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How a 4 am phone call made me quit finance and changed my life forever

My phone’s shrill tone woke me up:

“It’s 4-fucking-am and we are in the middle of a fucking deal. Who the fuck gave you permission to fucking fall asleep. Get the fuck up or get the fuck out of this industry”

For a second I wondered if it was Leonardo calling me as his Wolf of Wall Street character.

Having pulled four consecutive all-nighters for my team, this phone call was the straw that broke the camels back.

As a student at one of the top undergrad business schools I jumped on the finance bandwagon pretty much as soon as I got in. Graduate. Get a job at an investment bank. Jump to private equity in two years. An MBA in another two years. Live. Die. Repeat.

If I had bet on myself back then, I would have come out winning. I got a job at one of the most successful investment banks, had a great salary, made some great friends and learned a lot. Two years later, I had moved onto a private equity fund focused on industries I was passionate about — tech, media and telecom.

I traveled the world in business class, was chauffeured everywhere and met some of the world’s top CEOs in close quarters. Sleep and a healthy lifestyle? Who needs that?

Did I have a life?

“They aren’t paying you that kind of money to have a life”

This was my father’s go-to line whenever I complained about not having time for myself. In the five years I spent in finance, I missed anything important you can think off — friend’s weddings, vacations, family time and dates with my girlfriend (now my wife).

The elusive life that I had always imagined

 

At the time I’d tell myself – “this is just temporary. My plan is to work my ass off, make money and retire young. That’s when I’ll have a life.”

But I soon realized, the cycle never changes. We would dread the days when our boss went on vacation. He worked harder on vacations than when he was in office. In turn, we worked harder too. He never seemed to switch off — it was all about work.

Epiphany number 1 — there is no such thing as a ‘life’ in this industry.

Was this my calling?

This article perfectly captures how and why I felt the way I did back then. While I thought I enjoyed what I did, I couldn’t figure out if finance was really my calling. There was something missing.

We kept working on pitch books or investment memorandums but everything seemed to be intangible. It felt like all the real, constructive, measurable work that actually made a difference was being done by the guys actually running the companies we were investing in.

I’d wake up every morning and drag myself into work. The motivation and ambition to become the ‘Wolf of Wall Street’ no longer existed. I wanted to do something more meaningful. Something tangible. Something that changed people’s lives. Something that had a substantial impact.

Epiphany number 2 — I felt like I was on a treadmill going nowhere. Making money was good, but my work seemed hollow.

Whom did I want to be — the client or the banker?

“Don’t go into banking, go work for a tech company”.

This was back in 2005, when it wasn’t as cool to work for a start-up as it is now. My brother-in-law, an investment banker himself, gave me this advice. His logic — who do you think is the richer guy? The investment banker or the client (the one who hires the investment banker)?

As an ambitious undergrad, this didn’t make sense to me then. Everyone around me wanted to be an investment banker or a consultant — that’s where the moolah was. It was only after being in finance for a year that I realized what he was talking about.

The guy across the table

 

A couple of years in, I went into a meeting and to my surprise the client was not much older than I was. Coming from an entrepreneurial family, I realized I could be that guy too. It then struck me, I could be doing something I truly loved and still make good money.

Epiphany number 3 — I could be the guy sitting across the table.


Enlightened by my three epiphanies, I decided to quit finance. To pursue my passion for tech, I joined one of India’s leading online real estate portals as a product manager.

While the pay and perks weren’t remotely comparable to the finance days, I soon realized what I’d been missing. The work day began at 9 AM and I was home by 7. I had weekends off. It seemed as though there was a whole new world out there to explore.

Since the last two years, I’ve been crossing things off my bucket list — taking road trips, traveling to exotic locations for leisure (not work), learning to play the guitar, attending weddings and spending time with loved ones.

I often get calls from friends, still in finance, asking me how I managed to leave. Looking back, here is how I went about it and what I was thinking.

1. Bored vs. doing something different

Make sure you are quitting finance for the right reasons. Just trying to get a control over your life, having a better boss, or being bored, isn’t why you should quit finance. These challenges exist wherever you go.

