I’m sitting alone in a hotel room. I’ve been dragging a suitcase round Canada on “business” for the last week and a half. While I’m away I speak to my children down the phone, I drink and eat in ways that are not entirely healthy and I work. Depending on how you define work, I work almost all the time and what is more, most of the time I love it. It offers me a creative outlet that I can’t find in any of my fallow hobbies or interests.
So, what makes a man like me enjoy the TV show Mad Men? I’ve just invested a couple of hours finishing off season 4 which means that I’ve now watched most of what is available of the series. I love TV and I find it easy to get hooked into something that has got a reasonable amount of quality to it – but Mad Men is different. It has entertained me and engaged me intellectually – lots of TV does that, but it has also spoken to the heart of my work and of my life.
For those that are not familiar with the show it concerns an advertising firm in 1960s New York. The slowly unfolding plot follows the ups and downs, the lives and loves and the work of the various owners and employees of the firm. So far, so standard. The programme is well made and well written, it is full of beautiful people and slow burning intrigue, but again this is pretty standard. What makes it particularly compelling for me is the way that is explores the nature of work and in particular the nature of work/life balance.
Lots of TV is set in a workplace. Cop shows, hospital dramas, political thrillers etc etc. All of these genres revolve around work. However, Mad Men is fundamentally about work. The workplace does not just provide a backdrop for the action, it is the action. Whole episodes revolve around whether Don should get up and go in to the office in the middle of the night to finish off an idea that he is working on or whether he should run to one of his dark haired mistresses or a bottle of whisky in the hope that either of these will offer some respite from his work/life imbalance. Similarly the gender politics in the office do not just boil down to unpleasant sexual harassment (although there is plenty of that) but rather the show and its characters reflect constantly on the nature of the compromises that they are making and whether they are worth it. Career, ambition, backstabbing and solidarity all intertwine to build a picture of an office that is satirical but recognisable.
I started this by relating my own little sob story in the hope that it would cast me into the glamorous frame of Mad Men. People with knowledge of the show might think that I’m getting ideas about my station here. I’m not good looking enough to be Donald Draper, nor do I have his attention to sartorial detail. On the plus side I’m also not as personally conflicted or morally compromised as him. But, Donald’s essential dilemma of how can he square work, family and still keep a little bit left over to be him is a dilemma that I do recognise. We all attempt to find a way to reconcile these ultimately irreconcilable elements, that’s what life is about.
Pulling back to the usual subject of this blog I can’t help but feel that if careers work is really about anything it should be about this dilemma. How can an individual find their own pathway through work, family, interests, learning and life? How can they maintain their own personal integrity at the same time as compromising with the requirements of employers and the people you inter-relate with and rely upon? How can you make this journey creatively fulfilling (which Don has managed) and personally rewarding (which Don has failed to do)? How in other words can we live our life so that we can be happy without being either selfish or stagnant?
My feeling is that watching Mad Men can help us to think about these issues. It shows us our work/life dilemma in a way that is both stark and dark. Hopefully it shows us something that we can learn from rather than repeat.
Alternatively you can watch it for some nice frocks and sharp suits. The choice is yours…