January 13, 2022

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Insecure overachievers

Over the holidays, my friend and long-time collaborator Amber Setter pointed me to a 2018 Harvard Business Review article by Laura Empson that I hadn’t seen before, but which nevertheless sounded very familiar:

“I really became a robot,” a manager at an accounting firm explained. She and her colleagues worked extraordinarily long hours, but, she said, “I thought it was normal. It’s like brainwashing. You are in a kind of mental system where you are under increasing demands, and you say to yourself that it doesn’t matter, that you will rest afterwards, but that moment never comes.”

Looking back on my own time working in an accounting firm, I think I lean more toward the brainwashing than the robot analogy. The demand to produce never let up, and you were always telling yourself that you would rest soon. Everyone working in these firms felt this way; it was infectious. In my own defense, I did take time off regularly; I could barely let a month go by without a three-day weekend; otherwise, I would lose my mind. These days, I don’t know how anyone works in any professional services job without taking regular time off. Yet the opposite phenomenon has occurred: People can’t stop working at all

I used to wonder what it was about these working environments that attracted people. Many of them would claim “the people” or “the work” or “helping clients,” and those things are certainly fine reasons to enjoy work. But why would people kill themselves week in, week out, for those things at the expense of their own lives? Not because they are so fond of their colleagues, or the intellectual rigor is so intoxicating, or they are so committed to serving clients. That doesn’t explain blowing off family and friends, losing interest in hobbies, or missing opportunities to do something fun

Well, there’s always been an element of Stockholm syndrome to it; you know, being endeared to your captors. But the main insight from the article is that our own insecurity seems to be at the root of it: 

[E]lite professional organizations deliberately set out to identify and recruit “insecure overachievers” — some leading professional organizations explicitly use this terminology, though not in public. Insecure overachievers are exceptionally capable and fiercely ambitious, yet driven by a profound sense of their own inadequacy. This typically stems from childhood, and may result from various factors, such as experience of financial or physical deprivation, or a belief that their parents’ love was contingent upon their behaving and performing well.


[T]hese individuals are immensely attractive to elite professional organizations because they are entirely self-motivating and self-disciplining. The firm in effect tells the insecure overachiever, “We are the best in the business, and because we want you to work for us, that makes you the best, too.” But upon joining the firm, insecure overachievers discover that the rigorous up-or-out policy exacerbates their insecurity and their fear of being “exposed” as inadequate — and ultimately rejected.

It makes sense. Virtually everyone feels inadequate about something in their lives. And work—in our case, accounting work—has always been there to fill the void. But the void is profound, and no amount of success seems to fill it. Some folks think that starting firms for themselves will satisfy the desire; they are determined to do things differently even though they’ve been indoctrinated to believe that long hours and being accessible at the drop of a hat are the only way a firm can be run. There are firms out there that have truly broken away from overwork culture, proving that it can be done—that firms can be successful without being sweatshops—but many cling to the old ways.

Look, I know what you’re thinking. Not a good time! The forthcoming tax season—for those in that game—is not going to be pretty, which is saying something given that the last two have been: 1) a colossal dumpster fire and 2) its insufferable sequel. I wouldn’t blame anyone for mentally filing this away until PANDEMIC TAX SEASON, PART III has finished its run. 

A recurring theme of this newsletter is wondering what accountants will do next. So even if you can’t turn the ship around immediately, merely revisiting how you’ve been approaching your job or your firm is a start. Caring less, four-day workweeks, not being lazy at life; whatever will break people out of the idea that they’re defined by their work. 

Anyway. Whatever this year brings, I hope more accountants finally ditch all the insecure overachieving and start doing things on their own terms. It’s beyond time that more of them did. 


Last time we talked, I grumbled a bit about how the metaverse is the new buzzy technology that will supposedly disrupt the impressively obstinate accounting profession. Given how quickly accounting has picked up on technology trends in the past, I think we can reasonably expect the metaverse to become relevant around the time the sun dies out.

Still, some firms are jumping in now:

Prager Metis International LLC, a New York-based accounting and advisory firm, on Friday said it opened a virtual three-story property on a site it bought for nearly $35,000 in late December. The firm, which operates 23 physical offices in the U.S., Europe and Asia, made its purchase on the Decentraland platform in partnership with Banquet LLC, a firm that funds and manages blockchain ventures.

Prager Metis plans to use its virtual building to advise companies and other new and existing clients on tax and accounting issues, Chief Executive Glenn Friedman said. The firm expects that many of its clients, particularly those in the entertainment and fashion industries, will seek its services in the metaverse as more companies decide to conduct business there, according to Mr. Friedman. “If the metaverse is going to replace the internet, then certainly business is going to use it,” he said.

I still don’t quite understand what the metaverse will be, but if it’s just going to be a cool virtual place where avatars go to talk about work stuff, count me out. In the real world, at least I can drink real tequila to chase away my boredom.  

Me, elsewhere

I started a podcast with Greg Kyte called Oh My Fraud. We unpack fraud case studies, similar to the webinars we’ve done, but we also do deep dives into particular types of fraud, conduct interviews, and such. There’s a lot of laughing, some cursing, and we even occasionally learn new stuff.  

You can listen wherever you get podcasts, but you can get free CPE for listening on Earmark. Yep, that’s exciting. Just download the Earmark app and go to the Oh My Fraud channel. Tell your friends.

Fresh from Gusto

Not only can you view company exemptions and applicable taxes for clients in Gusto Pro, you now have the ability to set and remove them yourself, improving workflow efficiency and saving you time. Simply log into Gusto Pro, go to the Clients tab, and click on Client Details.


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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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