The way I evaluated this was to observe people in finance, especially the senior folk. Instead of focusing only on my job, I started observing them — what they did on a daily basis. I then started speaking to senior folks in various corporate jobs, the ones that interested me.

This gave me a good idea about what I wanted to do and where I saw myself ten years later. The answer was clearly not finance. I didn’t see myself doing what my boss did. It didn’t excite me at all. Building products that people used daily to simplify their lives — that excited me.

What motivates you?

Figure this out first.

2. Lifestyle vs. Wealth

Another thing you should figure out is what attracts you more — a ‘rich’ life or money in the bank. Finance pays the bills and pays them very well.

You can take expensive holidays, provided you get the time off. You can cater to all of your significant others’ whims and fancies. But how much time do you really get to spend with them?

After a point, it was no longer about the money. It came down to maximizing my happiness. Maximizing happiness means different things to each of us. For me, it was spending more time with loved ones, taking spontaneous weekend getaways, learning new skills I’d always wanted to, and doing absolutely nothing on certain days.

Plan your lifestyle out. A corporate job may mean lower pay but that salary should cover all your regular expenses (rent, food etc.). Invest your savings wisely and use the income from your savings to take holidays and shop for luxury goods.

Figure this out well. Only then, plan when to quit.

3. Get a job that suits you

While quitting and traveling the world can be great, you can’t do it forever. Take a break — you deserve it most. But before that line up what you’re going to do next.

Finance is very fast paced and structured. That kind of work keeps you highly engaged. While office politics exists, it’s pretty manageable. At a starting level, the promotion cycle is also very well defined. So make sure what you do next, is something you are open to, and really want to try out.

Every time I interviewed with a company, I would try to find people in similar positions that I was shooting for, and speak to them at length. Exposure to senior management, not having to deal with corporate bureaucracy, and the freedom to take decisions were questions on top of my checklist.

Find a job. Make sure its engaging. Get questions answered. Get excited!

4. Ignore the Naysayers

“You are doing what? Are you crazy? How will you survive?”

You are bound to be have multiple people call you up to give you unsolicited advice. Most will make you feel like you’ve lost your mind. Some will make you feel like you’ve committed the worst crime and are about to be sentenced to life imprisonment.

I re-watched Deepak Malhotra’s speech post all these calls. Just as I got charged up, the phone would ring again. I had to constantly remind myself why I was quitting and what I wanted from life after.

In the end it came down to just ignoring everyone. By ignoring, I don’t mean completely shut people off. Listen to them. You never know when someone is going to give you a piece of invaluable advice.

Absorb important information. Ignore the rest. Stick to your guns.

5. A Clean Break and No Burnt Bridges

For months after quitting, I would be tempted to call my ex-boss and beg for my job back. Believe it or not, I actually missed the long hours. I missed being stressed. I missed all the high pressure. I missed the pay and I missed the perks.

Anytime I picked up the phone to call, I remembered my mentor telling me “make a clean break”. A clean break doesn’t mean you do this. It means you leave on a good note and without emotional attachments. Maintain your relationships — they always come to use.

It takes anywhere between 6–8 months getting used to a new job, a new team, and a new work environment. Take this time to settle in. You will miss your old job and colleagues. You will go through phases of the Stockholm syndrome. During these phases, like the naysayer phase, try to remember points 1 and 3 above.

Make a clean break. Don’t burn bridges. Settle in.


Quitting any job isn’t easy. Quitting an industry is even harder. Finance especially so, given the lavish perks and pay. But what had to be done, had to be done.

I recently moved back home to the city I grew up in (after 11 long years). I am now working on a startup. It feels life has come full circle.

The pay is nothing comparable to finance (infact, there is no pay). I’m the one paying salaries now! Eating habits are the same. All my meals are eaten while I work. The one big difference — an ingredient I was missing all these years is back — my mothers love.

The hours aren’t much different either. I’m working today. It’s a pleasant sunny Sunday afternoon. The difference: Coldplay’s playing in the back while I’m sitting on a bean bag, jumping in and out of conversation with my co-founders, who (believe it or not!) are still talking about what went down at a friend’s birthday last night!

The journey ahead isn’t going to be easy, but if it was, then I wouldn’t be living, I would just be existing.

This article also appears on Medium and is published here with permission of the author

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