How Failure on the CPA Exam Woke Amber Up to a Career in Coaching

My first career was as an accountant.

The accounting profession appealed to me because it provided the structure and consistency absent from my childhood. Accounting courses required me to focus, work hard, and choose healthy nights at the library over college parties and bars. My ego loved what an accounting degree signaled to the world. I was more than a pretty face. I had a brain, too.

I got the degree and the Big Four job offer. I followed my heart to a prominent local firm in the Silicon Valley. It only took two busy seasons for me to realize I was not an accountant. My inherent skills had always been in the development of others. (Duh, Amber. You financed your undergraduate degree by working as a nanny.)

Yet seven years after I knew accounting was not for me, I became seduced by my ego. It told me that to be a somebody, I needed to become a CPA.

Any CPA will tell you the exam is rigorous. And many will tell you they walked uphill, both ways to the testing center. Since I hadn’t crunched numbers for several years, my pathway to licensure felt like a climb to Mt. Everest. Eventually I passed. But the experience wore me out and left me gasping for breath. Worse off, the 18-month endeavor nearly killed my spirit. It sent me into a breakdown best described by the words of Wayne Dyer:

“When you squeeze an orange, you’ll always get orange juice to come out. What comes out is what’s inside. The same logic applies to you: when life squeezes you or puts pressure on you, and out of you comes anger, hatred, bitterness, tension, depression, or anxiety, that is what’s inside.”

The CPA exam squeezed me.

I did not like what came out. I had not yet entirely dealt with the pains of my childhood. Under the pressure of the exam, I became downright mean. It was clear I had some inner work to do. So rather than trying to hold it all together, I did something I had never done before.

I allowed myself to fall apart.

I cried a lot during this breakdown; the tears streamed for at least a year. I started opening up to people about this paradox I felt—having experienced a significant outward achievement, yet feeling like a total failure on the inside. I wondered: Why had I wasted all that life energy on a piece of paper that I threw in the trash? (I really did throw that enormous certificate in a dumpster.) How would I ensure I didn’t make such poor decisions in the future? What did I want to invest my energy in now? What would really light me up?

During this breakdown, I was introduced to a professional coach who invited me to observe a coach training program. I was sold.

Within 24 hours, I committed $15,000 and a year of my life to this program. I saw it as a win-win; it provided me with my own coach and trained me on how to become a coach. Professional coaching changed my life. It allowed me to have my breakdown in a healthy, structured way. It enabled me to reconcile my past and heal the pains and traumas. It inspired me to dream bigger. It was more than mental masturbation about the past. It demanded I look to the future. Coaching integrated deep inquiry and action. I learned my being was just as important as my doing. I will never be the same.

Before coaching, I didn’t really know what I wanted. I knew what society thought was good for me. But those ideas weren’t aligned with my inner truths. Before coaching, I went at life alone. I didn’t know how to ask for what I wanted, nor was I able to receive support.

Today, I can’t live without coaching.

Whether I am providing the service or receiving coaching, I just can’t live without it. The work is sacred. It is a form of self-care. It supports our growth and expansion and teaches us how to become responsible for our own happiness. We learn how to bring our best selves to all domains of life.

If I had passed the CPA exam with ease, I wouldn’t have become a coach. I wouldn’t have co-created this business, and you wouldn’t be reading this post.

Gratitude to the “failures” that form us.

Is a Career Coach for You?

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, career coach Amber Setter worked with ambitious clients who were on an energetic career path, vying for promotions in their organizations by increasing productivity and working long hours. Today, some of those high achievers are rethinking their careers.

Soul Searching and Change for the Better

Since the pandemic, Setter often sees individuals who are burned out and introspective, reflecting on their quality of life and considering a career change. “I work with a lot of people who are high in achievement but low in happiness,” Setter said. “Since the onset of the pandemic, I see much more soul searching and a tremendous amount of burnout.”

For many professionals in that situation, consulting with a professional coach like Setter can bring clarity and help them make crucial decisions impacting their careers and lives.

Setter, chief enlightenment officer for Conscious Public Accountants, is a professional certified coach and inactive CPA. She said many of the accounting professionals she works with today are disturbed by political unrest and the feeling that that the world is unsafe. Work is also taking a toll.

“The complexity of the accounting and regulatory environment is higher than ever, and my clients are questioning what they should be doing with their lives,”

Amber Setter

Setter and other certified coaches give tips on working with coaches:

Understand the coach’s role. Doug Slaybaugh, CPA, CGMA, a professional certified coach working with accounting professionals and owner of The CPA Coach in Denver, sees his role as being a facilitator, leading clients through the process of determining their next move.

“I facilitate the decision-making process so they can evaluate their situation clearly without being influenced by emotion, urgency, and other factors that tend to garble everything,” he said.

Coaches ask questions to help clients bring clarity to their career goals, such as whether they have made a firm decision to leave their jobs, or if they are still unsure. “I can help them determine if they want to try to create an environment or situation that would convince them to stay at their current job or if they do need to move on to the next chapter,” Slaybaugh said.

Vicki Salemi, a career coach and career expert for, compares a career coach to a personal trainer.

“You can go to the gym by yourself and get results, but using a personal trainer will provide guidance and hold you accountable to your fitness goals,” she said. A career coach can fulfill a similar role by helping clients develop a strategy and determine the pathway to career satisfaction.

“Career satisfaction may not necessarily mean job searching,” Salemi said. “It could be progression in your career, how to get promoted, or how to talk to your boss about getting a salary increase.”

At the same time, clients must also recognize career coaches are not magicians

Coaches can’t guarantee their clients will get a new job or find satisfaction in their current role overnight, but coaches can deliver insight and encouragement.

“I provide them with skills, tips, and the necessary framework to help them build confidence and achieve their goals,”


Setter advises people to interview coaches before contracting with one. “I encourage people to talk with more than one prospective coach. This ensures you hire one that is a good fit with your personality and your comfort level,” she said. “Coaching should be a space where you feel safe to speak your truth.”

