Don’t Be a CPA! (Or EA! Or Anything Else!)

My 11-year-old son Oliver is a bright, curious kid. He’s especially talented in math and science, which perplexes me. (I took Algebra II three times in high school and never cracked higher than a C and his mom gave up on helping him with math homework sometime back in third grade.) Naturally, he wants to be an engineer when he grows up.

Most of us have a vague idea what it is engineers do. They build stuff and make stuff – unlike us, who shuffle papers all day. To me, an engineer is the guy in Houston who has to teach the Apollo XIII astronauts how to make the Command Module’s square filters work in the Lunar Landing Module’s round filters using nothing but spare parts and duct tape.

Of course, that’s not what all engineers do. There are civil engineers, mechanical engineers, chemical engineers, and electrical engineers. There’s even a website,, that details 40 different kinds of engineering degrees that Oliver might someday choose. (As it turns out, he wants to design roller coasters – sadly, I didn’t see that on the list.)

So, someday when Oliver is at a cocktail party (because he’s going to be the kind of engineer that goes to lots of parties), someone’s going to ask him what he does for a living. He’s going to say, “I’m an engineer.” And the person who asked the question will have absolutely no idea what it is he does all day.

Now, if he says, “I design roller coasters for amusement parks all over the world,” it’ll be a different story. If he says, “I designed the first magnetic-levitation roller coaster in the world,” he’ll be the center of attention. (That’s actually what he wants to do. Like I said, bright kid. Anyone need an intern?)

Notice the difference. If he says, “I am an engineer,” he tells people what he is, but not what he does or why it matters. If he says, “I design roller coasters,” he skips the title, the training, and the credentials (which don’t really matter anyway), and gets straight to what his listener really wants to know.

The same principle applies for you and your business. Go to a cocktail party, or your kid’s ball game, or a neighborhood barbecue, and tell people you’re a CPA, and they might wonder what kind of CPA you are – auditor, tax pro, consultant, or controller – but they probably won’t care much beyond that. Tell them you’re an enrolled agent, and you’ve at least narrowed it down to the “tax” arena – maybe, if they even know what an EA is – but again, they won’t get very excited about it.

But if you answer them differently, by telling them what you do and not what you are, it’s a different story. Tell them, “I help business owners stop overpaying their taxes,” and you’ll attract some attention. You might even start a conversation that leads to some business. And you’ll certainly make a better impression than if you just say, “I’m a CPA.”

We all realize the letters “CPA” represent a lot of work. They represent good things like integrity, accountability, and attention to detail. They’re the most trusted letters in all of financial services.

But few people besides us realize all that – and even if they do, they’re not likely to care. They want to know what’s in it for them.

So don’t tell people you’re a CPA, or an EA, or anything else. Don’t be anything at all. Instead, do something. Do something people want done, like saving tax. You already do that! So do it well, and do it differently than anyone else. Then tell people what you do instead of what you are. I promise you’ll continue a lot more conversations!