How to Get and Leave a 6-Figure Job in Your Early 20s

From Wall Street to ramen to CEO, here are my thoughts.

For the past couple decades, society has glamorized the university experience and held four-year diplomas in quite high esteem. At least, that’s how it used to be. Then, somewhere along the way, four years was no longer enough. You needed a PhD, an MBA, an MSc, and pretty much the whole alphabet trailing your name to prepare you for the most introductory role in your chosen field. Soon enough we’re handing fancy degrees to thirtysomethings who’ve never worked a real job or earned a dime in their field of interest.

Let me be honest about my waltz into a highly coveted six-figure job in a prestigious industry at the age of 22: I planned it… but there’s more to it.

At the age of 18, I didn’t know what the S&P was or what M&A stood for (mergers and acquisitions). I probably didn’t know Goldman Sachs from Golden Corral (for those who share in my ignorance, one is an investment bank and the other a buffet chain). I certainly didn’t have a clue that four years later I would be among the chosen few, working at a Wall Street bank, pitching and facilitating $100M+ deals (as an analyst of course, so really spending 18 hours per day in Excel models and PowerPoint slides), making more than twice as much money as many of my much smarter university peers and fellow graduates.

However, before I go into detail on my own journey, I feel compelled to debunk a common fallacy that far too many continue to believe and let govern their lives and careers.

If you believe there is a direct correlation between intellect (or IQ) and earnings, I’d challenge that you may be mistaken. While it would take a massive study of IQ test results and annual earnings to definitively prove or disprove this theory, the observational and anecdotal data from my circle of thousands of undergraduate, business school, and professional peers would lend to the contrary.

While the brightest individuals or supposed geniuses may have the potential for greater earnings than their more average-minded peers, the process of achieving those earnings isn’t always realized and often comes down to something other than intellect. In fact, I believe it comes down to three key factors, all entirely independent of IQ:

  1. Strategy
  2. Timing
  3. Networking

Now, let’s rewind a bit, all the way back to high school and college, back to when all that mattered were final exams and straight A’s. I’d love to tell you that my high school AP Calculus class came in handy at my JP Morgan internship interview. Or that remembering those formulas from my MBA-level Behavioral Finance class is what earned me my investment banking bonus.

But let’s be honest: Education doesn’t necessarily translate to income.

Make no mistake, my education was a vital piece of my career journey, without which I would never have broken into investment banking, rubbed elbows with world-renowned founders and venture capitalists, or left to start and run my own companies. However, it wasn’t the education alone; it was the strategy around it.

In my experience and observation, the traditional model student perspective doesn’t always translate to the job-securing, interview-acing, high-earning graduate. A good student may do the work, follow the rules, ask some questions, and ace the test. A star interviewee, peer outperformer, and breakout success will have already masterminded the plan for their next three achievements.

So, what was my secret strategy to obtaining a 6-figure job at 22?

  1. Apply early (Timing is everything, and if I could go back, I would have started even earlier…like high school or before.)
  2. Make networking a weekly routine (Your Rolodex should be growing on LinkedIn and via email every day.)
  3. Capitalize on your differentiator (Being a woman in a male-dominated industry definitely helped me stand out.)
  4. Know your angle and clearly convey the unique “Why” (When most candidates tried to mask their financial motivation with an unlikely story about their true passion for finance, I had a unique reason for pursuing this industry. I wanted to understand the financial inner workings and see behind the scenes of an array of companies so I could one day build my own or possibly work in venture capital to invest in other promising startups.)

Back to the controversial idea that the smartest people aren’t always the highest earners, please hear me out:

I’ve met thousands of brilliant people in my educational and professional careers. I’ve met Mathematical Decision Sciences majors who didn’t know where the career office was at my university. I’ve met computer science geniuses who’ve invented marketable, patentable products they decided to open-source or give away for free. I’ve met 28-year-old business majors who are looking to get an MBA and pay hundreds of thousands of dollars to learn what their undergraduate degree already taught them, just to break into the job they should have had at 22.

But I haven’t only met brilliant people, and if I’m honest, the highest earners I know would likely not be among the most intellectually advanced.

