The Top 3 Things I Wish I Knew Before Becoming a CPA
If you’ve ever wondered what it really takes to succeed in this challenging profession, you’re in the right place.
With over three decades of experience as a CPA, and having worked for some of the Big 4, I’ve had the privilege of witnessing the evolution of this profession, and it’s been interesting, to say the least.
To start, I want you to consider the following questions:
Have you ever wondered what it takes to have a sustainable accounting career?
Are there things you’re currently struggling with as a CPA?
Have you thought that there’s got to be an easier way but not sure what that is?
Reflecting on my career in public accounting, there are three pivotal aspects that, if I had known about them earlier, they could have made my journey as a CPA easier.
Whether you’re a student studying accounting and dreaming of becoming a CPA, a new graduate entering the finance field, or an experienced professional dealing with the challenges of accounting, I hope my experience will give you some useful advice.
I’m going to be sharing the three most important things I wish I knew when I started my journey to become a CPA. These lessons have had a huge impact on my career, and I think they’ll give you valuable insight.
In other words, today I’m going to share what I know now, that I wish I knew years ago.
While my path as a CPA has been a rewarding one, it has also come with its fair share of challenges. I hope that by sharing these insights, you can embark on your own path to being a successful CPA.
Remember, the accounting profession offers immense opportunities for growth and impact, and with the right knowledge and perspective, you can navigate it successfully and thrive in the world of accounting.
1 – Stress is optional
The first crucial lesson I wish I had known before becoming a CPA: Stress is optional. The accounting profession is notorious for its high-pressure environment, but over the years, I’ve come to realize that it doesn’t have to be a constant source of stress.
What I learned about 10 years ago has literally changed how I approach every aspect of being a CPA. What did I learn? Where stress actually comes from.
Here’s what I know now that I wish I had learned much earlier on – stress is not caused by things like the amount of work we have, deadlines, difficult clients, or the IRS. It’s caused by our unmanaged brains.
The hard truth is that your smart accountant brain is being underutilized if you feel stressed. In other words, you feel stressed and overwhelmed because you are underutilizing the part of your brain that can eliminate stress and overwhelm.
As I shared in episode #2 – The Place Where Brain Science Meets Accounting – if you were using the higher, prefrontal cortex part of your brain more intentionally and more often you would not feel stressed.
It’s literally like having the “off” switch to stress when you learn how to use your higher brain more often.
The reason you feel stressed and overwhelmed, especially during times of deadlines, is because you’re letting the lower, default part of your brain, run the show. Believe me, I get it because I was doing the same thing for over 20 years.
Unfortunately, when you don’t learn how to manage your accountant brain, you end up day after day, year after year, feeling stressed and overwhelmed, often ending in burnout. Thankfully though, you’re listening to this podcast which means you’re probably willing to learn how to do things differently..
I promise you that by understanding the truth behind my stress and overwhelm, especially as an accountant in public accounting my entire career, I have changed everything in my life for the better. I cannot emphasize this enough—stress and overwhelm are OPTIONAL for accountants!
Here’s what it boils down to – to become a Smarter Accountant, you have to understand this fact: circumstances do not cause feelings. In other words, a Smarter Accountant knows that feelings are only ever caused by the optional thoughts their brain has about circumstances.
For example, the truth is that the tax season doesn’t cause stress; it’s just dates on the calendar: it’s a block of time. A circumstance, like dates on a calendar, cannot create the feeling of stress or overwhelm.
The only thing that CAN cause those feelings are our thoughts about the fact that it’s tax season. In other words, the only thing that is causing you to feel stressed and overwhelmed is your unmanaged brain’s thoughts about circumstances like the dates on the calendar, the number of tax returns that need to be filed, the client requests, etc.
I promise you that your unmanaged accountant brain is the issue, not dates on the calendar, the amount of work you have to get done, or the expectations of your clients.
The beauty in becoming a Smarter Accountant is that you don’t need any circumstance to be different in order to feel better or have a better result. The solution to feeling stressed and overwhelmed, especially during deadlines, is to intentionally choose how you want to feel.
I can tell you that trying to do accounting work from a feeling of stress or overwhelm is like trying to drive 100 mph with the parking brake on. It slows down your ability to get more done in less time and burns you out in the process.
For example, one of my coaching clients was a partner in a small firm and was on the verge of burnout. He was constantly feeling stressed and overwhelmed, and had tried many different things over the years to try to feel more in control.
Once he worked with me and learned how optional stress was, he was able to handle the workload, get more done in less time, and be a more effective leader in the firm. His wife even said he was much happier at home.
I want you to imagine if you could approach a high-pressure client meeting with complete confidence, knowing that stress wouldn’t cloud your judgment. How might that positively impact your client relationships and the outcomes of those meetings?
Or picture this: you’re working on a complex financial audit, and the deadlines are tight. Now, imagine if you knew exactly how to eliminate stress and feel calm and in control. How might that change your experience and results?
Think about the last time you felt stressed during tax season. Now, envision knowing how to stay focused instead of stressed. How might that have improved your overall well-being and performance?
