Adventures in Career Change: Part V—A Step Forward in Disguise
Punched in the Mouth
“Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.” – Mike Tyson
I made a giant leap of faith when I left accounting. I made another in the spring of 2016.
Two primary considerations prompted my career change in 2014: 1) get out of an unfulfilling career that was suffocating the life out of me, and 2) have more time with and take a more active role in the care of my young family. The results of the first can be considered nothing less than an unbridled success. In my first post-accounting job I felt a deep sense of joy and fulfillment every day. I had never been happier actually doing work, and no longer was I just a soulless drone in a cubicle putting numbers in boxes. But the second had been much harder to realize and its pursuit had come uncomfortably close to being a bonafide disaster.
When I was pursuing a job in the spring of 2014, I didn’t ask enough questions and I was too quick to accept a compelling vision of a company for which I didn’t have even a vague understanding of its current policies. That I didn’t understand what I was getting into was my fault and mine alone.
The demands of the job were much more than I was expecting, but I accepted and dealt with them. At the same time, I found it impossibly difficult to handle a near complete lack of schedule flexibility from the company’s daily office hours of 7am to 5pm. I received push back in asking for the ability to take kids to doctor’s appointments, work from home when the kids were sick, or take my pregnant wife to the airport so she wouldn’t have to lift heavy luggage out of the car. These requests were given the term “family situations”; I was told I had too many of them despite the fact I more than made up any lost time. The result was my family was struggling to function and I was struggling to be meaningfully engaged on a day-to-day basis as a husband and father. Far too often I was being compelled to violate my principles by having to choose my work over my family instead of being given the freedom as an accomplished professional to balance these responsibilities. Liza and I felt a little less important than company rules, and I get easily and quickly disenchanted when the human element in an environment is sacrificed for the sake of commercial interests or arbitrary policies and procedures.
Business can be indifferent, cold, and terse. It’s about facts, it’s about results, and most of the time the end justifies the means. Throughout my 16 years at the time in the workforce with nine different companies, I heard “it’s just business” more times than I could stomach. That’s just one of many reasons why I was not a good fit not just for this job, but for the business world in general.
“Selling out is usually more a matter of buying in. Sell out, and you’re really buying into someone else’s system of values, rules, and rewards,” said Bill Watterson, creator of the famous cartoon strip Calvin and Hobbes. He continued, “You will find your own ethical dilemmas in all parts of your lives, both personal and professional. 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.”
With those words echoing in my mind, I decided I had to make yet another job change for the health of my marriage, my relationship with my kids, and for my own personal sanity. What we really needed to maximize our success as a family was something the company couldn’t provide without wholesale policy changes—or a complete transformation in how the company thinks. Asking for that was not realistic.
I struggled with this at first. I was supposed to be done with making job changes; I was supposed to have rode off into the sunset from accounting and lived happily ever after. When I started the job I intended to be with the company indefinitely. That was the plan, but when you started reading this blog you learned what Mike Tyson says about plans. I could no longer stick to the plan while my wife—one of the strongest people I know—was reduced to tears from the pressure of taking care of virtually 100% of our childcare responsibilities and all the while trying to be a successful business woman.
A Soft Place to Fall
“I cannot do everything, but I can do something. And I will not let what I cannot do interfere with what I can do.” – Edward Everett Hale
So I began perusing opportunities on Flexjobs.com, Rat Race Rebellion, and other websites—opportunities that would all but guarantee flexibility. Close friends, who were extremely supportive and understanding of our situation, began looking for jobs for me—including a trusted old friend from my public accounting days who not only was outraged by what Liza and I were dealing with, but also vowed that she would find me a new job in 2016. I was skeptical; I underestimated the resolve of Katherine Douglas. After an opportunity at her company didn’t progress, she put me in touch with a mutual friend of ours who is a recruiter. He connected me with a small public accounting firm near our neighborhood which was looking to fill a part time position paying more than what I currently made, performing marketing and business development functions in addition to some tax accounting.
My first interview with the firm’s founder and CEO, Rick, was unlike most I’ve ever experienced. After I explained my current situation and why I was on the hunt for a new job, Rick responded by candidly describing his life as a father to a 13 and 10-year-old. He said, “Balancing work and family is tough. I. Get. It. So we try to make it easier. The way I personally approach it, and how I believe—how I hope—my firm does too, is like this. If my kid is playing in a basketball game or something—and the school always schedules the things at the worst possible times, like 4 o’clock in the afternoon—I’m going; I don’t care about anything else. Client demands mean nothing to me at that point. I’m not missing out on my kids’ life. I’m not going to not be a dad.”
He seemed to understand, but I wasn’t sure if Rick was just telling me what I wanted to hear and feeding me a line of bull. A second interview with other employees at the firm gave me reassurance that Rick and his firm were, as he described them, “different.” Not just different in the respect of holding company meetings during walks outside the office (they do), or company-wide breaks in the afternoon to ride long-boards in the parking lot (they do), or retreats to hike 14ers in the summer (yes, that too). Instead, different in the respect of valuing an employee’s personal time, personal life, and personal commitments. One of the employees, unprompted by any of my questions, told a story of how she had worked from home that morning and delayed coming into the office because her dog had an appointment at the groomer. Her dog. If they allowed schedule flexibility because of dogs, I felt it safe to assume they were going to be pretty understanding of child care issues. I accepted an offer a few days later. April 15th, 2016, was the last day at my previous job and I started my new job April 20th.
