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Why 'The Big Short' author Michael Lewis walked away from a $250,000 Wall Street job in his 20s

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Michael Lewis endorses a strategy for getting out of anything you don't...

Before Michael Lewis wrote his best-sellers, "Moneyball", "The Big Short" and "Flashboys," he was making big money at Salomon Brothers, one of the hottest bond firms in the world at the time.

The lucrative gig "lands in my lap," he tells Barry Ritholtz on an episode of "Masters in Business" by Bloomberg Radio. "It was 1985, Salomon Brothers is making so much more money than every other Wall Street bank."

After just six months at the firm, "I realized that I'm going to write about the job," says Lewis. He started writing about his experiences under a pseudonym and the columns "got a lot of attention." Two years into his Salomon Brothers tenure, an editor at Simon & Schuster tracked him down to tell him he had enough material to write a book.

"I didn't know what they're going to pay," says Lewis, who had made a quarter of a million dollars at Salomon the previous year. But "at that moment," he recalls, "I realized I can eke out a living doing this."

Michael Lewis participates in a discussion at George Washington University on April 4, 2014.
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Lewis got a lot of pushback when he decided to pursue a career as a writer, and not just from friends and family. His bosses at Salomon Brothers "were worried about my sanity," he recalls. "They said, 'Look, you made $250,000 last year. You're probably going to make twice that next year, and then from there, you're going to make lots of money here. You're crazy to go do this. Don't go do this. Do this later.'"

But Lewis, who was in his mid-20s at the time, had no problem walking away from a massive paycheck. When he looked around at his Salomon co-workers who were years older than him, he realized very few of them would ever end up leaving. "You got so needful of the money and the position and the status," he told Ritholtz. "I was afraid I would become that, and I would lose this desire to do this other thing."

It's a point he emphasized in a column he wrote for Money in 2018: "If I'd stayed, I would have been trapped by that success; the money would have gotten too big, and my life would've changed."

Lewis also noted that he didn't have any student loans or a family to provide for at the time: "So I didn't have to let money rule my decisions. Some people don't have that liberty."

He quit at age 27. Two years later, his first book, "Liar's Poker," came out. It was an account of his time working on Wall Street. Since then, he has become a New York Times-bestselling author, and three of his books have been turned into acclaimed, Oscar-nominated movies.

"Looking back, it seems like a giant risk to quit a job that paid me all kinds of money at Salomon for a fairly unknown future as a writer. But I knew I really wanted to do it," Lewis wrote for Money. "There wasn't a shred of doubt, and I was getting so sick of going to work there every morning. So it was not a terribly hard decision, and it didn't feel like that much of a risk."

He's not the only advocate of following your passion. "Late Night" host Seth Meyers encourages it, even if you don't have a back up plan.

"If you're going to go for it, really go for it and put yourself at risk," especially at the beginning of your career, Meyers said at The New Yorker Festival. "Failure is a lot easier the younger you are. It's like gravity, and each year you get older you get farther away from the ground — so the fall is worse."

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