Succeeding despite adversity: 3 CPAs' stories

Three accountants describe how they handled serious setbacks early in their professional journeys.
By Anita Dennis

A setback can knock you off course, overturn your plans, and raise questions about whether you'll ever achieve your goals. What can you do? Three CPAs who refused to give up their dreams describe how they kept going through difficult times and the lessons they learned.

There is a season

The night before David Middlebrook, CPA, was to start his public accounting career in 2015 by joining a firm, his mother died unexpectedly at age 54. Within two weeks, Middlebrook's grandmother also died. Meanwhile, Middlebrook and his wife had a new baby at home and were in the midst of moving from Knoxville to Nashville for the new job.

Lessons learned

  • Find comfort in everyday activities. Middlebrook took solace in his faith and by focusing his energies on work. "It actually helped that it was tax season," since the fast pace kept his mind off his losses, he said. "I could control my feelings most of the time, but there were definitely times when people caught me in my cubicle crying." It helped that his new colleagues were very understanding.
  • Maintain long-term perspective. Middlebrook also found it helpful to remember "there's a time and a season and a purpose for everything." In his mind, this difficult period was temporary, which gave him confidence that he would get through it. "I didn't know how long it would take, but I knew it was just a season," he said. Now a tax manager at Blankenship CPA Group in Brentwood, Tenn., he moved forward knowing that he would ultimately be able to overcome each new roadblock.

Strengths will carry you through

Durran Dunn, CPA, emigrated from Jamaica to New York City in 1999 at the age of 18, and experienced a big culture shock. The weather and food were different and attempting to embrace and assimilate to the pace of life and cultural norms was especially challenging for him. Not long after his arrival, he began college at the University of Southern Mississippi and had to adjust to a new place all over again. Always a top student, Dunn's grades started to slip because of the multitude of foundational changes in his new home. He considered leaving and going to a local school back in New York, but ultimately decided to stay. He then faced another major challenge during his senior year — living through the devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina in coastal Mississippi.

Lessons learned

  • Tap into your inner resources. Dunn, a current USA Track and Field Masters athlete, received an athletic and academic scholarship when he went to college. When he was tempted to give up on life in Mississippi, he found that his dedication to academics and athletics had instilled an inner discipline that got him through his doubts and helped him push through the challenges he faced. Katrina's unexpected impact gave him a renewed focus that enabled him to bounce back and take part in recovery efforts. That determination "still keeps me going today," said Dunn, now an internal audit senior manager at Graphic Packaging International, LLC in Atlanta.
  • Don't forget the people who believe in you. Dunn attributes his interest in accounting to an outstanding high school teacher who encouraged him. As the first person in his family to go to college, Dunn would not have imagined a career in business without the inspiration of those who had faith in him. "There were people who recognized my potential," he said, and he kept them in mind during his setbacks.

Failure isn't final

With an accounting background in his native Nigeria, Kenneth Omoruyi, CPA, immigrated to the United States in search of a better life. He was convinced that becoming a CPA would position him for success in his new country because it "gives you instant credibility," he said.

His commitment served him well, as Omoruyi had to take different parts of the CPA Exam a total of 19 times before passing. The Business Environment and Concepts section was the greatest challenge for him, since it required fast typing skills for the written communication questions. "My exposure to computers came much later than my American peers," he explained. To make matters worse, he actually passed the necessary parts of the exam six times but not within the required 18-month window, so he lost credit for the first exam section that he had passed. During the two years and nine months that he took the exam, he was set to complete the last section within the right time frame, but he missed passing that last section by one point — twice.

Lessons learned

  • Never give up. "I'm very determined," explained Omoruyi, who also holds a master's in taxation. He focused on the fact that, despite his failures, he had come a long way in life and was still closer to achieving his goals than he was to his humble origins. In addition, "regret is worse than failure," he said. "I don't know how I would have lived my life or been able to look anyone in the face if I had backed out of the exam."
  • Look beyond failure. As Omoruyi has proved, failure doesn't need to be a permanent setback. Now a CPA in Houston, Omoruyi left his job as a tax analyst at an international oil industry company to start his own small CPA firm when his wife, a pediatrician, gave birth to triplets a year ago. "I wanted to have control of my time so I could be part of my kids' life," he said. Active in the Houston CPA Society, he is also an adjunct professor at Houston Community College, where students have told him his story has helped them overcome their own hurdles. "Hearing that I've inspired someone makes my journey worth it," he said.

Aspiring and veteran CPAs can use the lessons these CPAs learned to propel them toward their own dreams despite any obstacles they may face.

Anita Dennis is a freelance writer based in New Jersey. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Chris Baysden, a JofA associate director, at

Where to find April’s flipbook issue

The Journal of Accountancy is now completely digital. 





Get Clients Ready for Tax Season

This comprehensive report looks at the changes to the child tax credit, earned income tax credit, and child and dependent care credit caused by the expiration of provisions in the American Rescue Plan Act; the ability e-file more returns in the Form 1040 series; automobile mileage deductions; the alternative minimum tax; gift tax exemptions; strategies for accelerating or postponing income and deductions; and retirement and estate planning.