The Myth of the Career Path

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The Myth of the Career PathI’ve gotten a lot of questions about how you can start your own hedge fund, make $1 billion per year in cash, and then retire at age 30 with enough capital to buy several countries.

So today I’m going to give you the exact set of steps you need to do all this: all you have to do is copy and paste and fill in a few blanks and you’ll be well on your way toward being the next hedge fund billionaire.

The Short Con

Just kidding.

You really thought I was going to share that information when I could just keep it for myself?

Just like when I explained why finance doesn’t guarantee you $10 million and your own beach in Thailand, you’ll want to grab some yerba mate and close your YouTube windows because this will be a long one.

And by the end you might be having a quarter-life crisis.

Why?

Although the introduction above is a joke, it was inspired by reality: I get dozens of emails about the best “path” to follow and the trade-offs between different “career paths.”

We’ve begun to believe that there’s a single set of precise steps you can follow to become MD at a bulge bracket bank, a Partner at your own hedge fund, or even the top guy at the SEC.

So where did it start, and why do we believe so strongly in the “career path”?

We Want to Believe

Sure, there’s an 87-step process you can use to go from student to CEO. You just need to stick to the plan precisely over 25 years and pay really careful attention to steps 61-72.

The last time I published a similar article, something interesting happened: even though the article explained why there is no “perfect” job in finance, many of the comments were from readers looking for exactly that.

What about private wealth management? What about finance in this one city if you keep your hours down by not doing x, y, and z and instead doing things completely differently?

The magic bullet is out there. Right?

Because You Learned It In School

What happens at the end of 1st grade? You move into 2nd grade. At the end of 8th grade, you go into high school – then at the end of high school you start university.

For over 20 years, most of us follow a specific path our entire lives.

So what happens afterward?

We want to keep following a specific path.

That’s why so many kids from Harvard head to Wall Street: there’s a promise of unlimited rewards if you follow a specific set of instructions.

And how bad could it be? There’s greatness at the end:

Elements of Truth

Yes, it’s very difficult to get into private equity unless you’ve been an investment banking analyst before.

Yes, it’s difficult to move from a hedge fund trading weather derivatives to one investing in technology companies in Israel if you’ve been at your fund for 10 years already.

Yes, you probably do need to be a Governor or Senator before you can become President of the United States.

If you look at smaller segments of your life, there are “paths” at certain points or at least obstacles you have to overcome to get from point A to point B.

But what happens before you get to point A or after you get to point B?

For all the hype over exit opportunities, no one has a well-defined picture of what happens after you get into PE or after you get into that hedge fund you’ve been lusting after.

Who Wants to Do Any Work, Right?

“Path” implies that you can get to your destination without much effort: you can just stroll along, and no matter how slowly you go, eventually you’ll reach the end.

But what if we called it a “career twisty, crooked, spiral with boulders falling down” instead?

Dangerous.

Plus, you might actually have to do some work then.

Even in more “creative” or “independent” professions, we still want all the answers handed to us.

What entrepreneur wouldn’t want the exact set of steps needed for a $10 billion IPO? What actor wouldn’t want to know the exact set of movies he needs to star in before hitting it big?

Why do the work when someone else can give us all the answers?

It’s All About the Destination

“Path” also implies that the destination is the most important part and that everything beforehand is uninteresting.

I see this all the time when I get emails from readers wondering how they can “skip” being analysts or associates and become MDs directly instead.

Two problems with this:

  1. You can’t actually do it.
  2. If you don’t like the work at the analyst or associate level you still won’t like it at the MD-level.

Yes, everything becomes more relationship-driven at the top but you are still pitching and executing the same deals.

It’s not like you suddenly become Ari Gold and start “advising” supermodels.

There’s No Data

What percent of college graduates who became investment banking analysts 20 years ago are now Managing Directors?

I have no idea, and neither does anyone else.

Making decisions when data suggests the opposite is dangerous, but making decisions in the complete absence of any data is even worse.

When there’s no data, it’s easy to make statements like, “Anyone who starts out in investment banking or management consulting rises to a high-powered position and becomes a millionaire within 10 years.”

