for a contract role. The role was hourly, capped at 45 hours a week, and would only last a year. The team was also sort of nice but also cutthroat and had unrealistic expectations about how much I should know. Imagine a place where all questions are considered stupid. Additionally, I strongly disliked the role itself and was trying to jump ship to other areas of the bank and/or firms, but wasn't able to do so. 

I ended up being unemployed for about a year, and it was an extremely humbling experience. I got to the final stages of so many interviews, yet I was either rejected, or the job was pulled because of budgetary constraints. One day, I was browsing through linkedin and saw a posting for a role in a company I had interviewed with earlier. I sent an email to one of the previous interviewers I clicked with and I ended up getting a job within a week of the email.

My wisdom:

1) Don't compare yourself to others. 

2) Get rid of the chip on your shoulders. The school you go to doesn't decide your life for you. Just because X went to Harvard, doesn't mean you have to put X on a pedestal. Focus on developing your skillset, reading, working on skills to make you a better person/analyst. 

3) Do not keep your options limited, and do not be wowed by the name of an institution. I accepted an offer at a french bank, but was afraid to ask questions about the role such as the number of hours I can work in a week and full-time conversion. I was in the late stages of landing a full-time role at a respectable tech company that paid much more, had a great culture, but decided to not to move on forward with the role because I already landed the big offer at the french bank.

  • Associate 2 in PE - LBOs
Mar 17, 2021 - 11:14am

When I was recruiting for IB, taking a summer analyst offer at Wells which was sold to me as a "NY specific offer" and then getting placed in Charlotte.

For reference, I grew up in one of the five boroughs and basically never left, so it was a pretty rude awakening to me.

Basically spent the whole summer grinding out the internship for a return offer, while taking daily networking calls in the parking lot to weasel into FT processes.

Fortunately was able to leverage the offer into a mid-tier BB FT IB role back in the city.

From start to finish it was about a 9 month process. Recall many sleepless nights where I thought I would end up with zero FT offers, but ultimately I think grit saved me along the way.

  • Associate 2 in PE - LBOs
Mar 18, 2021 - 3:23pm

Prefer to remain anonymous for personal reasons but feel free to reply here (feel free to shadow/rename details for privacy purposes).

Mar 18, 2021 - 8:41am

Interesting thread. One theme I saw mentioned and I see all the time is the role luck plays in a career. Not saying you should count on or against it, but it's generally a factor, sometimes a driving factor. Takes the form of companies (your) being acquired or acquiring, products entering / leaving the marketplace, regulatory environment, technology, new industries that enable or disable your venture, etc. One example I can provide is the financial crisis in '08 / '09. My firm was in the business of providing retail financial services in community banks. We were the financial services arm of the bank, so if you went to bank X and opened a brokerage account, bought an annuity, etc you were working with my firm. We started that offering in '07 and signed several banks. Were really building revenue quickly and improving non-interest  fee income for our bank partners and then the crisis hit and the whole banking world got rocked. many community banks went under. Many had to regroup and eliminate non core services. Some were acquired and some did just fine. Regardless of the operating banks, what immediately happened was essentially no banks wanted to discuss the business or our offering. We went from many meetings to couldn't get a meeting almost overnight so growth was gone. Had to revamp our model that was revamped to create it in the first place. 

Things like this happen all the time in business. Your decisions will affect the rest of your career one way or another. Not a bad thing. Just reality.

Mar 24, 2021 - 2:06pm

Biggest career setback started in high school when I cared more about skateboarding and playing guitar then doing homework, graduated with a 2.1 GPA, didn't go to college but joined the Army instead. Got out of the Army and as a result of my low high school GPA years before I could only get into a giant Flyover State University school. Studied English of all things because I wanted to go to law school only to determine I didn't actually want to go to law school and ended up as a 30 year old English major from a no-name school working in a community bank doing retail banking dreaming of going back in time to do it all over again. 

At least I got into a good grad school program from a top school so crossing my fingers that it all works out in the end, but there is no way I'll ever be an investment banker, so I just lurk this site to daydream and feel sad instead

Mar 24, 2021 - 2:17pm

Your 30, not 70. It is still possible to achieve whatever it is you want to do - Including IB. If you attack every day with a relentless work ethic and keep developing professionally, I think you might surprise yourself at just what you're able to achieve.

Heads up my friend.

Start Discussion

Total Avg Compensation

June 2021 Private Equity

  • Principal (7) $694
  • Director/MD (18) $575
  • Vice President (65) $371
  • 3rd+ Year Associate (66) $270
  • 2nd Year Associate (133) $256
  • 1st Year Associate (273) $223
  • 3rd+ Year Analyst (24) $164
  • 2nd Year Analyst (60) $136
  • 1st Year Analyst (177) $118
  • Intern/Summer Associate (19) $70
  • Intern/Summer Analyst (206) $59