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. 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.