I volunteered at a kids’ carnival and learned a lot about how adults work

Kids Carnival Steer

I got back from a week in Las Vegas – which is a long time to be there – on Friday night around 11pm. I hung out with my wife for a while, as I barely remembered what she looked like at the time, and then went to sleep. I had decided a month or so ago to volunteer at a kids’ back-to-school carnival on that Saturday morning, so I slept about five hours and then we went over to that. Being north Texas, it was about 96 degrees at 8:30am, with that number only set to rise. Some of the carnival was outdoors, I was half-sick from the week in Vegas, and I had probably averaged about 3-4 hours/night for the past week. This didn’t seem like it would go well.

The carnival was at an underprivileged elementary/middle school; the first thought I had was to try and count up how many Saturdays of my post-22 year-old life I’ve spent on the campus of underprivileged schools. It’s skewed because I was a Teach for America corps member, but I’d estimate it’s over 70 with other volunteering. So about 1.25 years worth of Saturdays of my life. That’s cool. I felt like a moderately better person.

Second thing: as these mostly-adorable children ran around to different activities we were staffing, I actually started thinking a lot about the future of work. Wait, what? Let me explain.

Duck Pond: This is the first activity I staffed; if we’re being super fancy about it, I was technically “the captain” of this station. If you’re unfamiliar with what a duck pond is, well, here you go:

It’s essentially a matching game. They turn over a duck and there’s a letter/number there. Then they turn over another duck. If they get a match, they pick a prize. If not, they put both ducks back and try again. Memory, matching, etc. It’s best for younger children.

I had some awesome kids come to play this game, including this three year-old African-American kid who tried to turn over all the ducks at once to get multiple matches — and thus, more prizes.

Here was my loose context future of work thing at this stop: we would often explain the rules to younger kids, and then their parents would explain the rules too, maybe in terms that are more used at home. The kids would start and instantly break the rules, sometimes holding one duck permanently while looking for the match. This isn’t a huge deal in terms of a duck pond game at a carnival — I tended to give prizes even to the kids who didn’t make a match — but think about this:

These are three year-olds I’m discussing, right? Now think about the 32 year-old you sit next to at work. He/she gets a series of instructions/deliverables — potentially not very clear ideas, yes — and then they run off and try to execute on them. Because it’s probably a low-level deliverable anyway, and because the manager in question probably doesn’t care about communication, the whole thing becomes a clustermess a lot of the time. In some ways, then, everything you chase at work is a large theoretical duck pond. A stretch, but not entirely off either. (Also, often work tasks can feel like you’re turning stuff over looking for the other part that will lead to the prize.)

Jenga: I did this with a bunch of young kids. You might imagine how it goes. Some kids are really into the game and doing it right. Others just want to destroy the tower. Again, I kept thinking about future of work stuff. Some employees want to follow through on mission and purpose and hit targets; others just want to throw turds into your yard and knock down process. This dichotomy barely changes from four year-olds playing with blocks to 39 year-olds playing with spreadsheets. Odd, right?

Bottle Knockdown: You’ve probably seen this one at carnivals. If not, here you go:

My set-up was 3 bottom, 2 middle, 1 top — and 4 beanbags (with a Cornell logo!) to toss. Some kids did it really well, because the throwing distance was about six-seven feet (so a bigger kid is going to mostly nail that). Some of the younger kids struggled, but I think they had fun getting to throw one thing at another thing.

Here’s what resonated with me at this station: there was this Hispanic kid who kept coming back. I ran this station for 1 hour, and this kid probably came about 19 times, often taking a turn then getting back in line. He was good. Usually on the first or second bag, he’d knock everything down. He didn’t want to seem to play any other games, even though there were a ton of them.

So on the 15th or so time, I asked him why he didn’t want to try the other games, when he was so clearly good at this one already.

“Because I’m good at this. I don’t want to try that other stuff.”

Ding ding ding.

That’s work in a friggin’ nutshell. People mostly fear incompetence, and they usually won’t take on new things — especially with their worship at The Temple of Busy — unless there’s some new title or $$$ around it. This kid was a classic middle manager, IMHO. “I’m already good at this. These other games? Pfft.” I bet if I had incentivized him in some way to play the other games, he would have in a second. He was knocking out deliverables like a king at my game, but what was the value? He already knew he was good at it, and he had been capped on prizes.

Think about it: repetition of task because it provides you some joy or purpose, even if there’s no ROI on the back-end? Phrased another way: often how work feels.

Ted Bauer


  1. I sometimes wonder about the nature vs. nurture aspect of work. So, are most bad managers/executives/workers just born that way or did they have shitty parents, or otherwise bad childhood in some way? I’ve heard that “hurt people hurt people,” meaning that abuse is a cycle in many cases. I’m thinking it’s probably a mix of nature/nurture, but it would nice to know what that mix breakdown is. Is it 60% nature and 40% nurture or vice versa? Et cetera.

    • I think it’s just basically being unable to figure out what’s important and what isn’t. Other managers prey on that. Here’s the thing: most people have no idea how to separate “this seems relevant” from “Ugh, that’s busy work.” They chase it all. I think — could be wrong — that it comes from the attitude of parents whereby you should always respect authority (them, teachers, bosses, etc.) so if authority is saying “This is Priority 1!,” then damn it, it’s Priority 1. Almost no one questions that, and that causes A LOT of the problems at work and with managers. I feel fortunate that I started out doing Teach for America. There, you encounter stuff like “Girl can’t tell time” (a problem) vs. “Kid has switchblade in third-grade class” (Priority 1 problem). You learn to make quick decisions on priorities fast. That’s subsequently doomed me in the workplace because I totally eff-off on stuff I know is headed for the junk pile anyway, then get berated about it.

      • You’re right that a title doesn’t (or shouldn’t) dictate blanket acceptance, unless you’re in the military, I guess.

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