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How To Be a True Underachiever In Public Accounting

Life is confusing but we assure you we are here to help. Whether you're a high performer or an underachiever, if you have a question about life in public accounting, life after or having a life during, reach out and we'll do our best to offer you the least questionable advice a bunch of strangers on the Internet can give.

Jumping directly off from yesterday's post stuffed with good advice for the newbies (thanks everyone who gave honest, useful answers for our fresh meat), today's reader question comes from a future grunt looking for the perfect balance of effort and mediocrity:

Hey GC,

Just wondering about the easiest way to just get by in the smoothest manner possible in Big 4 and Top tier firms is?  I continuously read about all those who go above and beyond starting out.  What about those of us who have been underachievers most of our lives?  I mean, isn't that what accounting is about?  Just doing enough to get by?  Least effort for most return?  In other words:

How do I do just enough, to make a good impression, but not so much that they try to pile any extra work on me?


Van Wilder

The easiest way to stay under the radar is to not piss anyone off nor terribly impress them. Once you're neck deep in the grind, it will become clear to you which of your starting group are the "above and beyond" bunch (let them put their own necks on the line while you go grab another bag of Doritos from the snack machine), which are the underachievers (this should be most of them) and which are the real slacks. Your job from there is to toe the line as carefully as possible to ensure you are smack dab in the middle between high performer and total loser. As you so astutely pointed out, this is pretty easy to do in public accounting and sizing up your competition will help you keep your own aspirations in check. Since the underachiever group should be the largest pool in your firm, it should be fairly effortless for you to blend in.

DON'T spout off ASCs or make small talk with your seniors about the latest PCAOB disciplinary actions. Remember, you're trying to look disinterested but useful, showing that you spent your weekend looking up PCAOB news will only make you look desperate to get your tricycle on the partner track. Safe small talk topics include sports or the weather but if you're the kind of person who wants to be seen chatting up FASB's new lease accounting rules every time a manager walks by, you might not be cut out for this underachiever thing.

DO make your seniors look good by following directions and asking questions when you are unsure but DON'T ask questions just for the sake of asking to make yourself look eager to learn. Again, it's about knowing the minimum required to do your job (kind of like the CPA exam but in real world application) and not a stitch more. You're going for a 75 here, not a 99.

DON'T show up to anything you don't absolutely have to. You can avoid detection by being as non-descript as possible. DON'T be "that guy who did that thing that time," DO be the guy whose name your colleagues can barely remember. If you really want to take this all the way, get the same haircut as everyone else in your office and buy extra dusty blue button-up shirts at the same store they do. Remember, the key is to blend in, not stand out. If no one really knows who you are, they won't notice you're hardly around.

DO find someone within the firm above you who shares your underachieving mentality. This should be the person who appears to be hard-working on your first day but quickly reveals themselves to be working smarter, not harder. Get directly up this person's butt and find out their secret. This knowledge has been passed down from wise underachievers in public accounting for as long as someone has been in charge of counting the beans, your job is to find the right mentor and learn everything they can teach you. DON'T expect them to work too hard to teach you, though, they are an underachiever after all and being a good mentor is work.

Because I know the Going Concern audience so well, I am sure many of you have a few other tips and tricks to share with our future mediocre performer.