Last year, I met a 45-year-old with $220,000 in college debt. She was earning $42,000 a year.
“How the heck is she ever going to climb out of this?” I asked myself when our call ended.
I spent my formative financial years reading personal finance advice like “spend less than you make” and “save 10% of everything you earn.” But, as a careers blogger who founded Roostervane, a site for lost grads, I’ve met too many people for whom this advice falls short — people who are starting late, in crushing debt, and working precarious, underpaid jobs.
They don’t need to stop buying lattes. They need to earn more money. But how?
To answer the question, I began researching how people increased their salaries — research I hope to turn into a book one day. I interviewed 37 people who have doubled their income. Many were senior leaders in their fields who, on the condition of remaining anonymous, gave me full access to their career earnings history.
Some “doublers” went from $40,000 to $80,000, while others went from $90,000 to millions. Some stayed in the same job, while others hopped. Some started businesses, while others achieved salary growth entirely within their 9-to-5 job. But all of them have at least doubled their earnings, and the advice they privately shared with me was invaluable.
Moreover, much of the advice was the same, despite these professionals coming from all different walks of life. Here were five reasons for career success I heard from them over and over again.
No. 1: They Made Themselves More Valuable
“Quiet quitting is BULL$#*%. It’s just a bad idea,” one vice president of a Boston-based non-profit told me. “It’s your work ethic and contribution that makes you promotable, not credentials, education, or experience.”
Hired as a finance manager, one doubler realized there was something wrong with the culture when employees started breaking down in tears in front of her. She looked at the enormous turnover rate, adopted an owner’s mentality, and dove into fixing a problem way above her paygrade. Within two years, she had moved into an executive role, raising her salary from $95,000 to $180,000.
Employees who doubled their income all became “worth it” in the eyes of employers, often by looking at what needed to be done and taking initiative to do it. It was this “owner’s mentality” that really made them indispensable.
Being proactive at work can lift your profile in the workplace and help shield you in the event a recession forces company layoffs.
No. 2: They Continued to Interview and Network
Being the backbone of the office isn’t always enough to get paid more. Some in this position are even taken for granted. The successful employees I interviewed knew how to leverage their value. They knew their worth — often in real dollars — and fought for it.
“When my networking led to a job offer, I was so scared to negotiate,” one manager for an insurance company told me. “I went to my boss and told her I was leaving. She offered me more money on the spot, and convinced me to stay.”
Again and again, my interviewees talked about competing offers. Some actively applied for different roles, while others used their network.
No matter the approach, these offers always led to more money. Some job-hopped to where they’d be paid more, but for many, the outside offers from competitors led to a current boss making a counteroffer. In fact, most who doubled their income at the same company told me that salary jumps came at points when their boss thought they were going to lose them.
“At the end of the day, your boss is your customer and they always want a discount,” one tech manager told me. “So if you think your work is worth more, you need to raise your prices. Learn to get competing offers [in order to create] leverage.”
Editor’s Note: The Power of Negotiation
Not negotiating in your career can leave a lot of money on the table.
Stanford MBA professor Margaret A. Neale puts it this way: pretend that you and a coworker are offered a $100,000 salary, and your coworker negotiates a 7% increase in pay before starting the job. The two of you then receive the same raises and promotions over the next 35 years.
Your coworker would be eight years ahead of you, meaning that, if they retired now, you’d need to work eight additional years to catch up to them in terms of monetary wealth. Successful negotiations done earlier in your career compound in value over time.
No. 3: They Weren’t Afraid to Change Industries
What do you do when you’re a college professor in Silicon Valley and your $55,000 salary doesn’t even cover the rent?
That was the problem one doubler faced. Taking on an extra teaching contract bumped his pay up to $75,000 a year, but it still wasn’t enough. After chatting with some friends in tech, he decided to try to transfer his skill set into a new industry. His networking led to an offer with Facebook, where he made $150,000 a year, plus bonuses, a company car, and other perks. He’d later try his hand at starting a company, and later spend some time working for Google.
Several respondents said the skills needed to succeed as either an employee or an entrepreneur are similar, validating an exclusive survey from NextAdvisor earlier this year that found “mindset” and “cultivating win/win relationships” to be two of the most important skills for flourishing in the employee-to-entrepreneur transition.
Another doubler started working in cybersecurity for a government defense contractor, but his annual pay was capped at $118,000. When he made the jump into tech, he discovered his cybersecurity expertise was highly prized, and his paycheck eventually grew to nearly $400,000 in total annual compensation as a result.
Doublers I met who switched industries often used the same skills as before, but those skills were compensated very differently. Switching industries can pay off.
No. 4: They Took It Upon Themselves to Broaden Their Skill Set
The world of work continues to evolve. If you want to increase your income, your skill set should evolve, too.
One doubler discovered she hated industrial engineering. Unfortunately, she realized this after years of working towards a master’s degree in that subject. She started taking courses online to make a career shift to data science. Landing her first job took “a lot of effort,” she told me.
But once she landed that first role in the new field and added “Data Scientist” to her LinkedIn profile, it was a recruiter magnet. She began fielding inbound interview requests “weekly” as a result.
Many doublers upskilled. Some of them went back to school and earned new degrees to meet the requirements of the corporate ladder. But many of them simply learned new skills online, sometimes for free, and built enough knowledge in those new areas of expertise to make them more valuable candidates.
Another professional I interviewed, a former content marketer, began taking user experience (UX) courses online. Over a four-year period, they went from making $17 an hour to landing a UX position at Microsoft, breaking the $100,000 salary mark.
No. 5: They Ignored Straight-Line Career Paths
Drop onto LinkedIn and you’ll see a host of influencers telling followers how it’s done. But few of these doublers followed a predictable path.
In my interviews, I heard about leaps of faith, companies inventing positions to keep employees they liked, and random meetings that turned into life-changing opportunities. These doublers colored outside the lines. And, once they were known and valued, they could create their own lines.
For example, one of my interviewees was a former principal who cared deeply about the students. But with dreams of starting a family, she was worried that the long hours would interfere with her personal aspirations.
She tried to resign, but she was so respected that the school board created a new position for her: a full-time salaried position with a 30-hour work week coaching leaders. When she discovered this wasn’t right either, she started a consulting business. To her surprise, her former employer was one of her biggest and best customers. She now makes twice her principal’s salary, and has more flexibility.
Their Final Takeaways About Making More Money
At the end of each interview, I asked these 37 financially successful professionals what they’ve learned about making more money. In closing, here’s some of their best advice.
- Be less cautious. Taking risks can pay off. Trust yourself to figure it out.
- Don’t sit around waiting for people to tell you what to do. Step up and take initiative.
- Adopt a growth mindset. Read. Learn.
- Know your numbers and negotiate. You can’t fight for more if you don’t know what your skills are worth.
- Work ethic is what makes you promotable. Show up and take ownership of anything you do.
- Invest in yourself. Put some of your earnings back into things like education, upskilling, coaching, or self care.
Each of these 37 decided at some point that they were going to make more. They weren’t afraid to recognize what they needed and fight for it. With time, they all figured it out, and you can too.
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