“I trust that everything happens for a reason, even when we’re not wise enough to see it.” – Oprah Winfrey
If you don’t believe in God you probably should. The sheer number of ironies and outlandish coincidences just in my own life should be enough to serve as solid evidence of the phenomenon of divine intervention. The latest example came just recently when I was struggling to figure out how I was going to make the transition from accounting to writing.
My last accounting job was the occupational version of Custer’s Last Stand. In the days and weeks that followed that disaster, I had decided to put the “stuffy world of spreadsheets and tax returns” (as my friend Katherine astutely described it) behind me and focus instead on my passion for writing. Writing was actually a great fit for my personality type, so it passed that critical test. What writing did not offer was a promise to ever generate a steady and generous income. I had found that pursuing happiness and pursuing riches can sometimes be mutually exclusive endeavors, but this was the point at which my ideals collided with the harsh realities of living. Unfortunately we need money to survive and pay bills, so I couldn’t work for peanuts just writing articles for online outlets like Yahoo Voices. Without an English degree or any job experience whatsoever in writing, I resigned myself to put my dreams on hold, get another job in accounting, and pursue freelance writing on the side for the immediate future. With my situation in mind, my wife Liza and I restructured our budget so that my income would go almost exclusively toward paying off car loans, credit cards, and other debt we accumulated from reckless spending binges like our wedding and the birth of our first child. When our debt was paid off within a year or two, our budgetary demands would be substantially reduced, at which time I could quit my “real job” and take an enjoyable part time job tuning skis or something while I pursued freelance writing in earnest. I could stomach accounting for another year or two, as long as I would have spare time to start working on my freelance writing at least on occasion. However, out of good conscience, there was one accounting job in particular from whose consideration I needed to remove myself.
My friend Jason and his family own a construction company headquartered in the Denver suburb of Castle Rock. In the spring of 2013 when I was exploring opportunities outside of public accounting, construction companies topped my list because of my experience, expertise, and certification in construction accounting and tax. So I sent him an email asking if he knew of any companies in the industry who were looking for accountants. His response, “I am,” started a dialogue between us that lasted a couple of months. Ultimately, his timeline was incompatible with mine, as I wanted out of public accounting as soon as possible and he wasn’t needing a new accountant until the summer of 2014. Even after I started work for Saunders, we maintained the lines of communication, as I was still intrigued by what he was offering—a position at a small, family owned company where I would be the only accountant. Now with my sudden change of heart not only for the position, but for accounting in general, I felt I owed Jason an explanation. So I met him for a happy hour in mid February 2014. I told him I didn’t want to be an accountant anymore and discussed why, and after awhile he asked what I did want to do with my life. I spoke of my passion for writing and my plans for the future, to which he responded by telling me of how his company was looking for someone to write construction bid proposals. He continued with a compelling vision of the position, suggesting that it entail virtually all written communication for the company, including press releases, social media campaigns, and website updates. For good measure, he added taking progress photos of the company’s projects as a duty of the position. He more than piqued my interest; he had just described what might as well have been my dream job. Photography has been a hobby of mine that took a leave of absence with the industry’s switch to digital in the mid-2000s. I had a 35mm film camera in high school and college that I used to take hundreds of slides until slide film became a hassle to buy and a processing lab a hassle to find. I refused to shoot generally much lower quality print film, and for a long time I either couldn’t afford or justify the expense of a quality digital camera. Liza and I finally pulled the trigger on a DSLR in 2013 and my photography hobby returned to new life. The fact that Jason wanted to include photography with the proposal writing position was some remarkable timing. So after our happy hour I sent him some writing samples to review and in return he sent me a couple of sample proposals to look through. Liza commented that she had never seen me have so much fun “working” as I did one night when I read one of the proposals and made notes.
Jason needed 30 to 60 days to get his affairs in order for the addition of the new position, so I needed some gainful employment in the meantime. Quite literally two days after our happy hour, I received a phone call from a recruiter I had been working with to find an accounting job. He had available a temporary contract position at a small local CPA firm named Spicer Jeffries through April 15th—almost exactly 60 days away. I had a phone interview with the partner the next day and I accepted his offer immediately. At only 40 hours a week, it would lack the chaos, stress, and ridiculous hours of a normal public accounting job, and would bridge the gap with my new writing job. It was unbelievably ideal. What I wasn’t anticipating was that it would turn out to be one of the best public accounting experiences I ever had. The environment was relaxed, the people were friendly, and the partners were extremely complimentary of the work I was doing. They wanted me to stay after April 15th and join the firm on a full time basis, but I politely declined. My dreams await instead, and I knew if I didn’t give them a shot—sink or swim—I would always regret it. I was truly humbled and astonished by these turn of events. I left accounting with a smile on my face and a sense of success. The position with Jason’s company provided an almost impossible bridge between the world of numbers and the world of writing. I was blessed. The previous months were a sobering reminder that God does have a plan for us, and if we just take a step back from our feeble attempts at trying to control our futures we can appreciate the work He is doing in our lives.
