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REFM -  Adrian Photo Square - CATOB“If you’re not prepared to be wrong, you’ll never come up with anything original.” -Sir Ken Robinson


That quote is taken from this 2006 TED talk video, which I highly recommend watching if you haven’t seen it before (or even if you have, for that matter – it’s that good). In it, Sir Robinson offers some observations and insights about the education system, and how we might make it better.



It brought to mind a particular observation about accountants: that we’re used to knowing the right answer, and that people rely on us to be right. It breeds in us a predisposition to shy away from the unknown, to adopt a “wait and see” approach to new ideas, and to not step out unless we’re certain.


“If you’re not prepared to be wrong, you’ll never come up with anything original.”


Truth be told, I think we as human beings are uncomfortable being wrong. Nobody likes to flub it, fall on their face, or be seen as clearly off base. As a species, we can be supremely self-conscious. Sir Robinson argues a lot of it is trained into us by how our education system is designed. (Anybody still have a gut reaction to red pen markings?) But whatever the cause, the net result of it all is that we fail to step outside ourselves, and in doing so, we fail to expand who we are, and to reach out and deeply touch those around us.


In a LinkedIn post by Dharmesh Shah entitled, “9 Qualities of Truly Confident People,” he lists #1 as: “They take a stand not because they think they are always right…but because they are not afraid to be wrong.” Part is taking a stand, making a statement, having a conviction, allowing yourself to be moved by some gut feeling. That comes from experiencing things, observing, reflecting, learning.


But “not afraid to be wrong.” How does someone get to be “not afraid to be wrong?” Maybe one step is coming to terms with, and embracing, our imperfection. If we can accept ourselves as who we are, as we are, then we create the space to develop and grow, because we’re not fighting against the emotion of our own self-dislike. Perhaps a second step is to realize that the success or failure of the risk taken, is not a reflection of who we are as a person. Yes, we invest ourselves in what we do, but we are not our work, and if it flops, we should understand that our identity and self-worth remain intact. Let me repeat that: our identity and self-worth remain intact. These two components are part of building resilience: that ability to bounce back, that enables us to keep moving forward. ‘Not being afraid to be wrong’, comes from that deep-down-belief, that whatever may happen good or bad, we’ll be okay.


So what’s this mean for business owners of accounting firms? Well, I think the first is to realize that the title comes with two hats: “business owner” and “accountant.” Those hats contain two different sets of brains, or different mindsets if you will. When we’re doing a tax return or preparing a set of financial statements, we aren’t looking to develop ‘the courage to be wrong.’ (Though I’ve seen some accountants who have taken this approach.) 😉 But when we’re talking business strategy, developing new ways to serve our customers, or coordinate our team, let’s put on that other hat: the one housing our other brain, which thoughtfully considers things, but isn’t held back from action by its otherwise normal, healthy accountant-instincts. Being able to recognize and toggle between these two brains depending on the situation can be a powerful tool.


The courage to be wrong leads to the ability to try, which results in the capacity for a different future.


Adrian G. Simmons is a CPA innovating ways to put money in its place. After working as an auditor out of college for KPMG, he joined his father in public practice in 2002, and now acts as the Chief Creative Designer there. With the team, he looks for ways to help their customers become financially strong, so that they can focus on what truly matters in life. Adrian likes tech, uses a fountain pen, successfully attempted a half-marathon (and may try another)  , and prefers dark over milk chocolate.

Innovation, Personal Growth
  • Melinda Guillemette

    On 08-05-2013 at 7:15 pm, Melinda Guillemette said:

    Adrian – there’s so much self-loathing in our business, and it stems in part from your observation here, that we are afraid to be wrong. We lacerate ourselves thoroughly for being wrong on ANYTHING, and — perhaps even more toxic — we lacerate others for being wrong. And I’m not just talking about review notes. I’m talking about creativity, ideas, novel approaches to old problems.

    Emphasizing wrongness rather than congratulating fast failures and risk-taking teaches team members never to take a risk, and never to own a new idea. When these folks then take leadership roles in the firm, the problem simply perpetuates. And that’s how we get a profession like we have now: tradition-bound, rigid, resistant to change. What a pity.

    The toggling you speak of is crucial to effective leadership. A good start would be to change the term “managing partner” to “leading partner,” don’t you think?

    • On 08-05-2013 at 8:56 pm, Adrian G. Simmons said:

      Absolutely. And I like the title change, though it triggers in me a memory of a talk by Curtis Zimmerman two years ago that sunk sorta deep and I haven’t been able to shake it. One of his closing remarks was:

      “Be a real person, not a leader.”

      There was some context to that statement, but it led to one of my takeaways: that as we develop as good persons in whole, the rest begins to take care of itself.

  • On 08-06-2013 at 3:23 pm, Kevin said:

    Sir Ken is awesome, good analysis Adrian. I think you nailed it with the “having to wear 2 hats” idea.

    • On 08-06-2013 at 8:04 pm, Adrian G. Simmons said:

      Thanks Kevin – much appreciated. And yeah, both an insightful and witty knight of the round table is Sir Ken. 🙂

  • On 08-07-2013 at 11:57 pm, Damien Greathead said:

    Great article Adrian – I’m curious how your audit experience shaped you as a CPA and how big an influence audit experience has on a CPA well after they’ve left the audit field. As a result are CPAs conditioned to err on the side of caution – with every piece of advice they offer? So I think it comes down to what business do you want to be in? Is it strictly compliance or is there another model where CPAs can offer much more value to their clients and create real partnerships.

    What I’ve seen is that those CPAs who get off the sidelines and comprehenively serve their clients have much more profitable careers – and not just in terms of net income per partner.

    • On 08-08-2013 at 9:56 pm, Adrian G. Simmons said:

      Thanks Damien, and thanks for your comment!

      About how auditing influenced me, although I left full-time auditing when I left KPMG back in ’02, I continued to do audits as part of the service mix in our small firm up until this year, when we officially pruned it from our offerings. Although there’s definitely a dimension of compliance in auditing, I also see a lot of dynamism – especially with the risk assessment standards that came out a handful of years ago. Audits done well can be very strategic in their planning and execution, and lead to a great sense of the entity from both a financial and business strategy standpoint. Actually, I think that’s a way that industry could evolve and breathe new life into itself: by coupling its financial audit reports with other types of evaluations of the company’s health, positioning, status, etc. We just decided we didn’t want to head down that road currently, and wanted to focus on some other initiatives where our interests lie.

      I think there’s a lot of truth to the claim that anything can be decommoditized – this LinkedIn post goes into that some

      And some related thoughts on the subject made their way into my first blog post here: “A Profession in Search of An Identity”

      The skills and ways of thinking I learned in auditing, I’m applying in a different way now. And I think the challenge that we all face is exactly what you said: ‘getting off the sidelines to serve our clients’ – that takes guts.


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