Accounting for Success

May 16, 2017 - 11 minutes read

In 1961 I graduated from the business school at the University of Southern California with a B.S. degree in accounting.

I was thrilled to be the commencement speaker for the Leventhal School of Accounting last week, before an audience of four hundred graduates and a thousand friends and parents. I’d like to share with you my speech, slightly edited.

Remember, this speech is intended primarily for accountants, but I think it applies to all of us.

My speech:

Congratulations to all University of Southern California accounting graduates of 2017, your parents who may not ever get out of debt, your professors who are thrilled to see you go – for the right reasons, I’m sure, and guests who just happened to wander by and sit down to hear me speak.

I’ll start with a confession. I love accounting. I actually enrolled in a bookkeeping class in high school, when accounting was not cool. And every night for years I kept my own set of personal set of books. I recorded every cent of my income and expense, and made sure that the debits always equaled the credits. How geeky is that? And you know what you call a trial balance that doesn’t balance — A very late night.

I was seventeen years old in September, 1957, that was about four centuries ago, when I first walked onto the USC campus as a freshman. As Dean Holder mentioned, I’ve been a Trojan ever since.

What was different then? Just about everything. Tuition, for example, was twelve dollars a unit. I’m sure you graduates have already done the math in your head and realize that is one hundred ninety two dollars a semester. But the story gets better. My father was a student at USC in the early 1940’s, when tuition was four dollars a unit. That’s sixty-four dollars a semester. Imagine, a degree from the University of Southern California for five-hundred twelve dollars. That will get you about five weeks in one class today, but who’s counting?

USC must have done something right. My dad is now one hundred two years old, and is here with us today. I’d like to introduce him – my dad, Fred Fox. Dad played French Horn in the USC Marching Band at the 1945 Rose Bowl game, and we still watch television together and root for the USC football team.

And Dad, I’m finally going to finally pay you back for my USC tuition – out of my next social security check.

Many of you will soon start work at one of the big four accounting firms. That is when your real-world education will begin in earnest.

Before my senior year in what was then the USC School of Commerce, I was hired as a summer intern by Peat Marwick,

In June, 1960, my first day on the job, I was sent to jail. I entered prison at The Wayside Honor Rancho which held a thousand minimum security inmates. Fortunately, I was not there as an inmate, only as an auditor, but without the benefit of having ever taken a single course in auditing.

I arrived at the Honor Rancho in my VW Bug a few minutes late – that’s a no-no — and finally found the senior on the job. He looked at me with more than a bit of skepticism. Maybe it was my black shoes with white socks. Or my twenty-five dollar suit.

“Audit the canteen account,” he said.

“Sure. Happy too. Uh, exactly how do I audit the canteen account?”

The senior sighed, pointed to a thick ledger and boxes of cancelled warrants. That’s like cancelled checks, not warrants for my arrest.

“Look at every twentieth entry in the ledger, be sure there is a matching cancelled warrant, then make a tick mark next to the amount in the ledger.”

“Sure. No problem. Uh, exactly what is a ‘tick mark’?”

I spent three long days at the Wayside Honor Rancho. I had no idea what I was doing.

Fortunately, even after that awkward start, I was hired by Peat Marwick to work in their tax department. When I presented my first tax memo to the tax partner he took a quick look. It took him five seconds to ask me, “Did you find the dsafqqewopir case?”

“Uh, no sir.”

“That’s the leading case on the subject. Go back and start again, and Alan, please don’t wear white socks to the office tomorrow.”

I learned to dress for success, and now offer you ten more lessons I learned out in the real world of accounting.

Number One. Be on time. If you aren’t, someone else will be.

Two. Admit when you don’t know how to do something, and that might be often. And never call yourself or anyone else stupid. The problem is usually lack of knowledge, not stupidity. There is a big difference.

Three. Remember, you are an accountant — a person who solves a problem people didn’t know they had in a way they don’t understand. You have to develop compassion. Especially for yourself.

Four. Your future is always ahead of you. And that’s the problem. It’s is a carrot that dangles in front of your nose. Plan for the future, but don’t forget to take pleasure in your present accomplishments and activities. Enjoy your life as you live it. Cling fiercely to the present, because right now is the only future you are ever certain to have.

Five. The most precious thing you have is life, yet it has absolutely no trade-in value. Remind yourself often to find the joy or the value or the lesson in whatever you are doing in the moment, like standing up and giving this speech, or sitting down and listening to it.

Six. Snowmen fall from Heaven unassembled. Your career will not be assembled by anyone else. You have to put it together yourself.

Seven. Pay attention. If you day dream for fifty minutes in class you get an “A” instead of an “A+.” If you day dream for five seconds while you drive to an audit, you may be late. Very, very late.

Eight. Crisis is opportunity. When my wife Asha was twenty-seven years old she tripped while jogging and seriously injured her back. Asha was in the hospital for three weeks and at home in bed for three months in tremendous pain. She thought about the pain, and decided to shift her career to become a medical reporter so she could help others in pain. Not too long after that she won her first Emmy for reporting.

Nine. Follow your heart. It’s a lot more fun than carrying around a head crammed with numbers all of the time. Well maybe just part of the time.

Number Ten – respect your elders. And take care of yourself so that you’ll live long enough to have trouble finding one.

In conclusion:

If you can start the day without caffeine,
If you can always be cheerful, ignoring aches and pains,
If you can resist complaining and boring people with your troubles,
If you can eat the same food every day and be grateful for it,
If you can understand when your loved ones are too busy to give you any time,
If you can take criticism and blame without resentment,
If you can conquer tension without medical help,
If you can relax without a glass of wine,
If you can sleep without the aid of drugs,
… Then you are probably         the family dog.

My final thought is that it’s okay to be human. You don’t have to be perfect.

My final, final thought is: Be Audit you can be. I’ll repeat that for your parents, they haven’t been in school for a while – Be Audit you can be, and as graduates of the Leventhal School of Accounting, Class of 2017, you are off to a great start.

Congratulations. And thank you.

Alan

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