I Took a Pay Cut to Pursue My Dream

By Vanessa Golembewski & Annie Georgia Greenberg, Refinery29

There's a reason why Jay Z and Alicia Keys sing about being in an Empire State of mind. New York City is, as they praise, the place where dreams are made. And, for so many people aspiring to high-profile careers, they come to the metropolis to chase them. For some, that dream becomes a reality complete with an important title and the six-figure salary to match. But, are wealth and success worth the sacrifice?

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We spoke with four people who might say no. At one time, they had sky-high salaries, but ultimately decided to ditch the big paycheck to get in touch with who they really are - and find the jobs that truly fulfill them. And, though each person's story is unique, they all ultimately decided to abandon the high-profile gig for a completely different, and subsequently more satisfying life. Ahead, four real-life tales of individuals who went out to see if the grass is really greener.

. Branden, 26, Associate Investment Banker turned English Teacher

Until just six months ago, Branden was a financial analyst for an investment bank in Manhattan. It seemed as if his entire life had led him to that very point. "Growing up, I always wanted to make a lot of money. I came from a middle-class family in Massachusetts. My parents owned a restaurant, and I had relatives who were self-employed. I wanted to be like them - financial independence and entrepreneurship always appealed to me." And, Branden did just that. He attended NYU's venerable business school. But, as many 2009 college grads found, getting a job wasn't easy. "[That] was one of the worst times in history to be looking for a job on Wall Street. The economy collapsed, and Lehman Brothers, where I had interned, went bankrupt the fall of my senior year. Recruiting dried up." Still, Branden managed to land a gig as a financial-research analyst in Westchester, just outside the city.

Almost immediately Branden began to feel bored - and disappointed he wasn't making more money. "The job paid well, but I found it boring after a while, and I wasn't getting the big bonuses that my friends were getting at investment banks. I looked at my student-loan balance and realized if I stayed at that job, it would take me 10 years to get out of debt. I didn't want to live my life like that." So, after a year, he quit and got a job at an investment bank in Manhattan. He progressed quickly, rising from analyst to associate in just three years.

Though Branden reached a true milestone in his career (and was making a healthy six-figure salary), he felt unfulfilled. "I worked a lot of hours, ate a lot of dinners at my desk, and was paid very well for someone just out of college. They gave me a lot of responsibility, and I got promoted pretty quickly. I was traveling around the country, going to client meetings, and managing all the numbers for the deals we were working on. The experience forced me to grow up a lot." The challenges and opportunities Branden faced were satisfying, but ultimately didn't allow him the social, mental, and creative fulfillment he craved. "I was working all the time. When I first joined, my group was small, and I didn't have many peers - we lacked the camaraderie among junior guys that I think other banks have. I struggled with that. After a while I got tired, and eventually I got burned out. Although my job was challenging and sought-after, I didn't love it.

"After a while, I hated that I was spending so much time doing something that I wasn't in love with. I looked at others who had worked in the business for many years, and I felt like I didn't want to be like them." But, as with any career change, it's not so simple as quitting and moving on. And, for Branden, the decision not only involved leaving a career he had worked so hard for, but abandoning serious financial security. "I had no clue what I would do instead. I had invested a lot of time there, had gotten promoted, I was making good money. Did I really want to leave that behind? Everyone told me to go to business school, but that didn't appeal to me. Neither did industry jobs, which seemed less stimulating and paid less. The question of what to do next ate away at me for a long time. I obsessed over it, and it paralyzed me for a while. I started seeing a therapist to cope with the stress."

When thinking about what to do next, Branden thought about what he liked in college. "I did better in my liberal-arts classes. I didn't switch [majors] because the business program offered the best chance to get a good job after graduation. At the time, I saw it as choice between a career that paid well and one that didn't. I chose money." Now, he felt it was time to choose something else. "I wanted to get out of New York. Really, I felt like I had nothing to lose. I thought about traveling for a year, but I dismissed it because of the cost, and because I think I'd get bored after a couple months. For some reason, I got inspired to teach English. It seemed like it would be rewarding, and completely different from what I was doing." And, that's just what he did.

