Why I gave up my job at a bank

What my job does for me in terms of personal growth is more important than what it can pay

About two years ago, I quit my well-paying job in a bank to become a journalist.

I can still clearly remember the first question that a senior editor at this paper posed at my job interview: "Why quit banking when it pays you a high salary?"

It was a relevant question because journalists often take the opposite route - giving up their passion for reporting to pursue a "regular job", a better salary, and a chance to climb the corporate ladder.

Young & Savvy

Well, simply put, I told the interviewer, I wasn't happy with the person I was becoming in that former life.

To put it another way, the banking job wasn't developing in me the skills that I saw as far more important than making money - though looking back, I still picked up lots of useful skills in that job.

And of course, journalism is not for everyone, while banking is a great choice for many. Horses for courses.

When I meet people in the course of reporting today, I still get the occasional raised eyebrow when they ask what I did for a living previously.

Unlike these doubters, I guess the interviewer believed me, since I am writing this column. And my answer remains the same today.

For all the Hollywood movies showing the unethical side of the financial industry, working there was exciting for a young person brimming with optimism, eager to make her mark in the world.

In a strange way, the impossible demands sometimes foisted upon us young associates felt empowering - it was as if someone truly believed you were capable of anything. (Silly, I know.)

It is also no secret that banks will sweeten the deal - as they typically do - by compensating young graduates fairly handsomely. I recall clearly that almost all my colleagues then could afford various luxuries such as a car or brand-name bag.

While it's a matter of personal judgment whether these are worthy pursuits, I will also not pretend that I didn't enjoy the creature comforts that came with that well-paid job. But it quickly became apparent that I was losing touch with some of the larger issues that mattered to society.

It didn't seem to matter then if investors were snapping up too many properties and were overexposing themselves to debt, because, hey, I was just "this close" to meeting my targets.

This felt insular, and that in turn was a barrier to any potential I had to develop into a "bigger" - and perhaps even more sophisticated - person.

To undergraduates deciding on which career path to take, the first step into the real world will seem the trickiest decision yet.

"For many young graduates, the focus when they leave school tends to be on what their potential employers can offer them in terms of salary and remuneration, as well as career and development opportunities," said Mr Michael Smith, country director at recruitment agency Randstad Singapore. And there is no doubt that earnings are important in a society where costs only seem to go up.

But I have learnt that what your job does for you in terms of personal development can be more important than what it can pay.

I have seen friends who have become so used to their earning power that they find it hard to start on a new path, even if it will be more rewarding in a less tangible sense.

For those seeking to start out in a new career, or switch careers, it is crucial to recognise that there will not be an immediate payout.

Consider instead how a job's demands will develop your skills to help you become a well-rounded, informed and smarter human being. I firmly believe that financial success will tend to follow fairly easily after that.

The long hours and the pressure of deadlines in a newsroom are not unlike my experience in the bank, but somehow they are bearable, and even worth it, here.

I often tell friends who ask why I love journalism that my job, really, is to learn. And no other career in the world grants the access and liberty to tap the brains of the movers and shakers of a given industry or other sphere of society, whether through interviews or just meeting people.

A friend, who is a keen watcher of the property market, once said: "You know, I would do your job for free because it lets me ask developers so many burning questions."

He was probably half-joking, but his point was clear: that the insights gained from the exposure afforded by this career, as well as the chance to delve deep, are invaluable.

Being a reporter is likely to be less glamorous than being a banker.

But a Forbes article that quoted Ms Amy Adams, director of the Seaver College Career Centre at Pepperdine University, summed it up simply for me: "There may be value in taking a job at a lower level with a prestigious company to get your foot in the door."

Being part of two vastly different industries has also taught me that the type of colleagues that come with a given position is as important as the pay package.

Ms Adams noted that a young graduate will be spending more time with his co-workers than with most of his friends or family members, especially at the start of his career.

Naturally, a young person is also likely to learn more from his colleagues than from simply doing the job.

Being in a newsroom with veteran journalists covering a myriad of beats, I find this to be true. I don't think I'd have picked up as much about the financial markets if not for various conversations with my colleagues here.

I've even gained a new appreciation for the beauty of sportsmanship, given that my seat in the office is right alongside the Sports Desk.

If nothing else, my career switch has taught me this: the person you become in a job should always feel meaningful, rather than important.

Having said that, I also believe that undergraduates shouldn't be afraid to make mistakes. It may seem a huge leap into the working world, but it really is just one of a few career moves that a young person might eventually make.

My grouses might imply otherwise, but I certainly don't regret my time at the bank. In fact, that experience has helped me settle into my role as a journalist on the Money Desk, and the contacts I made then still come in useful today.

Nothing really has to go to waste, and with that, I guess the most important lesson is to enjoy learning each step of the way. Besides, at age 26, I have youth and time on my side - for now.

ocheryl@sph.com.sg