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Carnival Cash and the Illusion of Value at Workplace
A guide on being intentional and recognizing the illusion of rewards and workplace superficiality
Hey! 👋 I’m Archie! Welcome to my newsletter - The Rougher Drafts. I write about leadership, career advice, product, and technology. Among other things, I’m building The Breakout Space - a career accelerator for ambitious early/mid-career folks. Subscribe to receive new posts directly in your inbox and support my work.
This past week, I had the opportunity to visit the CMU Pittsburgh campus for a panel talk and experience the Spring Carnival. Apart from that, I also wanted to be back on campus since Pittsburgh is a beautiful city, particularly during this time of the year. As a grad student at CMU, you’re so drowned with work that you don’t get to explore the campus or city. So being back during Carnival weekend, I was able to explore the place with a free mind. Although I still got some stressful flashbacks walking around campus. Furthermore, it was a bit unsettling being on the other side interacting with current students. It felt like it wasn't long ago that I was a student myself, and I remember feeling starry-eyed and impressed by the achievements and confidence of alumni who visited our campus.
At the carnival, there were carnival games, rides, food; and the currency to trade them all - carnival cash. You pay $$ and in return, you get carnival tickets(or, carnival cash). You could spend the tickets inside the carnival wherever you want. At some booths, you win even more carnival cash in form of a prize. You even get a sense of accomplishment and happiness winning all those games and prizes. It is quite easy to lose track of time and get engrossed in the festivities, with hours passing by in what feels like minutes. Imagine at the end of it you have loads of carnival cash, more than you could ever spend, perhaps you’re even proud that you have more of it than anyone else at the carnival. It’s kinda cool. But, you’ve stocked up on carnival cash that loses value as soon as you leave the carnival.
Carnival cash = a currency that is exclusively generated by the carnival and can only be used within its premises. It holds no value outside.
In the workplace, carnival cash is everywhere. It’s presented in the form of “employee of the month” programs; shoutouts/kudos; a false sense of prestige; badges; fancy titles; a better desk spot. It’s sometimes your manager or team thanking you, but, the output of the work does not land impact; or, “move the needle”; or, lead up to career progression or your goals. It’s alright to take pride in these things. However, it is important to recognize your motivations - are you driven by a reward that’s presented in the form of carnival cash? Or, would you have done something irrespective of the reward?
Here are some more examples of carnival cash,
Running sprint meetings, maintaining sprint boards, and updating tickets et al (especially, if it’s unrelated to your role and projects)
If you find yourself solely responsible for running your sprint meetings, updating tickets, maintaining sprint boards; and if it doesn’t add to your performance/growth packet in a meaningful way(which it usually doesn’t); and, you don’t seem to enjoy it. Consider distributing the workload with your team. Just because you’re getting a lot of kudos from the team; that’s not a good enough reason to continue the work. Instead, consider distributing the load within your team.
A fancy title without a pay increase
It's not uncommon to receive a bigger job title without an accompanying pay increase. While a promotion may come with added responsibilities and recognition, the lack of financial compensation should not be ignored. It's important to have an open and honest conversation with your employer about your expectations and what you feel you deserve. If a pay increase is not possible at the moment, at least have a conversation and concrete plan for the future.
Some vague sense of respect
Over the weekend at CMU, I had the opportunity to chat with several grad students following my panel talk. CMU is renowned for its systems courses, which are highly coveted but also notoriously challenging. Many of the students who spoke with me expressed feeling peer pressure or FOMO to enroll in these difficult courses. While it is true that the reputation of these courses precedes CMU, the reality is that years from now, the specific courses one took will hold little weight in the outside world. It's important to resist the temptation of an artificial desire for respect and reputation. Ultimately, the courses you take should be chosen based on your personal interests and career goals, not on a desire to conform or impress others or garner some vague sense of respect.
Carnival Cash is freely offered everywhere since it costs little to create it and the best part is that it keeps you in the system. It lures you into playing status games. Generally, the actual net value of all of those carnival rewards is nill/zilch/nada. However, the feeling of having more status than your peers is often priceless (but also it doesn’t really mean anything). Whatever you do, know that they make bad trades(since they’re worthless).
Not all carnival cash activities are necessarily bad, some are even necessary and come with the job (minimum tax). What you need is a healthy balance. Some people get caught up in a sea of work that yields nothing but carnival cash. Of course, you need to accumulate some carnival cash to spend while you’re there; however, over-accumulating may not be the best use of your time. Carnival cash activities do not further your career and do not help you achieve your goal. It holds no significance. But, it gives you an illusion of value and a false sense of accomplishment. I have fallen into this trap many times before, especially early in my career; and over and over again, I see people fall into this trap. When offered carnival cash, check your motivations and see if you can ask for something more tangible like cash or stock; alignment with your goals; or, perhaps in some cases you may politely refuse to accept; or redistribute it with others in the system.
Whatever you do, do something because that’s what you want to do - you get a sense of fulfillment or purpose from it or it helps you move closer to your goals; not because you’re motivated by a fake currency that has little value outside of the system that created it. Be intentional and aware of your motivations - next time, don’t simply accept carnival cash, instead take a thoughtful approach and carefully collect, refuse, divert, or re-distribute it elsewhere.
Developer Hegemony by Erik Dietrich (this is where I read the concept of carnival cash for the first time)
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