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The Truth about High Salary Careers

You may think that the secret for earning a good living is getting into one of a few high salary careers.  Our parents and society around us suggest that doctors and lawyers are the main thing to be, otherwise we fear that we are left with nothing but serving French fries to the children of those who made it.

It turns out, however, that high salary careers are less about the field you are in then about how you approach the field you choose.  Certain qualities determine whether you will be at the top of your field (and be paid accordingly) or whether you will just trudge along looking for safety in a middling experience.  So what are the qualities of those in high salary careers?


It’s a cliché but it’s true: education is power.  The more education you have the better you can position yourself to rise to the top of your field.  Regardless of whether you want to be CEO of the next Google or write the great American novel, the more education that you get, the more opportunities you will have to climb the to the top of your field’s income ladder.

Despite those individuals who seem to violate these rules (Bill Gates famously did not finish his college degree, for example), you will usually find that those who make $80,000 or higher are disproportionately post-graduate degree holders.  Those who make minimum wage are disproportionately high school dropouts.

The reason for this goes beyond the actual knowledge that you get from the process of education.  The college experience also serves to help increase a person’s confidence and expand his network of other successful people.  Without a lengthy education, not only is the individual always left with a doubt about his or her true abilities, but the individual is also left with few successful acquaintances that can help him or her get a leg up.

Leadership Qualities

Those who make high salaries in almost any field are those who have learned how to manage others.  In almost all careers, the highest paid individuals are those that know how to get other people to help them get things done.  This is obviously true in a corporate setting, but it is also true in other settings as well.  Even in education, if you look at who makes the highest salaries, it is not just the star academics with book deals, but also the individuals who know how to run an organization efficiently and lure others to that organization to help them.

Risk Taking

Another quality of success is taking calculated risks.  No one makes it to the top of their professions by just sitting back and doing the safe thing at every turn.  If you look at those who are highly successful, they often took risks that could have ruined them.  Gates dropped out of college, Darwin went on the Beagle, and Hemingway volunteered to be an ambulance driver in World War I.  Safety may secure you a middling existence, but to make real money you have to take chances—you sometimes have to go all in.  Even when you fail, the experience often is itself a new opportunity.


For the most part, those who make high salaries either love their profession or love winning.  Rarely do you find a person who truly can’t stand what they are doing at the upper ranges of the salary scale.  Even if they don’t care about making widgets, the widget maker loves to make widgets better than his competitor does.  It helps, however, to both love what your are doing and be competitive.  Those who are truly successful have both a passion for their profession and a passion for competitiveness.


Finally, you have to be a little lucky.  Sometimes, despite having all those other qualities life conspires against you.  Just ask Herbert Hoover, who was perhaps one of the best-qualified people to be president ever, but had the misfortune of poor timing.  Similarly, you hope to have a talent for what you do and capability of doing it.  No matter how good your basketball skills you are extremely unlikely to make the NBA if you are five foot four.

If you have all of these qualities, you will probably have one of the many high salary careers.  Even if you only have two out of three, that is probably enough to have a successful life.  Without them, however, you are not likely to have much success at anything you do.  There are lots of unemployed lawyers and former med students out there as proof.


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