It’s also important to hire a coach who has a professional certification. The International Coaching Federation offers three progressive certifications:

  • Associate Certified Coach (ACC)
  • Professional Certified Coach (PCC)
  • Master Certified Coach (MCC)

All of the designations entail the completion of accredited coach training, supervision of coaching hours, and continuing education with an ethics component.

Personal and professional coaching has little barrier to entry, and virtually anyone can call themselves a “coach,” Slaybaugh said. “If you are considering hiring a coach, seek out someone who is certified and credentialed, ensuring they are bound to certain high standards, training, and ethics.”

Allow yourself to be coached.

Career coaching is a two-way street, Setter said. She expects her clients to be coachable and demonstrate commitment. “You show up. You don’t postpone sessions. You don’t cancel, even when you are facing a deadline,” she said. “You agree to take action, and you learn from the process of staying accountable to what you said is important to you.” Salemi often does prescreening calls with potential clients to ensure they are a good fit for her services.

“Sometimes clients come to me with mental anguish and high emotions, or they have baggage tied to their career and their job,” she said. If she recognizes that they’re not emotionally ready for taking positive steps forward, she may suggest they seek mental health counseling so they can be open, willing, and ready to work with a career coach.

“I want my clients to be successful, and I want them to feel happy and satisfied with my services,” she said. “I want them to believe their investment is well spent and they have the tools and the ability to continue moving forward after our coaching relationship is over.”

Be open to opportunities.

We are experiencing a rare era in the history of the workforce, Slaybaugh said. The pandemic has been a catalyst causing people to rethink their careers, and there are many opportunities for those who are considering leaving their jobs. The marketplace is hungry for talent, and your current workplace may be motivated to find a way for you to stay. “You can actually create a stay interview with your employer,” he said. “You can meet with your boss and voice the things that are concerning to you about your job and offer some options to create a better opportunity.”

If those discussions don’t work and you’re not able to get what you want, or you’re still not happy with what is offered, then you can move into the next stage of your career progression.

Those who have turned the page to a new chapter should avoid feeling discouraged if a desirable workplace doesn’t have a job posted for the specific position they seek. Instead, they should open a dialogue with hiring managers and be open-minded to the possibilities.

“If an employer comes across someone with a good skill set, is driven, and has a lot of promise, who believes in the company’s purpose and vision, management will find a way to make that hire,”


Visit the Global Career Hub from AICPA & CIMA for help with finding a job or recruiting. The AICPA toolkit “Creating a Coaching Culture at Your Organization” offers more tips to members for launching coaching programs within your organization.

— Teri Saylor is a freelance writer based in North Carolina. Read the original article here.

Energy Is Currency: How to Spend It Wisely

Do you want to know how to enhance your vitality, have more peace of mind, and cultivate a positive emotional climate? The value of rest is underestimated in our culture, but it’s essential to a happy and productive life. 

Getting to Know Yourself and the Prioritization of Tasks

The first step to spending your energy wisely is to get to know yourself more deeply. You need to do two very important things as you start making changes. The first is to actually track how you’re spending your time and how that is affecting you. The second is to know which activities are good investments for you.

“We wake up with 24 hours in a day. That’s not going to change. That’s a fixed budget. How do we think of our energy as a currency, and how do we cut out low yields?”

– Amber Setter

As you go over your schedule, you’ll want to make room for positive or “high-yield” energy activities. These are activities that will enhance your energy. They are worth your time—even if you don’t think you have time—because they will make you more effective in all areas of your life.

Good investment activities will vary from person to person, but the common theme should be that they create the right conditions for you to thrive. They bring you joy, give you rest, enhance your relationships, or help you create and sustain wealth. If you look at your life holistically, you will see that having good relationships, proper rest and nutrition, and joyful activities will help you thrive on all levels, including in your professional life.

Think of yourself as a plant. If you are the plant, you need the right conditions in order to grow new, strong, healthy leaves. You need strong roots, good soil, the right amount of water, sunshine, air, and perhaps some gentle care and attention. You also need to be free of pests, weeds, and other irritants that could drain your life force.

Every plant is unique and has different requirements. You are unique and have individual requirements. Nevertheless, there are universally appealing investment activities that you might consider. These might be:

  • Going to a yoga class once a week
  • Having dinner with your partner every night without answering emails or calls
  • Watching your favorite fantasy show, which helps you disconnect from your daily life
  • Taking half an hour in the morning to journal
  • Turning your phone on silent and going for a walk during your lunch break
  • Hiring a mentor, therapist, or coach for support
  • Identifying energy leaks and drains

A big part of energy management is to look at where your life force is leaking away. There are a few ways that can happen.

Identify Unfinished Business

One big drain is the weight of unfinished business or tasks that we’re avoiding. This can affect us consciously, perhaps by keeping us awake at night or by creating a loop of worry because we just don’t know how to tackle the task. It can also affect us unconsciously by creating a low-level hum of background anxiety that we just can’t seem to shake. When we carve out the time to look at our energy, we have a chance to step back and see if we have things hanging over our heads.

“You’re taking a big step back. You’re using your higher [-level] strategic thinking skills and looking down, and you can see [that] maybe there [are] priorities that need to shift. You can also notice … the things you’re avoiding. Usually, we avoid things that we’re scared of. Maybe you haven’t done [them] before, maybe they’re too overwhelming, [maybe] they’re too big of a task, but then we avoid them. And when we avoid them, they’re the things that keep us up at night.”

– Amber Setter

Don’t beat yourself up for having unfinished tasks. Don’t be afraid to ask for help. You truly don’t have to tackle everything on your own. So, who can you reach out to for advice? Who can you delegate things to? Do you need to break the project down into manageable tasks, so you’re making progress without getting overwhelmed?

How can you get your unfinished business off your to-do list so you can conserve energy for what’s most important to you?

Manage “Overwhelm” with Effective To-Do Lists

What happens when you cross one item off your to-do list? It’s replaced by something else, of course! The fact is to-do lists are never-ending. So, trying to tackle everything all at once will set yourself up for failure. Instead of creating a giant list and getting overwhelmed, prioritize. Break it down into smaller chunks so you don’t waste precious energy resources on stress and overwhelm, which can drain you of focus and stifle your problem-solving abilities.