Even though we don’t have the data, you can easily disprove this one: just look at the website of any financial institution and compare the number of analysts or associates to the number of MDs or Partners.

Somewhere along the way, people are falling off the path.

We Would Rather Avoid Loss Than Achieve Success

Most of us are more motivated to avoid loss rather than to achieve what we really want.

That’s why I title so many emails to BIWS members “bad news” – even if it’s not bad news, it makes you curious and prompts you to open it.

What’s the bad news? Are you shutting down? How will I be affected? How can I avoid having something bad happen to me?

It’s the same with the “career path”: it may not be ideal, but it’s better than the alternative of being directionless.

We Like To Blame Other People

Why couldn’t you break into investment banking?

Well, you didn’t go to an Ivy League school… you didn’t take the CFA… you didn’t have an internship.

When someone else defines the path, it’s easy to blame external factors or “the rules” when things don’t go as planned.

Having someone else define a path also lets us spend a lot of time on marginal tasks – like getting certifications – while avoiding the larger questions.

The Problem

So that’s where the Myth of the Career Path comes from.

Just one problem: there’s no such thing as a “career path.”

No one can tell you the exact set of steps you need to follow over 20 years to go from MBA to MD.

You can break into investment banking even if you started off in a different field, switched to banking, switched back to yet another industry, and then gave it a go again in round 2.

Even CEOs of banks have started off in other industries before switching over.

No, you “normally” don’t break into finance from law or engineering or real estate or sales or non-profit work, but that doesn’t mean you can’t.

Besides the fact that there’s no set of precise steps you can follow, there’s another big problem: you’ll change your mind over time.

If you go to certain schools, going to work in fields like investment banking (or even accounting) is viewed as mandatory – when everyone around you is doing it, you have to do it just to fit in.

But once you graduate, you’re no longer under constant scrutiny – so following a path doesn’t seem as necessary.

The Real Career Path

So is there any real path over the long-term? Surely you can’t just get out there and do something completely random, right?

There is a “path,” but it’s not the elite high school –> Ivy League school –> investment banking –> PE –> Greatness one that you’ve seen.

Make money, move up. Don’t make money, move out.

Headhunters can explain in even greater depth why this is true.

Want to earn a lot of money without talking to anyone or doing anything other than crunching numbers?

Not likely to happen.

Despite the obsession with analysis, modeling, and how many tabs your spreadsheet has, all of those skills are commodities.

What really matters are relationships and specifically how well you can leverage those relationships for profits.

Where Junior Bankers Get Stuck

And this is exactly where a lot of people get “stuck” at the mid-level: they’re good at execution but can’t bring in new clients or generate profits or ROI on their own.

But that’s exactly what you need to advance to the top, and it’s the actual “path” that no one ever tells you about: make money, then make even more money, and then make even more money after that.

But It’s Scary!

For 2 reasons:

  1. You won’t know if you’re any good at it until you’re at the level where you can make money through your own efforts.
  2. No one can “teach” you how to reach the top this way. Some people have a knack for it, while others can never do it even after years of effort.

That might be why you never hear about this “career path”: we don’t like to acknowledge uncertainty.

Exceptions

But wait, do you really need these “relationships” for everything? What about something like trading, where you could just follow a squiggly line around the screen and make a lot of money?

It’s true that relationships don’t matter as much (at all?) in trading, but it’s even more results-driven than investment banking.

If you’re not turning a profit, they won’t hesitate to kick you out ASAP. And if you turn a huge profit, you’ll move up – quickly.

Compare that to investment banking or private equity, which doesn’t become profit-driven until you’re closer to the mid-level.

The Mid-Level Curse

A lot of financiers start off as analysts or associates, do well, and assume that it’s a straightforward path to the top: Analyst –> Associate –> VP –> Director / SVP –> MD.

Yes, those are the stages you go through to reach the top but it’s not how you actually get there.

This is what happens when you “fail” in finance: you reach the mid-level but can’t go any further, so they keep you around for a bit and then show you the door when you can’t transition to profit generator.

And then you “move into industry.”

What to Do About It

So there’s no such thing as a specific path that will get you to the top.

At the beginning you need to follow orders from others, but then over time you need to turn into a profit center.

