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Are accountants really organized?

by Melissa Rager

One of the biggest stereotypes I consistently hear attributed to those in the accounting profession is an almost obsessive sense of organization.  In fact, a common adjective that can be heard when describing those with the most potent sense would be “anal”.  The funny part is that accountants themselves appear to be the biggest perpetuators of such stereotypes.  We seem to be almost proud of it.  So why is that?  And is the stereotype true?

The first question is probably the easiest to answer.  Anyone who has spent any amount of time studying accounting understands that the day-to-day functions require a certain amount of procedure and diligence in order to have any value or accuracy.  As any of us that have had to correct the accounting mistakes of severely disorganized people can tell you, it is a nightmare to unwind and make right.  In fact, the value proposition that accountants tend to use with folks unskilled in the accounting arts is that we can bring order and accuracy to their financial world.  In essence, accountants can give their clients a sense of security and that is worth something to them.  As such, accountants have a vested interest in maintaining a reputation of organization.

So is the stereotype really true?  I will be the first to admit that I have encountered plenty in this profession to whom organization is almost a secular religion.  However, the reason this question interests me so much is that I don’t really see it in myself.  It is quite the contrary in fact.  My office is never neat.  If you open any drawer of mine, you will most certainly find a hidden mess.  I don’t keep receipts.  If you asked to see a copy of any of my personal bills, I could tell you at least five different places I remember stashing one.  And in my office there are currently seven yellow notepads with varying degrees of sloppily written client notes, one of which has a giant coffee stain that has seeped into several pages.

So does this make me a bad accountant?  The ironic thing is that I actually think it makes me a better accountant in some ways.  You see, I’m a left-handed person.  Now I don’t go in for much of those left-handed/right-brained arguments about creativity, but I do think there is something different from many people in the way that I think about things.  Whether or not that actually has anything to do with being left-handed will have to wait to be analyzed at a later date.  What I will say is that I tend to be more abstract in the way I look at problems.  And as any person who is foolish enough to spend time studying tax codes will tell you, being able to picture transactions and accounting flow in your head is invaluable to your understanding of key concepts.

In addition, my lack of external organization skills seems to have forced my memory to improve.  For some reason, I find that I can remember certain details relating to client particulars very well.  And when I sit and ponder why that is, I keep thinking that it might have something to do with this organization thing.  Messes are unique.  Each one is different and chaotic.  And I think it is this dissimilarity that allows certain people to quickly access various memories.  It’s probably the same concept as when someone tells you to try and “stand out” in a job interview or on a resume.  You’re banking on being more memorable because you do something that is different than all the others.  Contrast that with order.  Organization, by its nature, tries to bring a homogeneous sense to things.  You don’t have to use your memory as much when there is a system in place that allows quick access to indexed information.

So at the end of the day, is organization good or bad?  Just like all tax questions, the answer is probably “it depends”.  I don’t think anyone would argue that properly maintaining large accounting systems and records requires a great deal of organization.  However, developing an overly rigid way of thinking can also hold us back as accountants when it interferes with our ability to analyze and consider.   As for me, I think I’m just lucky to work in a profession where most of my co-workers are in fact well-organized.  They tend to make up for my lacking in this area, and that’s why I end up doing very little to try and change this wonderful stereotype of ours.

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