Why You Should (Probably) Avoid Public Accounting

I’m back in the game, I’ve got a few weeks of public accounting under my belt, and tax season is underway. Thankfully it isn’t too crazy yet, we won’t be swamped for another week or so, which is good because it gives me time to adjust to my re-entry into the atmosphere of public accounting — and thus far it’s going pretty well. I did my homework before starting this gig, to refresh my memory and get myself up to speed on the new clusterfuck of changes that are the Trump tax cut, and in the process of my research I came across a ranty but funny article on public accounting by a disgruntled former CPA worker:

These people live, breathe, eat, and sleep accounting. They’re the accounting equivalent of Ultra-marathoners in a world of 5K bumper stickers....

My own journey into and out of (and now back into) public accounting has been an interesting one, and probably not typical of most public accountants.

Here’s more from the ranty/funny blog post:

They [public accountants] have a natural advantage over everyone else. Public accounting willingly becomes the central, primary focus of their lives. They’re impervious to burnout and they don’t mind the extra hours because work is where they want to be. They have an extremely high stress tolerance. And they’re genuinely happy devouring any and all manner of esoteric accounting minutiae that will allow them to one day become a “subject matter expert.”

You want us to crank up our work-weeks to 70 hours minimum? No problem, boss — I love this stuff!

Over the years, I’ve come to believe that certain people are actually built for public accounting. I’ve met them. They’re a different breed. I’ve silently studied these “true” accountants and marveled at their ability to absorb every negative thing public accounting throws at them — all with a big, toothy grin on their face.

I’ve always felt like I was of a different breed, but I wasn’t quite of the stock of public accountants, which became clear soon after I took my first job at a smallt-to-medium-sized accounting firm in downtown South Bend, Indiana, a few miles away from the great, traditional institution of Notre Dame.

I didn’t quite fit in at Kruggel Lawton & Co. They were conservative and imitated the corporate ideal. They were eager to grow and expand and make money because, after all, this was the year 2000 and that’s what everyone in America was going to do — relax and keep making money, undisturbed and unmolested by any real troubles from the greater world. The 80s and 90s had been two very good decades for white-collar professionals.

Primed to grow, Kruggel Lawton & Co. had just hired their first, full-time Human Resource Manager, Wendy. Wendy was tall, blonde, and beautiful, but above all she was professional, carrying herself with a pleasant poise that exemplified the corporate ideal, the Dale Carnegie ideal that wins friends and influences people. One day, though, Wendy slipped up.

She took a day to conduct a personality assessment for the staff accountants. I don’t exactly recall the specifics of the test she gave us, but what I do remember — with no small amount of inner pain — is that my own results veered substantially from the rest of the herd.

We were all in the conference room, maybe a dozen of us, just staff accountants, no partners. I had felt pretty relaxed answering the questions. It was nice to take some time away from the desk, a break from tax returns and projects. Then Wendy started to review the results, and everyone else’s results were coming in very similar to each other. Mine, however, diverged.

At first I was glad to hear it. I welcomed my differentiation with a smidgen of smugness. I’m not just a typical bean counter, I thought to myself, feeling a certain measure of pride in being atypical. I need to clarify, at this point in the story, that the urban legend is true, about anemic accountants and their bloodless obsessive attention to detail. There is a certain profile and stereotype of an accountant that holds.

I share with accountants a love of detail. I can lose myself in arcane dry facts with the best of them, but I need to be motivated and inspired by how the facts fit together, much like a puzzle I need to know that there’s a payoff at the end, but in my early days as an accountant, I didn’t have this, and hence I lacked motivation. I failed to find the meaning in it all.

Back in those days, I was studying philosophy after work and discovering a love of film, catching up on everything that I hadn’t watched due to my heavily censored childhood. I lived alone in a strange new town, and rather than getting out or making friends, I indulged all of my most intriguing introverted investigations. Back then, accounting was a means to an end, a way to make money. I’ve since come to appreciate accounting as an end in itself, years after working for Kruggel Lawton & Co. There is a certain beauty in the symmetry, a beauty in the balance of getting all the numbers in the right place. At the time, though, I was completely smitten with the big ideas of life and was plotting to pursue a theology degree.

There are any number of jokes about accountants, i.e. “bean counters,” my first and most memorable moment coming at an early morning Optimist meeting in Warsaw, Indiana. It was our senior year and our basketball team was being honored for our outstanding accomplishments, i.e., that we’d gone undefeated that season.

“Did you hear the one about the constipated accountant,” one of the Optimists asked, rising to his feet at a rather random moment in the meeting.

[Groans from those accustomed to hearing bad jokes from this guy]

“He had to work it out with a pencil!”

