Did you wake up one morning when you were in primary school and assert, with the same certainty as the boy sitting next to you who wanted to be a train driver, that you wanted to be an accountant when you grew up? I didn't. So how I ended up qualified and allowed to put ACA after my name was somewhat of a mystery. It had a lot to do with wanting to prove that I was more than a ditzy blond with a Classics degree. It had a lot to do with wanting to learn about how people lived. It had most though to do with the fact that I wanted a training in life.
I chose to do my training in a wonderful family-orientated medium sized London-based practice where quickly I was despatched off to the manufacturing wastelands of the British Isles. It was eye-opening to see brown envelopes of cash being given out every week on the shop floor as wages and wondering how it was possible to feed a family on so little; to see the divide between those who made things and those who administered them; and to see the retrospective nature in what we did.
If you work in compliance and feel a funny turn coming over you, just remember that what I'm telling you happened many years ago in the antediluvian times pre-Big Bang and pre-Cadbury, since when I'm sure things have tightened up considerably. But when I'm asked "was there one moment in your career which really changed you?" then this is it.
I was finally eligible to go out on my own to audit a very small, private firm. The manager in charge accompanied me to the back end of nowhere to introduce me to the man whose office I would share for the week and who looked after the literal brown paper bag of receipts from which I was to produce a set of accounts. After the statutory tea, my colleague asked the question: "what do you want? a profit or a loss?".
Before you faint, as I nearly did at the time, at the brazen ignorance of our so-called independence, recognise that this profession is creative and far from boring as we are often portrayed.
In the week that followed I realised that, within the confines of the numbers, bank statements, cheque book stubs and receipts - oh, and of course the accounting standards and practices of the day - I could indeed make the finished accounts look more profit than loss, or more loss than profit. It all depended on whether it was an expense or an investment, income or not; but one thing for sure: the cash at bank was immoveable and everything had to balance - there were no joker cards to play.
That question "what do you want? a profit or a loss?" kept though echoing in my mind. How did it apply to me and my life?
We are all given 168 hours a week (you don't need a calculator! 7 days x 24 hours). How do you allocate them all, not just those 35 hours which go on your time sheet. It's relevant because somewhere along the line you have to fit in studying 17 hours a week in order to qualify (and note that at the time we were only taught to get just above the pass mark - in the name of efficiency - so you were never going to know everything and you couldn't therefore abandon any of the syllabus). 17 hours doesn't sound that much but when you take into account commuting an hour each way (10 hours), lunch hour (5), getting up and ready in the morning, with breakfast, (5) having a bath and getting ready for bed in the evening, including ironing a shirt (5), eight lovely hours of sleep a night (56), shopping for food (2), eating dinner - weekdays (5), cooking and eating a decent lunch at the weekends (2 x 2.5), cleaning the house (3), doing the laundry (3), going for a bracing walk/exercise/swim at the gym (2 x 3), talking to your mum on the phone (1), you're already 10 hours short per week, and that doesn't include going out with friends. What you learn training to be an accountant is efficiency, the discipline of effectiveness based on a deep commitment to stretch yourself to get something out of your current reach and comfort zone: every minute count of every hour counts, especially the ones not on your time sheet.
Here's the thing: those hours are measured not in money - it's not about how much you charge or earn per hour - but in breaths. You can't off-balance sheet finance with breaths. One of those yogic facts you need right now to accept is all living beings are allocated the same number of breaths, somewhere in the region of 84 gazillion (it depends on the translation). Essentially an elephant lives longer because it uses them up slower than a dragonfly who uses them up very, very, very fast indeed. If you're stressed you'll breath faster; if you slow your breath rate down to a yogic 4 per minute (5 seconds in, 5 seconds hold, 5 seconds out) you'll be on track for a human lifespan. As a side effect incidentally, slowing down your breath rate controls your emotions which tend to be a big waster of time, so it's a win-win situation.
So when you qualify, thus releasing seventeen precious hours a week of breaths from your already crammed schedule, what do you do with them? The answer will determine whether your life is a profit or a loss for you.
You didn't come on holiday to Planet Earth just to be an accountant, in an office, pushing paper did you? What happened to what else you wanted to enjoy and experience on your short stay here? Surely there's more to life than mere survival, feeding and housing yourself? What is it?
How does your 168-hour a week time sheet hold up to an audit, not later at the pearly gates by Peter the Senior Partner, but now by you?
I guess, if you're reading this, that you score pretty highly on compliance, you've got good systems in place to ensure that you catch the 7.12am from Bexleyheath, automatic renewals for your gym/music society membership; that your discipline which got you through those training years, and keeps you turning up at the office day after day, is not to be sniffed at. But what of the substantive testing? Are you getting the most out of life?
This is not about throwing in the day job, no, not at all. It's about using the time that you have to sort out what you want from life. Efficiency means that while you are in the office doing your job, you are also doing what you are on Planet Earth to do, to work on and for your Self. There's no better place than meetings to see what people need to work on emotionally and mentally to get them over the stumbling blocks of their enjoyment of their lives (and often of their promotion prospects). The question then comes, what do you need to learn to make your life more calm, fit and effective?
I am extremely grateful to have become and been a Chartered Accountant: I learned self-discipline, how privileged I was to have been academically educated, but most of all I learned that life is what you make of it, and the choice is entirely yours: do you want a profit or a loss?