December 19, 2019

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As I’ve stated here previously, I’ve written plenty of advice columns. And one of the things I learned while writing them is that the advice is largely irrelevant. Most people don’t really want advice; they want to be heard. It feels good to get things out of your head and kick them around with someone who isn’t emotionally attached to a given situation.

Occasionally, it may seem like I’m dispensing advice in this newsletter, but I am most certainly not. I’m not just saying that to satisfy the delicate sensibilities of the Gusto legal team. I mean it: A lot of what transpires here is me just thinking out loud. Hopefully it’s an interesting read, and you get a chuckle here and there.

So you won’t be surprised that I’m skeptical of almost all the advice for the future given by the Accounting Today’s Top 100 Most Influential People. The most common tips are some variation of “Embrace technology” and “Be a life-long learner.” Ipso facto, neither of those things are bad advice, but if so many people are saying the same thing, then it veers into “conventional wisdom” territory. Now, the issue with conventional wisdom is that even if it’s accurate, most people don’t take it seriously because it’s become cliché to the point of losing all meaning.

So, I wouldn’t blame any accountant who read all that conventional wisdom given by the most influential people in the field and decided to do the opposite. At least they’d stand out from the crowd. Until that becomes conventional wisdom too, of course.

Narrative violations

Now that I’ve sufficiently scolded conventional wisdom, let me backpedal furiously by saying that contrarianism has its own problems. Why? For example:

  1. It’s cool to be contrarian, especially in the world of Silicon Valley. Hence, it’s full of contrarians.
  2. Peter Thiel—a co-founder of PayPal, an early investor in Facebook, and bankrupter of Gawker—literally wrote a book on contrarianism in startups.
  3. As far as I can tell, most people in Silicon Valley don’t like Peter Thiel.
  4. Silicon Valley’s contrarians dislike the OG Silicon Valley contrarian.

Even if you set that aside, it’s not enough to be contrarian in Silicon Valley; you need to be a contrarian’s contrarian which means you have a “narrative violation”:

A narrative violation […] is a way to express an idea that goes against conventional wisdom. It is a friend of “well, actually,” and a distant cousin to the devil’s advocate. It has been used as an investment framework, a conversational shortcut and, in at least one case, a defining personal identity trait.

Rob Go, a founder of NextView Ventures, defined it as “kind of like ‘contrarian,’ but more contrarian and complex.”

Hunter Horsley, a founder of Bitwise Asset Management, a cryptocurrency start-up, called it “a contrarian way to say contrarian.”

Oh, brother. In other words, a narrative violation is a way to stand out from the herd…of…contrarians. Is there even a collective noun for a group of contrarians? If not, I’d like to offer a “lemming of contrarians.” It’s a wonder that Silicon Valley (the show) only lasted six seasons. Seems like they could’ve made a run to rival The Simpsons.

Look, similar to what I said up there^: Contrarianism isn’t a bad thing, but it’s also not immune from oversupply. And the field of accounting, where conventional wisdom is the conventional wisdom, hasn’t realized that it could benefit from some of that surplus.

Fresh from Gusto

  • Our friends at Jirav share six KPIs that accountants need to know to kickstart their people advisory chops.
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Caleb Newquist Caleb is Editor-at-Large at Gusto. In 2009, he became the founding editor of Going Concern, the one-of-a-kind voice on the accounting profession, serving in the role for 9 years. Prior to Going Concern, Caleb worked as a CPA for nearly 6 years in New York and Denver. He lives in Denver with his wife, two daughters, and two cats.
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