12 Habits of Highly Successful People, Drawn From Mad Men

by Bill Murphy Jr.
Originally Published: 
The cast of Mad Men

Years go by, fashion changes, but the things that really successful people do each day are timeless.

Here’s a case in point: Mad Men, the hit television show about the partners and employees in a 1960s advertising agency, is now about to air its last seven episodes. I’ve written before about how the real star of the program isn’t Don Draper or Peggy Olson but the advertising agency itself. More than that, if you take notes, you’ll see that the plot lines and characters offer great examples of how to get ahead every single day—and how not to.

1. Trust your creative side.

Series protagonist Don Draper’s title is “creative director,” which has to be one of the most apt job descriptions ever, given his penchant for reinvention. However, he does seem to understand how his creative mind works. Among his practices, he’ll spend a lot of time thinking about a creative challenge, then forget it, allowing his subconscious mind to do the heavy lifting.


2. Fake it until you make it.

Draper is secretly living another man’s life, and with the development of another character, Bob Benson, it looks as though he’s not the only one. When the firm was small, it would go out of its way to try to look bigger and more accomplished. You don’t want to be dishonest or disingenuous, but you do want to visualize what success would look like and behave as if you already fit the part.

© Jamie Trueblood/AMC

3. Get ahead of your customers.

Here’s the key to advertising. Dealing with people effectively is about finding a way to help them get what they want. The challenge is that so few people are truly self-aware. Thus, your mission is to figure it out for them and find a solution to a problem they didn’t even know about.

4. Think bigger.

Peggy Olson rose from secretary to creative director. Joan Holloway is now a partner bringing in new accounts. Both characters have reached higher levels than they originally dreamed of, only to find that the prize for climbing a mountain is often another, bigger mountain. Plans change, goals shift, but it’s the people who are willing to dream bigger who actually accomplish things.

© Michael Yarish/AMC

5. Plan ahead.

Mad Men opened years ago with its characters facing a professional challenge. The U.S. government was about to start cracking down on cigarette advertisers, and the firm needed to find both a new way to pitch its tobacco clients and a new direction to find more clients. This required long-term thinking that didn’t exactly come naturally to all of the characters.

6. Don’t be afraid to quit.

The show is about beginnings and endings, over and over and over—fired clients; fired employees; marriages, business deals, and client engagements that the characters walk away from because they’re not working out. Each time, from the destruction comes a new opportunity.

© Jordin Althaus/AMC

7. Have fun.

The show is known for its unflinching look at a kind of 1960s debauchery, with all kinds of drinking, sleeping around, and drug experimentation. It’s a really unhealthy way to live your life, but it also seems to be the way that the characters blow off steam—and they’ve got a lot of steam. Don’t become an alcoholic philanderer, but be sure to have fun (in healthier ways, I hope).

© Michael Yarish/AMC

8. Get a life.

This is where so many of the characters on the show fall down, because they have success only at work, and rush from one failed relationship to another. They seek to solve others’ problems only when there is something tangible in it for them: a new client, more money, something they want. Don’t follow their example. Remember the old adage that on their deathbeds, people rarely say they wish they had spent more time at the office.

9. Leverage technology.

In the early years of Mad Men, the new technology was television, which was quickly becoming the most effective medium of its time to communicate marketing messages. Part of the protagonists’ success involved their ability to pivot and take advantage of it. The technology has changed—boy, has it ever—but the lesson is the same. You can either be an early adapter or an also-ran.

10. Enjoy the roller coaster.

If you’re going to be successful—whether in building a business or elsewhere—you’re going to have a lot of ups and downs. It makes for great drama on television and for some stomach-churning in real life. If you can’t enjoy that kind of volatility, then find a safer, more secure path. You’ll be happier and so will those around you. Every day, remind yourself that whether today was an up day or a down one, there will be many others to balance it out.

11. Care for and feed your network.

Half of the characters’ jobs on Mad Men are simply to manage relationships with the firm’s clients and to network and schmooze with potential new clients. Heck, Draper first got hired after meeting Roger Sterling, getting him drunk, and showing up the next day claiming he had been offered a job. Sterling had been too drunk to remember doing it. These are some morally questionable choices, but that doesn’t mean you can’t learn from them. Every day, reach out to at least one new person, and to someone you’ve been out of touch with for a while.

© Craig Blankenhorn/AMC

12. Go where the action is.

In real life, Jimmy Fallon recently moved The Tonight Show back to New York City, but in the world of Mad Men, Johnny Carson is about to head to Los Angeles. One of the themes for the new season is the idea of new beginnings, especially out West. Today’s new frontiers are more global but no less real. (As someone who has recently expanded the client base of my ghostwriting business to Asia and the Middle East, I have seen this firsthand.)

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