The reason I now have stress-free tax seasons is because I’ve come to understand that stress is optional when you understand how to manage your accountant brain. The bottom line is that stress is optional because it’s within your control when you understand how to manage your mind.
2 – Effective time management is essential
The second vital lesson I wish I had known before becoming a CPA: the importance of effective time management. Being a CPA means juggling lots of tasks, deadlines, and responsibilities.
The truth is that learning to handle your time well isn’t just helpful; it’s crucial for success in this demanding career. If you want an easier, more sustainable career, you must learn effective time management.
The issue is that no one is teaching accountants the most effective way to manage our time. There are plenty of apps, software, and workflow systems, but they’re like putting temporary bandaids on.
Effective time management is like a superpower that can help you stay on top of it all and not drown in working too many hours, or feel the effects of never-ending stress and overwhelm. But here’s the thing – there’s a huge difference between time management and effective time management.
Most accountants are managing their time ineffectively. How would you know if that’s you?
If you often find yourself rushing to meet deadlines, feeling overwhelmed by your workload, and working more than you want to, you’re not managing your time effectively. If you struggle to prioritize tasks and often find yourself working on less important items while critical tasks get delayed, you may need to refine your time management skills.
If you spend most of your day reacting to urgent matters instead of proactively tackling your planned tasks, it may be a sign that your time management needs improvement. If you frequently feel burned out, exhausted, or mentally drained from your work, it’s due to poor time management, which can lead to overexertion.
The good news is that recognizing these signs is the first step toward improvement. By implementing effective time management strategies, you can regain control over your schedule, reduce stress, and enhance your productivity as an accountant.
For example, imagine you’re in the middle of tax season. You have a big project ahead, and several clients are waiting for your help. Deadlines are coming at you from all sides.
Without an effective time management plan, you might feel like you’re drowning in work, struggling to figure out what to do first, and worried you might miss a crucial deadline. Many CPAs, whether they’re just starting out or have been at this for a long time, face this kind of challenge.
So what can help you uplevel your time management to be more effective? You have to first understand how to manage your mind before you can better manage your time.
For example, one of my coaching clients was trying to run her small firm with a team of 4. She was constantly complaining that there just weren’t enough hours in the day to get everything done.
But once she learned how to first manage her mind and then learned a more effective method for managing her time, she was not only able to handle her current workload, but she was able to start growing her business. She had been putting that off for a few years because she felt she just didn’t have the time or the bandwidth to take on more.
She shared that learning how to manage her mind was a game changer. Not only was her time management much more effective, but she got more done in less time and was able to do everything she needed to do without feeling overwhelmed.
Bottom line – if you’re going to have any shot at having a sustainable career as a CPA, you have to learn how to have effective time management. What no one else is teaching you about time management is that it’s less about managing your time, and more about managing your mind.
3 – Work-life balance is attainable
Now, let’s discuss the third crucial aspect of the CPA journey that often gets overlooked but is essential for long-term success and well-being – maintaining a healthy work-life balance. This is something I wish I had understood better when I was starting out, as it plays a significant role in your career as a CPA.
Over the years, through much trial and error, I have been able to consistently achieve work-life balance, but it wasn’t easy. Here are some things I wish I knew before becoming a CPA:
The Demands of a CPA Career: One of the first lessons I learned on this journey is that a CPA career is demanding, to say the least. During certain periods, such as tax season, the workload can be intense. Long hours, tight deadlines, and a high level of responsibility are par for the course. Knowing this upfront is crucial to avoid being caught off guard by the intensity of the profession.
Balancing Work and Personal Life: Balancing work and personal life is like a dance, and setting boundaries plays a pivotal role. Clear boundaries are essential to prevent work from spilling over into your personal life and vice versa. Establishing these boundaries is a continuous process, but it’s well worth the effort in maintaining your overall well-being. To set better boundaries, you first have to build your self-confidence. Once I worked on that, it became much easier to say No and set healthy boundaries.
Recognizing Signs of Burnout: Burnout is a genuine concern in the accounting profession. Unfortunately, it can manifest as constant fatigue, increased stress, decreased enthusiasm for your work, and even physical health issues. Recognizing these signs early is crucial. If you notice them, don’t hesitate to address them. Whether through self-care practices or seeking professional support, taking action is vital to prevent burnout from derailing your career. Your health and well being are more important than a paycheck.
Effective Time Management: As I shared before, effective time management is essential, especially when juggling a demanding career and personal life. It involves developing strong organizational and time management skills to optimize work hours and ensure quality time for personal pursuits. Because of my experience as a CPA, one of the things I’m the most passionate about is teaching accountants how to better manage their time. No one is teaching accountants what I teach about effective time management.
Setting Realistic Expectations: Striking a balance requires setting realistic expectations. Understand that there will be busy seasons and times when work takes precedence. However, there are also quieter periods when you can recharge and focus on personal interests. Recognizing this ebb and flow can help you manage your expectations and reduce stress. To have a sustainable career, you have to level out the highs and lows so that you’re not feeling like you’re on a constant roller coaster ride.
