But you need moxie to pull it off.
The biggest business mistake I ever made happened almost 40 years ago. I was training to be a chartered accountant, auditing an insurance company in west London. Just how primitive were conditions in the 1960s? Accounting was strictly Quill Pen 1.0. Computers were unheard of outside NASA. I bought one of the world's first hand-held, rechargeable calculators, the size and weight of a brick, for about $250 ($3 million in today's prices). I still have it, and it still works.
The insurance company's payroll records had been maintained since 1927 by one man, by hand, on voluminous green tracking sheets. He was unbelievably ancient. When he handed me his records, he asked--more begged, really--that I make my auditing marks as neat as possible.
I was 18. This was the Sixties, man. My friends were all out taking LSD; I was adding up payroll deductions. Come to think of it, broadly speaking, the same is still true.
The office ambience at this company was strictly Dickensian. Men wore three-piece suits and women ? well, there weren't any women. A tea lady wheeled a cart around at 11 a.m. and 4 p.m., bringing tea and cookies.
You were allowed a few minutes to relax and chat. I called my boss Sir, even though he was just a Mister. The ballpoint pen hadn't been invented. I had to rub two stones together to light cigarettes, which we smoked all day and night, but only inside office buildings, supermarkets, restaurants and hospitals.
My "work station" at the insurance company was atop an old heating register in the warehouse, which wasn't as clever as it sounds. Being summer in England, the temperature was freezing. Suddenly one day, without an announcement, the heating came on. I took a searing wave of heat to the rear end. I yelped, jumped up and spilled my tea all over the payroll records.
It haunts me still. I see the ink and tea merging to form a wash akin to Tammy Faye Baker's makeup. I see the utterly crestfallen look of the man whose life I had invalidated. I see why I left accounting.
THE MORALS OF THE STORY
The story has so many morals that I barely know where to start. Obviously, taking LSD beats auditing payroll records. None of my drug pals ever felt the remorse I did. Of course, if you take enough LSD, you probably don't feel anything.
Always give your auditors a proper work area. Live in a country with warm summers. Better still, live in a country without payroll taxes.
Stuff happens, and sometimes your very best isn't going to be anywhere near good enough.
Most of all, I like to think that the payroll clerk, once he'd stopped crying--yes, I made a grown man cry--learned something about the transient nature of certainty and the need to make backup copies.
In the aftermath of the incident, I was so badly shaken up, I had to take the rest of the day off and go to the movies. We saw The Poseidon Adventure, which lifted my spirits.
I can say that I have never poured tea over anything since that ghastly incident. I drink coffee instead.
ROGER CROMBIE is a Bermuda-based columnist for Risk & Insurance®.
December 1, 2008
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