Branden left New York after giving his notice in June 2013. Now, he's teaching English in Santiago, Chile at a local institute for business professionals. In his spare time, he's taking Spanish classes and enjoying the alternative side of life that Chile offers him. "I'm learning about a new culture, traveling to new places, meeting interesting people, and making new friends. My Spanish has improved dramatically in just a few months. I have free time to pursue my other passions." Namely, Branden's begun writing. "It's a great opportunity to try new things, to figure out what I like and don't like, and to kind of think about the course of my life."

Working up the courage to leave such a high-paying job wasn't easy. "It was one of the toughest things I've ever had to do. I remember giving my notice on a Friday in June, waiting until after lunch because I was so nervous. I remember the look on my boss's face when I told her the news that I was moving to Chile, to teach English." But, much to his surprise, he found his colleagues were supportive - even envious, in some cases. So, how is he faring in Chile? "I won't lie, I miss the money. Teaching English doesn't pay well in South America, and Santiago is expensive. I make enough to get by, but often I'm digging into savings. That being said, I feel great. I think I always knew I wanted to do something like this."

You can follow Branden's experience in Chile by reading his blog.

. Helene, 51, Lawyer turned Baker

For Helene, a legal career seemed like a no-brainer. After all, it practically ran in her blood: "I come from a family of lawyers. My father was much more commercial, my grandfather in city government, but that said, I loved learning the skills required of a lawyer. I loved research and I loved writing, so when I was in college I took every pre-law class I could. I was totally set on what I wanted to do" And, Helene found her career as an intellectual-property and media lawyer quite fulfilling. "For 20 plus years, I really loved it." Her milestones include working with The Cosby Show and the major deal selling Audible.com to Amazon. When it came to legal practice, Helene had nailed it.

Once she'd reached the pinnacle of her career, Helene began to evaluate how she felt. "The turning point wasn't thinking about how I liked it, but questioning whether I wanted to do it forever." And, she wasn't sure what to do. "I didn't have any backup plan, but if I waited to come up with something, I knew I wouldn't have the courage to quit." Finally, she reached a point where she simply couldn't continue her work as a lawyer. "One day, I said I'm done - I've done what I needed to do. It wasn't my goal anymore." So, she decided to pursue what she considered to be the "wacky idea" of opening her own bakery.

It all sounded very exciting, except for one little problem: At the age of 51, Helene had absolutely no baking experience. What she lacked in a baking foundation, though, she made up for in ambition. At first, there was many a burnt cupcake, according to Helene. But, eventually she found her way.

Not only did Helene go from a $175K salary to "managing a business on a shoestring," but she decided to build her business outside of Manhattan in what she describes as a "sleepy and lovely" town. Helene set up shop (quite literally) in Hastings-on-Hudson, NY, where she had been living for 25 years. Some said it was bold for her to open a business outside of the city, but Helene found a deeper value in her decision: "I spent so much time commuting, I wanted to see what it was like to really be a part of my community."

Now, burnt goodies are a thing of the past. Helene has had so much success, in fact, that she's opened up a second location, though this time, she opted for a spot on Manhattan's Upper West Side. "Who knows if there will be a third act, but as a second act, the bakery was the right choice for me."

.Scott, 26, Equities Analyst turned Education Programs Producer

Scott was 21 when he got a job offer from one of the world's leading financial services companies. In the midst of the economic downturn, he was solid. He was going to turn his summer as an equities intern into a real-live job as an equities analyst. Once the initial rush of joining the work force wore off, however, the excitement turned to subtle frustration. "My responsibilities were challenging and I was fortunate to be part of an extremely intelligent team. While I was initially stimulated by the amount I was learning (with respect to general 'professional skills' as well as specific knowledge about the equity markets, portfolio management, etc.), my interest and excitement plateaued after my second year. I was no longer inspired by the work I was doing. I began to feel stifled (and worse, anxious about my overall career path), and knew I needed to pursue a job in an environment/on a team that cultivated a more diverse range of ideas and perspectives, where my contribution would be more significant and personally fulfilling." However, he was unsure of exactly what to do next.

