Are You My Mother? Story of a Lost CPA
I’ve been in client facing roles most of my career, and with that have met a lot of people! I will admit, I didn’t always love dealing so much with people, and I still do prefer my alone time to recharge. But as a curious person, I eventually started to value conversations with clients, and then anyone, as intriguing. We are all SO very different; I’m now genuinely interested in what people have to say – almost like a science experiment!
Something I always found interesting was how people ended up where they are, and the most fascinating stories were the ones with crazy twists the person admittedly never saw coming. Starting out in one industry, only to end up in a place they never would have imagined…doing a full circle after trying out something they thought was their passion and ultimately was not…a series of events and choices leading someone to the path they didn’t even know they were searching for. Is it fate? Just making the best of choices? Who is to say…either way, it’s thought-provoking. If you’ve ever felt lost in life or career - no worries, I’ve been right there with you. It’s the reason I wanted to share this personal story with you: to know that you’re not alone, that the path taken isn’t always going to bring what you thought, and it’s ok when you make mistakes, because you will. Learn from it and keep going. They say getting lost will help you find your way. Here’s my story of how I found mine.
Though my Mother desperately tried to wrangle me in, I never followed the straight and narrow, and I always had to learn things the hard way. I’m still learning every day how to be the person I really want to be, but am inherently strong willed and stubborn; it’s a blessing and a curse. Case in point: I played sports year-round and entered into advanced classes at a very young age, making friends with all the upstanding citizens in school, and still eventually found myself hanging out with the adventurous crowd in my teenage years…have mercy on my rebel soul. Something good did come of that nonconforming mindset, though. I did the first thing in my life I look back on and am especially proud of: I decided to be the first exchange student from my high school! I’ll never forget the look on my Mom’s face when I came home and told her I signed up to go live in Argentina my Senior year. I believe it went something like, “WHAT?!” But, that was the first of a couple pivotal experiences in my life, no doubt. And though I was scared out of my mind once I got there, I will never regret the decision to go, because in that moment it felt like exactly what I needed to do, and I’m so glad that I did because it started to shape me.
After I got back, honestly the last thing I wanted to do was go to college, but I went to Iowa State anyway and signed up as a Spanish major with a goal of teaching Spanish on a beach somewhere awesome. But alas, I didn’t make it there. Instead, I decided to take a brief hiatus from college and moved to NYC for three years to experience more life. Interestingly, I moved there in August of 2001…yep, I had lived there all of one month when 9/11 happened. Terrifying, but being young and fierce, I never thought of going home. I lived in Brooklyn and worked first for a year at a high-end tapestry/carpet company in Midtown Manhattan where I accidentally hung up on an angry Art Garfunkel, and literally ran into Donald Trump in an elevator. Oddly enough, though, the last two years in NYC were the start to my professional career as a CPA. I was a receptionist for a small, ridiculously profitable, family-owned property management company in Lower Manhattan, and watched every month as their CPA would come and do the books. Eventually, I told them I picked up some things watching and I could start doing some of that work, which I did, and kind of liked. And then I took a few accounting classes at night…and now here we are.
So, even though at the time halting college and moving away seemed all wrong to those around me, again to me it seemed exactly what I should do at the time. And again, I will never regret those three years of life experience I could not have gotten anywhere else, plus the unexpected directional push into what I know now as my professional self…“Business Amie”. Business Amie is when I put on my reading glasses and have confidence, kind of like Superman and Clark Kent, but I guess opposite with the outfits.
The Long and Winding Road
As life goes, and knowing I couldn’t stay on this path anymore, it was time to get serious about my education and make some decisions; I ended up coming back home and finishing Iowa State with not a Spanish degree, but a Masters of Accountancy with a tax focus. Left turn, but not a bad one. So what should I do with this? Growing up I wanted to be about a million things, but the serious contenders were: lawyer, archaeologist, and college professor. Archaeologist was clearly out, though I still watch Indiana Jones on a regular basis. I had a particularly fun couple of tax professors and decided tax would be my fate from here on out, either in practice or teaching. I figured, though, to really know, you must do – and quite frankly I was done with school at that point and wanted to start making some real money! So I joined a bigger CPA firm right out of college, but the rest as they don’t say, is definitely not history.
Just like three years of excelling in high school Spanish class didn’t prepare me for being thrown into rural South America, college didn’t prepare me for public accounting! Hello long hours, tears, fears, and beers…but ultimately the best place for me to get a solid base for what I do now. I had the opportunity to work with bigger clients, highly experienced people, and developed two very different specialties on top of being a generalist. I actually really enjoyed my couple years there and made a dear friend who I’m still very close with, but personal life things happened, and with that I decided to go to a smaller firm.
The next four years, I worked on small-to-mid-size clients and continued to get my bearings in tax. Though I was working for a smaller firm, I was dealing with a majority of the same client issues, aside from having to do some trial balance work I didn’t have to deal with at the bigger firm. But generally, I lump those first seven years of my career into one because it was largely the same type of work, just many more clients and industries because of the fact I worked for more than one firm.