Have a running master list of everything you need to get done, but then have a small daily or weekly list. When it comes to managing your daily schedule, pick three things you need to get done. This forces you to prioritize and gives you a sense of accomplishment as you cross off tasks. 

Know your limits. Know how much you can realistically do before getting overwhelmed. You can also use a special planner or journal to keep you focused on the bigger picture. The Best Self Journal is a great option. 

Take Breaks

While you may love the rush of working for hours on end on a project, taking breaks actually helps boost your productivity. Amber cited an article published in The New York Times called “Why You Hate Work.” It was about a study that compared two groups of CPAs, one who worked without breaks and another that didn’t: 

“[They had] people work for 90 minutes uninterrupted and then [others who] took 10 to 15-minute brain breaks. … Then they took one full hour break in the late afternoon. … The results were surprising and not surprising. They found that those who worked in a focused manner, [but who took breaks] and left work earlier in the day actually produced much greater results. They got more done in less time, and this group also said they felt less stressed out. [Plus,] their turnover rate was much lower.”

– Amber Setter

Set a timer on your phone and make yourself get up and walk around on your break. Try not to use your break to scroll on social media or web surf.

Ritualizing Your Wellness Routines

In a world full of options, many of us suffer from decision fatigue. There are seemingly endless choices that we have to make on a daily basis, from what to have for breakfast to which detergent to buy to where to send our kids to school. Decision-making is energetically costly, so the more you can eliminate the need to make decisions, the better.

One way to do this is by ritualizing your self-care activities and creating routines. Chances are you don’t think twice about brushing your teeth in the morning. So how about having a habit of always working out on Mondays or always journaling at night? 

“Energy can be expanded and renewed by having rituals in your life. Meeting with [your]self [can be] a ritual. Always exercising the same day [is a ritual]. [Taking] the same class [is a] ritual. Always having a meeting with a team member is a ritual. You don’t have to spend energy thinking about when you’re going to do it. You just have some things, some structures, that support your performance. [They] are automatic. [They] get done quickly, and [you are] steadily achieving whatever result you desire.”

– Amber Setter

The great thing about a ritual is that you don’t have much time for excuses or procrastination. You don’t debate whether or not you will work out—you just do it. However, you can still make it fun and pleasurable! Go for your run at a beautiful park and listen to your favorite podcast. Have your herbal tea in your favorite mug. The less your rituals feel like drudgery, the better.

Conserving and Cultivating Energy In All Areas

From a holistic point of view, all areas of our lives are connected. Your personal life affects your professional life and vice versa, your physical health affects your mental health, and so on. When looking for energy drains and ways to enhance your energy, look at all areas of your life. 

You may wish to get a journal and reflect on the four primary areas of energy: physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual.

Physical Energy

This is the most straightforward area of energy, given that our culture places high importance on physical self-care. These are the basics: fitness, nutrition, and sleep. 

These are some questions to help you enhance your physical energy:

  • Am I eating well?
  • Am I getting enough rest?
  • Am I exercising enough?
  • How does my body feel?
  • Are my muscles tight or sore? Do I need to stretch?
  • What ritual or habit can I put in place to support my physical energy?

Mental Energy

As knowledge workers, your mental energy is one of your most valuable assets. You need boundaries in place to protect your intellectual capacities, which are the basis of your job. As discussed, taking mental breaks is important to keep you operating at peak performance. Eliminating distractions is also key, as it often takes longer to complete a task when you’ve been interrupted. You should also consider your own energy peaks and dips and schedule your projects around them if possible. Use time-blocking to set boundaries around projects and eliminate mentally intensive decision-making.

Here are a few questions to help you enhance your mental energy:

  • How often am I taking breaks at work?
  • When do I feel most sharp and awake, and can I do my biggest projects at that time?
  • What distractions are there in my work environment, and how can I eliminate them?
  • Which projects require the least mental energy? Can I do those at the end of the day?
  • What are some fun activities I can do that require little to no mental energy?

Emotional Energy

Amber describes this energy as the “climate within yourself.” It’s not always possible to control the climate, although thoughts and behaviors do influence our emotional health. Rather, it’s more important to be aware of them so we can manage them better.

“Do you have a sense of what you’re feeling through[out] the day? … [Imagine] the emotional climate within yourself. Is it stormy? Is it sunny? How does it feel, and what activates you in certain ways? And do those things serve you? Are there certain things that nourish you and have you feeling better? Or [are there] things that are draining you?”

– Amber Setter

When assessing emotional energy, make sure to count the positives in your life. They’re often overlooked, which leads to pessimism or an unnecessary desire to have/be/do more.

Questions to help you enhance your emotional energy:

  • What am I grateful for?
  • What triggers me? 
  • What drains my energy?
  • What practices/activities/environments/people make me feel good?
  • What practices/activities/environments/people make me feel bad?
  • Is there anything in my life that I would be better off not having? How can I do that?
  • Is there anything in life that I need more of? How can I get that?
  • Who can I ask for support, encouragement, or advice?

Spiritual Energy

You don’t have to be a “spiritual person” to enhance your spiritual energy. Amber explained that this energy is more akin to values and higher purpose. You might value authenticity, family, service to others, and so on. When you are living your truth and in alignment with your values, you are enhancing your spiritual energy.

Here are questions to help you enhance your emotional energy:

  • What are my core values?
  • Am I living in alignment with those values?
  • What areas of my life are most important to me?
  • How much energy is going to each of those areas?

Learn More About Spending Your Energy Wisely

Mastering your energy involves taking control of all areas of your life: physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual. You should choose activities that bring you high yield returns, such as increased performance at work, better relationships, deeper sleep, and a more positive mindset. When it comes to work, sometimes striving more and trying harder can actually work against you. You need to take breaks to conserve your mental energy and have an enjoyable experience. Take the time to sit down with yourself and assess your schedule. Cut out leaks and drains, such as unfinished business and an overwhelming to-do list.

Once you master energy management, your return on energy investment can truly skyrocket. To learn more about how to live a happier and healthier life, check out our other articles based on the same webinar: “What Is Accountant Burnout?” and “Managing Your Energy During Burnout Season.” 

