In the Mad Men episode “The Strategy” (5/18/2014), advertising copy chief Peggy Olson is angry and demoralized because the more experienced, assured Don Draper has suggested possible changes to her pitch for an ad. Panicky, she questions her own idea. She hates the uncertainty of not knowing whether her idea is really good or crap.
“How am I supposed to know?” she asks.
Don says, “You’ll never know.”
Peggy’s lack of confidence in her own opinion illustrates one of the series’ major themes, that is, gender issues in the 1960s. Peggy, unlike Don, is immobilized by her uncertainty and lack of confidence. And she lacks the strategies, past successes, and self-confidence that would help her make a choice and move on.
Furious that she lacks resources and must ask for help, Peggy demands, “Show me how you think. Do it out loud.”
That an idea may be good enough does not fit with Peggy’s perfectionism. Don suggests that if it’s almost done and it’s good, then maybe you should accept your idea, but Peggy does not want “good enough”—she wants perfect.
Peggy has risen in the company from secretary to copy chief. She is uncomfortable in her own skin. And, it is with good reason. She is routinely reminded that being a woman comes with many handicaps in business. Don’s first impulse is to show his sense of humor and his ease with the situation. He says, “Whenever I’m really unsure about an idea, first I abuse the people whose help I need” (Peggy smiles). Then, Don says, “I take a nap.” He’s telling her to step back and disengage a bit.
What Peggy needs are strategies that will help her problem solve. Grabbing the faithful yellow legal pad, Don says that the way he thinks is to “start at the beginning to see if I wind up at the same place again.” The point is to go at your problem from a different angle, and don’t be invested in only one idea.
His process makes sense. When in doubt, slow everything down and step away—take a nap (or go for a walk or pull weeds) and then look at the issue from a different perspective. Don isn’t afraid of reframing the problem, and he doesn’t think there is only one possible answer for a problem.
So why am I looking closely at this scene from a television show? This scenario with Don and Peggy could happen only in the 1960s, right? George Packer writes in The New Yorker, “Mad Men presents a world that’s alien enough to be interesting as anthropology . . . and yet not entirely so. It’s still close enough to us, or we to it, that there’s a certain familiar pain beneath the viewing pleasure.”
ABC News reporter Claire Shipman and BBC anchor Katty Kay argue in their 2014 book The Confidence Code that women’s lack of self-confidence and need for perfectionism continue to undermine their success.
Are women in 2014 more susceptible to a lack of confidence than men? If so, why? What role does indecision and perfectionism play in our writing lives?
What do you think… about Mad Men and Peggy? And, as a writer, how do you decide if your idea is any good?
All good wishes,
Nancy Whichard, Ph.D., PCC
Your Dissertation Coach and Academic Career Coach
nancy @ nancywhichard.com
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