Case in point:

I have a friend (a CEO) whose company makes $100k/month selling pet clothing… he’s never made anywhere near $100k/year working for someone else, and he graduated with a pretty average GPA from an even more average college.

I have another friend and former college peer who took five years to graduate with barely above a 3.0 GPA (thanks to his difficult chemistry major). He started a company as a sophomore and within five years, sold it for seven-plus figures. He now runs another company that makes over seven figures annually and is a major stakeholder in multiple startups with even higher valuations.

I’m not trying to sell you on starting your own company, pursuing finance, or thinking that there’s only one lucrative industry out there. That is far from true.

However, the idea that we need to simply sit tight and soak up knowledge for the first 18 to 20 years of our lives and then pop out like engorged sponges, ready to spread our soapy expertise across the workplace floor and finally prove our worth is truly ludicrous to me.

If you know you want to break into a certain field in the future, why not start making those connections now? Why wait another year, month, or even day to start dipping your toe into your chosen industry?

Part 2: The Set-Up for the Grand Finale

Up to this point, I’ve talked a lot about the journey to get the job, but for those who recall the title of this (now rather long) article, I also left that six-figure job in my twenties.

If you’re currently a bright-eyed, bushy-tailed university student and aspiring employee, you might wonder why in the world I would willingly leave a job I’d worked so hard to secure. If that sounds like you, six months working in M&A might give you some insight (just kidding…).

As I mentioned earlier, I entered finance with a particular goal in mind. In fact, I knew I wanted to quit before I even got my job. I found my passion somewhere between my sophomore and junior year of college: I loved startups. This had actually been my passion for years, maybe even a decade prior, but I just didn’t realize it yet. While today’s generation may be introduced to startups through shows like Shark Tank and the rise of social media-related apps, I recall when the first wave of tech companies and pioneer startups came about. The Social Network was my favorite movie and I remember people at my school lining up for the premiere.

I had a plan:

  • First, I’d get a job that would give me insight into successful companies, teach me valuable skills, and possibly spark useful connections.
  • Second, I would save as much money as possible to prepare for the big exit.
  • Third, hopefully I would start that “next big thing” in my spare time and have something to dive right into when I quit.
  • Fourth, I would give my two weeks notice and be off to California, to the land of startups and venture capital.

From the outside looking in, it does appear I followed my plan pretty closely. In reality, there were a lot of bumps, bruises, and roadblocks along the way that made that journey anything but easy or expected. However, those are for another article and another day.

Let’s just get into what you’re really here for: why and how I quit without freaking out or feeling like I’d just made a massive financial and professional mistake.

To be clear, I did freak out. Everyone does, I suppose, when they decide to voluntarily walk out of a job that others would bend over backwards for, with unparalleled prestige, great benefits, and even greater bonuses. But I had a good reason to leave and to leave when I did.

I remember when I turned 24 and I realized: I’m no longer in my early twenties. I mulled over the invisible timeline I had put in my head and realized I was running out of time. At that point, I believed 27 was marriage age, 30 was time to have the first kid, and by 35 all financial and career risk-taking opportunities were out the window. If I worked one more year, I would only have 10 years to be successful before I’d have to pack it up and call it quits!

Ten years might sound like a lot to you, but it didn’t to me. Startups can take a long time, and personally, I don’t work best under pressure. That five-minute quarter-life-crisis is what convinced me that in terms of trying my hand at entrepreneurship, it was now or never.

So, that day I stood up at my desk and yelled out “I’m done!” ripped up my ID badge, and ran out the doors into a life of bliss and entrepreneurial freedom.
JUST KIDDING. (Hopefully you didn’t really think it would be bliss and entrepreneurial freedom to follow; startups are hard, so cue the late nights, no paycheck, and the dingiest apartment L.A. has ever seen.)

Here’s what really happened:

I made myself a quitting timeline. I knew I planned to spend a minimum of two years in investment banking (both for the resume and to get two bonuses), but my timeline was a bit delayed. I had actually switched banks mid-term (after securing the bonus, of course), which was a blessing and a curse. Switching banks meant I got an extra potential year under my belt, as well as a second signing bonus, but it also meant I had to wait to get paid out my second bonus even longer. Point being, I read the fine print on my contract, checked the dates, and determined the exact date I could quit without having to give back any of my annual or signing bonus or being in breach of contract. I also took advantage of my paid “protected week,” so I could start the moving process.