After three years of working as an equities analyst, Scott felt out of touch with his true career goals. " My first thought was graduate school. But, at the time I didn't have enough conviction in a particular subject to devote years (and a lot of money) to a specific grad program. Then I stumbled across General Assembly, a start-up that offer education and opportunities in technology, design, and business," he recalls. And, that's when something struck a chord. "As a psychology major, I had always had an interest in education, and when I visited GA for the first time for an informational meeting, I was hooked - the community was so vibrant and the team so passionate, I knew this was the exact atmosphere I was craving professionally. So, I left [my former company] to join the start-up world."

The rest, as they say, is history. Scott joined the General Assembly team of around 40 employees as the Education Programs Producer. He was responsible for project managing long-form tech and design courses. Scott noticed the difference in the company culture immediately: "Employees contributed much more (given the start-up/small-biz nature of the company): setting up for events, attending meet-ups to build community, traveling to new markets. The community was inspiring, with everyone working as a team in battle toward a goal we all believed in: helping people like myself access education and community that will help them transition their careers to do something they love. I loved my job."

Of course, there was a sacrifice in the form of the all-mighty paycheck. "While I knew that leaving the finance world to enter the education-technology space would result in a significant pay cut, I felt the upside of working at GA was worth the salary change - especially at 24." Still, he took valuable lessons from his previous experience, "Working for a larger corporation afforded me the important (and frankly necessary) professional skills that I don't think I would've learned as easily or efficiently had I entered the start-up world immediately after college." And now? "Over a year and a half later, I couldn't be happier with the decision I made. I am now the Regional Director of GA NYC, and it has been an incredible experience to help build a company from the ground up."

. Julia*, 28, Department-Store Buyer turned Health-Store Buyer

For the fashion minded, working as a buyer for a major department store can feel like something of a dream job - especially if you're looking to combine the practicality of a business career. So, you can imagine how Julia felt when she found herself working in that very job. "It was a good balance between the analytical side of business [and the creative.] When you do buying, it's sort of an art and not all numbers, so I liked that part." Even if Julia didn't love her job, 2007 wasn't a time to be picky. "I was very lucky and grateful to have a job."

After three years, though, Julia began to feel differently. "It was one of those jobs that wasn't very high pressure when you first start, but after a little while (and especially at a big company), you have to have a certain personality, and it does become pressure. I got to a point when it just wasn't worth my while to get stressed out about convincing a mom to buy two more T-shirts for her son, or someone to buy one more piece of jewelry. In the grand scheme of things, it wasn't important to me anymore."

Julia doesn't chalk up her change of heart to a philosophical awakening, however. She had taken a job straight out of college, partially because she had felt so lucky to get one in the first place. "The college-graduate you isn't the same as the five-years-later, work-experience you. You're more of an adult, and your values change - what's important changes. I think that was the main reason why I felt like my work wasn't fulfilling me anymore. I had a lot more responsibility.... If you're not passionate about it, you're wasting your time and a lot of other people's time." Plus, the 60-hour work weeks weren't easy, and Julia began to feel the job was taking a physical toll on her.

Once she decided to quit, she didn't look for a new opportunity immediately. Instead, she decided to take nine months off. "I took a break...to do what I wanted to do, or do nothing and travel. I was fortunate enough that my decision didn't really affect anyone but myself" and Julia had enough of a financial buffer, so she had time to figure things out. She realized that she didn't necessarily want to ignore the talents she'd honed in her previous role. "I ended up realizing that I have certain skills and passions for a reason. Maybe I don't have to do something totally different, maybe just for another company, maybe for another industry. So, what I do now is still buying, but in a health-food store. It's a little bit more in line with what I think is important. The way I see it, what I buy affects people in a more meaningful way. I'm investing in their health. It's more of a relationship with my customers versus before when I was behind a desk, and it was jewelry or clothing. I feel like I'm doing something to actually help improve our customers' health."

Though it took Julia several years to understand the right industry for her, she values the time she spent in the world of retail. "I went to college for business, and from there the path to getting a good, high-paying job was working for a Fortune 500 company. If I were to do anything differently, I probably would have never landed at my first job."

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