I have no doubt that many of you think I’m crazy for making this kind of change in my life at that time, especially with a newborn. I will admit it did defy logic and reason, but in a way that provided me comfort. In my own mind, I often compare this career change to my decision to move to Colorado. I did not hate Kansas, though at the time what I perceived as an astigmatic nature and concerning lack of imagination of many of its people drove me crazy. It’s actually not that bad of a place. I just didn’t sense that I belonged there. Much like moving to Colorado, what I did with my career felt right. When I arrived in Denver on moving day it felt strangely as if I was coming home, and even after many years here whenever I am in the mountains I feel an inner peace I can’t describe in words. I am where I am supposed to be. Accounting and writing share a similar relationship to my past and present home states. Accounting really isn’t that bad of a career, it was just a horrible fit for me and I never felt like I belonged. And let’s be honest, being chained to a desk with the other inmates for 10-14 hours everyday during busy season drove me batshit crazy. But when I sit down to write and the words start flowing from my fingers, all seems right with the world and my soul is free. A finished article, paper, or chapter brings me a joy and sense of fulfillment a tax return never had a snowball’s chance in hell of providing.
There is one person in particular who, if she thought I was crazy for doing this, did a marvelous job of hiding it. My wife’s support over that year was nothing short of sensational. The crap she had to put up with when I was in my dark days, trying to cope with the stress and unbridled chaos of public accounting busy seasons, would have driven a lesser person far away from me. She was able to see a joyful soul struggling to break free when all I could find within myself was misery and gloom. As I made the decision to leave public accounting, and then the decision to chase a dream, she never once wavered in her support, never once questioned my feelings. More importantly for me was her understanding, because she has been at the same company—for all intents and purposes—since she was nineteen years old. Though she has worn quite a few different proverbial hats in her career, my brand of change is something she has been able to avoid. It’s only fitting then that I did enough change for the both of us. This experience taught me—she taught me—that when you find someone who will support and encourage you no matter your circumstances, you find the key to your success. When I couldn’t believe in myself, she believed for me.
I sometimes have stopped to look back and consider what could have been. What if I had taken personality tests in my high school or college career counseling? It’s of course impossible to speculate on the results of those tests. If the same as now, they might have provided me with some direction. I might have had a counselor tell me, “Listen, you loathe structured, competitive, and chaotic jobs and above all else value creative freedom and esoteric meaning in your life’s pursuits. If you choose accounting you’ll eventually want to throw yourself from a tall building.” That would have been sage advice and saved me a lot of time and trouble. Of course, that’s my practical and logical side expressing itself. The rest of me is appreciative for the ride I’ve experienced; that is because I staunchly believe everything happens for a reason. Could I have survived the tumult of my mid-twenties without grad school? Could I have moved to Colorado and remained financially stable enough to build my life here without the demand that an accounting degree commands? Would I have ever embarked on this journey without the misery and the perspective accounting provided? We’ll never know but I have my doubts. Looking forward in the future yields just as much uncertainty. I don’t know if I will be successful. I do know I felt trapped chasing for five years something that deep down I didn’t really want. Though the future is uncertain and daunting, this is exactly where I want to be. An old friend once described me as a “free spirit,” and I think she was right. I’m at home when the road ahead is wide open, the destination is always somewhere beyond the horizon, and I’m free to take some detours on my way. I’m an explorer at heart, an adventurer in spirit. Routine is my prison and the mundane are my chains. I don’t believe God put us on this Earth to live Thoreau’s “life of quiet desperation.” Find who you are and what you love and, for good or ill, embrace it and let it take you on the ride of life.
On this journey to find myself I came full circle to my life’s original passion. Maybe that’s what “finding yourself” is all about—it’s not figuring out who or what you are right now, it’s discovering personal lifelong truths that have stood the test of time. I have been a writer since I penned my first story at ten years old—perhaps it was earlier. I’ve had many jobs since then, side trips that have afforded me opportunities to gain interesting experiences and perspectives. There’s no sense in considering them dead ends or wasted time. The pages of the past are already filled, but the future has been patiently waiting to be written.
“The two most important days in your life are the day you are born and the day you find out why.” – Mark Twain
It seemed like the clouds had parted and the angels were singing when in August 2013 I noticed on the website for Saunders Construction a job posting for assistant controller. I immediately sent my resume. It couldn’t have come at a better time. My job search over the summer was going slower than expected, and at work fall busy season was ramping up. My stress level was at an all time high and my spirits were at an all time low—so much so that Liza and I were discussing whether I should leave the accounting firm where I was working after fall busy season to preserve what little sanity I had left, whether I had another job lined up or not.
The interview process was one unlike anything I have ever experienced or will likely ever experience again. It was a series of three intense interviews—the first with my future boss, the second with two teams from the accounting department, and the last with the CFO. I found it ironic, given my focus on personality research that summer, that after a successful round three and being chosen as the top candidate, they sent me to an industrial psychologist for my final interview. After I completed three online assessments, I met with him in a face-to-face interview. I came into that interview expecting to do a few Rorschach tests and to sit on a chaise lounge for awhile and talk about my feelings. Instead, I found myself in the most difficult interview I will ever know. For over two hours the psychologist hammered me with behavioral interviewing questions and intense probing questions about my background, experience, and education. And yes, we even did a couple of Rorschach tests, after which he told me how the tests were supposed to work and that my answers indicated I concentrate much more on the big picture than details. His comments at least validated my own research in that respect.
