When my accounting practice went from a part-time seasonal pastime to a full-time firm I needed to bring in talented employees. Bev, a close friend of the family, had many years of experience working for other tax firms so I asked her to work for me. She accepted the offer.
Decades started to pile up. The joke around the office was Bev worked for my firm longer than I had. It wasn’t far from the truth. Bev was always a talented and faithful employee. She did good work and I could trust her.
But time counts, and keeps counting. Bev had something few people ever possess: talent and personality. Clients loved Bev and for good reason. She knew her stuff and made people around her feel comfortable. In my darkest hours she was there to hold the firm together. When my youngest daughter was born with birth defects she kept the office open while my mental wounds healed.
I have fond memories of those days. I also remember how it ended. Bev comes from a farming background; solid German stock. What I mean to say is she isn’t a petite girl. Wisconsin winters can be brutal. Arctic blasts made it difficult for her to breathe outside. I was worried about her. It was the excuse used to force her to retire.
But that was a lie. The truth is something was changing in Bev. It started slow and steadily advanced. She wasn’t as good at taxes as she once had been. Once she was great at taxes, now she was merely good and rapidly approaching mediocre. It is a terrible thing to say about someone with such an honorable and distinguished career.
I noticed the changes in Bev when she reached her mid-60s. It was small at first. Little things were missed. Sometimes the tax return was correct, but little things around the tax return were forgotten. A note was not updated; a basis statement not completed. And clients still loved Bev.
Each year got progressively worse until the work was unacceptable. I had to review all her work at a much higher level. Bev had to go. It was not an easy choice. She accepted her retirement and took to it like a pig takes to shit, but she was hurt at the time. She still brings her personal tax work in for us to prepare.
Is that Footsteps I Here?
The Bev experience started me looking around the accounting industry. I noticed a trend. Great tax people were in their 40s or 50s. It seems numbers slip a bit as we age. When the 60s arrive the handwriting is on the wall. That single decade takes the edge off and then more. People can prepare taxes at an older age, but the sharp skills needed for complex returns are obviously truncated.
I am 52. I am at the top of my game. Not only do I have more experience than ever, I have the mental capacity to perform complex tax maneuvers for extended periods of time. My mind can cash the check my body is writing. But I know what comes next.
There is no doubt I am headed toward the twilight of my career, a career I love deeply. I am one of the lucky ones. Nearly all my adult life I worked the profession which gave me the greatest pleasure. But I can hear nervous footsteps behind me. The sound of hard-soled shoes clicking on the hard floor as the sound of a quickening walk is no longer distant. It approaches.
There is a possibility my years remaining as a tax professional are now in the single digits. The thought makes me shudder. Do I do what many do? Hang on as my abilities falter, doing poorer and poorer work as I grasp at a life no longer mine? I hope I am smarter than that.
The good news is that even as the numbers slip, the mind still has talents to share. Warren Buffett still has plenty to add. Teaching your skills is the important thing as the bell begins to toll. Albert Einstein did his greatest work as a young man. That is true of all great scientists and mathematicians. Buffett confessed recently he doesn’t remember the numbers as well as he once did. I understand. It doesn’t make him useless; he still has plenty to share.
Maybe that loss of a step is there for a reason. Mother Nature’s way of kicking us in the ass. For taxes at least, I think the loss of a step comes from the grueling hours of sitting. The worst part is thinking you know an answer when you should look it up. Death rattle in the tax profession.
But there is hope. The journey does not have to end in the next 10 – 15 years. I can still own the business and hire more of the work done. I will still be fine when it comes to research and training. Helping people with tax and wealth building concepts seems to be a skill that sticks with many people to the very end. Again, think Warren Buffett. Perhaps I will be so lucky.
And You My Dear Friend
I tell the story of Bev and my observations of my profession for a reason. Your story is the same whether you know it or not. There are things on your bucket list that cannot wait. Maybe numbers don’t get you all hot and horny as they do me. But something does.
