8 steps to a six figure career

I have a job making well over six figures. I am not bragging but I’m not going to be overly humble about it, either, because I put my blood and tears into getting there. I spent 6 years in college obtaining two degrees (and starting a PhD). I spent most of my twenties working like a maniac in the professional accounting sweatshop industry, also known as the Big 4.

I was horrifically underpaid on an hourly basis – I was working 80 hour weeks when I was making $35,000 per year. I roughly estimate my earnings at the time to have been about $12 per hour. That’s not shabby – it’s probably a working wage in many parts of America – but it’s not exactly what you’d hope for if you have an advanced degree in accounting.

There was a payoff, though. The payoff came in three parts. One: I laid the foundation in my first 10 years for my current position. I view it as retirement in small. I worked hard and was “frugal” with my wage to earn a better “retirement” post-Big 4. I only have the “senior expert consulting” tag now because of the effort I put out for the previous 14 years.

Two, I got to see the world on my companies’ tabs. I traveled from 1996 to 2004 to every single corner of the globe. Some employers flew me coach, some business – I stayed in fleabag hotels in third-world countries but I also stayed in opulent palatial hotels and even in country estates and former palaces. I had to work like a maniac (meeting at 9 am in Frankfurt! meeting at 3 pm in Paris! report due by 2 am European time that night!) but I also got to sip martinis at the nicest lounges on four continents without spending any of my own money.

Three, I learned what the real secrets are to success as a corporate cog. Again, no pride in saying this, just observing what floated and what sank as I slowly, slowly floated. So from that, here are my eight tips to set yourself on the road to a six figure career.

  1. Pick a good college major. Don’t major in English, or history, or poli sci. I’m sorry. It’s true. I love history. My dream major was either linguistics or Russian history, specifically early Soviet history (1917-1939). They still are my dream majors, for that matter. I got a major in mathematics, though. I wasn’t great at it, but I wasn’t bad, either. To this day, though, I get goggle-eyed looks from my finance colleagues when I say I don’t have an accounting degree – I have a degree in MATH! Just like that guy from A Beautiful Mind! I even studied exotica like chaos theory. No matter that I couldn’t explain any of it now – people are still impressed, which leads me to…
  2. Don’t get a job using your major. If you are accounting major #76 out of 100 in your new joiners class, you won’t stand out. If you are the only math major, you’ll stand out. Standing out early in your career is critical – if you don’t start to stand out until your 4th or 5th year, it’s too late (although keep point #8 in mind, too)!
  3. Get a graduate degree or certification. I got a master’s degree, but I just as easily could have gotten a CPA (Certified Public Accountant) or CFA or CFP or CMA, etc. etc. Again, you need something to distinguish yourself from the Bachelor’s crowd – I think my master’s has opened a lot of doors that would otherwise have remained closed. I can’t emphasize this point enough. I know there are people out there who became officers with only a high school education, or a mail-order college degree. You may even find that with the rise in online colleges, more and more people will get degrees online while they work. There are plenty of options for an online business degree as well. But at the end of the day, if you want to get into a six-figure career, it’s going to be significantly easier if you have a master’s or an MBA or a law degree or a certification of some sort.
  4. Take a ‘weird’ job. Early in my career (after about 2 years working) I volunteered to go work in Germany – but there were no openings in my company. I then proceeded to volunteer for a number of other assignments – odd ones around the US, in Europe, strange assignments like doing inspections of grain silos (yes, some clients are willing to pay accountants to verify how full silos are). All of my activity got me noticed, and I found myself winging off to Moscow with less than 3 full years’ work experience under my belt. To this day, it’s the first thing that anyone wants to talk about when they see my resume. Always. People are always full of questions, and I can throw out anecdotes that give me the appearance of being a confident self-starter because of my fearless decision. That one experience probably increased my lifetime earnings significantly, despite being (from my point of view) almost meaningless work-wise.
  5. Move to a big city early in your career. The simple fact is that in the 4 years I moved from a small town in the south to Connecticut to New York my salary increased by 200%. It was simply a cost of living adjustment, but that impressive salary growth creates an expectation in your employers. Big cities have more competition, higher costs of living and “fancier” jobs at corporate headquarters. These jobs may not be better but they usually do pay better.
  6. Shift jobs frequently – but not too frequently. The simple fact is that you’ll hit dead ends all the time. Sometimes they will be external (stuck working for a boss who won’t let you transfer to other departments for new opportunities) and sometimes they will be internal (you just can’t summon any enthusiasm for your current work). Use these as red flags to jump ship! You can get a reenergizing boost to your career, usually for at least a small increase in salary, by taking your expertise to another company that needs it. This also relates to #5 – it’s a lot easier to job hop in New York (hundreds of multinational corporations) than it is in Kansas City (a few). I’m not saying it’s impossible in Kansas City, but the circle of people in your profession will be smaller and eventually you’ll run out of options if you aren’t careful.
  7. Learn to sell yourself. This is an incredibly difficult thing for some people, and it’s hard to understand why. I’ll give you a quick way to get over it. Imagine something you really like: your favorite band, your favorite movie, even the bar around the corner that makes the best martini. Imagine that you’re trying to convince someone who’s indifferent to try listening to that band, or watch that movie, or try that martini. How do you do it? Can you imagine that enthusiasm in your voice, the excitement that you feel? Now take that enthusiasm and sell your favorite person: yourself! Make sure that you aren’t embarrassed to point out your strengths, or even to tell people how you are fixing your weaknesses.
  8. Learn to fly below the radar but do a good job. This advice flies in the face of a lot of career advice. I can state that at the middle management level, going down to staff, one thing and one thing only is valued – serving your master. Your master is your boss. Make your boss look good. If you make yourself look good, by extension you make your boss look bad, because you are stealing his thunder. Learn to perform solidly but quietly. Don’t dash into the CEO’s office with your hot product development idea. This may be the way to earn the CEO’s momentary interest but it will gain you a career-long dislike from your boss. If you want to have cheerleaders in your corner, stay on the sidelines. Have enthusiasm, cheer as loudly as possible, but don’t run out on the field and snatch the ball from the quarterback, your boss.

