Career strategies of high earners

I mentioned in my last post that I read Barbara Stanny's “Secrets of Six-Figure Women.” Stanny interviewed 150 women who earn more than $100,000 annually and sought to find what traits, experiences and motivators they shared in common.

Unlike most books, this one didn't take me three months to finish. It's a fast read, and I think that has a lot to do with how relatable it is. I'm not saying I fit the bill for every six-figure trait Stanny has outlined; but you can't help but compare yourself to the high-earning women she's interviewed.

Although the book is meant to empower women, I think much of Stanny's research is every bit as helpful to men. Here are the strategies and milestones of high earners Stanny outlines in the book. Some of them hit home; others I questioned. Tell me what you think.

Declaring your intention

Stanny says all the high-earners she interviewed got their start by declaring an intention to profit.

“Each women would describe that point in her life when she says to herself, ‘It's time to make some money.'… When you recognize the power of the profit motive, you take your first major step toward financial success.”

Six-figures or not, I think most of us can relate to this one. At an early age, I decided I would grow up to earn a healthy living. There was so much we couldn't afford when I was kid; I wanted to be comfortable enough to afford those things as an adult. Whether it's getting rich, earning more or simply getting out of debt, I think most of us have experienced this milestone. For high earners, this is just the beginning.

Letting go

Stanny uses the metaphor of hanging on the edge of a cliff. If you could just let go, you'll experience all kinds of high-earning opportunities, but most of us are too terrified to stop clinging. It's simple: “You must let go of where you are to get to where you want to go.”

Sometimes the cliff is a low-paying but stable job. Sometimes it's an unhealthy relationship — the cliff is whatever keeps you from taking the plunge into success.

“How do you know when you've been holding on too long to a ledge? There's one irrefutable clue. Whenever you feel stuck, it's time to let go.”

In my decision to pursue a different career, “letting go” was the most difficult part. I had good friends, a decent-paying job, and I lived near my family. It was a great life, but I felt stuck. Letting go was tough, but it was worthwhile.

“Every successful woman I interviewed, when she finally let go (hard as it was), cited that single act as the springboard to higher earnings and happier times.”

As much as I can relate to this strategy, I also find it to be the scariest. Is it always a good idea to let go? Should anyone let go? What if you have children to think about? One part of Stanny's advice made me feel a bit less apprehensive:

“Take your time. Who says you have to rush into anything? Sometimes it's better to gradually let go of a ledge than to take a flying leap. That's often what most of the women I talked to did. Instead of going cold turkey, they released their grip little bits at a time.”

‘Get in the game'

Get in the game, just do it, power through — however you want to say it, I think this is the most important strategy on the path to earning more: the work. Stanny rounds up a few rules for trucking through the heart of the journey:

Decide which game to play

She echoes the words of motivational speaker Larry Wilson, who told her there are two games in life. “The one most of us are playing, called Not to Lose, is an avoidance game. We're so afraid of taking risks, looking bad, that we never really win.” The other game, Wilson says, is “To Win.” People who play To Win are willing to take risks and, yes, even expect some losses along the way. But people who play Not to Lose are more concerned with comfort and convenience.

“The desire to avoid fear … is what keeps most of us in the Not to Lose game — and in low-paying jobs.” Stanny writes.

Jump in

Even if you don't know where to start, it's important to just get started, she says.

“You don't need all the pieces in place or your route all mapped out … jumping in cold can be very scary … it's especially disconcerting at the very beginning, when you're not quite sure what you're doing … Unfortunately, a lot of people bail out before they realize how close they are to taking the prize.”

Keep on truckin', Stanny says, once you jump in.

I can't help but think of a personal example in which this advice is a little cringe-worthy. As a kid, my friend's parents opened their own business. It was killing them financially. After some time, the father wanted to back out, but the mother insisted they keep on trucking. Long story short, it set them back for quite a few years, until, eventually, they surrendered. Should they have kept going?

I hate to seem cynical and counter this empowering advice. But what do you think? When does “keep on truckin” become “feeling stuck”?

