10 Lessons from Mad Men on Work and Life Satisfaction

Satisfied Mad Men principle characters seated around a 'Burger Chef' table
All images credit: AMC

As the AMC television series Mad Men wraps up this spring, let’s take a look back at the work/life satisfaction lessons we can glean from the show’s story lines. (Every effort has been made to avoid any specific spoilers, but general arcs and character habits are described. Even if you’re still working your way through the last few seasons, you should be safe.)

  1. donKnow Your Strengths: In the very first episode of Mad Men, we learn that Don isn’t just any old advertising      executive. He’s a creative genius who understands that advertising is based on one thing: Happiness. His entire career revolves around this central strength. Who wouldn’t like to shine like Don shines when he is at his best? He only does
    that because he knows what he can do and makes sure he does it. What’s lovely is that Roger discovers Don has this strength and decides to take advantage of it. If you are in a position of power, don’t just know your own strengths–know the strengths of others.
  2. Family Matters: We get to see all the main characters’ home lives and their families, and the measure of support each character gets from their family members makes a difference in their ability to show up at their best at work. If you and your family share the same goals, it’ll be a lot easier for you to find success. When Pete and Trudy are aligned, or when Don and Betty see the same stars, they are a powerhouse. Peggy lackes the support of family, and so winds up relying on her coworkers as family members.
  3. Look At Your Own Behavior: Pete Campbell is a great example of someone who takes his own self-loathing out on pete-campbell
    others. When we see him at his worst, he is leveling some poor person who is guilty of only what Pete himself has recently committed. Like most of us, Pete does this without one shred of self-awareness. In Leadership and Self-Deception, the folks at the Arbinger Institute wrote that our criticism of others usually begins with our own mistreatment of them, which we must then “justify” by proving to ourselves that we’re good and they’re bad. It’s a coping mechanism for alleviating cognitive dissonance that Pete lives out for us to see.
  4. Your Physical Health Matters: I was among thousands of viewers who were shocked by all the drinking, promiscuity, and smoking indulged in by our favorite Mad Men characters. And we’ve seen just how much self-care (or the lack of it) has an impact on both performance and satisfaction. When Don drowns his sorrows in a bottle he doesn’t wake up relieved or satisfied. This century we’re less inclined to smoke two packs a day but we’ll still ‘take the edge off’ with a bagel or chocolate. Either way we’re slowing ourselves down.

  5. TedUnderstand Your Needs
    : Part of the problem with life in a corporate office is that our needs become difficult to define. We start to believe that what we really need is success, or money, or a title, or to win an argument, only because these are the incentives that are the most visible in a corporate environment. We lose sight of our real needs for connection, inspiration, and contribution. When we forget those needs, we thoroughly fail to meet them. Several Mad Men characters (especially Ken, Ted, and Lane) all struggle because they get confused about what they actually need and wind up wasting their time pursuing the wrong goals.
  6. Grow up. Spend Time With People Who Expect and Encourage You to be an Adult. Don’s first wife Betty is one of the most miserable characters in the Mad Men world. She has been coddled and cooed over, and she responds to all that coddling with massive demands that everyone do and live according to her wishes. And none of it makes her happy. If she were to take responsibility for her own spiritual, emotional, and mental growth, she would earn the respect she craves and wouldn’t be quite so prone to disappointment. This describes many of us, so growing up is a simple solution. Simple–though not necessarily easy.
  7. Respect People Without Power–Including Yourself: Mad Men takes place before feminism became “a thing,” secretaries
    and Betty Draper’s misery is partly due to the limits on her growth and development that 1960s society expected of her. We also see the impact of disrespecting the powerless as the stars and executives interact with the secretarial pool. In Mad Men we’ve seen practically every aspect of the systemic disrespect afforded to the powerless, and what is most shocking is how easily it was accepted as the norm. This acceptance ranged from outright exploitation to “That’s just the way it is.” Each of these episodes illustrates how lack of respect for a person’s humanity robs them of happiness. (Who can forget Joan’s season 5 sacrifice “to secure the Jaguar account”?) Some changes happen through the course of the series, but only when individuals make the decision to respect themselves and others more than is expected of them. And it’s not just about feminism. Stan is a reasonably powerless grunt in the creative group but somehow seems to understand the power of respecting himself and the people around him. Everyone can breathe a sigh of relief when he’s around because he’s reliable and steady.
  8. Be There For Your Real Family: If you neglect your spouse, your parents, your children, your siblings, things go badly. We’ve seen Don’s and Roger’s and Pete’s families fall apart in more ways than we can count. And in every case they’ve made choices to nurture some other relationship rather than their relationships at home. Their families pay the price, and the executives sacrifice their own work and life satisfaction.

  9. Don PeggyLook After Your Work Family
    . One of the things my friends always hear me say:“We spend so much of our time at work. Why be miserable?” The people we work with do become an important part of our lives, for better or for worse. Perhaps that’s where you find the thorn in your side, or the one person who actually understands you. In lots of ways our coworkers can be very much like family leaders. So just as our “real” family needs us, so does our work family. We’ve seen that the times when Don, Roger, Burt, and even Pete have been at their best are the times when they are taking up a cause on behalf of one of their coworkers. Even better: they step up to give others work satisfaction or confidence. When we give to others what we most want for ourselves, it makes things better for everyone, because we are meeting real needs and affirming that real needs deserve to be met.
  10. Know Who You Are; Love and Forgive Yourself: We’ve seen Pete, Don, and Ted sucked into the vortex of shame. Each one responded with affairs, but also very differently from each other (Pete with blaming everyone else, Don with drinking, and Ted with despair). They struggled to believe in their own value. With all those affairs they obviously thought they would find validation from their lovers, but each of those lovers were just humans with needs and problems, too, fresh out of all-encompassing assurance of someone else’s worth. None of us will ever find the validation we seek only from someone else. It’s one of the hard things about growing up, and we have seen Don finally starting to figure that out. By accepting the truth about himself, he can forgive himself for being human–which is the starting point for making his own life better.

As a series, Mad Men has drawn in viewers for many reasons: the nostalgia, the attention to detail, and the horror as we kept realizing “We used to believe that was normal!” But none of this would have drawn us in if we hadn’t found the characters so recognizable, so easy to relate to. We all kind of want to be like Don or Peggy or Roger. We all cringe inside when we realize we can also be like Pete or Betty. We see our friends in Megan and Stan and our leaders in Henry and Harry and Burt.

None of us is all good or all bad. None of them are all good or all bad. But the advantage of any story is that it gives us an experience without the costs. We can see the results of Don’s choices. We can discover the consequences of Pete’s actions. Each episode is like a parable from which we can glean lessons.

What are the lessons you see that I didn’t list?


Credit for all images: AMC


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