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​Man Eats Car

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In her book Writing Down the Bones, Natalie Goldberg provides tips and insights about writing. Note that Goldberg's book is about creative writing, not that boring business stuff we all have to live through. Nonetheless, there are insights that can help any internal auditor.

At one point she tells a story based on an article she did not read. Instead, she was told the story by someone else. (Dear internal auditors, this is not the time to raise issues of hearsay evidence or question the veracity of the story; just go along for the ride.) It was the story of how a yogi in India, over one year, ate a car. Of course, like Goldberg, we all have a lot of questions around this one. Did he drink the gasoline? Did he gain weight? How did his teeth fare? Was it served barbecued, sauteed, or broiled? And, ultimately, Why? Unfortunately, details were not forthcoming — to us or to Goldberg.

Subsequent to hearing the story, she shared it with a group of third-graders. There was general confusion from the group and noises that conveyed the group's disgust. But one student (as Goldberg put it "who will be my friend forever") burst out laughing. She joined in, writing, "It was fantastic! A man had eaten a car! Right from the beginning there is no logic in it. It is absurd."

Both the student and Goldberg embraced that absurdity. They let their minds wrap around it. They let the story nestle and roost. And then they let themselves succumb to the joy and inventiveness of something that made no sense, whatsoever.

Bear with me as I tell another story; this one is mine. Not quite as absurd as eating a car, but …

For a number of years — a large number of years — I have owned a succession of Goofy watches. One wears out, I buy another. Now, the mere presence of Goofy on a watch would be reason enough for the purchase. But the long-time devotion comes from another fact.

It is backwards. The hands run backwards, the numbers progress backwards, the numbers themselves are backwards (e.g., 12 is 21, and each numeral is a mirror image that my keyboard lacks the ability to reproduce), and even Goofy's name is backwards. It takes getting used to but, with a little practice, you can tell time — and tell it just as quickly as on a regular watch.

A manager working for me noticed the watch and just stared at me for a while. He then asked the question that sometimes comes up in these situations. "Why?" Many years' experience taught me the correct response. "If you have to ask, then you'll never understand."

There is no logic to either of these stories. Oh, maybe there is if you work hard enough. But that isn't the work we want to put in at this particular moment; we don't need to worry about logic. 

What matters is that we allow ourselves to wrap our minds around the absurdity — seeing things differently, experiencing things differently, making our minds work differently. And from those sights, experiences, and work, allow our brains to have new perspectives. And from those new perspectives, allow ourselves to discover new ideas and innovations that will help internal audit be an important part of the upcoming post-pandemic world.

Warning. If you think things got weird going into the pandemic, wait until you see what happens as we exit it. You see, we're not going back to "normal." That is, the world is not going back to whatever we think/thought normal was. So internal audit can't afford to look backward to a normal that will not exist. 

There is no normal anymore. The past year has forced everyone to come to a new understanding of what work is and how it is conducted. And internal auditors have to be right there in the middle of it, coming up with a new understanding of our work and how it is conducted. If we think the same old processes and the same old risks and the same old meetings and the same old tests and the same old reports and the same old anything we did a little over a year ago will work for 2021 and beyond, then we are in for a rude awaking.

We had to reimagine the profession in 2020 — just as the world around us was reimagined. And now there is a whole new set of reimaginings we will have to develop.

If you want to help ensure you, your organization, and your department are a part of that reimagining/that future/that world that we can't even figure out yet, then you have to embrace the absurd. You have to be willing to see the chances that need to be taken and you have to believe in things you never thought were possible.

Why eat a car? Why wear a Goofy watch? Why learn about robotic process automatio/artificial intelligence/business process management? Why focus on cyber? Why do strategic audits? Why do consulting? Why continue to do so many financial audits? Why do so much Sarbanes-Oxley work? Why issue reports? Why not be the control? Why anything? Why everything?

I've got answers for some of these. But my answers don't matter. What matters is that you are willing to ask and explore and embrace the absurdity that can come from such questioning. Understanding and accepting the absurd allows us to understand and accept the unusual, allows us to see things differently, and allows us to innovate.

And that's the way we survive.

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