[IMGCAP(1)]An auditor’s mindset distinguishes a great accountant from an average one. The mindset involves really looking at items and not just checking them off. Believe it or not, I developed this by watching ballet.

When I was in college I looked for low-price places to take dates while also impressing them. I discovered the New York City Center, which was home to the New York City Ballet, among other cultural groups. I started going frequently, sitting in the balcony and seeing something different almost every time. One of the things I got hooked on was the George Balanchine-choreographed ballets. They were classical, but somehow “modern.” They must have been good because the company is still around performing many of the ballets I enjoyed when I was in college.

I became fascinated watching the ballerinas doing their pirouettes and not getting dizzy. I did some reading (note that I still have that first book I purchased) and found that the dancers focused on a fixed point and only turned their heads at the last second to again refocus on that same spot. This way they were only looking at one spot and did not “see” everything around them, which is what would make them lose their balance.

When I started doing audits, everything looked questionable and confusing, and at the end of the day, I did not have a clear handle on what I was doing or what was going on. One evening I was attending a ballet and it hit me—I was seeing everything and looking at nothing!

The next morning I started focusing and looking at what needed to be done and the separate “pieces of paper” representing the transactions I was auditing. And then I realized that to be a good auditor, you needed to look at what occurred and compare it to what should have occurred. You cannot do the latter without understanding what happened, and you cannot understand what happened without actually looking at what happened.

Since that early point in my career, I stopped seeing and started looking—and developed what I call the auditors’ mindset.

Edward Mendlowitz, CPA, is partner at WithumSmith+Brown, PC, CPAs. He is on the Accounting Today Top 100 Influential People List. He is the author of 24 books, including “How to Review Tax Returns,” co-written with Andrew D. Mendlowitz, published by www.CPATrendlines.com and “Managing Your Tax Season, Third Edition,” published by the AICPA. Ed also writes a twice-a-week blog addressing issues that clients have at www.partners-network.com. Art of Accounting is a continuing series where Ed shares autobiographical experiences with tips that he hopes can be adopted by his colleagues. Ed welcomes practice management questions and can be reached at (732) 964-9329 or emendlowitz@withum.com.