Adventures in Career Change: Part III–A Requiem for Accounting and the Rat Race
“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.