I didn’t grow up dreaming of becoming an accountant. To be fair, I imagine few kids do. But here I am, 25 years into my career as a CPA, and I couldn’t be happier.
How did a kid who had no direction as a college sophomore end up finding the perfect professional fit? It was no straight path. I’ve made plenty of mistakes along the way, but there are three big things I got right. I can’t guarantee you’ll end up in your dream job, but if you incorporate these principles into your own career, your chances will be better than most.
Find Your North Star
Entering my second year of college, I was still without a major. But while I hadn’t had much professional direction, I did recognize what I wanted out of a career. I grew up devouring books and dreaming of becoming a sportswriter. By the time I graduated college, I had given up on the idea of becoming an author but kept the desire to continuously learn and grow. It was the one non-negotiable element that any career choice had to offer.
Owing to my inability to identify a specific desired vocation, I sought a fallback option: I would feed my appetite for information by going to law school after graduation. When I shared this plan with a friend, he urged me to eschew an undergraduate degree in criminal justice for one in accounting. All the top law schools were looking for accountants, he explained. Without even the slightest effort to verify his statement, I switched to an accounting major the next day. And quite honestly, that is how I chose my career.
But a funny thing happened. When I was set to graduate, all the large accounting firms came to campus for interviews, and one made me an offer. I decided to put law school on hold and try public accounting. That’s when I was posed with the first critical decision of my career: audit or tax?
If I’m being fully transparent, I didn’t feel a particular affinity for either. So, I looked to my North Star, the one thing I knew I needed: to grow and learn. The decision appeared easy from there. After all, tax law is frequently described as incomprehensible. Heck, Einstein once said that the hardest thing to understand is the income tax. If it was hard for him, it would certainly be challenging enough for me. Twenty-five years later, I’m still being challenged, and it’s that constant development that fuels my professional fire.
Invest in Yourself
Four years into my career, I nearly left tax. While things were going well—I had been promoted to manager, a seminal moment in any career in public accounting—I felt like I had no substance. I had spent the previous few years trying to get ahead by managing a process and learning the “how” of my career, but I hadn’t really been learning the “why.” Basically, I had a successful career in tax going without knowing much at all about the tax law.
I hated feeling that my resume indicated I was capable of things I didn’t feel knowledgeable about. But I also realized that I had expected my coworkers to spoon-feed me everything I wanted to learn. My superiors had some obligation to educate, but it ultimately was up to me to make sure my appetite for growth was being satiated.
I made the decision to invest in myself. “If I’m going to make a career in tax, then I’m not going to measure myself by my pay rate or job title, but rather the experience I bring to the job,” I decided. “I need to be comfortable with who I am and what I know.”
I applied to attend the University of Denver’s Graduate Tax Program that day, though I wasn’t there for the diploma. I wanted the education—the substance—and I got it. I spent the next year learning the law from some of the sharpest tax minds in America, and by the time I graduated, that feeling of being a fraud had long since passed. This decision to invest in myself was an inflection point in my career.
I had learned the hard lesson that if you want to achieve your goals, you must take ownership of your career and drive the proverbial bus. At various times over the next two decades, when my path grew stagnant or I felt I was lacking in a key area, I would take the wheel and invest in myself once again. And each time, I’ve been rewarded.
Leave No Stone Unturned
Ten years into my career, I made partner. Like my earlier promotion to manager, it should have been cause for celebration. But something was bothering me. As I mentioned, growing up, I always wanted to test my chops as a writer but had given up. And while I was never going to write the great American novel, it dawned on me that there was no reason I couldn’t incorporate writing into my career. After all, they say to write what you know, and I knew tax. Maybe I would fail, or maybe I would succeed. The way I saw it was that the worst sin I could commit was not to try at all.
I studied feature articles in major publications and began reaching out to the editors of those publications, begging for a chance. When one finally relented, I learned my subject matter inside and out, wrote and rewrote, edited and re-edited, and submitted my piece for publishing.
Seeing that article in print was one of the proudest moments of my career, but it was only the beginning. Editors at other publications read my article, and they gave me chances to write as well. One thing led to another, and before long, I was writing for every major tax publication while also serving as a paid contributor to Forbes. Writing, a process I truly loved, was now a major part of my career. But it could just as easily have remained a dashed dream.
I implore you—in your career and your life in general—to find out about yourself. Say “yes” to opportunities and try new things. You may unearth hidden talents and unknown passions. When you do, you’ll move the goalposts on what you want out of your career, and that will lead to constant and rewarding growth. My career looks dramatically different at 47 than it did at 37 and 27, and I hope it looks different still in another decade.
The mistakes I’ve made throughout my career could fill a novel. Ultimately, they’ve proven inconsequential because I’ve gotten the big things right. I’ve made it a point throughout my career to know what makes me tick, to be willing to invest in myself, and to continuously take on new challenges. It’s has led to more professional happiness than I could have ever thought possible. Give it a try; I hope it will do the same for you.
This article does not necessarily reflect the opinion of The Bureau of National Affairs, Inc., the publisher of Bloomberg Law and Bloomberg Tax, or its owners.
Tony Nitti is a tax partner in the Private Tax group of Ernst & Young’s National Tax Department, where he chairs the S corporation and Section 1202 subgroups.
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