His reports went even further. I received three, each one based on my interview and the online assessments I completed earlier. The first showed that I was strong in both strategic and tactical reasoning. The other two outlined my leadership skills and were much more fascinating. I scored in the incredible 97th percentile for independence—meaning only 3% of human beings could possibly have any more disdain than me for either leading or following others; I preferred to do my own thing. True statement. I scored in the 7th percentile for “boldness”; I am modest, unpretentious, avoid self-promotion, and lack a sense of entitlement. I scored in the 86th percentile for being adventurous, testing the limits, and getting bored easily. SQUIRREL!!! My imagination was in the 89th percentile, which indicated I tend to come up with “unusual and impractical ideas”, see things very differently from others, and can be rather unpredictable. I’m in the 8th percentile for “diligence,” so I’m extremely undemanding and relaxed, rarely if ever micromanage staff, and am highly flexible. My personal favorite was the laughable 4th percentile in prudence, which indicated I thrive with ambiguity and lack of structure, that I tend to be spontaneous and not plan ahead, and I become easily bored with repetitive or detailed tasks. Last but not least was the unimaginable 98th percentile in being visionary, generating ideas, and being bored with details. Do you get the sense I don’t like details? Good, mission accomplished.
The psychologist’s reports didn’t just confirm my personality research, they put a gold star seal of approval on it. They also should have served as a blazing red flag for what I was about to get myself into. Despite the intense and involved interview process, and the pretty clear picture the psychologist’s report painted, there appeared to be rather differing expectations between myself and Saunders. The company apparently wanted someone who would come into the position at full speed and be able to make significant contributions immediately. I had my hands full not only learning the job I was supposed to do, but also learning the job of someone who was to have been one of my direct reports but quit and moved to Seattle a couple of weeks before I came on board–someone they were not going to replace. I wasn’t doomed from the start by any means, but it’s not an easy proposition for a tax person to transition into an assistant controller role without this exacerbating circumstance I was given. I also don’t believe my boss knew how to lead or manage an extremely independent, unambitious, and abstract person like myself—I’m not faulting her for it, few people would know how. I was just then learning how to deal with my own idiosyncrasies to make it easier for future bosses. After only three months the company decided to part ways. Perhaps it was for the best, but that’s not what I was thinking then. The turn of events was extremely unexpected and jarred me into some profound soul searching. I had liked the company, I liked my coworkers, I even liked my boss. But had I truly liked the job? It wasn’t everything I hoped it would be. The hours and stress—or I should say the lack thereof—were a dramatic improvement over public accounting, but for the first time I finally and definitively viewed accounting in total conflict with who I am. I was glad I gave accounting another shot and I was at peace knowing I “went out guns blazing”—after all, retreats are for team building and the French, not for me.
In the midst of searching for words of wisdom that would help me put some perspective on my situation, I stumbled upon a commencement address Bill Watterson gave his alma mater, Kenyon College, in 1990. Bill Watterson is the creator of the comic strip Calvin and Hobbes. It’s one of my favorite comic strips of all time so I had heard of him and knew his work well. It’s not a long speech, but I’ll do you the favor of summarizing most of it. It’s an entertaining and fun reiteration of several of his experiences that highlight the importance of doing something you enjoy, of work that is fun, of cultivating creativity in life and not just going through the motions. He talks of being fired from the Cincinnati Inquirer as their political cartoonist, and after repeated failed attempts to make a living from cartooning, he was forced to take a “real job” drawing advertisements, a job he hated “every minute of the 4 1/2 million minutes” he worked. When Calvin and Hobbes was finally picked up by a syndicate and became a success, he spurned intense pressure to commercialize his strip, resulting in a legal battle with the syndicate. I cannot summarize and do justice to the rest of Watterson’s speech, so I’ll let him take it from here:
“We all have different desires and needs, but if we don’t discover what we want from ourselves and what we stand for, we will live passively and unfulfilled. Sooner or later, we are all asked to compromise ourselves and the things we care about. We define ourselves by our actions. With each decision, we tell ourselves and the world who we are. Think about what you want out of this life, and recognize that there are many kinds of success. Many of you will be going on to law school, business school, medical school, or other graduate work, and you can expect the kind of starting salary that, with luck, will allow you to pay off your own tuition debts within your own lifetime. But having an enviable career is one thing, and being a happy person is another. Creating a life that reflects your values and satisfies your soul is a rare achievement. In a culture that relentlessly promotes avarice and excess as the good life, a person happy doing his own work is usually considered an eccentric, if not a subversive. Ambition is only understood if it’s to rise to the top of some imaginary ladder of success. Someone who takes an undemanding job because it affords him the time to pursue other interests and activities is considered a flake. A person who abandons a career in order to stay home and raise children is considered not to be living up to his potential—as if a job title and salary are the sole measure of human worth. You’ll be told in a hundred ways, some subtle and some not, to keep climbing, and never be satisfied with where you are, who you are, and what you’re doing. There are a million ways to sell yourself out, and I guarantee you’ll hear about them. To invent your own life’s meaning is not easy, but it’s still allowed, and I think you’ll be happier for the trouble.”
