Creativity and self-disclosure. Or why Don Draper would make a terrible creative director.

July 21, 2010

Express yourself at your own peril

Writer at large, Tom Chiarella has an intriguing sidebar in the August issue of Esquire magazine, entitled “What Mad Men has taught me.” As we prepare for the show’s fourth season on AMC , I want to take a closer look at his commentary. Not so much to publicize the show or his remarks but to analyze them. And challenge them. He rightly claims the show has an ambiguous “moral center.” To be accurate he writes it has none. But he qualifies the remark by stating the show “is rife with lessons, public and private, cautionary and exemplary, and not just for white guys who secretly wish that all men wore hats.” While I think he’s being facetious and I know he’s being provocative, I’d like to challenge him on a couple of his points. They are as follows:

1) Don’t befriend the people who work below you. There is power in distance.

2) Don’t befriend the people who work above you. That way they will want you more than you need them.

3) Don’t ever tell anyone everything.

Basically, Chiarella is declaring self-disclosure a no-no in the office. He cites Don Draper’s adamant stance that “the past is the past” as epigram to the notion. Other cliché’s that fit would be “still waters run deep” or “always keep a stiff upper lip.” Stoicism is a virtue.

Most men, even those of us utterly unlike Don Draper, would believe there is wisdom in admiring, if not adhering to, the “strong silent type.” We’d like to think our fathers or their fathers were that way. We aspire to it, even if we fail doing so on a daily basis. That is why Don Draper is such a compelling character. Morally uncertain as he is, men nevertheless want to be him and, if the gossip magazines are correct, women most certainly want to be with him. He is the consummate anti-hero.

That’s Don Draper, the character. But what about us? I’m a creative director. I freely admit to failing the above three “rules” almost every day. I enjoy fraternizing with my “staff,” if staff is even the right word. And I look forward to friendly “face time” with management. In conversation with all parties, I self disclose. Christ, I’m doing it now in this fricking blog.

I understand this makes me vulnerable. But if at work I talk about relationship issues at home –it happens- will the listeners then have something on me? Does talking about my parent’s ancient divorce or my troubles with alcohol weaken me in the eyes of those above and below me? Are these subjects only weak men and silly women are allowed to talk about? Is not disclosing personal information a masculine virtue? In the world of Mad Men I know the answers. In real life I can’t abide. Can you?

I’d argue self-disclosure is preamble to creativity. We creatives are compelled to probe the human condition, be it ours or someone else’s well past the point of normal discourse. To do our jobs well we have to. This is why Don Draper does not exist in real life, thank God.

Recently, I wrote about various profound difficulties involving some people I care about. I shared with you my advice to them as they shared their dilemmas with me. Some of this took place in a professional environment and some of it didn’t. Of course I was discreet. But should we have all kept our mouths shut? Don Draper would have –except maybe when he was in the arms of his mistress or drunk at the club.

I do not want a mistress or to be drunk at the club. I do, however, want to relate to others as best I can. Those others are often fellow workers, above and below me. I am not one for small talk. I do not much care for rehashing golf scores. If we’re talking movies I want to know how the film made someone feel. A simple thumb up or down is not a conversation. In other words, the only way I can relate to others is by being emotionally honest.

Therefore, by Chiarella’s criteria, I am an abject failure as a man, at least as it pertains to my conduct at work. And so, it would seem, are the people who confided in me.

If Chiarella was not being glib (and even if he was), his “lessons” are something I worry and wonder about. A lot. In her philosophy of Objectivism, Ayn Rand rhapsodized about rare men who had zero interest in petty, emotional issues. I adored Rand (who didn’t?) until I realized I was a human being.

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10 Responses to “Creativity and self-disclosure. Or why Don Draper would make a terrible creative director.”

  1. brian said

    Steffan,

    I’m a fan of this blog because I’m fan of you, warts and all.

    I think people who have no cracks are less interesting than those who refuse to share them. Advertising is about connecting with people, not androids. People aren’t perfect. Once we understand that, we can go beyond the artificial and create messages that actually resonate.

    Brian
    @b_brooker

  2. brian said

    correction:

    I think people who have no cracks are less interesting than those who share them.

  3. jim schmidt said

    Ayn Rand and Don Draper, huh? Well, I belong to the facebook page “Ayn Rand was a hack writer and morally bankrupt.” As for Draper, he’s kind of a bore as well, the real interesting people on that show are the women. I’ve always found that most people reveal very little of themselves. They never get to the things that would truly make them vulnerable. ie, do they really love their spouse? would they rather work somewhere else? do they like being a parent? what are their sexual proclivities? the few people who do reveal their innermost secrets are usually artists. Writers. Comedians. Photographers. Most ad folks can never get there. Not really. They are too concerned with projecting an image. Sometimes an image of vulnerability. But an image nonetheless.

  4. Fantastic in so many ways.

    Thanks.

  5. tjay said

    Why didn’t I ever run into ad people like you when I was banging on doors? First loyalty, now sharing? Wow! This business used to be more fun because we could — at least those of us in the bullpen — show a little vulnerability here and there. As far as sharing with people beneath me, there weren’t any. But I learned so much, so fast because those far more experienced than I were always willing to teach. I continue the tradition of honestly sharing myself and my limited knowledge — even my mistakes — in an attempt to make things better for someone else. It’s my debt to pay I think. I did manage to have some fun with this work.

  6. Tom Messner said

    Merely to have the title “creative director” is itself a great joke on oneself.
    But, hey, the guy paid a visit to a junior copywriter when she was in the hospital.
    So whatever his title, he is different.

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