This article was originally published on, to read this article in full, please visit Gusto for more detailed resources!

The Great Regret Nation: Why Job Hopping Hasn’t Fixed Accounting Burnout

This article was published on May 3, 2022 on Gusto.

Last year, I had one of my coaching clients come to me and say, “I’m done. I don’t want to be an accountant anymore.” She wasn’t alone. 

In 2021, an average of 3.98 million U.S. workers quit their jobs each month, smashing all records since the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) started keeping track. And while the BLS doesn’t publish data on accounting specifically, it’s telling that the quit rate for the category of “professional and business services” was noticeably higher than other domains. 

Many accounting professionals have been (rightly) questioning the norms of our profession—the long hours, exhaustion, and poor mental health. When the opportunity presented itself, they quit. But people who switched jobs in 2021 aren’t necessarily any happier now and, in some cases, feel even worse than they did before. What happened? 

I see it time and time again in my coaching practice: If you change your environment without addressing the underlying issues, the underlying issues follow you. Or, as the adage goes, “Wherever you go, there you are.” 

So how do you fix your burnout in a way that’s healthy and sustainable? Let’s explore how to change jobs the right way. Whether you’re considering leaving a job or not, I hope it’ll help you too. 

Resigned to this: How we got here 

I don’t want to say I told you so, but I saw the great resignation coming. In October 2020, I wrote an article for the California Society of CPAs where I warned that, as accounting firms contracted in the wake of Covid—cutting salaries, laying people off, and freezing learning budgets—we would risk losing people. Firm leaders were acting out of fear, but those fears were misplaced. Instead of collapsing, we were more needed than ever. 

Meanwhile, many accounting professionals felt a disconnect between the essential work they were doing and how they were being treated. Their firms might have been thriving, but as individuals, they were barely surviving. They were putting in more hours while also having to navigate the disruptions to their personal lives—managing childcare, worrying about elderly parents, or grappling with poor mental health. Their organizations didn’t hold them when they really needed to be held, so they looked for an escape. 

Quitting can feel like it’ll solve all of your problems, but without deep introspection, it rarely does. Here’s what I recommend instead. 

1. Stop, drop, and identify the discomfort 

When you’re feeling unhappy at work, that’s a signal. I like to think of it as a smoke alarm going off. A smoke alarm can mean a lot of different things—maybe your house is on fire, or maybe you just burnt a piece of toast. Your job is to get curious about the feeling and identify where it’s coming from.  

Take some time to consider what exactly is making you uncomfortable in your current job. (You might want to journal about it, if that’s your thing, or talk it over with a trusted friend.) Consider the following questions:

  • What am I doing that energizes me?
  • What am I doing that drains me?
  • Am I engaging in any toxic behaviors, like people-pleasing, perfectionism, or controlling tendencies?
  • What can I no longer tolerate?
  • Why am I tolerating it? (Hint: What are you scared of?)
  • What do I want to feel instead?
  • Where do I want to take my career? My life?
  • What experiences will help me to grow? Are they available in my current position? 
  • What support do I need?
  • Who can I speak with in confidence about these things?
  • Who has the authority to make the changes I need?

You might find that your discomfort is coming from something small and fixable. Or maybe there is a much larger issue at play—one that does warrant quitting your job. Either way, it’s important to take the time to slow down and figure out what’s really going on inside of you before you take any drastic action.  

2. Choose something to run towards, instead of running away

Once you figure out what isn’t working, it’s time to determine what you actually want. If you run away from discomfort but never take the time to figure out what to run towardsyou’ll never find the fulfillment you’re seeking. 

One helpful framework you can use to help identify that “something” is from a book I love called The Big Leap. Author Gay Hendricks lays out four “zones” you can operate from at work: your zone of incompetence, your zone of competence, your zone of excellence, and your zone of genius. 

Most accounting professionals get stuck in the zone of excellence. And this isn’t necessarily a bad place to be—you excel at your job, get paid well, and people respect your expertise. But at the same time, you can hear your inner voice saying, “I know there’s something more.” Your zone of genius, on the other hand, is the highest expression of yourself. It’s where you’re living your values and doing work that inspires you.

I once coached a compliance tax partner who was a quintessential example of someone operating in his zone of excellence. He excelled in his career and made good money but came to me feeling disenchanted. Through coaching, he came to the realization that it wasn’t that he didn’t like accounting, rather, he was inspired to make the practice of accounting better. He needed a new role that would meet him where he was. 

So he made a big leap—he quit his job as a tax partner without knowing where he would work next. What he did know: He had a vision for the progressive firms of the future. This person wasn’t running away from what he didn’t like, rather, he was being pulled by a sense of purpose. It didn’t take him long to move into a new job where he is leading a CPA firm alliance and collaborating with members on how to improve their firms. (In fact, he’ll be speaking about this transition this summer at the AICPA EDGE conference: My Journey to Partner: Why I Left and What Could Have Been Done to Keep Me.) 

If you’re feeling stuck in your current role, consider—what would it take for you to leave your  zone of excellence and fully step into your zone of genius? Is there a cause you’re passionate about, a type of work that inspires you, or a long-held dream you’ve been too scared to try? The answers are inside of you. All you need to do is quiet the external noise and tune into the longings of your soul.  

3. Ask for what you need to thrive

This next part might feel scariest—but it’s also the most crucial. Here’s the point where you need to talk to your employer about what you’ve been discovering. 

This is where I notice the accounting professionals I work with struggle the most. They are scared to ask for what they need. Underneath the fear may be a limiting belief they will be perceived as “weak” or “unworthy” of having their needs met. My response is always: “Do you realize what it costs to replace you?” It’s in your firm’s best interest to keep you happy—this is even more true if you’re a senior-level person. You doing the work you love is more than altruistic; it results in you operating at your highest potential. 

Still, it can be a nerve-wracking conversation, so do what you can to set yourself up for success. First, breathe. As Hendricks says in The Big Leap, “Fear is excitement without the breath.” While conversing with my colleague Jamie Greene on the topic of anxiety and mental health, I learned that breath calms one’s anxiety faster than a Xanax or a glass of wine. (Who said CPE can’t be fun?) 