I had discovered his speech the previous summer, but now it suddenly took on a personal meaning that it never had before. I had decided to get my masters in accounting ten years before because my college accounting classes were my favorite business courses, but just as much I was attracted to the prestige of the career and the salary I could make. “But having an enviable career is one thing, and being a happy person is another.” I wanted to be successful but at that time I could only equate financial gain to success. “Ambition is only understood if it’s to rise to the top of some imaginary ladder of success…as if a job title and salary are the sole measure of human worth.” What I had found instead of ladder climbing and financial gain was an unfulfilling career that was not a good fit with my personality and my skills, and I felt empty and stagnant. “We all have different desires and needs, but if we don’t discover what we want from ourselves and what we stand for, we will live passively and unfulfilled.” Perhaps it was time I stopped racing the other rats for some stupid pot of gold and instead pursue something that held some meaning for me. Perhaps it was time to pursue something that made me happy. “To invent your own life’s meaning is not easy, but it’s still allowed, and I think you’ll be happier for the trouble.”
So what would make me happy? I began with a familiar thought that I mentioned in the previous blog post: the joy I get from annoying people with my historical tour guide dissertations. But being a college history professor was never actually about teaching, rather the major appeal for that job was the research and writing. The more I deliberated, the clearer my motivation became; I wanted to write. I would be lying if I said the idea of writing was a grand epiphany, though it would make this a more dramatic story. Instead, I have actually fleetingly considered it in the past. No, this was an idea that had long percolated in the far back of my mind, but it was now boiling over at the very forefront.
I’m pretty sure the first thing I did after I was born was start breathing. Reading was a close second. I was one of those stereotypical nerdy kids who always had his face in a book. I don’t know exactly when I wrote my first story, but it was probably because I had finished every book in the house and needed something else to read. By the time I was in high school, I was writing almost every day. Just ask my parents—I was obsessed, constantly scribbling away on sheets of notebook paper and making mom drive me to the office supply store to buy three ring binders in which to put everything I had written. To me it was just a past time, a hobby, an escape away from the awkward teenage life that I despised. I had no intention of ever writing seriously, and the thought honestly never crossed my mind when our high school guidance counselors talked to us about careers. Journalism never held much appeal to me (being told what to write by editors instead of having the freedom to decide on your own, and then reporting just news and facts), so I never thought I could actually make a living from writing. I had my mind set instead on impressing people with how much money I was making as a businessman. Writing was something that could wait until I retired. I had plenty of whispers telling me to rethink my decision. I scored a 33 in the reading and writing section of the ACT (a perfect score is 36), and in math a comical 19. A research paper I wrote at Friends University won an award as being one of the three best research papers written that school year, as judged by a panel of professors. My English professor my sophomore year asked me to become one of the first tutors at the Friends Writing Center, a then new program developed by the English department to assist students with writing papers. My Ethics professor in my graduate program at Wichita State wanted me to publish a paper I had written for his class, but time constraints that last year of grad school and his move to North Carolina both put an end to those efforts. As life went on, the spare time I had available for writing slowly declined until it was relegated to keeping a journal off and on. The stories I had spent most of my adolescence writing now lie beneath tons of dirt in a Kansas landfill, victims of a purging I did upon my move to Colorado. But I never stopped reading. My “currently reading” list usually never numbers below two books simultaneously, and my backlog is long enough it’s doubtful I’ll ever get through it. My on again, off again love affair with reading and writing has sometimes been intense, but it was never serious.
Now I was serious.
The internet has made freelance writing a much more realistic option for writers than when I was in high school or college. Unlike the journalism that was familiar to me as a kid, one can more easily than ever before write exclusively about subjects of their interest for a wide variety of publications and websites. And luckily, I have a rather epic quantity of interests: history, historical fiction, nature and the outdoors, social causes, fitness, environmentalism and ecology, finance, religion and theology, Constitutional freedom, travel, sports, astronomy and space flight, transportation, personal growth, and psychology are but some on my ever growing list. But you sure as hell don’t write for the money. For me, that’s exactly the point; I want to do it because I love it. So in order to make this work I needed to find a job—any job—just to pay the bills.
What came next was an ironic twist of fate for the ages.
As I sent resumes and participated in interviews during late spring and early summer 2013, I thought private industry would be the answer to the emptiness I felt from public accounting. Corporate accounting is the traditional refuge sought out by those who are retreating from public accounting, so it was the logical and practical solution for me. Yet I had a nagging feeling that something far more fundamental was amiss. If I hated putting numbers in boxes in public accounting, why wouldn’t I hate it in private industry? By mid-summer, I gave in to the nagging and on a whim, for the first time in a long time, I entertained the illogical and the impractical. What if private industry isn’t the answer? Master’s degree, CPA, CCIFP, and eight years of my life—who cares about all that, what if I just don’t like accounting? What do I like? What are my passions? Why the hell am I here? I had opened a can of worms.
It seems whenever I need a solution to a simple problem, or need some insight into life’s unfathomable mysteries, common sense be damned, I find a book about it instead. So naturally, Liza and I spent a morning at Barnes and Noble pouring through career transition books. I purchased three that day, and one would have an especially astounding impact on me. It is titled Do What You Are, and it uses the MBTI personality typing to identify possible career matches. MBTI, or Myers-Briggs Typing Indicator, is a method of categorizing an individual’s personality into 16 distinct types. Obviously, every person is different and is never an exact match for any one type, but we do have general behaviors and thought patterns that make one of the 16 types a better match than the other 15. As I read the book and conducted more research on the side throughout the summer, I was shocked and almost horrified by what I was learning—it did not have good things to say about my career choice.