[More groans along with calls to “sit down!” along with calls to move the meeting along and finally a good natured fine, to the tune of one dollar for a bad joke]

“Well,” Wendy said, beaming as she unveiled the personality evaluations, “By way of summary, the results were pretty similar for everyone, as you might expect at a CPA firm.”

Everyone kind of chuckled. This was her first big thing, of her own initiative for the hithertofore non-existent Human Resources department at Kruggel Lawton, LLC.

In truth it wasn’t a great unveiling, at all. That was sort of part of the joke. It was assumed that everyone would fit a very specific personality profile, the analytical bean counter. But if you have a Human Resource Department, then you do stuff like this.

“The results from the test were pretty similar for everyone,” Wendy said, “Well,” she giggled, “everyone but Jon, that is,” and then we watched as she dropped her professional persona for a few moments to indulge an authentic belly laugh, something we’d never seen.

“But that’s no surprise, is it?” she added as everyone in the conference room started laughing with her.

I found that I was now the focus of every gaze in the room. I was the butt of the joke, and I was horrified.

I dropped my gaze, kind of stunned, my 21 year old self feeling blindsided and more than a little humiliated. I wanted to be different, sure, but not like this. I didn’t want to be pointed at and laughed at, like the freak show at the circus. Nor did I realize that it was so obvious that I didn’t fit in. I had no idea that I was standing out like that.

It soon became apparent to Wendy that she had rocked my world, and she immediately recovered herself and she made an attempt to smooth things over, but there was nothing to be done. She couldn’t unring that bell, so she quickly moved things along.

“There are only two things certain in life: death and taxes” ~ commonly attributed to Benjamin Franklin

More than merely being embarrassed, I also felt this sensation that the jig was up, that my secret had been discovered, that I was the undercover agent whose cover was blown, because I knew that I wasn’t a real accountant, not of the corporate type anyway. I was here at Kruggel Lawton to make money, and I’d gone into accounting to have something to fall back on, a financial means to an end.

I had taken an accounting course in high school and done pretty well. When it came time to go to college, I had taken to heart the maxim that there are only two things in life that are certain: death and taxes. If a guy wanted a solid way to make a dollar, why not get in on one of these professions? I didn’t have the stomach to handle cold dead bodies but cold numbers seemed a distinct possibility.

I blame birth order for this drastically pragmatic decision. While all of my college friends were either chasing their dreams or following their Christian sense of “calling” to be ministers, worship leaders, and youth pastors, as the first born, I felt I needed to take the more practical path, and so I was rubbing shoulders with students in the business department, even though I spent all of my spare time debating theology.

Even when I found that I was failing Intermediate Accounting, early in my sophomore year, I still pushed forward, stubborn, determined to succeed. I spent more time in the library that semester than I did sleeping in my bed, grinding away, spending hours and days on each chapter in my accounting textbook, analyzing it problem-by-problem, sentence-by-sentence, often word-by-word, completely dedicated and absolutely immersed. I wasn’t motivated by any greater meaning to it all. I just didn’t want to fail.

All the hard work paid off. I aced the exams, got high marks on my homework, and I often understood the problems and class discussions as well or better than my classmates. By semester’s end, I had pushed my grade up high enough to be in the “B” range. I knew I didn’t want to do
accounting — at that point in life I rather hated it — but my performance was impressive, and it earned me praise from my professors and fellow-students. The ego-stroke felt pretty good, and it kept me going, albeit reluctantly, down the road that eventually took me into public accounting.

The Enso of Enlightenment

So now I’m back in the game. Do I hate it? Will I be miserable? Nah.

At this point accounting has become sort of Zen-like. All the detail can be exhausting, sometimes, sure. My back and neck get sore, eye-strain kicks in, and after long days the mind begins to get soft and gummy. And yes, a good deal of it still feels pointless to me, in the vast scheme of things, but none of that is the point of a Zen practice. The paradoxical point of Zen is to have no-point, to require no greater meaning in an activity but to just do it, to give one’s full attention to the task at hand, to devote one’s self to something even if there is no stimulation to energize and motivate.

And it isn’t all a pointless exercise in overcoming existential meaninglessness. Over the years there are subtle elements to accounting that I’ve learned to appreciate, things that really do stimulate me and make the work interesting.

Accounting is about balance. Most people associate accounting with mathematics, but it’s more about getting the debits and credits to line up, and when you’ve been working on an impossible project for days…or weeks…or months…and when your books finally balance, it feels pretty good.

Balance is kind of a Zen thing too: you struggle with the boredom and fatigue of meditation but when you get up off the cushion, the mind is more chill. Similarly, if you can lose yourself in the mundane details of an accounting project and come out at the end of it with something that balances and ties out, you feel a sense of accomplishment and maybe even a bit of equanimity.