Next, you might want to send your boss a note explaining what you’ve been thinking about and asking to schedule some time to chat further. You might consider saying something like:

  • I have noticed I no longer enjoy________.
  • What I would like to do instead is ________.
  • What do you need from my current role?
  • What will the business need from my future performance?
  • How might we align so that both of our needs are met?

In many cases, your boss will be amenable to the idea. Still, there are workplaces that will not be supportive of your growth, or that simply aren’t able to provide what you’re looking for. If you’ve asked for what you need and your workplace isn’t willing or able to explore it, don’t take it personally. Instead, see it as a gift that you are being rerouted to something even better. Because you are. 

If you decide to leave, you can take what you’ve learned about yourself and bring it on the job hunt. Remember, you’re evaluating potential employers as much as they’re evaluating you. Make sure to communicate your needs and determine whether they’ll be able to meet them before you accept a new opportunity. 

4. Look within before you leap

The pandemic put accounting professionals under unique new pressures—many of which haven’t gone away entirely. Understandably, the great resignation became the natural outpouring of their pent-up exhaustion and frustration with the profession. But those who didn’t take the time to reflect on what they needed to thrive may now feel regret. 

Switching jobs doesn’t necessarily have to be a last resort. However, I do think it’s important to really understand what you need and how you might get it before you make any drastic life changes. 

Having a deep understanding of your needs, values, and aspirations is key to finding work that fulfills you, whether that’s in your existing workplace or in a new opportunity. The important thing is to discover what’s going to make you thrive as a human being—and, crucially, find the soil that will nourish your growth. Only then will you find the job and life satisfaction you’ve been looking for. 

Disclaimer: This is not to be taken as tax, legal, benefits, financial, or HR advice. Since rules and regulations change over time and can vary by location, consult a lawyer or HR expert for specific guidance.

CPA Performance Begins With Consciousness

Many CPAs have built their brand and sense of self- worth on expertise. The more one knows, the more valuable they believe they are. While competency undoubtedly has its place, it is no longer sufficient. 

COVID-19 has amplified what we’ve heard for years: We’re living in a VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous) world. And in recent months, we’re actually feeling it. At work and home, we’re being asked to create solutions for problems that previously didn’t exist. This requires CPAs to shift their identify from being an expert to embrace the value of consciousness. 

Consciousness is much more than an esoteric buzzword. It’s about seeing yourself, your colleagues and your clients in a deeper, more meaningful way so you can deliver value well beyond business acumen. 

While speaking at the 2020 CalCPA Annual Members Business Meeting, AICPA CEO Barry Melancon said, “We need to be more than our technical expertise. What clients and employers want today is something bigger, something broader.” Consciousness can empower you to become something bigger and support others in doing the same. 

The Value of Looking Deeper 

Performance for a knowledge worker is like an iceberg: there is 10 percent we can see and an additional 90 percent that’s hidden. The 10 percent is the observable action one takes. We can see if a person completes work on time or not. But if you miss a deadline, how often do you ask yourself why? And if you give yourself permission to be curious, how deeply are you willing to look for the answer? 

The unobservable 90 percent is our being. It’s comprised of our beliefs, fears, feelings, hopes and expectations. Much of this is hardwired and driven by unconscious patterns of thinking and feeling. Deadlines aren’t always missed because one does not know how to manage their time. Deadlines are missed when one is a perfectionist and triple checks their work. And they are a perfectionist because they fear they aren’t smart enough or may lose their job. Deadlines also are missed when one over promises and under delivers. Often these people-pleasing behaviors were learned during childhood or formative career experiences. To uncover what is in the way of optimal performance, the place to look is within yourself. Do you dare to examine what lies well beneath the surface? 

As a professional coach, I know the greatest possibilities for improving performance are found by exploring the unchartered territories of one’s inner world. Once the unconscious becomes conscious, one has choice about their actions, can see what drives their behavior and consciously choose new behaviors that produce greater results. 

How Consciousness Structures Itself 

Our society understands stages of human development: babies walk around the age of 1, there are the terrible 2s and teenage angst, and humans leave the parental nest near age 18. What’s less understood is adult development: the predictable stages for how a human psychologically grows over their lifetime. 

In the book “An Everyone Culture,” psychologist Robert Kegan’s adult development theory provides a framework
for how consciousness structures itself. As we mature internally, we become increasingly responsible for our own thinking and feeling. This makes us better equipped to handle greater levels of mental complexity. The higher order of structure we attain, the greater our capacity to be with what life throws our way. 

There are three basic stages to adult development theory. Unlike human development, however, adult development theory has no correlation to age or IQ. 

1. The Socialized Mind:
I liken this stage to an Uber; this sense of self is being unconsciously driven around by others. We see this when we meet college students who ask us to provide direction for their career path. We see this at an organizational level when a company emulates the best practice of another organization. The sense of self is externally oriented and relies on the input of others. More often, it’s in a reactive state and exhibits ineffective leadership behaviors. 

2. The Self-authoring Mind:
The shift to this sense of self moves the orientation from outward to inward. A self-authoring mind is in the driver seat of life. By looking within, one begins to realize they have thoughts. Without this awareness, actions are unconsciously driven by memorized patterns of thinking and feeling. At an organizational level, the self-authoring mind is not governed by industry standards. Rather, it turns inward and asks, “What do my employees and my clients really need?” This state of being is creative and leadership effectiveness increases. 

3. The Self-transforming Mind:
This developmental stage is powerful and rare. Like Waze, it’s open to new routes and destinations. The ego has dissolved; it is happy to be the driver or the passenger and doesn’t get derailed by an unexpected road closure. What some would  perceive as an obstacle, is interpreted to be an opportunity. Self-transforming organizations view being human as a cultural priority. They know who they are, how they serve and the value of both. Everyone shares responsibility for the development of people and the culture. There is high retention of talent, clients and intellectual property. The external world will continue to change at an accelerated pace. To thrive, we must take on the responsibility for the design of our internal space. How well do you know the deeper parts of yourself? Do you traditionally require other people to create stability for you? Or do you have the ability and capacity to design and redesign your own internal operating system? As one begins to mature their inner world, they build capacity and sturdiness to effectively lead themself and others through unprecedented times. 