I had to overcome an initial hesitance toward and a bias against the prospect of returning to accounting. And I had to recognize the tremendous opportunity this job presented. To be honest, I was still somewhat apprehensive of returning to accounting. Half the job was business development, so my exposure to actual accounting was not limited just by the part time hours. Still, I had to change my perspective of the job from previous accounting jobs I’ve held. Accounting was no longer my career; it was just a job. So in my mind I treated this position like a contract job—so that my employer is my customer—to help contain my sometimes vigorous independent streak.
Another mindset that would help me cope with the accounting responsibilities of the job was knowing that the part time hours enabled this job to be my runway into freelance writing. The hours and demands of my previous job never enabled me to make significant progress developing my writing career. Having only an hour or two at a time caused my writing endeavors to be significantly inefficient—case in point: creating my website took 13 months. Now I had an entire day of the week—in addition to nights and weekends—to blog, work on the dozens of fiction and nonfiction projects I’ve been wanting to start, and to annoy the editors of Outside with endless pitches for articles. I didn’t know how long it would take to become a full-time freelance writer, but that was the end game that I could now aggressively pursue.
Getting Back up Swinging
“The greatest of all mistakes is to do nothing because you think you can only do a little.” – Zig Ziglar
My boss at my previous job felt strongly that being tough can help make a person successful, and in principle I absolutely agree with him. I have encountered and endured some crushing setbacks and circumstances in life that taught me perseverance and emotional strength are keys to success. But blindly accepting the status quo and believing we are incapable of changing it is not toughness. Instead, it’s weak to admit “that’s just the way it is” or to believe the best way to do something is the way it’s always been done. Strength is embracing change, empowering and trusting others, and not being afraid to be different from everyone else. The great British Prime Minister Winston Churchill once said, “Courage is what it takes to stand up and speak; courage is also what it takes to sit down and listen.” That is also toughness.
I learned two valuable lessons from this situation. The first lesson is that a small business (or at least the one at which I’d just worked) is fundamentally not that different from the large companies at which I’d wasted years of my life. The nature of any business is to try to get the most out of you that they can. In reality, nobody really cares much about you beyond the work you can perform and the commercial value you provide. It’s an unfortunate and harsh truth that honestly I needed to be reminded of. It will serve me well going forward and will be at the forefront of my mind in my time at my new job.
The other thing I learned from the situation is to NEVER put your system of values and the quality of your life in the hands of a commercial enterprise. One does not truly understand or notice the expectations or hardships professional women with children face in our society unless you are one or are married to one. Because I’m male doesn’t reduce my responsibility to help raise and care for our children, but that is how many companies indirectly treat the wives of their male employees. However, we cannot expect or wait for companies or governments to act in our best interests, so it’s up to us as employees and individuals to take control and responsibility over the lives we want to lead.
Liza’s patience and resolve in the two long years I spent in that job was remarkable. From trying to handle her professional responsibilities and nearly all of our child care responsibilities, to encouraging me through the months-long job change process and being open-minded about my return to accounting. Considering the emotional and mental state I was in when I left accounting, it was truly a leap of faith for me to return to it—even in a limited capacity. But I was willing to take the chance considering the benefits this situation could bring to our family and to my aspirations as a writer, and I was grateful Liza was supportive of it.
The benefits for Liza were obvious and immediate. She finally had the domestic support structure she needed to invest in her career and her potential. Our family is much different than the tired mid-20th century concept of an American family. Liza’s job was responsible for almost 70% of our household income (our situation was similar even before I left my high paying accounting career). Having a wife with Liza’s career accomplishments would be emasculating or intimidating for some men. They would be uncomfortable with the idea of not being the bread winner or having to defer to her career. Not me. Sure, my writing a best seller or two might level our financial playing field, but in the meantime it’s inspiring for me to see her potential. I hope someday she runs a company because she’s fully capable of doing so. I know that our culture values her skillset much more than it values mine, and it’s pointless for me to try to be something I’m not—or limit her potential—in an attempt just to fulfill an archaic stereotype. As long as I’m pulling my weight and contributing to our joint cause financially, I’m okay with my role. I consider ours to be a normal family, but I do admit our situation is more indicative of what may be more commonplace in twenty years than how commonplace was defined twenty years ago.
The benefits of this new job were less apparent for me, but I was energized by the possibilities a part time job presented for me as a freelance writer. Efforts at maintaining our blog and building a professional blog were wildly inconsistent, so I was excited by the prospects of being able to blog regularly. My new job would allow me to start on my first major book project—a collaboration with a friend of mine about the 1970 plane crash in Colorado that took the lives of most of Wichita State University’s football team. I had plots for several short stories and novels in my mind that were begging to be written. In general, I would have more time to explore writing opportunities at magazines and for other blogs, and in doing so lay the foundation for success that I could build upon when I pursue writing as a full time job.
My adventure in career change took an unpredictable turn to say the least. I never expected—nor did I ever want to—return to accounting. However, this situation had the potential to be radically beneficial to my family and my ultimate career plans. Liza and I were hopeful it would usher in an era of unprecedented personal and professional success for both of us. In the forthcoming Part VI, I’ll update you on events since taking this job. They have taught me to expect the unexpected.