So what should you do, and how can you prepare?

Try Out Everything You Can

It’s much easier to switch “paths” – or invent your own – when you’re younger and you don’t have a 20-year history following you around.

So do everything you can to try out different industries and different roles – school-year internships, pre-MBA internships, and simply talking to as many people as possible.

You’ll probably be wrong anyway, but at least this way you can say you tried.

Take Anything You “Must Do” With a Grain of Salt

There are very few things you “must” do to break in or advance once you’re in.

You need a degree and decent grades but beyond that it’s not like medicine where you need multiple degrees, a residency, and all sorts of other certifications.

Similarly, advancing rarely requires certifications, specific experience, or anything else artificial: just make them money.

And be glad that there’s far less politics in finance vs. “normal” companies: being results-oriented is great if you can get results.

Stop Making Detailed 20-Year Plans

There’s a chance that investment banking might not even be around in 20 years.

At the very least, the industry will be way different and whatever plan you came up with in college will be outdated within a year or two.

If you want to get into a specific type of PE firm you might plan ahead for that – but when you get into specific dollar amounts you want to be make in 10, 15, or 20 years, you need to stop.

Make or Save Them Money… From Day One

This is the most overlooked one: even at the junior levels you need to show evidence that you can one day earn money for your firm.

Most VPs and MDs don’t even remember how to use Excel – but they do understand profit.

You need to strike a balance here because you can’t go in and start asking about cross-border China deals on your first day – but once you prove yourself after a few months of work, you need to make yourself even more useful.

It’s tough to source actual clients at the junior level, but you can suggest ways to find them, methods for saving time or money, or anything else that makes senior bankers’ lives easier.

And if you don’t do that, forget about becoming an MD: you may not even make it into private equity.

Finally

Most of all, stop following a specific “career path” – because there isn’t one.

There are many possibilities, but no paths.

Cast a wide net and try out as much as you can as early as you can.

See what you like the most, pursue it, and adapt accordingly.

And hey, if all else fails, you can always open your own surf shop in Brazil.

About the Author

is the Founder of Mergers & Inquisitions and Breaking Into Wall Street. In his spare time, he enjoys learning obscure Excel functions, editing resumes, obsessing over TV shows, and traveling so much that he's forced to add additional pages to his passport on a regular basis.

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139 Comments to “The Myth of the Career Path”

Comments

  1. Tom says

    Hi Brian! Great post. I would really appreciate your help as I am at a cross roads in my career! My path is like this- audit (5 yrs)-> finance MIS (1 yr)—> investor relations (2 yrs)—>equity research(1.5 yrs)—-> fired due to recession—–> back in temporary industry role in commercial team. Age 35yrs. No luck as yet in banking or even middle office roles!! What to do!

    • M&I - Nicole says

      Thanks for sharing your path with us. I can understand how frustrating it can be. Hang in there! Given your experience in research and IR, you may want to look at asset management roles given your experience of talking to clients, ability to value companies and communication skills. I’d network a lot and start cold calling peeps and building new contacts!

  2. Tom says

    Hi Brian, thanks for your response. I agree buy side is an ideal choice but market is not very good. How about ‘operational strategy consulting ‘ with one of the accounting firms like EY?

  3. Questions says

    Great article. So what if you start off working, after getting an MBA, in a small firm? How would you go about transitioning to a bigger one? Should you still work as if you were trying to be a MD of the current firm(the small one) you’re working in by always trying to save or make money for the company? I guess the obvious answer there would be yes, but I from my inexperienced view I can’t see a point in doing so unless you’re thinking of a long term commitment with the firm… any advice about this?

    • Questions says

      basically i just want to know if transitioning is a very hard thing to do, and how do you decide on a company you wish to settle upon?

      • M&I - Nicole says

        It depends on your situation. This is a vague question. You make a decision based on your situation, alternatives & gut feeling.

    • M&I - Nicole says

      Yes I can understand. You can always focus on the present task/project you’re doing and save/make money for the company through that task/project. You don’t have to think of “long term projects” if you don’t think you’ll stay.