Grab opportunities

If you start the game To Win by jumping in and play it by persevering, you succeed at it by grabbing opportunity, says Stanny.

“I can't tell you how many of these women's success stories started out with a lucky break. The truth is, everyone's life is full of happenstance. The ‘lucky' ones realize that in every synchronicity lies potential opportunity and are quick to capitalize chance occurrences.”

Recently, I was talking to my mom about this. She noted that, when you make a financial decision — to start saving, for example — these “chance occurrences” are usually things that are always there. You just see them more clearly because you're focused.

A couple of other rules Stanny mentions: avoid excuses and ignore naysayers.

  • “Some of the women I interviewed had valid explanations for why they couldn't succeed … the true test of a six-figure woman is her refusal to buy into these pretexts.”
  • “[Naysayers] actually perform a valuable service. They come to test our level of commitment … if you're determined to succeed in spite of these killjoys, then you most certainly will.”

Thick skin is another rule. The author points out that high earners never personalize criticism. Anyone who writes for the Internet can certainly relate to that one.

Negotiate and speak up

Admittedly, this is the strategy I find most difficult. I've often bragged that I've never had to ask for a raise, but looking back, this isn't much to brag about.

“I heard this same rueful observation from virtually all the women who were slow to hit the six-figure mark. Call it the Lament of the Latecomers. Their greatest regret was their reluctance to speak up.”

I can recall one instance that should've taught me the importance of speaking up. I once worked in retail. My coworker bragged that she got a raise. I didn't, even though we'd started at the same time and both worked hard. This was the only time in my life that I've ever asked for a raise (sorry, I lied), and here's how my boss responded:

“Ridiculous. This is why I tell you not to discuss your pay. I've already given you a raise. I just didn't tell you about it.”

I kicked my sixteen-year-old self for speaking up.

However, I later discovered that she hadn't already given me the raise; paperwork proved otherwise. Maybe she planned on it, maybe, but she certainly hadn't done anything to initiate it. My coworker was earning more for a full month before my raise was processed. “If you wouldn't have asked, she would not have given it to you,” my Dad insisted. He's always encouraged me to speak up, and this should have taught me that lesson. Unfortunately, it's still something I'm working on.

All of the advice Stanny has in her book is powerful and inspiring. I can even vouch for the strategies I've had experience with.

But I can also understand how some of this advice might seem too risky. In describing some of it to my boyfriend and mother, they instinctively pulled back their teeth.

I can imagine some instances in which people “jumped in” and “let go,” and it didn't work out so well for them. I can't help but wonder, if she had interviewed people who “lost it all,” how many traits they would share with the high earners?

Again, I'm definitely not discouraging — merely questioning. While I'm not quite a six-figure earner, I think I've done pretty well for myself by utilizing some of these strategies. But I can see someone looking at them with a more skeptical eye.

So what do you think? Is “let go” and “jump in” necessary for women (or men) who want to earn more? Or can this backfire? Do you have experience with any of these strategies — if so, was it a negative or positive experience?

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Bryan
Bryan
7 years ago

I think that there are a lot of good things discussed in this book with respect to career development. You have to be willing to take the chance at something new or different when an opportunity arises, even if you don’t know the eventual outcome of it. I “got lucky” with my career, taking a 6 month assignment in South Korea right after I started a new job. This is without ever having lived outside of my state, much less the USA. It was a big leap of faith, but it ended up being one of the best financial moves… Read more »

Phoebe@allyouneedisenough
7 years ago

I’m a “high earner” and a woman, and these are really great tips. I wasn’t as intentional as this book recommends when it came to my career, but these steps ring true to me. I did have to step away from the ledge and apply for management positions even though I had no previous experience and was much younger than my peers. I had to finally (after 6 years) negotiate my salary when my work was proven and I was still making significantly less than those around me. While I came to these things organically, it would have been nice… Read more »

My Financial Independence Journey
My Financial Independence Journey
7 years ago

I’m not a woman, but I do earn a six figure income. My tips would go like this: – Get an education that will open the door to a six figure career. This means that school will be more about work and less about “the best four years of your life.” Suck it up. – Know that you will probably have to move for the job. This likely means moving away from your friends and family. This isn’t fun (trust me on this) but it’s necessary. – Work hard in school and in every job so that you build strong… Read more »

nicoleandmaggie
nicoleandmaggie
7 years ago

I think you can pick 2, at least if you’re smart, organized, hard-working, and lucky. 🙂 (For me it is career and family.)