MBTI categorizes personalities by assigning one of two letters for four different traits: I or E for introverted or extraverted, S or N for sensing or intuitive, T or F for thinking or feeling, and J or P for judging or perceiving. I’ll provide a Cliff’s Notes version of what this all means. Introversion or Extraversion concerns our relationship with the world and where we direct our energy. It’s much more than being either shy or outgoing—in fact, an introvert can be someone who enjoys social interaction and who is quite warm and friendly. A good analogy is to say extraverts ask “how do I affect this?” when encountering a situation, and introverts ask “how does this affect me?” Sensing or Intuition concerns how we gather information. Sensors concentrate on what can be seen, heard, tasted, etc. Sensors tend to be concrete people who trust what can be documented and measured, and they focus on realities. Intuitives, on the other hand, are far more concerned with what could be than what is; they look for deeper meaning, prefer the big picture over details, and value imagination, abstract ideas, and inspirations. Thinking or Feeling is rather self explanatory—it concerns how we make decisions based on the information we have gathered through our S or N function. Thinkers tend to be analytical and make decisions logically and impersonally. Feelers tend to adhere more to a personal values system and will base a decision on what they feel is right rather than just analyzing a problem logically. Judging and Perceiving concerns the timing of our decisions. Judgers tend to live structured and orderly lives and prefer making quick decisions so that matters are settled and they can move on to the next task. They want to regulate and control their lives. Perceivers, on the other hand, thrive on flexibility and spontaneity, preferring to remain open to possibilities rather than making quick decisions. They are far more concerned with understanding life than controlling it. Of course, none of this is to say a Thinker is incapable of making an emotional decision, or a Judger of “flying by the seat of one’s pants.” Rather, MBTI is concerned with one’s natural tendencies. Each of us is a unique individual with a combination of characteristics from all types, but typing is based on our habits and fundamental dispositions.
After taking several personality tests and doing a great deal of research, I typed out as an INFP. One test was able to measure the extent to which each function contributes to my personality. I am a strong Introvert, an overwhelming Intuitive (90%, yikes), almost equally Thinking and Feeling, and finish out as a distinct Perceiver. And it’s no wonder I always felt out of place in an accounting firm—there are practically no INFP’s in accounting, and for good reason. One need not be Carl Jung or Sigmund Freud to see from the descriptions above that someone with a predisposition for accounting would be a strong Sensor, Thinker, and Judger. In fact, some studies have shown that a vast majority of accountants in the US are either ESTJ’s or ISTJ’s. My personality type is at the exact opposite end of the spectrum and make up less than 1% of accountants. One percent. In fact, INFP’s are one of the rarest personalities in the general population. That’s only one reason why the proverbial deck is stacked against this type. They also don’t usually thrive in work environments that are competitive and structured, and which do not allow for a great deal of creativity and personal fulfillment. I’ve just described about 70% of all workplaces in the United States, and probably an even higher percentage of traditional corporate office jobs.
Doing this personality research was like reading an unauthorized biography about Steve Grimes, which is indicative of just how much I did not understand or know myself. I believe I knew some basic facts about my personality, but I had no context in which to put these facts. For example, I knew that I am a pretty introspective person, but I didn’t realize that not only do I crave time alone, as an introvert I need time alone to recharge my batteries and process the world around me. I knew that I do not tend to think in black and white terms, but I didn’t realize that I am a strong abstract thinker who prefers creative possibilities over practical realities. I knew that I rarely had a detailed plan for any personal endeavor, but I didn’t realize that I am prone to experience a great deal of stress if subjected to a highly structured or regulated environment. Yet when I read these things, dots suddenly connected and I became aware of a lifetime of truths. It was a humbling, reassuring, and enlightening experience. It just shows it’s possible to be 35 years old and not know very much about oneself. I have since learned it’s not all that uncommon for INFP’s to live well into their 30s before they have a real sense of who they are—they have complex personalities that are not easily understood even by themselves.
Using my personality type as a guide, I may be described as an autonomous, imaginative person on a continuous mission to understand life and its deeper meaning, who is a predominantly big-picture and abstract thinker, who keeps his options open, and enjoys being flexible, laid-back, and spontaneous. You would think suggested career choices for my personality type include hippie, ski bum, surfer, or pothead. Truly, career choices for INFP’s are often untraditional, unconventional, and highly abstract. One rather ordinary suggestion that piqued my interest was something that had been percolating in the back of my mind for quite some time—a college professor. Specifically, a history professor. History had been one of my favorite subjects in school—if not the favorite—especially in college. My obsession with history continues to this day and manifests itself through some annoying traits. I remember riding the Georgetown Loop tourist railroad a couple of years ago with our friends Jason and Crystal, when out of the blue I pointed to a spot along the tracks between Georgetown and Silver Plume where miners in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s would play baseball at a crude diamond that no longer exists. I could read the look on Jason’s face: “Who needs a flippin’ tour guide when you have this moron with you?” My patient and understanding wife Liza can tell you stories of just how annoying I can be—for instance, when on a quiet drive through the Colorado countryside I suddenly break into a dissertation about how some ghost town or something once existed nearby, complete with a founding date, names of founders, significant events in the town’s history, and how the town was instrumental in the development of the state. She hates it. When she asks how I know these things, my answer is almost always, “I dunno, I read it in a book or something.”