Think you can’t do it? You can! I have seen incredibly smart, personable, motivated people fail and dull, bitter people succeed. The biggest factor past the 8 steps above has always been a fervent, desperate desire to cling to the corporate bosom and keep getting that paycheck. It is amazing how quickly good people can fail when they realize they would do better following the white rabbit, and how strongly bad people will fight and scratch their way up the ladder to maintain their debt-ridden, consumer-driven lifestyle. I scratched and clawed for years to stay on the corporate treadmill, but finally realized I needed to step off. People constantly ask me what happened as if I’ve failed, but their opinion is unimportant. I took the first step to FREEDOM when I realized a six-figure salary isn’t important if it costs you your life.

 

87 comments

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  • Don’t be hating on us with linguistics degrees. It just helps to add a computer science degree on top of it. 😀

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  • Very interesting post (the # of comments are proof!) and I really appreciate the insight from a 6-figure perspective. Congrats…your hard work has indeed paid off and I’m glad to see you’re reaping the fruits of your labour. 😉

    I’d love to be in the 6 figure club myself but I’m settling for being close (maybe in a couple years) and never having worked more than 40 hrs a week since I graduated from engineering 8 years ago. I think that might be why I’m still in the high 5’s. 🙂

    I think you’re right though, had I put in more effort, moved companies at least once, etc., I’d likley be earning a lot more but I’ve taken the lazy route so I really can’t complain.

    Keep enjoying your ‘new’ career!

  • Horrible,
    My major is History and it took me 1 year (not 14) to earn 100k, have health insurance and travel on the company’s money. The people who have to slave for 14 years to make this money are the ones who don’t take risks and get a safe corporate job. Never settle like this guy.

  • Rich – feel free to share your story, it sounds impressive. I’m sure there are always exceptions to the rule. Many people would be interested to know how you turned a history degree into 100k, so feel free to share the secret. I wouldn’t say I’ve settled – I was making six figures after 6 years, not 1, so you have me beat there, but in general it turned out pretty well for me.

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  • This is very good career advice, and I enjoyed matching up what’s in your list to what I’ve been able to do in my own career. I moved frequently once my stay had been long enough, and it has always ended up being a positive (and profitable) move. I also went back to get an advanced degree and certifications and they opened up a lot of doors for me.

    But out of all of them I think the ability to sell yourself is the most important. I never started to achieve any of the success I have in my career until I learned how to present myself in a desirable way to potential employers.

  • What is the big deal about six figures any more? I graduated college 5 years ago and I’d say about 70% of my college friends as well as myself were making six figures our first year out of school. The other 30% probably started making 6 figures by the next year or they are in jobs that they aren’t really doing for money (like something in the arts or public service). This is in NY. But seriously, I’m pretty sure that even our receptionist makes over $100K. Its not a lot of money at all. The new “six figure income” is $500K, and the new “million dollar net worth” is now $5 million.

  • I totally agree with your points. I disagree about number 2 though. I have tried this and I did stand out.. I was informed that because I didn’t have the required major I was not eligible even for an interview.
    But you could still stand out in an interview. If you did something out of the ordinary. However the most important thing to do is establish a good relationship with the interviewer from the start. Find a common ground and you will most likely succeed.. And last but not least – networking is important. Build a list of contacts and try to make them help you in your job search.

  • Umm….you don’t make “well over” 6 figures unless you make millions or billions or trillions, etc. a year. (7 figures equals 1 million.)