Time to Wake up to New Possibilities 

When COVID-19 began, many leaders were making decisions in a reactive state. Compensation was reduced, employees were laid off and learning and development budgets were frozen. At the same time, COVID-19 taught us we can all work from home. Location will no longer matter for employment opportunities, which means we could be on the precipice of a talent war— perhaps one like we’ve never seen before. 

We are also at risk for losing valuable members of our profession. Many CPAs are questioning our norms, specifically the long hours. Working parents, who have been without childcare for months and may have no end in sight, are struggling to meet the demands of home and work. Many carry concerns for their aging parents. The recent experiences of racism left some feeling hopeless. Because we no longer see one another physically, some may feel isolated or a need to prove they’re working by making themselves available at any time. Demand on our psychological resources is at an all-time high. 

Why does this matter to CPAs? Because the connection between mental health and performance are inextricably tied. Think of mental capacity like the operating system
on your computer. If your mind is anxiously running several programs, there’s less space available for strategic thinking and problem solving. In other words, anxiety takes up space that could be held by intellect. 

A recent CalCPA member survey on the impact of COVID-19 found:

  • 96 percent of respondents said it has been disruptive to their organization;
  • 49 percent said ensuring the continued health and safety of employees is a top concern; and
  • 45 percent said maintaining a work/life balance was a challenge. 
Adult Development: a new way of knowing in the world

Other concerns included: voluntary termination due to stress, employees on pay leave due to health concerns, an inability to establish a routine and struggling to balance childcare with work hours. 

A recent Robert Half survey also found the following regarding how employees are rethinking their careers amid the pandemic and what’s most important: 

  • 60 percent are more motivated to be employed at an organization that values its staff during unpredictable times. 
  • 40 percent will prioritize their personal life over their job moving forward. 
  • 33 percent want to pursue a more meaningful or fulfilling position. 

While at the outset there may be some news here that might be viewed as grim, it also reveals significant opportunity. We can transform the way we develop our organizations and the people within them. 

Employers who tend to the psychological impact of COVID-19 will no longer pay full-time wages for part-time contributions. Morale will increase exponentially and turnover will decrease dramatically. The observable billable hour will no longer be seen as the holy grail of performance indicators, for we now understand that productivity goes much deeper than what we can see.
We will prepare leaders to not only look deeper into themselves, but to also become curious about the real reasons why a colleague missed a deadline. We will no longer refer to last year. We will embrace the unknown so we may serve others in a deeper, more meaningful way. We have an opportunity as a profession to become something bigger, something greater. 

The billable hour will no longer be seen as the holy grail of performance indicators; We will spend less energy referring to last year and instead embrace the unknown. 

Albert Einstein said, “No problem can be solved from the same level of consciousness that created it.” Now is time to transform how we develop talent. A proper balance of competence and consciousness can be your differentiator. After all, CPAs are not human doings; we are human beings. 

Want to Pass the CPA Exam? Consider Hiring a Coach

The Uniform CPA Exam is one of the most, if not the most, rigorous professional exam. According to the National Association of State Boards of Accountancy’s 2015 Candidate Performance on the Uniform CPA Examination Jurisdiction Edition, California candidates had an overall average pass rate of 49.8 percent. In other words, on average, more than half of all California candidates failed exam sections in the past year. 

Failing the CPA Exam is expensive both in terms of actual costs and the significant investment in time. But perhaps more insidious: it can take an emotional toll on candidates. This is where coaching can make a real difference in candidate performance.

I’ve had the pleasure of coaching many people to pass the CPA Exam. As a CPA who works with hearts and not numbers, my work as coach never entails tutoring of technical topics. So, what do people get coached on? Here is a sampling of common obstacles facing CPA Exam candidates: 

Overcoming Failure

In general, people who chose to pursue the CPA license are goal oriented, high performers. They are accustomed to setting a goal, working hard, and achieving that goal. As a result, they aren’t practiced at failing and learning how to overcome it.

When people come to coaching with this issue, the first thing to do is normalize their experience: look at the data, many people fail. The next steps are to look at ways to reframe the situation. What can they learn from the failure, whether it be opportunities to fine-tune their study habits or figure out what they are learning about themselves in the process. They also can examine what got in the way. Coaching is not like consulting, where an expert gives advice. Part of a coach’s job is to ask thought-provoking questions. This helps people see how they are getting in their own way and identify opportunities to change their behaviors and improve their results.

Managing Your Energy and Your Time

I often encounter candidates who are exhausted or on the edge of burnout. They are overwhelmed with work, studying and other life responsibilities. Candidates struggling with managing their energy may have a limited belief that the more study hours they put in, the better their results will be.

It is true that one needs to invest hundreds of hours to pass all four sections of the CPA Exam. But study hours should not trump self-care. Human brains are not computers. We don’t perform our best when we run on high speed for long intervals of time. To manage your energy effectively, build in renewal activities like exercise, sleep or time with family and friends. While these activities take time away from studying, they refuel candidates. Performance improves when you shift your study regimen from solely a quantitative experience to one that also recognizes hours invested in studying have an important qualitative aspect.

Being Accountable to a Realistic Study Schedule

The final common area is the creation of a customized study schedule. The initial part of this process is straightforward: co-create a schedule that balances the recommended study hours along with the commitments in their life. To ensure the schedule is realistic, I invite candidates to be honest with themselves about what they can and can’t take on.

For example, a candidate may initially create a best-case scenario study plan, but life often doesn’t work like that. If you truly work more than 40 hours a week, be honest with yourself and plan your study schedule around your predictable 55-hour workweek instead.

Challenges arise when trying to be accountable to the plan. Each week my coaching clients report to me the hours they said they would study and the actual amount they studied. We track these metrics for the week and cumulatively for the CPA Exam section at hand. And if they miss the mark, we explore what got in the way.

For example, it’s easy to say I didn’t study because I had to stay late at work. The greater challenge is to look deeper: what did I do or not do that had it turn out this way? It may be something harder to admit or see in oneself: I’m a people pleaser and can’t say no. I procrastinated or overestimated my skills. I’m afraid to ask my employer for support. Ultimately, when one does not study the hours, they said they would, they come to see how they are sabotaging their long-term commitment of becoming a CPA in favor of creating short-term wins.

