Lessons From Mad Men For The Self-Made Man
I have recently started watching the hit television series Mad Men. I can see why it generated so much buzz and discussion among critics and commentators. It is one of the most honest, insightful, and penetrating looks into the advertising industry of the mid-twentieth century. That is also why I found it irritating and outrageous. To think that such a monstrous world existed, to see the sexism, racism, antisemitism, and casual abuse and prejudice of every other kind displayed by the main characters so disturbed me that at one point I became physically ill.
My feeling of sickness, however, was followed by a feeling of sympathy with the lead character Don Draper. For he, at least, exemplifies the self-made man. He came up from nothing. He had to scrape, cajole, outmaneuver, and outsmart his way to the top. His was not an upbringing of wealth and luxury, like the piss ant junior executive who is trying to replace him, nor did he even have the solid, stable middle class upbringing of most of his colleagues. He is the product of a backwoods prostitute and an adulterous drunkard, which in that time was certain to doom the prospects of any young person with high aspirations. He overcame all that to become a partner in a Madison Avenue ad firm. And I think it is owing to that struggle that he is the most vibrant and most interesting character in the program—the only one, that is, who is worth taking lessons from.
The first lesson is that we all have the capacity to remake ourselves. This is an idea that has been around for a long time, but it is usually misunderstood. It does not imply that you can bend the universe to your will, but rather that you can move, adjust, and adapt in ways that allow you to change the particular conditions of your life. Succeeding in business requires more than hard work. You have to be willing to move quickly on opportunities that present themselves—which doesn’t always happen, so it is partly down to chance—and you have to be willing to exploit every inherent advantage you have. The latter should not be glossed over. The fact that Don Draper is a white man living in mid-twentieth century America gives him advantages that others at the time did not enjoy. In today’s world, things are different. However, some groups still have inherent advantages over others. It is nevertheless incumbent upon you, as a self-made man, to find out what built-in advantage—whether it be individual or social—you have and can use to rise to the top. Whether it is intellect, charm, sex appeal, or good judgment, you should find something that you have which others around you don’t.
Confidence is the second lesson to take from Don Draper. He displays the kind of surety that is quite different from the cheap, adolescent cockiness of the younger execs in the firm. He is a man who knows his own mind. Although he doesn’t know the answer to every problem and doesn’t always know where he’s going, he is comfortable in his own skin—he makes no apologies for being the kind of man he is. Such strength of character makes a man stand out among his peers. It encourages others to trust him sooner rather than later, and will attract other alpha males to him, and even get them to open doors closed to individuals who are weaker and more uncertain.
The last life lesson to take from Mad Men, and from Don Draper in particular, is the need to play power politics. Draper knows how to wield the force of his presence, knowledge, and savvy to stay ahead. He puts both younger execs and even his own clients in their respective places. A large part of politics, in any setting, is reading your opponents and not giving your game away. The self-made man must know how and when to bluff, yield, insist, demand, and sit still.
Rising to the top takes more than eagerness to work or time spent on the job. Many very successful people have little of either. The self-made man, as Don Draper demonstrates, must be able to read people and situations and know when and how to move in response to them.
About Christopher Reid Chris was born in Washington, D.C. and lives in Britain. He works as a blogger, essayist, and novelist. His first book, Tea with Maureen, has just been published.