Ramblin' Ma'am
Ramblin' Ma'am
7 years ago

“Know that you will probably have to move for the job. This likely means moving away from your friends and family. This isn’t fun (trust me on this) but it’s necessary.”

In that case, I will skip the six-figure income.

cathleen
cathleen
7 years ago
Reply to  Ramblin' Ma'am

Well this certainly depends on where you live.
I grew up in the Bay Area and we have the highest salaries in the country, so we didn’t have to move to make 6 figures.

But then 6 figures here buys less than the same $ elsewhere.

Ramblin' Ma'am
Ramblin' Ma'am
7 years ago
Reply to  cathleen

True. I live in Boston, so there definitely are six figure jobs here.

But in my field, you don’t make that unless you’re a department head, and there are only so many openings. Right now, my whole family is within a few hundred miles of me, and many are less than an hour away. I wouldn’t move farther for another job.

Holly
Holly
7 years ago

I whole heartedly agree, I can do one well and, if organized, can manage to half-ass my way through my other priority. Every day my priority (family vs work) varies based upon the emergencies facing me.

The En Jolie ad lied… if you bring home the bacon and fry it in the pan, you are going to be too tired for the sexy nightgown.

nicoleandmaggie
nicoleandmaggie
7 years ago

100K is a lot, but it isn’t that much these days. I dunno, if I did these strategies I could probably increase my income by quite a bit, but one can earn 100K without doing them with luck and skills.

Still, I don’t currently feel like doing the things I would need to do to increase my salary… 100K is a lot to live on, even if it isn’t necessarily a lot from an employer’s perspective (given certain employee skill-sets). I don’t particularly want to go on the job market right now. Maybe some day.

Marsha
Marsha
7 years ago

When you’re making a lot less than 100K, it sounds like a lot of money. When you cross that 6-digit threshold, you realize it’s not nearly as much as you imagined it would be. You pay a lot more in taxes, your kids are a lot less likely to get need-based grants or scholarships, and (depending on your profession) there may be a need to appear more affluent.

Johanna
Johanna
7 years ago

Question for those who have experienced this: How did you find out if you’re being paid less, more, or the same as those around you? If you were being paid less and wanted to broach the topic with your boss, how exactly did you say it?

In my case, I can’t really look at industry averages because my “industry” is so small – there are very few employers who hire people to do what I do.

jim
jim
7 years ago
Reply to  Johanna

johanna,
my wife has been making over 6 figures for years. i asked her how she did that in a male-dominated field. she looked at me increduously and said, “i never really thought about my salary. i just busted my ass and was the best the company had”. just a thought. she NEVER asked for a raise – they just kept coming ’cause she worked harder and was better than all of her peers.

Johanna
Johanna
7 years ago
Reply to  jim

Er…thanks, jim, but that’s not the question I asked.

SavvyFinancialLatina
SavvyFinancialLatina
7 years ago

These are great tips. Remember to negotiate your starting salary. This is the best opportunity to gain $. I didn’t negotiate my starting salary because I was told it would be better to negotiate my salary a year after I joined the company, and could show how much I have progressed. The problem is you spent your first year playing catch up, adjusting to your role. It’s hard to negotiate a raise in your salary afterwards. There’s no leverage. They can deny your raise, and still keep you as an employee.

@debtblag
@debtblag
7 years ago

Yup. Speaking up is so important. No one will know that you want to take on more responsibility or that you think you’re being compensated unfairly if you don’t say something about it.