If you’re struggling to pass the CPA Exam, rather than buy another review course or invest hundreds of dollars in another exam section, consider hiring a coach. The coach can support and help you to pass the exam once and for all—and encourage you to become the best version of yourself in the workplace and beyond.

Managing Your Time as if It Was Your Money

Members of the accounting profession are driven by the notion of time. This is true if you’re in a public firm measuring billable hours or in industry with filing and reporting deadlines. The regulatory environment is such that CPAs can’t help but pay a lot of attention to the clock. While each of us wakes up each day with 24 hours to “spend,” most professionals will tell you they often feel like they don’t have enough time. There’s an opportunity cost that comes from looking at your time as if it was fixed. It makes the status quo too easy to accept versus seeing the possibility for a new relationship to time. 

CPAs know there are ways to grow money when it comes to actual dollars. So why not apply that same principle and identify ways to expand your energy by managing it as if it was money?

Time As Energy 

Like money, time is a currency that can be measured in units. Similarly, you can begin to think about how your energy available to complete tasks is also measurable. Energy management may be a new concept for you. The simplest way to shift your mindset to a new direction is to think about how you can begin to monitor your level of energy—just like your cell phone monitors the life of its battery. Are you at 100 percent, feeling charged and ready to go? Or are you at 10 percent, feeling like you need to plug in or switch to power saving mode? 

The ability to assess one’s level of energy is a valuable tool for knowledge workers like CPAs. Consider how the quality of your work would improve if you took on the critical thinking tasks when your battery was charged versus when you brain is tired and operating at a dangerously low level. So, how do you learn how to assess your energy? Wouldn’t it be nice if we had thermometers that read our body temperature and our energy levels? The good news is you don’t need a gadget to read where you are. With practice, you can learn to assess your energy levels and gauge the impact of your daily activities on those levels. It’s all about getting to know yourself and noticing when you’re in the zone and when you aren’t. 

To start, pay attention to what tasks excite you versus those that drain you. The tasks that drain us are usually things we don’t like doing because they are routine, monotonous or misaligned with our interests. Draining tasks have a lot of potential because they often are things we should stop doing or delegate. An easy way to grow as a leader is to free yourself of tasks you have mastered so you can take on higher level work, which in turn is often more engaging, rewarding and energy giving. 

Moreover, noticing your energy will create better results. If you complete high-level tasks with a low level of energy, it’s likely the quality of your work won’t be as good. It will contain errors, which in turn will require you to expend more energy later in the process. This mismatch creates an inefficient use of your time. 

As you build your awareness of what activities drain or charge your battery, you will be better equipped to see the opportunities to manage your time as if it was money. This understanding will allow you to look at how you’ve been spending your time and identify strategies that will yield a higher return on investment for your time (and energy). 

What’s Your Actual? 

A core tenant of the work I do coaching clients is to help them distinguish between facts and interpretations. If a client says to me, “I didn’t have enough time to …,” their statement is an interpretation. The fact is they had 24 hours in a day and chose to spend their time elsewhere. To get the facts on how your time is being spent, consider accounting for where you spent your time in the last week. Just like with money management, consider setting up an Excel spreadsheet that starts with 24 hours and then deduct all your expenditures of time, such as: 

  • Hours at work: This includes hours in the office and what you do remotely, like checking email from home. 
  • Daily living: Think of these like operational expenditures. They represent the hours it takes to simply take care of ourselves: sleeping, eating, and organizing our homes. 
  • Children: If you have children, think of them as a subsidiary account. How does their time roll into you, the parent company?
  • Transportation: This is the time spent going from one place to the next, whether commuting to the office or client. 
  • Miscellaneous: These are all the things we have to do in life, such as doctor and dentist appointments, maybe taking a vacation or going to get a haircut. Once you have the facts about how your time is being spent, you can then ask yourself: Am I balanced? Am I investing my time wisely? If not, what needs to change? In other words, what do I want my budget to look like instead? 

What Do You Want Your Budget To Be?

If you discover an organization is operating at a loss, you have two choices to get out of the red: reduce expenses or increase income. Opportunities to reduce expenditures of time are usually easier to identify: What needs to come off your plate? Again, notice what tasks drain your energy so you can spend those hours on tasks that are more meaningful and energizing. This might require you to get outside support, such as requesting help for things you normally do yourself or delegating tasks to others. 

Increasing income within your time budget is a little trickier. With your life, you can’t create more hours in the day by increasing sales. But you can create more energy by making sounder investments. One of the most common shifts people desire is making time to take better care of themselves, especially when the new year and busy season are upon us. While self-care is paramount to peak performance, it usually falls to the bottom of the list  

when we are short on time. As you create your ideal schedule, consider adding in investing activities. Investing activities are actions that produce dividends and interest by leaving you feeling more energized. They increase your happiness, help you to feel balanced and ultimately enhance your productivity. 

Here are four different types of investing activities to consider:

  1. Physical: exercise, nutrition
  2. Mental: reading, learning
  3. Spiritual: religion, meditation, time in nature
  4. Emotional: time with family, friends

Putting It in to Practice 

Effective change is the result of insights plus action. While clarity on how to better spend your time is helpful, it won’t create value in your life unless you actually change your behavior. To earn a higher yield on the time you’re spending, with your budget-to-actual in hand, keep the following in mind:

Focus On Futures

Don’t spend your energy worrying about poor investments of the past. Unlike financial statements, you can’t restate time that’s been spent. Worry, frustration, and negative thoughts about what is not possible will all drain your energy. Focusing on the future is energizing in and of itself. 

Slow and Steady Wins the Race

No one loses 100 pounds overnight. That type of change requires slow and steady results. When working with your budget, consider taking on one area at a time. For example, spend a month eliminating low yields and the following months layer in one new investment activity at a time. 

Monitor Your Energy As You Go

It may take you time to build this muscle of awareness, but it will be worth your time. The better you become at matching your energy levels to the appropriate tasks, the better your performance will be. 