So at the same time I was questioning the status quo, I was beginning to open my mind to possibilities. I understood accounting wasn’t a good fit, but I wanted to attempt to make a career of it in private industry. I still felt I had committed too much to accounting to completely turn my back on it. Even though I had spent several months and a great deal of spare time on personality research, it was more learning than soul searching. The soul searching would come later. I had only planted a seed.
The Winter of our Discontent is both a noted Shakespeare line and a John Steinbeck novel. For me, it wasn’t winter but rather spring that was a season of life’s torment for years, and the spring of 2013 was especially lousy. To explain why is to start the story of my adventures in career change.
Public accounting is traditionally a very seasonal and cyclical business. Spring busy season is an overwhelming time in which CPA firms complete the vast majority of their clients’ tax returns. The rest are extended until fall, resulting in a fall busy season that can in some cases be worse due to the finality of the extended deadline. Spring and fall are two seasons when CPA’s dig their proverbial holes, hunker down, and only occasionally come up for air during their 60 to 80 hour (and sometimes even worse) work weeks for months at a time. My wife, Liza tells stories of how I became a different person during busy seasons—irritable, unhappy, combative, despondent are all ways she would use to describe me. Something is seriously wrong if your job makes you difficult to live with. During the rest of the year I wasn’t exactly thrilled with what I was doing and going home happy and fulfilled at the end of each work day. Instead, I was just going through the motions and slowly growing more disenchanted with my job, and busy seasons were only serving to make it worse. In retrospect it makes sense—if you don’t enjoy what you’re doing 40 hours a week, you are really going to be miserable doing it 60+ hours a week.
It was not until a few weeks after April 15, 2013, when I was ready and able to reflect on not just spring 2013 but also the long downward slide that I felt I had been on, and ask myself some hard questions. What had once been a good job to pay the bills had become a dreadful daily chore. I felt that all I really accomplished each day was mindlessly put numbers in boxes. I was bored out of my mind, felt little to no fulfillment and satisfaction from anything I did, and wasn’t passionate about the work. Worse still, from the moment I first stepped foot in an accounting firm during grad school, I felt radically different from everyone around me on some fundamental level that I couldn’t then understand, and that feeling never left at any accounting firm at which I later worked. Something just felt terribly wrong and empty about what I was doing with my life—that I just didn’t belong. With each passing day, I was only growing more miserable and numb to the world. Something had to change.
After eight years in the industry, a $30,000 master’s degree, and two certifications that put eight letters behind my name, I felt honestly either too scared or too committed to turn my back entirely on all that I had accomplished, so I didn’t seriously consider leaving accounting altogether. Thinking logically and practically, I determined that I needed to make a transition to private industry—the typical refuge for public accountants.
Public accounting is right for some people. The ones that enjoy it will make a tremendous career for themselves and a healthy living from it. It is a prestigious and honorable profession. But I knew it wasn’t right for me, so I began looking for private industry accounting positions. Somewhere deep down, however, I knew that was at most only part of the answer. I could only ignore that feeling for a short while longer.
“I don’t like prison; they have the wrong kind of bars in there.” – Charles Bukowski
“If you want total security, go to prison. There you’re fed, clothed, given medical care and so on. The only thing lacking… is freedom.” – Dwight Eisenhower
I stood silent, my eyes shifting nervously as I scanned the featureless cinderblock wall in front of me. Finally, the blue heavy metal door to my left began to slowly slide closed. Whirrrrrrrrrrrrr…ka-thunk! The finality of the sound was unsettling. A guard seemed to stare at me blankly. I didn’t need his stare to feel any more uncomfortable; after all, I was now locked inside the Colorado State Penitentiary.
The day before, I was approached by a coworker at my day job, Adam, with a proposition. “Wanna go to prison?” Adam asked. Ya know, as inviting as prison usually sounds, thanks but no, I’ll pass this time. Well wait, what exactly would get me into prison? Are we talking just your mundane multi-state spree of bank robberies? Or will this be some kind of Dr. Evil plot to take over the world? You have my attention if it’s the latter. None of the above–it was a pre-bid meeting for a couple of construction projects at the Colorado State Penitentiary near Canon (pronounced Canyon) City. No Dr. Evil sharks with freakin’ laser beams, buuuut, it was a chance to get out from behind my desk and do something unique, so I told Adam I’d go. I’ve always said I’d do anything once, and though going to prison never really crossed my mind as an “anything,” I’d make an exception in this situation. I filled out a couple of background check forms for the State so I could be allowed on the prison grounds, then agreed with Adam that I should leave early in the morning to minimize morning rush hour traffic when I passed through Colorado Springs on my way to Canon City.
I left my company’s office in Castle Rock promptly at 6:45 am. When I passed through Colorado Springs I discovered no one actually drives to work in that city. Perhaps I’m used to rush hours in Denver, which start Monday morning at 6 am and continue non-stop until approximately 3am Saturday. My false assumption of Springs traffic meant I was the first person in recorded human history to actually show up early at a prison. And I wasn’t just early, I was over an hour early. The prison is located in a complex of several separate prison facilities (including the infamous SuperMax) a few miles east of Canon City on a windswept and featureless desert just beyond the foothills to the Rockies. It was August, so even at 8 am there was no escape from the sun, which was already beating down on me. Rather than just sit there and watch the thermometer quietly climb to 140 degrees, I decided to take a few minutes to sight see. The little town of Florence was a short ten minute drive away; I had never been there and I enjoy checking out quaint and charming small Colorado towns. However, I soon discovered the reason Florence is rather obscure and off the beaten path is that someone forgot to tell the town that it should be quaint and charming. Somewhat creepy is my best description for it, and after five minutes of checking out its dilapidated buildings and its suddenly-abandoned-during-the-zombie-apocalypse vibe, I was on my way back to the much more inviting and comforting Colorado State Penitentiary. I was still half an hour early.
