Portrait of the accountant as a young man

I have often thought about writing a post by this name, with no idea of what the content might be. I like the idea of comparing an accountant to an artist, as two walks of life could not be more different. That’s why the title.

My daughter once worked around some accounting personnel, and she noted that they were jovial and outgoing. But, she added, it was a front. These people knew the reputation accountants had and were deflecting by putting on masks. Underneath the lilting outer surfaces were staid and tired folks, as you would expect.

I came out of high school without a rudder, a messed up family, and myself totally lacking in confidence. On top of that, I got married too young, and my then wife, who came from a family of five who lived in a big house somewhere on Long Island, thought we too should have five kids and a large house. Not too many years into the marriage I had lost interest in her, and I think additional babies were a safety net, as she knew I possessed integrity and always tried to do the right thing. I would support them all.

I took a shot at business school, and it turned out I was pretty good with numbers. Unfortunately, none of those classes could be transferred to a real college. However, a company in Billings, let’s call it HF Enterprises, needed a hand, and I was sent by the business school to interview for a part-time position. I got the job, and my boss, let’s call him Cecil, became a positive influence over me. He sat me down one time and said I had to get a better education, but that nothing was beyond my abilities.

With that encouragement behind me, I decided to go to Eastern Montana College while at the same time working in what turned out to be a full time position. Because of Cecil, I was able to arrange my classes and leave work for periods of time, my salary converted to hourly wage. This went on for years. I finally got my degree in 1981 at age 31. I turned out to be a very good student. I chose accounting because 1) I was good at it, and 2) we had five kids and I had to pay the bills.

I worked under another man, let’s call him Emil, whom I took an instant dislike to the first time we met. I was to go with him to a nearby town to inventory some pipe. It was a long, long day, as Emil bragged all day long about how good he was at his job, that is, accounting. I could not wait to escape him!

Emil, Cecil’s opposite, was threatened by me, and so made sure that during annual reviews my job description was only “to assist Emil.” Nothing more.

The end-objective of anyone with an accounting degree is to pass the CPA exam. It was a frightening prospect, as failure was so common. The test was very hard, nineteen hours of grueling labor. So naturally I put it off. And note that Emil said to anyone who asked that he never took the CPA exam because he did not think he would need it to succeed. In other words, he too was scared shitless. Whenever Cecil and Emil and I discussed problems with office business, Emil was quick to remind me that I was a mechanical guy, but did not have a good grasp of theoretical accounting. I ground my teeth.

Things changed, the H and F of HF Enterprises split up, and the employees were divvied up. There was a crazy old lady who took over the F side of things, and I was given over to her. My new boss was mercurial, frightened of the oil business and the people in it, and controlling. She was also overly generous to the employees (H and F people still worked under one roof), and showered us with turkeys and bonuses and See’s Candy every holiday season.

With the See’s candy came a small box of samples, and since it was claimed by no one, I put it out in the break room for everyone. That night I got a phone call at home from the crazy woman herself, and she chewed me out viciously for giving away that tiny box of candy. She said I was using her generosity as my own. I endured, and at the end of the phone call vowed no more, that I would take the CPA exam. I was tired of letting my fear govern my choices.

I took a review course at my Alma Mater, three months of four hours of class every Tuesday night and Saturday morning. I also, on the other days, came to work at 6AM so I could have two hours of study time before work.

Someone suggested to me, and I wish I remembered who, that the key to retention in studying was to have questions in mind. That in mind, I took my study text, brief chapters and thousands of questions, and for each chapter I would initially take the end-of-chapter test, but only every third question. I then graded myself, as the answers were all in the back. I did poorly, of course, as it was usually fresh material to me.

I then read the chapter, and questions had formed due to the questions I had blindly answered, and the material went down smoothly. I then took the remainder of the end-of-chapter test, and always did very well. It was a good technique.

The test rolled around in May of 1984, and as I recall it was given out over Thursday to Saturday, and was indeed 19 hours. It was in large part multiple choice and T/F with some essay questions. I felt good about everything, and realized as I studied that if I could nail the multiple choice questions, I was 80% home.

In those days there were either four or five parts to the test: Accounting, accounting theory, auditing, business law … maybe just four. I loved business law, and hated auditing. But I knew that I had to pass all four or five parts I had to get through auditing. So I sweated it, did my very best to study effectively, and got through it.

The results came back some time later, maybe July. A letter was waiting for me as we returned from a vacation. I opened it slowly and with bated breath. I had passed! All five or four parts!  I was in – that kid who graduated high school sans confidence had worked his way through a grueling test of both intellect and courage, and succeeded.

I passed Emil’s office not too long after, and told him I had taken and passed the exam, and noted that part of the test was accounting theory, and I had passed that too. Emil, ever the arrogant prick, repeated that he too would have taken and passed the test, but did not think he would need it. He did not even say congratulations.

Accounting is a tough profession, and merely passing the CPA exam was not so big a deal as I thought. The bulk of learning that goes on is on-the-job training. It takes years to become seasoned and confident in one’s skills. The learning never stops, except now that I am retired, the learning is done and the books are long gone, and I avoid the subject while thanking it for paying my bills and leaving me in good shape for retirement.

I worked hard to succeed, and am glad that I was able to become my own boss, running my own company. I think that and a man breaking into our home and raping our eight-year-old daughter changed me, made me better able to think, and to accept change in my life as the only constant. I was certainly different than when I graduated high school. By the time I met my current wife, I was sure of myself and full of humor and good cheer. We easily fell in love and have stayed in love. She is wonderful, my anchor.

There you have it: Portrait of the accountant as a young man. Lots of hard work, lots of good fortune, and plenty of people to say thank you to, mostly Cecil. Oh yeah, and a box of chocolates.

5 thoughts on “Portrait of the accountant as a young man

  1. Interesting reflections. I worked an event for an accounting business association once – there was some self-deprecating humor about the stereotype from some of them. I guess it’s a little like having the name “Karen” – pop culture paints with a rather broad brush in its reach for cheap shots and punchlines.

    I used to browse the stacks at the downtown library quite a bit. Once I came across a book about the history of accounting – forget the title – but it turned out to be one of the more interesting books I’ve ever read, surprisingly. I didn’t know at the time there were theoretical debates over first principles, and that some of them were sort of insoluble. Some colorful figures, and then of course there were many scandals over the course of the past century, involving large accounting firms and their relation to major banks, government and corporations.. of course I’ve forgotten the details now, just gave me a sense of that world.


    1. I once (and only once) was asked to speak to a gathering, and referred to accounting as “the second oldest profession.” I did it only for humor, and it did not sit well with that large group of accountants and other professions.


  2. FIFO! First In….First Out. Have to wonder what group of people wrote those accounting textbooks. I assumed they were aliens or robots and I was no match to compete with them. I’m always interested in learning what people do for a living and the process they went about pursuing their careers. Mark it appears you made the right decision.

    Liked by 1 person

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