The most productive people ever

Nury Vittachi

Hong Kong’s humorist on why accounting skills are always handy – even in the most perilous of times

One of the interesting things about the recent virus scare is that society has changed its opinion about who might be its most important members. 

Before: Captains of Industry.

Now: Deliverers of Toilet Paper.

While that deduction is not entirely logical, most of us would agree that it’s healthy to review society’s priorities.

Who really are the biggest contributors to modern society?

Accountants might say that they and the rest of the business community are: money makes the world go round, right? Without financial activity, most jobs disappear, and the world becomes unrecognizable.

Others would argue that this is a shallow, materialistic view, because it is artists and spiritual leaders who truly nurture the human spirit.

“When you are a genius, you do not have the right to die, because we are necessary for the progress of humanity,” said Spanish surrealist artist Salvador Dalí, two years before he died.

Certainly, artists can be very productive – Dalí is believed to have signed tens of thousands of blank sheets of art paper, making them more valuable than banknotes.

A book on the most productive people in history also highlights artists, pointing out that German composer Georg Philipp Telemann composed 200 overtures in two years, while Beethoven spent six years on just one: his 9th Symphony.

But that just shows the problem: as well as being productive, artists need to have commercial success. Probably Telemann’s own ghost can’t hum one of his tunes, whereas even my dog can howl the famous part of Beethoven’s 9th, although his verb endings are a bit dodgy on the bit where the choir sings in German.

The ancient Greeks felt that poets were the natural leaders of society – which made perfect sense to me until I set up a poets and writers association and met large numbers of them. They may have passion, but they can’t even manage their own drinks bills.

Books on management say that the world’s religious leaders, such as Jesus, Mohammad, and Buddha, have created the longest-lasting organizations in the world, and the ones which have done the most charity work.

That’s a fair point. But even Jesus famously pointed out that spiritual and secular parts of life should be managed separately.

A few years ago, a man wrote an essay in the New Scientist magazine suggesting that scientists should become world leaders. No one was more horrified than scientists themselves, many of whom have the social skills akin to OGLE-2005- BLG-390Lb, an ice planet 21,500 light years away from the nearest pub.

What about medical staff, who have become so high profile lately? The skills of hospital doctors are clearly of high value – but their presence and the cost of all their equipment is often financed by taxes.

So that brings us back to accountants. The movement of money underlies everything.

A British academic named Trevor Gambling famously compared the place of accountants in modern societies with wizards in less advanced ones. Both magic and accounting involve the collection of data, the processing of multiple elements into a coherent whole, the employment of specialized jargon, and the interpretation of results, he said.

Dalí may create interesting works of art, but it’s only when someone with accounting skills places a value on them that they find their place in society.

And both artists and accountants can be highly creative.

Dalí would pay for expensive restaurant meals by writing cheques and then adding a little sketch on the back, knowing that the scrawled drawing meant that the cheque would never be cashed.

That’s just the sort of entirely legal but financially clever trick that a good accountant would come up with.

So ultimately, we can perhaps leave the last word to a quote from the famous children’s book The Wind in the Willows: “It takes all sorts to make a world.”

Nury Vittachi is a bestselling author, columnist, lecturer and TV host. He wrote three storybooks for the Institute, May Moon and the Secrets of the CPAs, May Moon Rescues the World Economy and May Moon’s Book of Choices

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