Many people enjoy traveling more than I. My paternal grandparents enjoyed traveling. They saw a good part of the planet until my grandmother died at 70. My grandfather lived to 89. It is a long time to live alone. It was best they decided to travel when they were young.
Climbing Mount Everest, or any big hill for that matter, is a young man’s game. (Young lady’s game, too. Please accept my apologies for using the masculine in a gender neutral way to include all my female readers as well.) There are certain things best seen with young eyes. Only a fool waits until “traditional retirement age” to do these things.
You can hear the sound, too. I can see it in your face. Even young adults instinctively know time is counting. That is why early retirement has such a powerful pull. The ability to do almost anything can only happen when the mind and body are both capable. As the years go by the desire declines. Keeping your seat in the tour bus as the group visits a site is fine with you.
Stories of older people starting a business are newsworthy. It is newsworthy because it is rare. If you dream of your own business, of contributing in a meaningful way to your community, I recommend starting now.
Tomorrow is the worst day to do anything. Dreams are meant to be lived now.
A Clockwork Orange
A strange name for a strange book. The movie is okay, but the book is awesome if you can choke through the difficult text. You are well rewarded if you reach the end. I recommend the British version. It was felt American stomachs couldn’t handle the end so it was dummied down for folks in the U.S. With the internet we can get the best version now.
Regrets. They are mostly of our own choosing. We feel them when we reach a point where fulfilling certain dreams are no longer possible. Younger, we regret not asking the girl of our dreams to the dance. Later, we regret not working harder to retain and build relationships with our spouse and children. Later still, we regret not taking that business opportunity. And as the end approaches, we regret all these things and more as we finally have plenty of time to sit and think about how badly we fucked up in life.
I am living my dream. My business is everything to me outside of my family life. In truth, I have little life outside things business or business related. I had to make a choice, either dive into business 100% or not. Either choice has its drawbacks. I don’t have to prepare tax returns; I get to prepare tax returns. So far, no regrets.
Ten years. My best remaining years as a powerhouse tax professional could have just fallen below double digits. I race against a fucking clock that refuses to stop. The hours are brutal, but I can’t stop. Soon, stopping will not be by choice.
I am a deviant little fuck. I know how to survive. I’ve lived through hell and made the devil my subject, all for the chance to live a dream. Many have tried to stop me and failed. I am invincible. What? What is that sound?
Tick-tock, tick-tock, tick
Isaac Asimov, when he heard the sound of the clock, sat on the floor of his living room in his underwear bringing books together. He published over 500 in his lifetime. Many were massive volumes, others collections of short stories. I have started to feel what Isaac felt. Conniving little bitch I am, I plan. I plan for my attack. If my days as a tax preparer are numbered I can still run the business, teach people, train, speak at conferences. I don’t have to concede one inch to the ticking sound.
Tick-tock, tick-tock, tick-tock
No complaining about long hours by me. I have what I want. I am living the dream. I want so badly. I want to be better, to do more. If only there was more time!
Tick-tock, tick-tock, tick-tock, ti
Tuesday 31st of October 2017
Neat article Keith. You obviously love your field. Sometimes great fulfillment can come in sharing that love with other interested parties. I did that as a log home builder teaching courses in the late 80's and 90's. Have you ever considered teaching a class for FIRE people who want to start a side gig preparing taxes? I would be interested. How many hours would out take to get someone ready to start their own little business?
Wednesday 4th of October 2017
Great column, Keith. At the age of 60, I need reminded that more of my life is behind me than before, and that time is always of the essence.
Friday 17th of February 2017
Wow, Keith. You are right on, as usual. Humbling and frightening how years fly and age creeps up and the span of a human life (mine) begins to look very brief. I am 51 and asking myself those what do you really want to do with your life type questions as much as possible, not getting a lot of answers because the din of every day busy-ness talks over my answers before I even formulate them. But I (we) must keep asking before it's too late. Thank you for this. It will be my priority this weekend.
Friday 17th of February 2017
Glad I could help, Lucky.