We are often unrealistic about how we spend our time. We plan for the best-case scenario and don’t account for the unexpected. We dive into work without taking a step back and asking ourselves if the work energizes and excites us or noticing where we’ve made inefficient uses of our time. By budgeting your time and getting real about how your time has been spent, you will have the awareness to create a powerful budget for how you better invest in your future. 

Take the Work Out of Networking

Networking is viewed as a must have professional skill. It’s one that can be essential at the earliest stages of our career, because we learn of employment opportunities by meeting other professionals at networking events, and it continues to help us as we progress into new areas of expertise. Yet as valuable as networking can be, in all my years of coaching professionals and job candidates, I rarely hear people describe networking activities as enjoyable.

In fact, I often hear just the opposite: people find networking events to be uncomfortable and some individuals even dread them.

This is why I encourage people to reframe networking and instead think of connection. Connecting with others is a fundamental human need. Relationships with others provides us a sense of belonging. So how does one shift their way of thinking to connection?

Choose the Right Events

Some people feel more connected in smaller, one-to-one interactions, and others are energized by a large group setting. Take time to think about where you know you show up confidently and align your activities to your preferences. Also, choose events where your genuine interests or passions will be showcased.

For example, I love mentoring students coming into the profession. This is why I attend local CalCPA events targeted to students and candidate members. You won’t find me, a CPA who works with hearts and not numbers, networking at a technical roundtable discussion because I won’t show up excited, engaged and as my best self. By choosing carefully, you can position yourself to connect with less effort and have a more positive impact.

Push the Boundaries of Your Comfort Zone

There may be times when you will need to get out of your comfort zone so you can connect with the people that can support your career progression. Maybe you prefer more connecting in small groups, but you need to attend a large job fair. Consider how you can get comfortable with being uncomfortable. If you are going to attend a job fair, are there opportunities to meet the professionals in attendance before the event (e.g., an office tour) or pair up with a friend so that you aren’t in it alone?

Remember We’re All Humans

Sometimes I’ve seen people get hung up on what to say at a networking event. We want to demonstrate that we’re smart and we want to come off as confident. But if we get too caught up in our heads, people don’t experience who we are and see what’s inside of our hearts. True connection occurs when we allow others to really see who we are and have them feel truly heard. Yes, you can talk about accounting principles if it’s something you are truly passionate about, but don’t be afraid to ask others about other domains of their lives beyond careers, such as their family and their personal commitments (like running a marathon or being involved in their community.

By focusing on how to truly connect with others, you not only take the work out of networking, but also you will prepare yourself to show up with impact—and you may even enjoy the experience!

Where’s the Love?

There’s an Emotional Side to Passing the Uniform CPA Exam

Love is a word we typically reserve for areas of our personal life. We may use it to describe aspects of our professional life such as loving our vocation, our colleagues or our clients. But, in all of my experiences with the Uniform CPA Exam—including my own arduous journey and coaching others on the path to licensure—I never once heard a person associate the word love with the exam. I offer that love is exactly what one needs during the journey to becoming a CPA.

Love For Oneself

Having love for oneself includes care of your body and mind. Most of us understand the essentials of how to care for our bodies through proper nutrition and exercise. However, we aren’t as adept at caring for our minds by living a balanced lifestyle. Time is always scarce during the path to CPA licensure, so we lose our balance and run up against burnout and exhaustion. Activities that promote balance are rejuvenating and fill up one’s emotional tank. Think of them as investing activities: you initially pay something and later reap interest and dividends. 

Activities that support one’s mental wellbeing may include quality time with loved ones, exercise, being outdoors, listening to music, spiritual practices or good old-fashioned rest. Activities that engage the creative, emotional side of the brain are especially valuable because the analytical side of the brain is often in overuse at this time. Another key consideration for candidates is to have a clear mind—specifically regarding why they want to become a CPA. 

Their reasons should be greater than doing it because of the opinions of others. Rather, candidates should be able to articulate the importance and value the designation will create for them. Without that, candidates run the risk of being overwhelmed by external pressures instead of being energized by internally generated motivation.

Love for the Profession

A profession, by definition, is more than a job. It is a vocation—a calling—and connects us to a larger purpose in society. Just like with marriage, love and commitment go hand in hand. A love for the profession is a commitment to something greater than any single individual’s work. Candidates who can get altitude on the bigger picture—beyond the immediate career pathways that exist and seeing where the designation will ultimately take them—will be better equipped to see how short-term tradeoffs will reap a lifetime of rewards. 

To see the bigger picture, one might ask:

  • Who are the clients I will be able to serve as a CPA?
  • What unique gifts can I bring to these clients and the profession?
  • Once I am a CPA, what will I be entrusted to do that I can’t do now?
  • What does my legacy look like and how does becoming a CPA fit into that vision?

Becoming a CPA means joining an elite group of individuals who are viewed by others as trusted advisers in the business world, as well as within their families, communities, churches, organizations, and society as a whole. Having altitude on the higher purpose one is committed to will create the most empowered action and greatest results.

Love From Others

An incredible amount of love and support from others is also needed to pass the Uniform CPA Exam. Because it takes so many hours of preparation to successfully pass, candidates are left with little time do anything beyond working and studying. Therefore, the best support structure for a candidate includes an understanding of the tremendous amount of strain they are under.

At home, candidates who feel the love have supportive partners who pick up the slack with child and pet care, cooking and cleaning. Families and friends show an understanding that a candidate might not have time for play and fun. And perhaps, most important, loved ones are there to provide much needed emotional support when one fails a section or is feeling overwhelmed.

Candidates also receive support from their employers. Financial support is a good start, and alignment of their exam schedule and workloads are important. Supportive employers give permission to take time off and unplug from work during the days or weeks leading up to an exam. Once again, emotional support is key. Having a space to talk with other CPAs and candidates about their experience can be cathartic and allow them to see that others also struggle. The hardest journeys to CPA licensure are often the most inspiring. The integration of the heart and mind creates tremendous access to power and heightened performance. Love may not be all you need, but it can get you farther than you may think.

Learn more about The Initiation– our professional coaching experience for CPA exam candidates.