Llamaface
Llamaface
7 years ago
Reply to  @debtblag

This is such a good point…I always get frustrated when my boss ‘doesn’t let me do things’ (I know, playground stuff or what). So, I said I would like to do them and he was fine about it – it just had not occurred to him that that was something I could do.

This is particularly relevant if you are learning a practical vocation – don’t expect people to teach you everything automatically, you have to step up and take responsibility and say ‘I would like to learn about this’ or ‘Can I try doing that’?

Alison Wiley
Alison Wiley
7 years ago

Ah! I read this book some years ago, and then drove up to Washington to attend a workshop Barbara Stanny led, based on her book. She even put me up in her guest-house since I was coming from out of state. She’s generous. I found her ideas very encouraging since I’d been an underearner for pretty much my entire life. The part I think she didn’t address is that some fields of work are simply much more lucrative than others. For the past five years I’ve been earning more than I ever have before. But to be honest, it’s not… Read more »

Alison Wiley
Alison Wiley
7 years ago

Ah! Six-Figure Women! I read Barbara Stanny’s book some years ago, and then attended a workshop she led in Washington that was based on the book. She even put me up in her guest-house overnight since I had traveled from out of state. She’s generous. I found her book and workshop to be encouraging and helpful, since I’d been an underearner all my life. The advice she didn’t give, that I would have benefitted from, is that some fields of work are inherently underpaid, and always will be, and some fields of work much more lucrative, period. For the last… Read more »

Laura
Laura
7 years ago

I think you ask a good question when you say “I can imagine some instances in which people “jumped in” and “let go,” and it didn’t work out so well for them. I can’t help but wonder, if she had interviewed people who “lost it all,” how many traits they would share with the high earners?” Interviewing high earners and finding that they have certain traits does NOT translate to “if you have these traits you will be a high earner.” I imagine that there are many who have these same go-getter traits and never make it financially. In fact,… Read more »

Johanna
Johanna
7 years ago
Reply to  Laura

That book sounds absolutely fantastic.

Kingston
Kingston
7 years ago
Reply to  Laura

Agreed, grain of salt needed. Malcolm Gladwell had an article in the New Yorker awhile back (I think it may have been an excerpt from his book “Outliers”) about how risk-averse many highly successful entrepreneurs actually are. The risks they take are often calculated to the Nth degree. Not that this post or Stanny’s book are necessarily touting entrepreneurship, but I think the idea of being a career or financial “risk-taker” is highly romanticized in our culture these days.

imelda
imelda
7 years ago
Reply to  Laura

Yes, indeed. While the book does sound fascinating, there is a very obvious selection bias at play.

She found that many of the women she interviewed had “put it all on the line” to get where they were. She then needed to interview people who did the same and failed – because surely, there are many. The question is, which is more statistically significant, and/or what are the other factors at play that led to success or failure.

slug | sunkcostsareirrelevant.com
slug | sunkcostsareirrelevant.com
7 years ago

Very happy to see negotiation and letting go on this list. Negotiation is critical. You have to be careful in this job environment unless you are sitting on multiple offers, but a little negotiation can go a long way. Letting go of sunk costs has probably been even more important in my own success. I studied psychology in undergrad and for my Masters. I walked away from a career in psychology for one in market research. Tough choice, but it has turned out well. I then walked away from my second market research job to bet an MBA. After 2… Read more »

BrentABQ
BrentABQ
7 years ago

I don’t want to discourage the people this may be right for, but sometimes it just isn’t worth it. If you go seeking fortune and let go of all the other things you might find that the fortune isn’t what would make your life better. In general you should strive to be more valuable, more accurately appraise and negotiate for your value. Calculate your risks and rewards (and their likelihood and choose the optimal path. Don’t let unimportant things become obstacles and carefully evaluate how your important things interact with each other. Many of these writers/speakers give a much emphasis… Read more »

