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How Riding Bikes Taught Me Financial Accounting

A few hours ago I turned in the last assignment of my first semester as an MBA student. This was never a phrase I thought would ever apply to me, but an opportunity too good to pass up came my way so here I am – an MBA student.  

Of all the classes on my spring registration, the one that that most intimidated was Financial Accounting. My parents were English teachers. My own background and career has focused on writing policy analysis. How could I ever understand accounting?

Throughout this semester, I recalled my early days as a long-distance cyclist. Initially, a century was only an aspirational number. A randonneuring event? Impossible. Yet these distances intrigued me so I reviewed training plans and studied approaches that others had taken. I looked into fueling for long rides, and learned all I could about bikes. 

Never known as an athletic type, I still believed enough in my basic physical abilities to build on them sufficiently in hopes of accomplishing brevet distances. I trained throughout the year, built my mileage base, and tested out and refined my brevet system. 

Financial Accounting differed from randonneuring pursuits in that it was not something I sought out. Rather, it was a necessary piece of the larger MBA goal which is very important to me these days. During the first class, our professor shared that accounting is a language – a shared framework for communicating financial information.

I took heart in her message and took on Financial Accounting like an endurance event, plowing through our lessons. I memorized formulas, filled out my T-accounts, studied financial statements, and struggled to understand terminology. I plodded through homework assignments and spent lots of hours attempting to grasp this new way of looking at the world.

As with randonneuring, I hoped that if I could train myself up and understand the system behind the numbers, then I could be successful (or at the very least minimize my suffering). 

In randonneuring, we all play by the same rules, but there are lots of different ways to get around a course. Working through financial accounting material I discovered that accounting rules also have their flexibilities and wrinkles, but everyone speaks from the same dictionary and follows the same basic principles.

If you study the concepts of Financial Accounting over and over and stash basics like the balance sheet equation in your back pocket, you equip yourself to break down numbers and narratives so you can ask questions and search for answers. The discovery of a company’s story through the interplay of numbers and text was like riding through the unrelenting choppy section in the middle of a long ride. It was tedious to work through at times, and I sometimes wanted to stop. Still, while it momentarily frustrated, I derived great satisfaction from digging in and figuring out the fuller financial story of a company.

The feeling of completing 300Ks and longer during my early days of randonneuring sent me straight over the moon. I had learned how to be a randonneur. Over time, brevet distances lost their mystique. They became familiar and achievable goals that I pursued with varying levels of gusto over the years. 

While on brevets, I became somewhat accustomed to hearing store clerks and others make remarks like “I could never do that” when they casually inquired about our bike ride as we exchanged pleasantries. I would often counter with some version of “You totally can, it just takes practice!”

But when our Financial Accounting class started, that same closed door phrase also ran through my mind. “I could never do that!” I had always thought companies’ annual reports and balance sheets were well outside my realm and accounting was something that I would never ever learn. 

When I began to apply the lessons of randonneuring, Financial Accounting became accessible. I was reminded yet again that we are stronger than we know, and that doesn’t just apply to physical challenges.

Within us lies potential to accomplish what at first blush seems impossible. In this case, a combination of good teaching, fundamental accounting concepts, the luxury of time, and a little patience opened up a new and stimulating world. 

Accounting is not some mystery field, purview of only a select group. Accounting is the language of business and we can all learn to speak and understand it. Randonneuring taught me that. 

6 Comments »

  1. As an undergrad econ major, I consulted with my academic advisor, a Ph. D. economist. He advised me not to take accounting, that it was “a waste of time”. I took it anyway. Fast forward ten years. I used that accounting class constantly. I understood the language. In the last six years of my career, I was frequently asked to analyze financial statements. “What are they hiding? What don’t they want me to know?”

    On a related note, my very first job was in a printing press. 10 years later just after i started working for a government agency I visited a giant printer in the Shenandoah Valley. (Used to be on Florida Ave.) Anyway, as we were taking a tour I was using all that printing lingo that I learned way back when. My co-workers were shocked. Who is this guy?

    Congrats on crossing the finish line. On to statistics!

    You never know

    Like

    • Oh I love that you used accounting in your career! I don’t know that I would totally trust myself to come to the correct conclusion about a company’s financial statements (yet!) but I’m definitely on my way.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Mary –

    Loved the comparison between the long schleps of randoneurring and mastering the nuts and bolts of the basics of financial accounting. I’ve taught that course for more than 20 years and am convinced that the best way to understand how an accounting system works, and how to understand the information that is the output of the process, is to do the work. There are no short cuts. Much like climbing that hill at Mile 92 on a century, you have to keeping cranking. In a previous piece, you wrote that if you kept pedaling, you would eventually get to the destination. Same thing here.

    By the way, debits = credits. Such is the tao of accounting.

    Andy

    Like

    • Debits = Credits! I loved that concept as well. Even though I was very slow at accounting and that frustrated me on occasion, I also found it to be a calming exercise. I think it’s because you really have to focus and shut other things out to learn it. That’s so cool that you have taught it for that long. I’m also glad to hear you say you think there are no shortcuts to learning it because I definitely felt like I was taking the scenic route some days!

      Like

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