May 21, 2014

What We Can Learn from Mad Men


Being the intrinsic New Yorker that I am, one of my favourite shows right now is Mad Men. The show sets us back to the 60s and explores the culture of the advertising industry. If you’ve watched the series, you are easily confronted with realizing the irony of how many of the things we consider wrong from that era still lay remnant in today’s society – dealing with issues of inequality, social status, and cultural norms. I have always wanted to write about Mad Men and tie it to the blog since the series is ending, and watching last Sunday night’s episode, The Strategy, it reminded me of lessons I am still trying to learn and figure out to this very day when dealing with perfectionism and anxiousness.


As much as I don’t want to bring spoilers, here’s a link to “inside the episode” series. :P


Last summer, I read a book about the real Mad Men in the 1960s and it was a time for the underdog. It gave opportunity to young fresh creative individuals to break free from the static and orthodox approach ways set by the corporate advertising agencies. It was a time for women and minorities to start calling the shots and running things. It was an example of a creative renaissance that made an impact in the history of advertising industry. In some ways, as design and technology progresses I believe that Architecture will have its own cultural renaissance as we are struggling to gain our relevance back in society and new technology and social and economic challenges are sprouting in architectural discourse.

I think one of the most memorable characters in the show is Peggy Olson. Throughout the series, we have seen this underdog evolve and progress up the corporate ladder. Modest and humble, she has evolved into a strong, successful and assertive woman in the advertising industry.  However, like all underdogs and human as she is, Peggy is still learning and figuring things out. I guess that’s why I can relate to her. Last episode showcased her vulnerability and struggles as a designer trying to come up with the best idea for Burger Chef. Dealing with the fear of the unknown, Peggy always struggles and works hard to just find the bigger and better idea. She is tenacious, persistent, and passionate in her work.

Peggy deals with what all of us creative individuals are beset with, both the constant drive and the frustration to just get it right and have an amazing idea to share. We easily also get into our heads, as we easily compare ourselves to others and being in a competitive design field, which is demoralizing. Peggy seeks out advice from her mentor Don Draper and his lines in the episode struck a chord in me:

“You'll never know. That’s just the job...living in the not knowing”

I think for struggling perfectionists like myself, that is the ultimate challenge we face. How do we cope with the unknown comfortably? How do we learn to be okay when we’re not in control of things? I think this is something I’m in search for (hence the improv classes). It is something that a textbook cannot teach. To free yourself to be creative is to learn how to get out of your head from time to time – which is what I am currently struggling in comedy school. Perhaps failing studio in architecture school has forced me to be overly cautious of things. However, to truly be a good designer means being vulnerable, confident, and being willing to make mistakes. In improv, it is a sin to judge yourself and over think as it can kill any scene. Perfectionists need to learn how to be comfortable in living in the unknown and cope when things are beyond our control. We also need to learn how to be comfortable of not being perfect when we see many others around us, doing better than us. We need to learn how to be content and see where we progressed personally.

I guess this is what I like about Mad Men. At first blush, it was “hey, I wanna be gangster like Don Draper” but after years of watching, I am also intrigued how I can all of us designers identify with the challenges of being creative and strategic in the advertising agency. They are able to articulate the hustle and bustle but the mental and emotional challenges that comes with being in a creative field.

RELATED POSTS:
To be a designer is to be vulnerable
Be Fearless By Failing
The Underdog Architecture Student's "10 Things" Response



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