I recently had the opportunity to address a graduate internal audit class at my alma mater – Georgia State University (GSU). My message that night was a very simple one: "As you make important decisions about the path you will follow in your career, you need to write your own story."
Today, many accounting students obsess over the need to land internships with public accounting firms, so that they will have a clear path to joining such a firm once they receive their accounting degree. They believe that this path, which will enable them toward becoming certified public accountants (CPAs), is their only real option. Unfortunately, I believe that, for many, this belief stems not from what is in their hearts but what has been drilled into their collective minds. The subliminal message often delivered to accounting students is this: "If you don't become a CPA, you won't be as successful."
I will be the first to acknowledge that a CPA designation enhances career opportunities. However, I would also assert that it is not the only path to success for those who study accounting. I chronicled my story for students at GSU that night, sharing how I struggled with the path that I wanted to follow. I enjoyed the study of accounting, but not enough to dive into public accounting.
So, I joined the internal audit department of a local bank. At 21 years old, I chose a "path less traveled" by accounting graduates, with the full expectation that I would never walk the halls of a public accounting firm. But when you write your own story, unexpected things often happen. Following a career in public sector internal auditing, I joined PwC — at age 50. The average age there was barely half of mine. However, I took the job not because someone else dictated that chapter of my career. I had a passion for the internal audit services PwC was providing for its clients worldwide. My point to the GSU students: There should be only one author for your story, and that is you!
According to Millennial Magazine, millennials will change careers seven times during their working lifetime. With that in mind, young professionals should approach their careers with energy and imagination. Leverage your academic accomplishments to pursue your passion, keeping in mind that, if or when the flame burns low, it may be time to write a new chapter.
In my own career, some chapters have been extremely short, because the role I chose was not a good fit for me. But I never fretted. As Ralph Waldo Emerson said: "Do not be too timid and squeamish about your actions. All life is an experiment."
While I firmly believe we should all write our own story, there are a few tips I would offer:
- Know your purpose: Do you want to work to live, or live to work?
- Cultivate a career vision and be open to change. If I ever had any regrets, it was staying too long.
- Don't obsess over finding new opportunities — they will often find you.
- Do not fear failure — it will limit your ambitions.
- Never write "the end" at the end of a chapter. Instead, write "to be continued."
It is never too late to take charge of your own story, or to remember that you are the author. After 21 years as an internal auditor for the U.S. Army, I decided that my passion for the work was waning. It would have been easy to keep my head down and finish my career with the organization where I had spent almost all of my adult life. Yet, I departed the Pentagon and wrote one of the boldest chapters of my career with the U.S. Postal Service. Only three years later, I turned the page again and became CAE of America's largest public utility company, the Tennessee Valley Authority.
When I was preparing to start my career, much like those students at GSU, I never could have imagined all of the chapters that would make up my story. However, as Abraham Lincoln said: "The best way to predict the future is to create it."
I encourage everyone, just as I did the GSU students, to take charge of your career, follow your passion, and ignite or reignite the flames that you are capable of creating. For as Confucius said, "Choose a job you love, and you will never have to work a day in your life."
I invite you to share your perspectives.