Every firm is different, though, this is important to understand. One of my college professors said that you’ll want to start big and go smaller in regards to public accounting firm sizes, and it would be infinitely harder the other way around. I would agree with that statement, though it’s not impossible to go from small to big. The reason is that firm size/type makes a difference in not only culture, but the type of work. Large firms tend to be higher pressure environments with bigger, more demanding clients (and partners). You’re managing deadlines it feels like more than anything sometimes, but at the same time training is much more structured, and there is great opportunity to see interesting transactions and situations. Take advantage of all of this early on if you’re going into public accounting, is my recommendation. You’re young, adaptable, a sponge for learning – go to a firm that can provide you with the experiences you can build on for the rest of your career in a short amount of time. Honestly, you might love the fast-paced environment big firms provide and choose to stay the course, and if you don’t, you’ll have a really solid background to go somewhere that is a better fit for you.
Small firms are great too, tend to have a better culture and family oriented atmosphere, with plenty of experienced people as well to learn from. They also tend to be much more hands on with clients, because generally you're dealing with small to mid-sized businesses who are relying on you as their trusted adviser, rather than a necessary evil. There’s no right or wrong; you really just need to find out what works best for you and your personality, long-term goals, and find people and an overall environment you enjoy being around. But I digress, per usual.
At this point in my career, I really thought I was a “lifer” in public because I liked a lot about it, and was used to the lifestyle. But just as I came to that conclusion, I got a call that would change it all – a corporate tax manager role on a small in-house tax team for a phenomenal national manufacturer an hour away. These opportunities just don’t come up, not for companies like this. People in these roles usually stay forever because the hours are normal and benefits are incredible, so naturally, they are few and far between. It was late February of tax season, I was already exhausted, and thus even more intrigued. I took the job starting late April.
This career path was very different than the life I had come to know in public. It was a wonderful company, I wasn’t working hardly any overtime, and it was a very valuable experience on many levels, but after a couple years there I realized it wasn’t for me long-term, and I couldn’t totally figure out why beyond some obvious things that could have been corrected. The trouble is that I started to realize public wasn’t a perfect fit for me, but also for different reasons neither was a/this private tax role. I was lost, disappointed, and confused. Like any overly analytical person in our field, I tried to articulate what exactly the pros and cons of each situation were to help myself figure out what the heck I should be doing with my career. I talked with a few people close to me and discovered I loved elements of both public and private tax, but had no idea what to do with this information. Nothing seemed right professionally, and personally I had just come out of one of the worst times in my life, so I’m certain that added to my little crisis. They say hindsight is 20/20, and all I’ll say is I wish I knew then what I know now…but that is not the way it goes! Moving on.
In this corporate tax role, I concluded I was not fulfilled because I missed the action packed public accounting life on some level. And I didn’t realize it then, but I missed an educational component – being a resource for clients and staff. I was a resource for my team and other departments in the company, but not on the same level as in public. I should have figured this out when I agreed to take a teaching position at a nearby college at night in my free time! I wouldn’t end up doing that teaching gig, though, because a combination of life and desire brought me to work…back in public accounting. And now you’re laughing, but hang in there with me.
Stern looks from friends and family who remembered my long hours in public did not deter me from heading back. It was the right time and place for me to help a small firm get its new location started in my hometown, so back I went. Though the client base was very different than most I had worked with previously, I liked this role for a lot of reasons, and I thought it could very well be a great long-term fit, at first. While I had done plenty of networking and technical work in other public accounting roles, this one was different in that I had the potential to really make a difference for this smaller firm. And so I really tried to help bring technical expertise and also what I found out to be a natural strength in articulating tricky information into easily digestible reads and presentations for clients, staff, and prospects. Though it didn’t ultimately work out at this firm, I thank this role and tax reform for helping me realize my greatest professional value and passion.
So you’re probably thinking I opened my own consulting practice, which is what pretty much everyone thought I would do, and you’d be wrong. That’s not my strength, I decided. I can get work, know what I’m doing, prefer to be my own boss, but those things are not where my true strengths and passions meet. The reason I didn’t love public tax is that I noticed a trend that I always struggled with efficiency and time management - two things absolutely pushed hard and required for success in public. No. I love research and get lost going down tax guidance rabbit holes, I like to problem solve, improve processes, and educate people on the things I learn. Several of those things can be fulfilled in a private tax role, because there is time to do it! So…I went back into corporate tax, with the goal of getting to do those things again and working a more normal schedule.
My background at this point was indeed strong and diverse, but I chose to go work this time for an insurance company, never having done insurance tax! However, I’m always up for learning, and conversations with my new boss gave me confidence I could do this highly specialized work and eventually lead the team if I really focused. So I jumped in, taking insurance specific training, and tackled an enormous amount of new information that comes with learning not only a new industry, but a new company in general. I genuinely wanted to give this my whole heart, but I had never specialized in just one very specific area of the tax code before, and after a few months I really started to miss keeping up with tax reform changes affecting every other area that I had focused so much on in my previous role. Friends and family were still asking me questions regularly about how something may impact their business or individual tax return, and quite honestly I wasn’t ready to throw away a good portion of the knowledge base I had built in the last 12 years.
