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The random walk of career development

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By: Chris Ekimoff
User Icon CPA, CFE, FTI Consulting
Choosing (Well)

I’m sure you’ve all heard about the “random walk hypothesis” in your finance classes. Or you heard Ron Burgundy get up on stage and tell his bandmates to take that bass line for a walk. Either way, the phrase “random walk” has been used to talk about unpredictability, misdirection, and something that has lost its way.

I’d like to think that random walks aren’t all bad, however. Take, for instance, Steve Jobs’ penchant for a constitutional. Walter Isaacson’s eye-opening biography of the former Apple CEO shared the importance of walking in all of Jobs career-focused conversations: interviews, negotiations, planning—he liked to see how others observed the world during their stroll.

Another favorite walking story of mine comes from the seminal 1989 coming-of-age classic “The Dead Poets Society” starring Robin Williams. A key scene in the movie shows Mr. Keating in the courtyard with his students. He asks a small group to take a stroll. Almost instantly, the group begins marching in lock step. Just as quickly, the classmates on the side begin clapping along to the sound of their steps. Mr. Keating uses this demonstration to teach his class about the habits of conformity—but also challenges them to “trust that your beliefs are unique.” The next exercise Mr. Keating asks of his class is to walk their own way about the courtyard, to “make [the walk] for yourself,” and attempt to enjoy the uniqueness of you.

Each of us deals with the push and pull of conformity, almost every day. Whether questioning your textbook’s ideas on a certain topic, or the time you come and go from the office each day, outside forces are bending you to conform. CPAs, in particular, are often construed to be symbols of conformity, especially with the phrases that follow:

  • “That’s not how we did it last year.”
  • “The investors won’t like that strategy.”
  • “Your career path is based on the busy seasons under your belt.”

On the whole, to succeed in your academic and professional career, you will need to work to conform to others to reach a common goal. But those truly happy, truly engaged students and professionals will embrace their uniqueness and dare to take that “random walk” when they can. It’s what makes us, us.

I also know that CPAs are anything but conformists. I’ve spent an evening on a riverboat casino full of CPAs in Austin, TX; I’ve blogged and live chatted webinars related to the issues facing CPAs today; I’ve worked with CPAs to investigate accounting and financial fraud across the country. Does that sound like conformity to you?

So be bold in your career decisions – strike out to think deeply and freely about how you want the next semester, year, or decade to go. Take a class in music theory or exercise science. Try a rotational program at your firm. Get involved with the local SPCA or any other volunteer organization you care about.

Don’t conform for conformity’s sake. No matter what stigma comes with your chosen profession, take that random walk from time to time. Life isn’t always about resume building and getting that next promotion. Sure, some choices may look random to others, but to you, it’s the purposeful, meaningful, and (personally) the only way to go.


Chris Ekimoff has spent his career with a focus on financial fraud: from the administration of government funding initiatives in the Middle East to disputes waged by Wall Street’s largest financial institutions. His interest has always been in unraveling the hidden details of fact patterns to arrive at the truth, and communicating that truth in a direct manner.
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