My last few months in banking, leading up to the big exit, were some of the hardest. Since my lease was ending, I was constantly moving from apartment to apartment on a short-term corporate lease (also known as a very expensive furnished apartment). The furnished lease prices were so high that I even contemplated staying at a hotel and getting a 30-day block of rooms. I was also doing my best to fly under the radar so I wouldn’t get staffed on any major projects that would prevent me from carrying out my “big exit” in the planned time frame. I slowly began moving stuff out of my desk area so when the big exit day came, it would be as fast and painless as possible.

Then I made it official: I sent my boss an email with the subject line “Two Weeks Notice.” Apparently, they’d rather you talk it over with them in person, but I only learned this after the fact. However, in retrospect, I’d still rather have my exit intent in writing than a verbal exchange that could result in a less voluntary exit.

Now that you know why I quit and how I planned my escape, the last piece you may be wondering about is the aftermath. How does a twentysomething cope with leaving all her peers and colleagues behind in the corporate world, cutting herself off from a six-figure income and coveted job, and flying across the country to try to make something out of nothing?

I can assure you, it wasn’t easy. I tell most aspiring founders that the first 1.5 to three years will suck. That doesn’t have to be the case, but for those who plan to figure out their business post-two weeks notice, the entrepreneurial learning curve will often be the first slap in the face in those initial months (or even years).

There were a few reasons I was able to quit, and I designed it as such:

  1. I saved every penny during my corporate job. (I lived on a ramen noodles budget, while earning a Wall Street salary.)
  2. I had already been working on and investing in my planned business while working the full-time job. (This gave me some unwarranted confidence toward my future startup success… that first project didn’t pan out as I’d hoped, but without it and the time and money I had invested into it, I likely wouldn’t have left my job.)
  3. I had a supportive partner with a stable, well-paying job in a different industry to give me greater financial security, diversify our level of risk, and provide peace of mind that the rent would be covered (even if my startup was making $0).

Now here‘s the question you may be wondering:

Would I do it again?

Truth be told, there is one small factor I haven’t mentioned that played a huge role on my decision to quit when I did. If this factor weren’t the case, I’m not sure I ever would have felt confident enough to give up such a lucrative job for a big and uncertain risk.

That factor: job insecurity

You see, from the day I got hired to the day I sent in my two weeks notice, I had never felt any ongoing sense of job security, peace, or confidence that I would last through to my next bonus. Finance can be a tumultuous industry, and I saw quite a few unexpected and involuntary exits. A New York analyst (Cornell graduate) mouthed off to a notoriously difficult director in my office and was gone by the next week. The one female managing director was abruptly fired after failing to close on a for-profit education company merger. A sweet, charming secretary was thrown out on a Friday afternoon and everyone carried on as if nothing had happened. Half the leveraged finance group was let go in one day.

Plainly put, I didn’t feel safe or secure or confident in the six-figure income I was making, despite being just as qualified as my peers and in the top groups at my banks. I was constantly panicked about the prospect of losing this precious money that I slaved away for, and I think my self-worth as an employee was pretty low at that point. Therefore, leaving didn’t actually feel like all that much of a risk. It felt more like taking back control of my life. The money I made in banking felt just as precarious as the prospect of making none at all with my new startup… or so I thought at the time.

If I could go back and do it all again, the one question I would ask my younger self is this: What would it take to make your new business feel more secure and lucrative than your 9-to-5?

To answer the question, yes, I would still plan to quit. However, I would strive to match my 9-to-5 income (and three to six months of consistency) with my side hustle earnings before sending in that two weeks notice.

And if you are a newly minted college graduate who’s secured a lucrative job in your dream field of choice, congrats. You’ve successfully done what countless others have done before you; now it’s time to figure out how you’re going to stand out and do what others haven’t.

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Wall Street Investment Banker → Entrepreneur & Startup Consultant. “Top 10 Entrepreneurs of 2020” Yahoo Finance. CEO of Beta Bowl. Mom of 3 furbabies ❤

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