Why you can't leave banking and do what you want

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You survived. Monday last week was apparently the most depressing day of the year; the fact that you're still a fully functioning human being who got out of bed this morning, is testimony to your resilience. If, however, you have also been left with the lingering sense that you should leave your finance job and find true fulfillment in other ways, you need to splash yourself all over with cold water.

There comes a point in most finance careers when you either run out of road, or feel that you've accumulated enough money to achieve lift-off and move on to something else. Both situations are ripe with potential, but do not overestimate how easy it will be to harvest it.

Victoria Macpherson works with plenty of people in finance who mistakenly think it will be easy. A former derivatives marketer and headhunter-turned executive coach, Macpherson counsels finance professionals who've decided to move on. She says many of them misunderstand their relevance: "I get a lot of people who say they want to go to a non-exec, or a fintech, or to a start-up, but they don't really have anything to offer. They've been working for a large organization which is not creative in its approach and they need to do a few other things before they can make that transition."

Some people seem to recognize the problem. "Doing 10-15 years of FX or rates sales won’t give you too many exit opportunities," said one 35-year-old rates salesman, responding to our recent survey on contentment. He added that he'd like to leave because, "The job is boring and the future doesn't look too bright," and that declining compensation is removing one of the key reasons to stick around.

When you've worked in finance for decades, you may also be motivated by an urge to do something entirely different. When writer Deborah Copaken attended a 30th reunion at Harvard University last October, she found that her Harvard peers who'd spent their lives in banking, "seemed to want to leave Wall Street as soon as possible to take up some sort of art". This was echoed in our survey. "I wish I did something more creative with my life," complained one 40-something female banker in London. "The workplace is filled with overly serious 20 and 30-year-olds who do not seem interesting or intellectually curious," echoed a 22-year-old M&A banker in New York City, who said he pursues intellectually stimulating activities outside of work instead. It's probably no coincidence that pre-Christmas art sessions in London's Canary Wharf were entirely booked-out.

However, finance professionals also stand accused of over-estimating their ability to move into creative fields after banking. Five years ago, Dutch author Joris Luyendijk wrote a 'voices of finance' series for the UK's Guardian newspaper. Luyendijk says that people who leave banking jobs first need to "(re)learn humility".

"From the day they are hired, bankers are told that they are the cream of the crop, the smartest guys in the room, masters of the universe and so on," says Luyendijk. He claims that too many have the mistaken impression that they can do everything better and faster than everyone else. " I would sometimes politely interject that the competition for getting a book published is far fiercer than for a career in banking; far more people try writing books than going into finance," he says. "That went nowhere. Almost all my interviewees sincerely believed that 'after this job I can do anything.'"

In fact, Macpherson says the most transferable skill you probably possess when you leave a finance job is an ability to work long hours. "When you've been in banking for 15-20 years, you're bright and you're good at maths but what do you really have to offer apart from your good work ethic? That's scary for a lot of people."

Perversely but predictably, Macpherson also says many of those who want to leave finance want to leave this work ethic behind. Equally perversely, research from ex-Goldman Sachs associate Alexandra Michel suggests former bankers continue to overwork when they move into new industries. To avoid this, Macpherson says people who leave banking often require a period of decompression and reevaluation before moving on to something else. "It's a journey. You're moving into a no-man's land. It often takes a couple of years to find out what you want to do, and you'll have to try a few things first."

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