For the last five years I’ve been helping to manage a lodge in remote Alaska, where there were a lot of moving parts and a good bit of human drama. I really loved that gig — probably more so than anything else I’ve ever been paid to do — but it all got pretty intense, especially last summer, and so returning to public accounting has been a nice change of pace. In short, it’s good to be monotasking again.

Published by

Jonathan Erdman

Writer. In the summers, I live and work in the incredible state of Alaska, in the bush community of McCarthy, as the Executive Director of the Wrangell Mountain Center. When not in McCarthy, you'll typically find me in the Santa Cruz Mountains of California, writing and working with local activists. My primary writing project right now is a novel set in remote bush Alaska, of the magical realism genre wherein an earnest and independent young woman finds a mysterious radio belonging to her grandmother, a device that has paranormal bandwidth and a disturbing ability to mess with one's mental stability.

4 thoughts on “Why You Should (Probably) Avoid Public Accounting”

  1. Excellent post. It brought to mind a book I’ve got on my shelf: The Measure of Reality: Quantification and Western Society, 1250-1600 (1997) by Alfred Crosby. Chapter Ten chronicles the invention of double-entry bookkeeping. “Modern bookkeeping probably began with a sort of diary of the course of an individual businessman’s life… and that is all well and good, but how does one balance a diary?” Commerce in 11th century Europe expanded and became more complex, increasing the difficulties in keeping track. Arabic numerals started replacing Roman numerals in the 14th century, making it easier to line up the numbers in columns, but the narrative diary form persisted. Florentine bankers started developing the double-entry method mostly in order to evaluate on any given date the solvency of businesses to which they loaned money.

    The immediate significance of double-entry bookkeeping was that it enabled European merchants, by means of precise and clearly arranged records kept in terms of quantity, to achieve comprehension and, thereby, control of the moiling multitude of details in their economic lives. The mechanical clock enabled them to measure time, and double-entry bookkeeping enabled them to stop it — at least on paper.

    Luca Paciolini, the father of double-entry bookkeeping, documented the preferred method in a book published in 1494. First step: make a detailed inventory of assets as a starting-point. Then set up three books: the memorandum book, the journal, and the ledger.

    Each volume should be market with “that glorious sign from which all enemies of the spiritual flee, and befoer which all the infernal pack justly tremble: the Sign of the Holy Cross.” The pages of the volumes should be numbered so as to frustrate any who would tear out pages to conceal facts for dishonest purposes.

    Track this book down if you get a chance, Jonathan. There’s also a chapter on the invention of musical notation, which is the first invented form of graphical representation of information — time on the X axis, pitch on the Y.

    My first job out of college was extending credit to construction companies. So I got pretty adept at interpreting financial statements, ratios, trends, etc., but not at the detailed work of compiling and organizing and balancing the data. You might say that the income statement is the narrative, while the balance sheet is the world-building, and the trick of the accountant is to make the two representations of a reality balance.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. At this point in my life, if say that the history of accounting is more intriguing than accounting itself. As your comment suggests, accounting arose from the increasing complexity of modern business and economics, from “the moiling multitude of details in their economic lives,” as Crosby puts it, in one of the above quotes. Economics and business ramped up as technology and science allowed for easier exploitation of natural resources – and as the stigma against usury was lifted, allowing greater flow of capital. But with all of this economic activity, there was a need to track it all. And investors needed some assurance.

      That certainly send like a book is be interested in. If never heard the speculation that accounting may be rooted in the journals and diaries of businessmen. Even accounting is tired in story and narrative? That’s intriguing.

      If never heard it out quite like you said it but that makes sense:
      “You might say that the income statement is the narrative, while the balance sheet is the world-building.” The income statement shows activity over time, while a balance sheet is a “snap shot,” like a photo, capturing the profile of a company at a specific point in time.


  2. And another related spiritual note….I recall that ministers would often sermonize that if you wanted to get to know the truth of yourself as a person all you need do is examine your check book. If course this was often coupled with a call to give more to the church, so there was a bit of a conflict of interests, but it’s a fair point nonetheless, and it’s one on which I’d imagine most Marxists would agree.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Marxists might be more prone than preachers to point out the stagnant income flowing into people’s checkbooks as a consequence of the workers not owning the means of production and the capitalists making profits at the expense of the workers. Watching the Super Bowl it was notable how many commercials featured robots/AIs as workers who can’t enjoy the beer and other products they make. Viewers might get displaced by automation in their jobs, but they’ve still got an essential role to play as consumers.

      Liked by 1 person

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