By the time I turned 23, it seemed like I had it all: a great apartment, a brand new car, money in the bank. Without any graduate school or specialized degree, my income was not far behind what my dad was earning after more than 20 years as a lawyer.
But it didn’t matter: I was miserable.
I started working as an analyst at an investment bank shortly after graduating college. I had studied writing, and was passionate about it. I never pictured myself pursuing a career in finance until it fell into my lap: I was friendly with one of the firm’s founders, who saw something in me, and thought I could bring a different perspective to the business. So, sure, why not give it a try?
I soon learned how easy it was to lose yourself to a job, and how seductive money can be for some people. I spent most of my time in the office, not to mention all the time I spent answering emails and phone calls outside of work, or doing research from home. But truly there was not a time when I didn’t feel like work had to be my main priority. Wherever I was—at the gym or the grocery store, out with friends or talking to my girlfriend—I was thinking about it. I was constantly checking my phone for messages, wondering if I had missed anything on a call or worrying about some project or another I was struggling to complete.
Just to be clear, I was in an entry-level position in the real-estate division, which is not as intense as M&A. It was a mid-sized, private firm based in Cleveland, which is not exactly like working at Goldman Sachs in Manhattan. But all of those “caveats” are telling: I can’t imagine how miserable I’d be if I’d ever become a senior Wall Street banker at one of the big firms.
Life as an analyst was unforgiving. The hours, expectations and pressure to perform are unparalleled in just about any industry outside of medicine, where lives are literally on the line. Analysts are expected to be at their superiors’ beck and call at all times—except we weren’t helping performing a life-saving operation; we were performing perfunctory tasks. Imagine watching ER or House, and a doctor screams “CHANGE A SINGLE WORD IN THE PITCH DOCUMENT!!!” rather than “CLEAR!!!” as he prepares a defibrillator. It doesn’t have the same ring, does it?
The experience was unpleasant and uninspiring for me, but I had coworkers who were sadder. They had joined up hoping for Wall Street in its heyday, not the relentless grind of a small Midwestern bank. After the 2008 crash and recession, everything changed. Bonuses shrank, jobs became scarce, and although they’d dreamed of becoming society’s elite, they were scorned by many.
I know that the tiniest violin is reserved for Wall Street bankers complaining about any of these things, especially pay. But talking to my colleagues about their struggles only backed up my nascent feeling that finance was a soul-crushing endeavor I wasn’t cut out for.
After about a year and a half, I came to a breaking point. I realized money wasn’t making me happy, and that even if I could move up the ladder to bigger and better things, my problems wouldn’t go away. I was too affected by the culture that permeated the industry to ever be content with how I spent most of my time.
But I had learned something from all that work in finance after all. What it really came down to was a simple cost-benefit analysis: Was the mental, emotional, and physical toll of continuing this career really worth the financial reward? The answer was an easy one, at least for me: No.
Today I’m a freelance writer, doing what I love with no certainty of any kind of paycheck. It’s a little scary but even compared with the stability, the elevated lifestyle, the big office that I saw some of my superiors enjoy at my old job, I’m a lot happier.
Brett Williams is a New York-based writer whose work has also appeared at Supercompressor, Thrillist and AskMen.