      • Questions says

        I see…It’s becoming more and more evident to me that I still have a lot to learn. I hope you don’t mind but I’ll likely be looking through more articles (including the other one you previously suggested I read) and asking more questions. Since you’ve been so helpful so far, it looks like I might be bothering you quite a bit more in the near future lol.

  4. Angel666 says

    Hi Brian

    Pls can you give me some advice!? I am interested in either working in HR or the Events Organising department of an Investment Bank. I have just left a Big 4 audit scheme (I only did a year) and am now looking to do HR or Events in a bank. I am not sure exactly which one yet, I think I would enjoy and be good at either.

    Do you know how I could get into an I-B in these divisions? So far I have applied to 5 HR schemes at Citi, RBS, Barclays, UBS, Tescobank. These were the main grad schemes in HR I could find, and the only Events grad scheme I could find was one in Barclays Capital. My applications are currently under review. I was thinking of studying a part-CIPD course (for HR) or applying to a target uni to do a Masters degree in HR. For Events there is not really any reputable Masters degrees but I think it’s more about practical experience so I’d do a diploma type course with placement element. So I suppose I am asking do you think these are good ways to increase my chances of getting into a grad scheme/networking my way in ,if not could you offer me any alternative advice?

    Thanks! Hope you had a good xmas!!!!

    • M&I - Nicole says

      I don’t think courses would matter as much as direct experience for such roles. I’d focus on networking with people in HR and Events to increase your chances. I’d also focus on Social Media such as LinkedIn given the nature of the two.

  5. Curious Novice says

    Thanks for the helpful article, Brian! I am a novice looking to transition from public health(entry level only) to finance. Although there is no such thing as one career path, I have a question about the best way a person with a non-finance background can get into investment banking(at a young age, 25-26). A little about me: graduated with a B.S. in Public Health 2.5 years ago, worked in a research consulting company for 1.5 years and interned at a business incubator in East Africa for 6 months. My final goal is to manage my own PE/VC fund that invests in high risk frontier markets. I know I have to gain a of skills, experience and/or credentials to even get into I-banking.

    With that in mind, what route from the following options would allow me to enter the field the fastest? 1) summer VC internship(focused on African markets) -> entry level analyst position at a healthcare PE firm -> entry level program at a BB -> MBA from a top 10 school or 2) summer VC intership -> MSc in finance(at a second-tier school in Europe such as Frankfurt School, Vlerick, SKEMA, etc) -> graduate training program at a BB -> investment analyst at a PE firm -> associate. Since I don’t have a STEM undergraduate degree, it is a bit difficult for me to get into top tier MSc finance programs. Also, I would like to become fluent in German and/or French but it will happen fast enough for me to land a job in those countries so I would have to look for internships in the UK or Holland while in school. I am sorry for the long question. I really appreciate your thoughts on this matter!

    • M&I - Nicole says

      All of the options you list are viable, the 2nd maybe more realistic. Can you get into a top MBA program? This may increase your chance of getting into PE/VC sooner. Of course, the other way is to go through a rigorous IB training program and transition from there. Both works. The point is – try to get valuation and deal experience, as well as exposure to clients, as soon as you can if you want to be starting your own fund. http://www.mergersandinquisitions.com/private-equity-recruiting/ is a good start.

  6. Curious Novice says

    Thank you for the feedback, Nicole! If I am to honestly access my profile, I do not think I have what it takes to get into a top MBA yet. I will need to gain experience in the field first( but GPA, references, etc are good). Yes, I really think it is important for me to get valuation and deal experience as soon as possible. I have a summer internship lined up to start to get this. Also, I already have a business partner. We have been talking to investors and have been looking at a few startups and established businesses in frontier markets that we want to invest in. Is this experience helpful to my profile? Or would it be better to apply for an entry level position at a healthcare PE firm(as stated in option one)? My concern about option two is that going to a second-tier program, especially in a country like Germany or Belgium (where none of their schools are widely recognized), would not allow me to compete for IB graduate training programs. Do you think I have a fighting chance of getting into Goldman Sachs, Barclays, JP Morgan or another BB in the UK/U.S. for such a training program? If so, option two would definitely save time and money. Again, sorry for all of the questions. Thanks for the helpful link!

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