Prioritizing Self-Care: Don’t underestimate the power of self-care. It’s not selfish; it’s necessary. Prioritizing your physical and mental health is fundamental. Regular exercise, a balanced diet, and adequate sleep are the cornerstones of self-care. Beyond these, finding hobbies and activities that bring you joy outside of work is equally important. If your greatest sense of joy and accomplishment is work, you might want to challenge yourself on that.
Seeking Support: Remember that you don’t have to navigate this journey alone. Lean on your support system, whether it’s family, friends, a coach like me, or colleagues who understand the demands of the profession. We can provide not only a listening ear but also valuable advice and encouragement when you’re faced with challenges.
The truth is that work-life balance is not a luxury but a necessity for a sustainable CPA career. It involves understanding profession demands, setting boundaries, avoiding burnout, managing time, having realistic expectations, self-care, and seeking support to find harmony between work and personal life.
For example, one of my coaching clients came to me because he said he was too much of a people-pleaser. He had moved his way up the large firm he worked at, but it was now catching up to him how much his inability to say no or set boundaries had created a complete lack of work-life balance.
Once we worked together, he was able to understand what was causing his people-pleasing tendencies. He was then able to learn how to have difficult conversations, how to say no more often, and how to set better boundaries with colleagues and with clients.
The bottom line is that an equilibrium between your professional and personal life not only contributes to your well-being but also enhances your performance and longevity in the field of accounting.
Bonus – Brain management is the secret to an easier, more sustainable career
From my 30+ years as a CPA in public accounting and over a decade being a Professional Certified Coach, I decided to distill what has made the biggest difference for me into my book “The Smarter Accountant.”
Here’s what I know for sure – what I teach isn’t found in any classroom, CPE seminar, or accounting webinar. In fact, every client that I’ve worked with has said, “Why aren’t we taught this earlier?”
That’s why I wrote the book “The Smarter Accountant” and I teach accountants how to be Smarter Accountants – because we’re not taught the most helpful thing we could learn as accountants – how to stop underutilizing our accountant brain.
The truth is that you’re already smart or you wouldn’t be an accountant or considering becoming an accountant. No one is denying your intelligence, but what I want to explain is that you’re not being as smart as you could be.
And that all comes down to the fact that there’s nothing you can’t manage when you learn how to manage your brain.
That is what no one is teaching us as accountants. The most valuable thing we could learn – how to manage our brain.
The truth is that you have the best piece of machinery on the planet and no one has ever given you the instruction manual for it…until now! You are going to want to know your particular instruction manual.
We’ve all heard the saying, “Knowledge is power,” but that’s actually not correct. As accountants, we have plenty of knowledge but often feel pretty powerless.
The truth is that knowledge isn’t power; applied knowledge is power. In other words, ACTION is power. Becoming more knowledgeable is one thing but doing something with that knowledge is much more powerful.
That’s why my 6-week Smarter Accountant Program is one of a kind. It’s where I teach smart accountants how to be smarter. As I said before, what I teach isn’t found in any classroom, CPE seminar, or accounting webinar.
So what does it mean to become a Smarter Accountant? Well once I became a Smarter Accountant, everything changed for me both professionally and personally:
- I rarely experience stress, even during tax season
- I work only the hours I want to work
- My life is incredibly balanced
- I get more done than anyone else in less time
- I am highly productive and efficient
- I am much better about not comparing myself to others
- I choose to interpret things as feedback rather than criticism
- I’m making more money than I’ve ever made
- My relationships have improved dramatically
- My health is better than its been in years
- I have more self-confidence than I’ve ever had
- I set healthy boundaries and have no problem keeping them
- I am happier than I’ve ever been
The best part is that you can do the same. Not only can you create a sustainable and fulfilling career but you’ll also be able to gain a competitive advantage.
Just consider the following:
- If you knew how to eliminate stress and overwhelm so that you could easily handle deadlines, how would you stand out from the crowd of burned-out accountants?
- If you had self-confidence and stopped using the number of hours you work as a sign of your value, what else would make you more valuable?
- If you had incredible time management, how much more could you get done in less time than everyone else?
- If you could be more productive, how would you excel?
- If you knew how to set better boundaries, how much more effective would you be at your job?
- If you felt happier and more fulfilled, how would you stand out from the crowd of unhappy CPAs?
By investing a small amount of your time, you can have that sustainable accounting career that you deserve.
If you are struggling with any aspect of becoming or being an accountant, you can simply go to www.thesmarteraccountant.com/calendar and book a free session with me.
I’ll explain The Smarter Accountant 6-week Program and how you can apply it to whatever you’re struggling with.
That’s what I have for you, but make sure you check back each week as I help you go from being a stressed accountant to a Smarter Accountant.
Make sure you go to www.thesmarteraccountant.com and take The Smarter Accountant Quiz. You’re going to want to know if you’ve been underutilizing your accountant brain so that you have a starting point for becoming a Smarter Accountant..
Also, I would appreciate it if you could get the word out to other accountants about this podcast. The more accountants find out about it, the more we can begin to change the narrative in the accounting profession.
The truth is that you’re already smart, but this podcast will show you how to be smarter.