Figuring It Out
One night after spending a few hours putting together a summary of RMD requirements for a family member, I decided other people might benefit from reading the information as well…but I didn’t have anywhere to put it - so I created a blog to be able to post my articles! I had started posting tax articles for the firm website I most recently worked for and found that to be something I really enjoyed and it seemed to be well received, but I never thought about doing it on my own. The longest time of feeling lost and all the sudden I found an activity that felt right and really good; I was onto something, and it came together in probably one day of hard work because it was something that I had a passion and maybe a talent for. It started truly as a creative outlet and a place to share my knowledge, with no ulterior motives at all. I really just wanted to have a place to share my thoughts and help others, so I worked hard to create content and fill it up! Mind you this was all in my free time; my day job was vastly different in corporate tax so I knew that I’d have to be willing to put in the nights-and-weekends type effort to make it worthy. It didn’t feel like work, though, and that’s how I finally knew I was doing something right for me.
I thought I had it figured out! I was working in corporate tax at a wonderful company for my stable day job, and getting my public fix on the side by still giving tax presentations and now writing my blog. But as you can imagine, this was a lot work, and my husband pointed out to me that I was actually “working” at times just as much now as I had been during tax season in public (which was a big reason I left). On top of that, my boss was not thrilled with me keeping one foot in public instead of spending my free time learning the insurance industry. Everyone had valid points, but I wasn’t going to give up the one thing that felt right to me, so I just kept going with the status quo, or that’s what I thought. What really happened though over the next year is I kept inadvertently increasing my downtime workload by taking on more and more things: writing a couple articles that got published in The Tax Adviser and Thomson Reuters Checkpoint, going on BKD’s SimplyTax podcast as a guest, teaching my first live webinar, and giving my first national conference presentation! What a year! Really cool things happening…all outside of my regular job though?! What am I doing? Good question.
All the while, people kept asking me when I was going to come back to public tax…and blindly I was thinking they were crazy; that’s not my intention or desire at all! So naïve…that’s exactly what I was setting myself up for, I just didn’t realize how much I missed it all at the time. I was filling a big void, but by essentially working two jobs…I needed to figure it out and make some decisions. I had no desire to go back into a full-time client service role in public, but also didn’t feel like I could devote my attention to just one industry in private, either. So how can I do both, but in one job and not kill myself and all my personal relationships working my life away?
Intro my second time rejoining public, and what I’m hoping will be my work home. I’ve always been searching for that long-term fit; I am a loyal person, but I have been driven this whole time by a desire to find the place I can bring the most value by doing things I’m naturally good at and have passion for; e.g. ultimately be happy. Things never felt quite right before, but I think I have discovered my answer is being in a National Tax role, and that’s what I’ll get to do at least half-time to start with my new firm! Tax reform was brutal for many, but it did one good thing: helped me realize my true desires. Whenever I was sitting in an all-day CPE session, probably struggling to keep my eyes open, my attention was instantly alert any time there was discussion of the passing of tax reform, tax policy, new tax bills…anything a WNT person had to say, I was all ears. I love keeping up with what may/does happen, downloading new information, and sharing it with others - here’s a way I can bring value that excites me! I also enjoy compacting difficult tax topics into easily digestible information, and looking up answers to oddball questions people come up with, because not everyone loves reading tax guidance that can get pretty complex in a hurry. All of these things can be communicated in many ways: writing articles, giving presentations, one-on-one teaching moments, podcasts, videos, and the list goes on. The idea of doing this makes me happy. Another perk of this job is I’ll get to work alongside one of the four people that inspired me to consider this avenue of work in the first place, which is a true honor in itself.
I’m very excited for the opportunity to do what I think could be the intersection of my passion and talents for a living now, not just in my downtime! Being a resource for people is fulfilling to me, and I’m sure it will continue to evolve, but I finally feel that I’ve found my path.
Think about your own story – how did you get to this very place you are right now? I won’t get all hippie-dippie on you, but I bet it’s pretty cool and you should be more proud of yourself than you are. If you’re lost, obviously I know how you feel. My advice is to take inventory of what you do and don’t love about the positions you’ve had, and also your natural strengths and passions…this took me literally years to figure out, so try not to get too frustrated. Once you understand those things, think of a job or a person who has a position that you think you would enjoy, and actively work towards having it for yourself. You may get there and find it’s not what you want, but that answer is just as important in the long run to finding your happy place. I've never advocated following my path, but if you're struggling and want to talk to someone, just shoot me a message and I’ll be there to help if I can. Good luck everyone!
P.S. I want to thank my husband for hanging in there with me during these wild times. I have put work first over a lot of personal things; he’s a saint for handling so much change and stressed out wife when he tends to prefer a more settled lifestyle. We just were thinking back to how many places we’ve lived during our time together: 4 in going on 7 years. And it all seems like a blur when I look back on it, but I want to change that, slow it way down, and find some true balance and peace. That's my next goal. After all, what’s the point of making a living if you don’t have a life?