Short arms long pockets
Short arms long pockets
7 years ago

The book sounds interesting and in reading the comments it sounds like it was written a number of years ago – which might account for the $100K number. Like several commenters I look at $100K and think – so what? If you live and work in the Northeast as I do, a degreed, professional position paying this amount is good – but not out of the ordinary. It is all relative – $100K is a much better salary in some geographic markets than in others. Someone making $100K in an area with a lower cost of living would be doing… Read more »

phoenix1920
phoenix1920
7 years ago

The problem with this book, and many in the same genre, is that it ignores we are all different and have different personalities. It treats humans as homogeneous, which thankfully we are not. I have learned through experience that for me, I want a job I feel is making the world a better place, and I am also very risk adverse. After my initial college degree, I was an exec in business, which made money, made other people spend money, and you take lots of risks. I.hated.it. While Stanny’s advice tells you to take risks, I found that approach made… Read more »

El Nerdo
El Nerdo
7 years ago
Reply to  phoenix1920

Hey, congrats on that choice!

Carla
Carla
7 years ago

Thinking out loud: I wonder if this book would be beneficial for some of us low earners; not necessary to feed a pipe dream of eventually earning six-figures but at least do slightly better.

Unfortunately there aren’t too many books written on those of us who are low average.

Budget Girl
Budget Girl
7 years ago

I earn six figures and all of these steps ring true for me. The first two, “declaring your intention” and “letting go” happened at the same time. I was working hard as a business reporter and wasn’t paid very much. In retrospect, it was work that did not come naturally to me, which is why it required so much effort. After years of what seemed like thankless work and low pay (~$30k does not go far in a large city after you pay your rent and student debt, and I lived with two other people in a tiny apartment far… Read more »

BH
BH
7 years ago

What about taking 6 figures to the next level. As women, I think it is much easier to rise to senior management or get a medical or law degree and a good paying job. But, as a generalization, or at least for myself, it is harder for women to take risks and be entrepreneurial. I really want to leave my job and go into private equity now but I have a good salary, benefits – overall, for me, it comes down to security. I have a JD and my first job out of law school was 6 figures. I left… Read more »

celyg
celyg
7 years ago
Reply to  BH

I’m in a similar boat. Making a six-figure salary with quarterly bonuses and stock that vests quarterly. Raises are always good but at this point most of that will go for taxes. The next step for me would be to start my own business or otherwise find a way to make the jump to seven figures. I find it very hard to let go of security, but I can see now what the appeal is of going out on your own. I’ve been in my field long enough to be frustrated by having to work within a corporate environment, when… Read more »

Gail King
Gail King
7 years ago

Sadly, 100K is not that much any more, especially in a high-cost area like around the San Francisco Bay. That said, a whole lot of it is luck, more than most people realize. I was at the right place at the right time with the right inclinations. It’s not that I work harder or negotiate better than anyone else, in fact, I’ve been dealing with severe depression and not able to work sometimes. But I happened to be around at the start of the Web, and was interested in certain aspects of this new universe, and like programming and technical… Read more »

celyg
celyg
7 years ago
Reply to  Gail King

Agree about luck. But what I find so interesting is that luck is only good luck if you parlay it into something tangible. You have to be ready when luck strikes, and that’s something anyone can work on. I say this because my current job was the result of coincidence and luck. I was thinking of leaving my last job, and just happened to mention this to a friend. She said, ‘oh, I have a friend at X company, do you want me to put you in touch?” I had recently updated my resume so I was ready — and… Read more »

Educators Credit Union
Educators Credit Union
7 years ago

These are fantastic tips no matter what your current salary is! Thanks so much for sharing, great motivational blog.

Mike@WeOnlyDoThisOnce
7 years ago

Interesting dynamic about the goal of working. I’d be curious to see what portion of those interviewed went in with the explicit goal of making as much money as possible, versus other reasons for going into a given field.

MADD Finances
MADD Finances
7 years ago

I think those go for both men and women. Anyone who wants to get ahead and make six figures + needs to first believe that they can and they be worth the money to there company. A lot of people want the money but forget that it comes with work and responsibility as well.

Though when you start making 100K + it isn’t what most thought it would be. If you look at the hours, the travel, the time away from the family, taxes, and stress some jobs aren’t worth the money.

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