“Sometimes we let life guide us, and other times we take life by the horns.” – Brandon Jenner
I’ve had to make a difficult decision recently. It’s one that I’ve felt looming for some time, though the opportunity to deliberate hasn’t made the decision any easier.
Four years ago I didn’t want to spend another day working for someone else. I had been in the workforce for fifteen years, and most of those years I spent in careers and jobs that didn’t suit me. I had grown disillusioned by the greed, self interest, and rampant destructive politics of corporate America. I had worked for more than a few raging assholes, a boss who banged coworkers, a supervisor who fired my peers because they didn’t behave as yes men, an unstable business owner who sometime after I left his company attempted suicide with a gun at the end of a boat ramp, a boss who bragged about beating up boy scouts, and bosses who weren’t satisfied with employees working eighty hour weeks and meeting soul crushing demands. I worked at huge companies that neglected employees who served their customers, at prestigious accounting firms where style was rewarded over substance, and at a small “family” company run by “friends” who never missed a chance to give less than a rat’s ass about my family or about me. I had seen just enough of the working world to realize I no longer wanted any part of it. People—in general—had proven themselves to be astonishingly awful. People I had trusted and considered friends had abandoned me or shunned me. I was intensely jaded and bitterly cynical, and I was exhausted by working with people who fell short of not just their potential as human beings, but fell short of who they appeared to be.
I wanted to work for myself not just because I had worked for some crappy companies. I also worked for several outstanding organizations. But the common denominator for most of my working life is that my bosses and coworkers didn’t understand me. And to be fair to them, I didn’t know enough about myself to help them understand me. I only thought I knew what I liked and what constituted my strengths and weaknesses. Instead, I was trying to force a false narrative down my own throat. I ignored what I really wanted and needed. In retrospect, I can see that I’ve always been an incredibly bad fit in traditional corporate America, and an even worse fit in the traditionally conservative and notoriously black and white world of accounting.
I should have known from a multitude of clues. Most—practically all—my friends throughout life, people I like and those I can relate to, approach life and work in unconventional ways. In college, my friends were fine arts or humanities majors. In fact, I knew virtually no one from the business school in college, I had so little in common with them. In graduate school, my favorite classes were two electives: Ethics and the History of the Roman Empire. In the former, I wrote a paper my professor implored me to publish in a trade journal. The later provided me what I consider my crowning achievement of graduate school—a twenty page essay on the Roman Coliseum. In my chosen career of accounting, the friends I made that stuck have practically all left the profession because they themselves were bad fits.
Though I received my master’s degree in accounting, I originally intended for that to be just a stepping stone on my path to be a tax attorney. I wanted to write legal briefs and I appreciated the abstract nature of law. I had reached out to both the University of Denver and the University of Colorado law schools, and I was preparing to study for the LSAT when the crushing demands of my “stepping stone” career put an end to my ambitions. And while being crushed by those demands, I found accounting to be suffocating and confining. In the words of one of my present colleagues, “Accounting is black and white. There’s always a right answer, and in the end the books should always balance.” To some types, those who receive a degree of comfort from satisfied expectations and who are fulfilled by predictable outcomes, accounting is ideal. But to me the inherent security of accounting’s precise results seems so limiting. I need more ambiguity, more gray area; freedom to find answers that aren’t anticipated or so cut and dry.
With all this in mind, I resolved to work for myself, pursue my passion of writing alone, and let the rats devour each other in their pointless race. I just needed to find a job to buy some time before I left the corporate world forever.
I met a guy in the spring of 2016 who would turn my world upside down. Rick Whipple’s calm and friendly demeanor overshadows his intense lifestyle. He never brags about his accomplishments—hell, he practically never mentions them. Perhaps that’s because he considers them bad habits. Those habits include summiting Denali and several Himalayan peaks, circumnavigating Iceland on a bike, and climbing everything from easy sport routes in Colorado’s foothills to gnarly suicidal Alaskan climbs. He hates the word “boss” as much as I do; like me he considers the word “too authoritarian.” He has claimed the only reason he owns an accounting firm was because he couldn’t work for anyone else. In his words, he’s “unemployable.” And he just happened to be the CEO of an accounting firm that operates like no other accounting firm in the history of human civilization. One that took a chance hiring me in April 2016 to be a part time tax accountant.
I’ll never understand why Rick hired me, honestly. Perhaps he saw something in me similar to himself. I’m a misfit. I’m socially awkward. I often see issues far differently from my peers and I come up with hairbrained ideas that clash with the conventional sensibilities of virtually everyone else. In a nutshell: when others zig, I zag. I just do not fit in well with a typical organization, where conformity is key. Still, accountants are accountants, and accounting jobs require a certain skillset and frame of mind, no matter the firm one works for. It didn’t take long for Rick to notice I didn’t like my job, and he sensed that I was just biding my time until I found something else. He should have fired me. He should have let me write books and be the misfit I wanted to be. Instead, he did something accountants never do: the thing least expected. The guy put me in charge of the day to day operations of the whole damn firm. A year after I got this part time (and “temporary”) tax accounting job, artfully planning my exit from the workforce, I woke up and suddenly found myself with the title of “Firm Administrator,” the public accounting lexicon for Chief Operations Officer.