My meeting was held in the visitor center to the prison, located just outside the prison grounds. The first 30 minutes was spent going over project details, then all twenty of us contractors were driven around the prison grounds in two large passenger vans. The project was to be the construction of new guard towers and recreation yards, so we were given the ability to visit the areas and conditions where our construction crews would be working. While we drove around the facility, we could see inmates—oops, we were instructed to call them by the politically correct term “offenders”—the prison was paying to dismantle the existing perimeter fence. Obviously on some sort of work-release arrangement, I bet these offenders were very popular with their buddies inside for helping to make the facility a little less secure.
The meeting lasted about an hour, but there was a second meeting immediately after. This meeting was for phase two of the project—the reconstruction of a double electrical fence around the facility, which explained why the existing fence was being taken down. This project also called for replacing the security camera system and some other electrical work, much of which would be done inside the prison. That meant all of us contractors would be going inside the prison to tour the areas where our crews would be working.
Prison employees are surprisingly friendly and upbeat. Maybe working in a place with the dreary mission of housing people who need to be separated from the rest of society forces one to see the silver lining of virtually any situation. Whatever the reason, I’ve stayed at hotels with less friendly staff than the Colorado State Penitentiary. They were even cheery when our group of twenty contractors clogged up the prison lobby, slowly emptied our pockets, and made our way through the metal detectors like clueless morons in a TSA line who forgot to remove their shoes, their belts, and every other slightly metal object on their person.
Once our herd had finally made its successful way through the metal detectors and security, we were led into a room with blue metal doors at each end. This was the room described at the beginning of this blog. Once one is through security and into this room, the surroundings gives one an uncomfortable feeling that is difficult to describe. It could be due to the constant observation and close scrutiny of the guards. Or perhaps it is being in the close physical presence of offenders with swastikas tattooed on their shaved heads. I’m not sure.
If you use your imagination, the prison is in the shape of a clover. Each leaf is a two-story pod of several hundred cells arranged in a somewhat circular pattern. Connecting each leaf to the stem (where the front entrance, lobby, and main control room are all located) are long hallways divided into numerous sections with more of those blue heavy metal doors. The doors operate like locks in a canal; one door opens once the door at the opposite end of the section closes. This increases security, but it also greatly increases the time it takes to navigate through the facility. I guess if you’re spending 40 years in prison for armed robbery, you’re in no great hurry to get anywhere anyway. The guards would only allow four or five contractors at a time to see various rooms, so the remaining 15 of us would congregate in the hallways—also under guard—while we waited. During one such wait, another set of guards led an inmate—ooops, offender—through our section of the hallway. We were instructed to stand against the wall as they led the offender past us. The experience prompted a conversation between myself and two fence contractors I was standing near. We speculated that this was a minimum security facility due to the offenders outside disassembling the perimeter fence and the fact the offender that was just escorted past us was not in handcuffs or ankle chains. The prison maintenance director was with our tour, so as he made his way over to our conversation, one of us asked him about the prison’s security. He told us that while offenders of any security level may be in the facility, this was Colorado’s maximum security facility and where the state will send its most hardened criminals. I could see the color and any expression leaving the faces of the fencing contractors, and I’m sure the same was happening to mine. The only thought going through my mind at that moment was the guy they escorted past our group just moments before probably killed thirty people.
The next stop in our tour of Colorado’s maximum security prison for mass murderers, serial rapists, and homicidal maniacs was an actual pod of cells—one of the “leaves” of the clover-shaped prison. Inmat—offenders—in this pod were free to leave their cells and congregate in the common areas, which included tables with chairs and futons and TVs. They played cards at the tables, watched CNN on TVs, or just sat in groups talking and laughing. As we toured the pod, we were walking amongst them, who surprisingly were not very interested in our presence. I was not watching where I was walking, instead my attention focused on an electrical conduit pointed out by another contractor, and I almost collided with an offender crossing my path. “Oh, pardon, excuse me,” he said in a warm voice as he passed. It was surreal. If that was any indication, these offenders have better manners than many American tourists.
The shock of my first interaction ever in my life with a prison inmate was interrupted by what had to be the most boneheaded moment of the day, compliments of a fellow contractor. In the center of each two story pod is a two story guard room. The guard room on the second floor is accessible by an enclosed catwalk extending out from a stairway within the exterior wall, and suspended above the floor of the pod. Two contractors were looking up at the catwalk and a grate in its floor above them, which was about 3 to 4 feet square. “Ya know, they could get some of their prison laundry, start a fire below this catwalk, and probably smoke the guards out of the guard room,” one contractor said to the other. I slowly face-palmed. Offenders were walking around us within earshot. In my mind flashed images of a prison riot starting any moment now, thanks to the brilliant observation of my tour-mate.