  • I would add another step to the list: don’t get depressed.
    I was depressed, anxious, and/or suicidal throughout college and could barely hold myself together enough to graduate with a worthless English degree just go get a piece of paper. Luckily I can survive on a low income because I am never planning on getting married or having children. I am surprised the suicide rate is not higher.

  • Although success is not a guarantee, it is useful to have a plan of action to help you achieve your career goals.

  • I found your site on technorati and read a few of your other posts. Keep up the good work. I just added your RSS feed to my Google News Reader. Looking forward to reading more from you down the road!

  • Hi!
    I am a high school sophomore in ga
    Gifted certified taking ap classes and excell in math and language arts
    I am also a socialite ans love people
    My goal is to make 6 figures within 5 years of graduating college.
    What do you think is a good field of work to be in to accomplish those goals without a thousand years of college?

    • I think accounting doesn't require an excessive amount of education, mcbabyx11. I'd probably recommend accounting or finance. Other professions that would have a high likelihood of paying off well, but would require more education would be pharmacy, medicine, law, engineering. But remember that it's probably going to be more about other choices than about your major. If you get an accounting degree with a 2.0 average and stay in a small town, your earning will be less than a 4.0 in a big city, for example.

    • Okay thanks. So basically the money is in the big cities. I also found human resource management to pay well when I researched it but I still don't know. Thanks so much for your advice

  • Hmm well what i found out is that it appears to be not what you know so much as who you know. While yes you still need a bachelors degree in finance, acounting or business its the connections you make. Which is why a masters is beneficial because of the people you meet, thats why you have to choose a school with a well respected reputation and large alumini program.

    • I think your advice sounds solid for someone who wishes to be in a corporate type job, however there are plenty of jobs that are capable of six figures that may fall into someones dream job. My wife is a great example of that. She is a registered nurse, with 3 years on the job. She will finish this year over 90k a year. Granted that is with overtime but that is also only a two year degree. She is going back to school now for her bachelors and masters, which when she is done will bring over 100k with no overtime. As I said now she is making her money with overtime, but only 48-56 hours a week, and with their schedule that is only 4-5 days a week. I guess everyone has different ways to achieve that goal….

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  • Glasgow Dental Implants

    Getting six figure is really a great achievement. But needs really hard work for it.

  • Making 6 figure Income sounds good..but achieving that requires a lot of discipline and patience. Nice post.

    Regards,
    Abhishek

  • Really a Great Post…

  • ericwentworth

    This is some of the best common-sense advice I've read on this subject. It's easy to see why you have been successful yourself.

    Most people “drift” into their life. They choose a career just to make money or because their dad did well in the same profession or because someone offered them a job.

    They marry for sex or companionship or because of an unplanned pregnancy. They date few people (the average is just 12 “serious” dates before marriage out of millions of prospects).
    They have kids because (oops!) their wife or girlfriend “happened” to get pregnant.

    They live where they were born or where a job took them—not in a place that is in tune with their personality or future plans.

    It's no wonder that 47% of workers hate their job or that half of marriages end in divorce.

    Through ignorance, laziness, inertia, or lack of planning most lives are directionless—and not fully realized.

    Love your posts!

    • @ericwentworth: Thanks so much! Those are some great points, and I guess the common thread throughout them is that people let events happen to them, rather than making events happen FOR them. I wouldn't say I'm perfect – certainly I've let events steer me more often than I'd like – but I certainly think I have done my best to take control of the events I can control, and that feeling of being in control makes me (and everyone, I think) happier.

    • ericwentworth

      Hi Steve,

      Well, I also believe that a part of life planning is responding and taking
      action on the serendipidous chance occurences in life if they present
      opportunity. Despite all the goals and plans we make, sometimes pure luck
      can grab you and push you in a new direction.

      I recall speaking with a woman who made millions simply by taking a
      “temporary” job with a new company called Microsoft. Her original plan in
      life was to become a veterinarian. But the wealth she came by through luck
      enabled her to eventually found several philanthropic
      organizations—incluiding a pet rescue non-profit.

      Iti is an interesting subject of discussion.

      Best regards,

      Eric

    • ericwentworth

      Hi Steve,

      Well, I also believe that a part of life planning is responding and taking
      action on the serendipidous chance occurences in life if they present
      opportunity. Despite all the goals and plans we make, sometimes pure luck
      can grab you and push you in a new direction.

      I recall speaking with a woman who made millions simply by taking a
      “temporary” job with a new company called Microsoft. Her original plan in
      life was to become a veterinarian. But the wealth she came by through luck
      enabled her to eventually found several philanthropic
      organizations—incluiding a pet rescue non-profit.

      Iti is an interesting subject of discussion.

      Best regards,

      Eric

  • 1CosmeticDentist1

    Hi. This information proved to be very useful. Can you please provide more aspects of this subject? Thanks.