I’ll admit to having no clue what I was doing in my new position. I arrived at the office every day completely winging it, figuring out things as I went along. I had no job description, no clearly understandable role, and a team of employees who were looking to me to lead them. I fumbled through my first year so aimlessly that I ended up thriving. My job contained so many paradoxes that it made sense to me. Drawing on all those years of public accounting experience that I thought was wasted, I reorganized and reimagined the administrative and operating functions of the firm. Whether by choice or by chance, I turned over almost my entire team—replacing those who left with handpicked successors hired not for their skillset but for their personality and demeaner. Through that effort, we redefined their roles. We rewrote, revamped, or entirely scrapped bad processes. As a department, we studied the “1% Better” concept to strengthen principles of constant improvement, and we read the book “The Fred Factor” to redefine what customer service means.
WhippleWood isn’t a great place just because Rick understands his people, puts them in the right roles, and then gets out of their way to let them do their job. It’s also a place that truly respects its employees’ time and personal lives. Doctor’s appointments, my son’s physical therapy appointments, meetings at church—I have the freedom as a professional to balance whatever commitments I have outside of work.
Through all of this I’ve realized that I need the firm just as much if not more than the firm needs me. I need the challenge of coming to work every day and trying to figure out just what the hell it is I’m supposed to be doing. I need to face these daily situations of not knowing how to handle a given problem, but knowing we will find a way. These spaces of uncertainty, this occupational Wild West, is where I thrive.
So the decision that I’ve made, the one that took me so long to deliberate, is that I’m making the commitment to be full time as of January 1, 2020. With any luck, in the years ahead I’ll never really figure out this job. I hope I will continue to not know how to handle every problem, and instead ask questions and relentlessly probe for answers until a solution presents itself. I hope every day is ever so slightly different than the one before so I never know what to expect.
Of course, this doesn’t mean I will stop writing. The factor most impactful to my decision was the effect it would have on my unquenchable thirst to write. For this change in my day job to happen, I had to promise to myself that I would find ways for it to enhance my availability and passion for writing. Too often in the past couple of years, I’ve crammed nearly a week’s worth of work into four days, then spent Friday detoxing, recovering from it rather than writing. I will need to do a better job integrating writing into my weekly routine, and utilizing my evenings—which are typically my most creative and productive times—for writing. I’m also beginning to write more material just for myself. Writing is my outlet, my escape, my means to make sense of life and my place in this world, but in the past few years it has grown stale as I focused on how I could commercialize it. I need to be OK with the possibility that half or more of what I write will never see the light of day, and just let the creative juices (and words on the page) flow.
I am still focused on the research for my book about the plane crash here in Colorado that killed the 1970 Wichita State football team. I have two short stories that are in the final stages of editing—and I hope to be shopping them around for publishing this year. I have many more in various stages of writing. I’m tinkering with the concepts for at least two novels. I have a dozen blogs or more that I just need to put finishing touches to. And now every night I’m writing something that you, dear reader, will never see. It’s work that’s just for me, because that’s the place where my mind goes to play, where it has fun and never has to worry about being judged. It’s a place where ratings and reviews are of no concern. It’s the place where coal is polished into diamonds.
“It’s tough to make predictions,” Yogi Berra once said, “especially about the future.” The irony never escapes me that I’m a CPA who fought so hard to leave public accounting, only to fall back into it with a position that doesn’t really have all that much to do with actual accounting. And I have a boss who hates the word boss; who thinks outside the box just enough to realize how he could utilize my skills and my personality to benefit us both.
I never could have predicted at any point in the past that this would be my present. And I can’t predict what I’ll be doing five or ten years from now. That is more than enough ambiguity to drive an accountant bonkers—and just enough to give me peace. I do know that I will never work for someone ever again besides myself or Rick Whipple. Rick and his firm restored my faith in people, and most importantly myself. So I owe it to him and to myself to say when I leave WhippleWood CPAs, no matter the circumstances—whether it’s their choice or mine, whether it’s tomorrow or ten years from now—I am considering myself retired. I have seen enough in the business world to know my present situation is the best it will ever be—short of sitting in my pajamas writing best selling books from my living room. And maybe someday that’s where I’ll be, writing in my pajamas while sipping from a coffee mug inscribed on one side with a WhippleWood CPAs logo, and on the other with the words “Happy Retirement.”
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.
“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.