Luckily, we were spared a prison riot that afternoon, and the guards led us to the next stop on our tour, which was the maximum security portion of the prison. In this area the offenders spend the vast majority of their day inside their cells. There are no TVs, no furniture, and no activity in this wing. So we had no interaction with offenders other than walking by an indoor basketball court where an organized game was being played. I spotted an offender with what appeared to be a swastika tattooed on his shaved head. I was ready to leave. Compound that with the noise of the inmates banging on their doors—apparently something they do when they know there are visitors present—and this is the by far the most unsettling wing of the prison.
Our last stop was in the basement of the prison, where the guards and maintenance personnel let us look at some mechanical and electrical equipment. This is relatively common with meetings like these, and I have learned to do my best to pretend to know what I’m looking at. I have a repertoire of interesting facial expressions that I use, including squinty eyes with a series of slight head nods, lifting my bottom lip and chin, and my patented “I’ve seen that thing a thousand times, whatever it is” blank stare. And of course I pay attention to what other guys look at and do, and then I look at and do those things too. For good measure, I make sure to go back at least once and pretend to look at something again. I was looking at one electrical box when another contractor walked up, took a hard look, grunted, and looking at something in particular inside the box, said, “I haven’t seen one of those damn things in twenty years.” Oh no, no one has ever actually tried to have a conversation with me about…whatever that thing is he’s looking at. I was trying desperately to ward off the deer-in-the-headlights look. So I said something disparagingly about how it’s the government and they do everything on a shoestring budget. I learned quickly in the construction industry that it’s highly popular with contractors to complain about anything and everything government-related. Other popular topics for small talk include guns, pick up trucks, beer, and football (but no other sports—and soccer doesn’t even count as a sport). “Boy you’re right about that,” the contractor said with a chuckle. “Sons of bitches can’t do anything right,” he added as he slowly walked away. Bullet dodged.
We finally arrived back at the prison’s lobby and main desk to sign out right at 1:45 in the afternoon. We had left our cell phones with security, and there is not a single clock to be found anywhere inside the prison, so I had no idea it was that late. My stomach had been complaining for awhile and now I understood why. Canon City was just a few miles away, so I could satisfy my ravenous hunger in no time…or so I thought. Everyone in Canon City drives like they are 85 years old. Apparently, the unwritten rule in town is to subtract 20 from whatever number is on the speed limit sign and the result is how fast you’re supposed to drive. On top of that, the town has a stop light approximately every fifteen feet. Their traffic lights mimic the damn prison doors—the moment the stop light you’re at turns green, the one at the next intersection turns yellow. So I slowly made. My way. Through Canon City. Until I finally. Found a Sonic. After passing what. Seemed like a. Half dozen McDonalds. I can’t stand McDonalds, so Sonic was at least a decent substitute for real food.
After I scarfed down my Route 44 feast, I hit the road and had just as much fun getting out of Canon City as I had finding lunch. After the last stop light, I was stuck behind two jackasses cars driving side by side in the two east bound lanes, both of which drove the exact same speed and took four miles to get to 65 mph. I’m not exaggerating—I kept track of every excruciating mile on our protracted odyssey to normal highway speed, because by this time I knew I was going to blog about this memorable day.
If you ever have a chance to go to prison, whether by choice or not, I’d advise against it. It’s a dreary place. However, one of the reasons I appreciate new experiences is that they almost always change my perspective or at least challenge my beliefs. The one pris—err, offender—who politely apologized for almost running into me made quite an impression on me and challenged many of the assumptions I held. The prison staff was also not what I was expecting. Amazingly friendly, warm, and helpful, they maintain an attitude quite the opposite of the vibe of their workplace. As a person that loathes structure and detests restrictions, what struck me most about prison was the stark contrast in these two areas to everyday life. It prompted me to consider what life must be like for offenders as they transition away from prison when their sentences end. The United States has a higher percentage of its population in prison than any other industrialized nation in the world (almost 1%, source available here), and eventually when most of these offenders are released back into society it’s often done without much counseling. Not all prisoners are sent to halfway houses or work release programs, so like being thrown into freezing cold water, the offenders are released from a highly structured and protective environment to an outside world where suddenly they need to fend for themselves. Where once they couldn’t even shower without supervision and a schedule, when released they are devoid of virtually any oversight or accountability. And without a doubt, life inside that prison is easier, safer, and better than what some of those offenders experienced before they were locked up and what many will return to after. What I saw that time I went to prison wasn’t Club Med, and I’m not advocating changes to the environment of prison. I’m beginning to understand, though, that we are setting offenders up for failure if we can’t slowly reintroduce each and every one of them to society and teach them skills to be successful outside of prison. Expanded work release programs and counseling, adding more parole officers, and establishing support systems for former inmates seems to me to be a hell of a lot better use of our money than continuing to expand and build prisons so that the rest of us can just ignore the problem in hopes that it goes away. Prison may be punishment, and it should be, but we punish our society’s potential when two-thirds of released offenders end up back in prison within 3 years (source here). Our current system, obviously, isn’t working. As of 2008, the states alone (not counting the federal government), spent almost $50 billion dollars on their prison systems (source), and in every state more was spent on prisons than on education (source). Troubling statistics like that won’t change if we do not take a more progressive and strategic approach to the prison problem.