Zen and the Art of Carrying on your Practice
“Smooth Seas do not make skillful sailors” – an African Proverb.
Forty years ago, I entered the realm of professional accounting – not so chubby cheeks, but with a dimpled chin, rosy lips; and very much wet behind the ears. Affluence and opulence – here I come. Short-lived euphoria! I was a proud recipient of stately stipend of Rs. 30 per month – for thirty-five hours of work (in theory – actual hours at least sixty) per week, (that time, a cup of tea cost Rs 1).
“Be happy that you are getting paid at least something. In my time, we had to pay to do the course. Just like you pay to take the degree courses.” My boss consoled me. And my learning began.
I wish I could tell that being articled clerk was all fun and joy. It wasn’t. We had a popular story going – the king’s favourite elephant was very sick and dying. The best veterinarians in the world concluded that the only way to save the elephant was to make it cry – without resorting to physical torture. The king announced an enormous award to any person who could do so. Attracted by the lavish prize, many people tried to make the elephant cry. Nothing worked. The king doubled the reward. Still no luck. The elephant was about to die. Much to the amusement of all people, a geek took up the challenge of saving the elephant. Going to the elephant’s left ear, he murmured something. The elephant shook its head. Then he went to its right ear and uttered a few more words – and the elephant started crying. The elephant was cured; the geek got the prize. The king requested the geek to share what he told the elephant.
“In the left ear, I told the elephant that I am pursuing my career in Chartered Accountancy.” The elephant was shocked.
“In the right ear, I confessed that I am still an articled clerk – when the elephant felt so bad about my status that he broke down and started crying!”
Even after forty years, the learning continues.
Being born in a ‘business’ family, I always dreamt of having my own accounting practice; where I would pay more than double the prescribed rate of stipend; and never tell my articled clerks that they were lucky… It would be many years before that stage would come; but it did.
Giving up the high-income public practice in India, my family made Vancouver our new home. In the first few years of settling down, I wondered about the sanity of the decision. Compared to my professional life in Canada, the status of articled clerks in India seemed glamorous. However, slowly, slowly – the life improved; and I settled down to the mundane existence – comfortable with the bi-weekly salary being credited to our bank account. One day, I shall have my own practice in Canada – one day! However, the dream seemed distant and impractical. Till one day!
Till one day – when I was just let go (a milder word for ‘sacked’). “Fired at fifty” lit another type of fire under me. And another public practice firm was born!
Running a successful public practice in Canada should not be any different than running one in India. As usual, I was proved wrong. That was more than a decade ago. The challenges and the learning continue to date.
A weathered veteran mentored me on running a successful practice. “Zen – you have to master the Zen to be successful in your career.” So far, I had encountered Zen in meditation, but Zen in accounting? And learning continued.
While handling difficult clients or unsuspecting auditors, I learnt to apply Harry Truman’s dictum “If you can’t convince them, confuse them!” Information overload is the keyword.
For initial interviews with the prospective clients, instead of using the check-list, I learnt to ask meaningful questions and elicit the information to help me gauge the potential.
“When you sit in your car, do you first buckle up or start the car, and then when the car is moving, you buckle up? Or you don’t buckle up till you have driven a few meters?”
“How many parking tickets do you get every year?”
“How many speeding tickets did you get last year?”
“Do you like to eat better or live better?”
Answers to the questions like above allow me to assess the client and her risk tolerance level. And the learning continues.
Compared to public practice, you could call porcupine back smooth as silk. But then, smooth seas do not make skillful sailors – or successful accountants in public practice!
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