Monday, March 29, 2010

Day 76 - A Short Discourse on Creativity

          Absolutely nothing is going on in the job search. This waiting is even more boring than working in accounting if you can imagine that. Accountants, since they are thought by the general populace to be boring, are also thought to have a high tolerance for boredom. I think mine is quite low. Maybe that’s why I’m unemployed.
          When I first started out in public accounting back in the seventies I had a neighbor in my apartment complex named Wendy who was co-producer of a local PBS TV show. She had a lot of latitude from station management about what to put on her show, but the show was meant to feature items of local interest. One day she got the idea to do a series of shows on interesting accountants. She led me to believe that she got the idea from me, as she believed I was interesting, at least in the sense that I didn’t remind her of a stereotypical CPA. In retrospect I’m not sure what she meant by that exactly, but at the time I thought I understood it perfectly. I was also just narcissistic enough to want to be on TV representing interesting people everywhere.
          Wendy’s plan was to locate a representative sample of CPAs within the local accounting offices, and to either interview them about or, even better, film them actively pursuing interesting pastimes. She told me she was hoping to get some thrilling footage of CPAs jumping out of airplanes, riding motorcycles, racing cars, sailing, and so on. This actually represented quite a departure from whatever it was that she found fascinating in me, because I didn’t do any of these things. The most interesting thing I did at the time was to make and fly kites. I doubt that very many other people would have found that in the least bit captivating, and I’m sure that it wouldn’t have made for a very compelling documentary television piece.
We made an appointment for Wendy to come by my place with a camera man to do an interview. Maybe she thought that scintillating conversation made for good television. Truth be known I didn’t do scintillating either. I didn’t have any idea what kind of questions she was going to ask, but I was excited to get the chance to look competent and engaging, and I was sure that I would acquit myself well. The time for the interview came and went with no Wendy. She didn’t show. I called her a couple of days later to ask what had happened.
          “I couldn’t find any interesting accountants,” she said. “I guess the stereotype is true.”
          “What about me?” I asked.
          “You’re not enough to make a show,” she said.
          It didn’t break my heart. I took what she said at face value. I was happy to think that she had pinned the concept on my low boredom quotient, and that I really was toiling away in a profession that had no other souls worthy of a conversation on television. When I think back on this incident nearly 30 years later I have a few questions for Wendy that I wish I had thought to ask when I had the chance:
  • What on earth had made her think I was interesting?
  • If she was really looking for the kinds of pursuits that made for marketable cinematography like sky diving and automobile racing what did she think was going to happen in my apartment?
  • Did she really think that things like motorcycle riding and sailing made otherwise boring individuals exciting to know?
Maybe Wendy had actually figured out then what it took me several more years to learn, and that is that guys (and girls) who sky dive, ride motorcycles, race cars, sail boats (or yachts) or any of dozens of other risky and exhilarating activities are just as boring if not more so than the guys and girls who sit around their entertainment centers eating chips and salsa and watching American Idol reruns. The only thing that sets them apart is the increased likelihood that they will die a spectacular death while engaged in the pursuit that interests them, and thus spare the rest of us another interminable account over yet another chardonnay about what an exciting ride or race or jump or beat to windward they had last week-end. Tax code is only marginally duller.
I have looked at the question of my own interestingness many, many times since Wendy’s failure to execute on her high concept. I doubt that I was ever interesting in the sense that Wendy was looking for, and that is perhaps the real reason she didn’t show up and she didn’t do her show. By some other standard however—a standard that I admittedly don’t understand any better than I understand Wendy’s—I may be too interesting, by which I mean creative and smart. I say this because people have told me so and, because they have told me so, I’ve had to consider that not only might it be true but it might also be the reason that my career seems to have stalled about ten years ago and not managed to reboot itself.
Henry’s daughter once told me that she thought I was brilliant but that I had no street smarts. By street smarts she meant an abiding mistrust of my fellow man. Henry and his entire family always think everyone is out to take advantage of them because they are out to take advantage of everybody who will let them. They were busy taking advantage of me when Henry’s daughter gave me the little ‘street smarts’ lecture, which may have been her attempt to give me a heads up at the time—she thinking I was too smart to figure it out for myself and feeling sorry for me.
Alicia once told me that I was too smart for my own good. I don’t remember the context any more. It’s been too long. I don’t think she was giving me a heads up. Henry’s daughter may have been capable of feeling sorry for me, but I do not believe that Alicia was. I told her that there was no such thing as being too smart any more than there was such a thing as being too rich or too good looking. I said this without any apology for the paraphrasing or credit to Wallis Simpson for the original quote ("A woman can never be too rich or too thin.") which I’m sure has lost some of its original panache in this age of eating disorders. It is the only time that Alicia ever looked at me with anything that remotely approached respect. Neither the look nor the respect was very long lived.
A wag once told me that businesses don’t like a lot of creativity in their accountants. That much I know is true, and I know it’s true because I think of myself as a creative person. I started out in college majoring in English. I wrote poetry, short stories, started more novels than I can count. I gave up on it as a profession because it’s really hard. Garrison Keillor once said if you can write a coherent short story you are smarter than almost all the executives in corporate America. I suspect that that is true. Even before I managed to put my first coherent short story down on paper I knew that I was smarter than every corporate executive I had ever met. I’m sure they all see it differently. Corporate executives are not easily cowed by smart guys. Corporate executives are the kind of people who move in closer to the infield when a smart guy comes up to bat. If they ever have to then watch a grand-slam-home-run ball sail over their heads, they are secure in the knowledge that it was a fluke and will never, ever in a million years happen again.
          Andy Fastow, the CFO of Enron, was a creative accountant. His problem was that he was creative in accounting rather than in writing compelling fiction or poetry or painting water colors. He designed and built the house of cards that came tumbling down around everyone’s ears and created a whole new era of burdensome regulations in the financial accounting community. Andy Fastow is in prison. He was the first to go. Ken Lay died to stay out. Jeffry Skilling, one of The Smartest Guys in the Room according to the 2003 book of that name by Fortune Magazine reporters Bethany McLean and Peter Elkind, tried to stay out of prison by maintaining among other things that he was too dumb to understand what Fastow was doing. (Dick Fuld, former CEO of Lehman Brothers, appears to be trying the same defense with respect to Lehman's accounting for Repo 105 transactions undertaken to manage the balance sheet before Lehman's ultimate collapse.) None of those guys can write a good short story, although you would be hard pressed to argue that they were not creative.

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