Posted by: Ray Brescia | May 23, 2014

On Mad Men, Creativity and the End of Average

In a recent episode of Mad Men, two of the show’s most interesting characters, Don Draper and his mentee-turned-supervisor Peggy Olson, creative types with considerable gifts, exhibit both their perfectionism and their inability to settle.   The exchange reveals a lot about the creative process, what it takes to excel, and the grit needed to produce one’s best work.

Peggy has been given a plum assignment: to come up with an ad campaign for a fast food restaurant.  As is typically asked of Peggy, the firm wants her to give the ad a “woman’s touch.”  She comes up with an idea that many on the team like.  When it comes time to pitch the idea to the client, her bosses let her know that Don, the more experienced pitch man, will present it.  Don says he is more than happy to make the presentation, if that is what Peggy wants him to do.  Peggy reads between the lines and has concerns Don does not believe her idea is the best one out there.  Truth is, she agrees.  She fears that he’s got a better idea that he will slip in with the clients should they not like Peggy’s, and then he will be seen as the hero.

Peggy knows there is a better idea for the campaign and she wants to know how to get there.  Most importantly, perhaps, she wants to know when she will know when she’s got the right idea.  For Don, “that’s the job” he tells her: in creative pursuits “living in the not knowing” comes with the territory.  As baseball great Lou Piniella once said about managing in baseball: “You have to learn to get comfortable being uncomfortable.”

Don starts to list what he calls are the “pros and cons” of Peggy’s existing pitch.  He highlights that the pitch is almost done, it’s good, the account manager is overjoyed and the client is on board.  “Those are the cons, and you know it,” she growls.  Both Don and Peggy know they are the ones who can come up with the best ideas, not the market.  They seem to appreciate a line often attributed to Henry Ford, which Steve Jobs was fond of quoting: “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.”

Peggy confronts Don and tells him to tell explain his creative process.  She asks him, in effect, “What Would Don Draper Do.”  Don, who is often at his most authentic in front of Peggy, reveals how he would go about getting to his best idea.  First, he admits he would probably abuse his staff.  Second, he would take a nap.  Third, he would start all over to see if he would end up in the same place.  (Let’s hope that first part isn’t essential.)

They drink and talk together and Peggy ultimately reaches a better idea through Don’s process. While getting to that better idea is important, what is more important is why they felt they needed to get to one in the first place.  If they had not demanded more of themselves, Peggy and Don would not have improved the pitch.  They did not accept average.

In 2012, Thomas Friedman wrote about what he called “the end of average”:

In the past, workers with average skills, doing an average job, could earn an average lifestyle. But, today, average is officially over. Being average just won’t earn you what it used to. It can’t when so many more employers have so much more access to so much more above average cheap foreign labor, cheap robotics, cheap software, cheap automation and cheap genius. Therefore, everyone needs to find their extra — their unique value contribution that makes them stand out in whatever is their field of employment. Average is over.

In a more recent post, he adds three more words to the list of things that are over: “privacy,” “local,” and “later.”

The reality is, with global competition, low barriers to entry to markets, a hyper-connected world, and a sluggish economy, more and more what is needed today is the personal drive and the expectation of excellence Peggy and Don exhibited.

Throughout the course of the show, Peggy and Don have both attempted to overcome tremendous obstacles to rise out of modest means to excel in their profession.  While both still confront their demons, and handle some of them better than others, they both exhibit what Paul Tough calls “grit,” a combination of personal characteristics including resilience, curiosity and optimism that are essential to success.

More and more, young people are finding that achieving professional and economic success and personal fulfillment is becoming harder and harder.  They will have to work diligently, expect excellence from themselves, demand more from their teachers and mentors, accept failure and learn from it, and, most importantly, never settle.

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