Spoiler Warning: Stop here if you watch Mad Men and aren’t caught up.
At the end of Season 6, Don Draper is fired, a move that many found surprising. One might argue that he has been “CTD” (circling the drain) for some time by that point, as the alcoholic dull spells that punctuate his flashes of brilliance have grown longer and deeper, and his necessity to the firm has declined in the wake of the merger that he (as it were) engineered. Still, the change is surprising at first, even if analysis shows it to be inevitable. (I will write, for this essay, as if Don’s termination were a fait accompli; I do it fully knowing that Season 7 will quite likely involve Don’s return to advertising, possibly in that firm. Don is not a usual person; he will bounce back, in some way, in the next season.)
Don used to be a creative artist. Toward the end, though, he hasn’t created a new ad for years. Instead, he comes up with inventive (but often sociopathic) solutions to business problems, establishing the reputation of a loose cannon. As we see in the mutiny at the end of Season 3, the anti-tobacco letter published after Lucky Strike fires the struggling new firm, and the complicated merger between his firm and that of his rival, Ted Chaough; he shines best, of late, when he’s moving people rather than product. He’s turned from a cynical, “black hat” intellectual who justifies hawking tobacco with jaded, post-beatnik nihilism, into a highly effective and manipulative businessman.
By the time he gets fired, he’s checked out from the daily work of the firm, so many predicted his professional demise (although I didn’t). He hasn’t been earning his keep. Then again, most of the other partners haven’t been earning theirs for years, if the truth’s to be told. This is still a time when partnership is to be a member of “the club” and enjoy the fruits of others’ labor. Sterling, Cooper has been quite tolerant of low performance in its partner-level ranks in the past. One of the perks of being in that club is a long professional audit cycle (generations). You get the benefit of the doubt for as long as you need it– unless you break the rules in a major way, which Don did, in Season 6′s finale.
How did Don get himself fired? Why did it happen now? It might seem to be an consequence of his horrendous pitch in front of Hershey, but he’s performed even more awfully in other pitches (see: Life cereal) and not come even close to that. His erratic performance isn’t a new problem. There’s something different about Season 6′s meltdown. This firm, after all, has tolerated his drunkenness, womanizing, lateness and absenteeism for some time. So what is it that has changed?
For one note, I’d like to call attention to a major player who’s not in the firing meeting: Ted Chaough. Ted and Don are rivals, and Don becomes nasty when they’re too close, but they still like each other on a personal level. They both suffer the same fate, which is to be permanently a junior partner on account of what they do. Account men are revenue, creative is cost; it was as true then as it is now. Ted would not try to push Don out; in fact, earlier on he implores him to become more involved in the firm (“join this company and read a memo!”). It’s Bert, Roger, and Jim who work him out of the firm, and I would argue that it’s largely because of the revelations pertaining to his background. Poor performance was forgivable when he was part of the club, but now that he’s told the truth about himself, he no longer belongs.
They’re not disgusted because Don lost Hershey’s, because they only had (from the sounds of it) a 1-in-30 chance anyway, and they seem to be cavalier about losing clients (as with Manischewitz, a couple episodes back). That firm– hardly a paragon of professionalism or optimal behavior– has had far more severe bungles than that. The disgust is with him, this time around. It’s not that the partners, individually, care about Don’s background. Bert knew most of Don’s secrets already. In fact, what’s worth keeping in mind about Roger and Bert is their flawlessly-played double-nature; their (admittedly, severe) character flaws come entirely out of their born social class; minus that, they’re decent human beings. As humans, they respect and like Don. As guardians of an upper class, however, they can no longer participate with him in that game of relationship-trading. Now that the beans (yes, pun intended) have been spilled in front of Hershey, it’s impossible to know for sure how far Don’s disclosures will travel. The gate-crasher must be tossed out, for fear of how others in the client sphere would receive his retention.
The commonality between Don Draper and Ted Chaough– the aspiration-driven, hopeful world they inhabit– shows the class-driven subordinate role of “creative”. Creative is almost always sourced from the lower, middle-and upper-middle classes (all lumped together as “Not Our Kind, Darling” by the upper class). Even if there weren’t a class-based lack of creativity in the elite– and I’d argue that there is one, due to risk aversion, entitlement, and inbreeding of both literal and figurative sorts– those bottom classes, taken together, are just two to three orders of magnitude larger. Relationship work can be done by any idiot with the right breeding, but creative talent is distributed by nature without regard to social class, and its attendant exertion has to come from the “hungry” outsiders. This also means that when the creative executives run out of ideas– and that’s inevitable, because the executive lifestyle is even more of a creativity-killer as the upper-class one– they’re tossed back where they came from. That’s Don’s future, as made clear even as the series began.
Don himself says that people tell us what they are, and we refuse to listen; in Season 1, he predicts exactly what will happen to him as well as to Pete Campbell, even though these predictions are so negative that one wishes not to believe them. For Pete, he predicts that his lack of interpersonal charisma and character will top him out as a mid-level executive no one likes. Check. Don predicts that he’ll age and run out of ideas, and then be devoured by younger, hungrier executives. Check, sort-of. Don seems to be his own worst enemy, not done in by others. Perhaps it is his past (nostalgia) that is the hungry, young executive to slay him. Since Season 1 he has understood, intuitively, that Bert and Roger (and even Pete) are the natural inhabitants of his world, while he’s just a passer-through. Ted and Peggy, like Harry Crane, will find their ways to other pastures. He won’t. Dick Whitman might remain alive, biologically, for another thirty years, but Don Draper is that job and when it ends, so does he.
Dick Whitman knows how to kill Don Draper, and lose his toehold in the New York advertising world. He tells the truth about himself. He does it in an embarrassing and costly way, but it’s what he reveals– not the cost to the firm of the revelation– that gets him shown the door. Don could run horrible lies and get away with almost anything; but once he lets the truth out, his professional life is over.
This is where it gets personal.
I don’t post about my own life that much. I’ve mentioned negative experiences at Google, neutral-to-positive experiences in finance, and let on that I’m a damn good programmer with strong mathematical skills. That I’m 30 years old and live in New York and like functional programming is not hidden, either. Still, people probably have a sketchy view of what I’ve done professionally and where I’m trying to go. About myself, I’m less comfortable sharing than most people are on the Internet. Yet, on the deeper, society-wide issues, I’ve also spent a lot of time in 2012 and 2013 trying to do something that few people have: in the public, find the truth. That’s why I’ve gone farther into the rabbit hole of the software world’s sociology than most people have the courage to go (in the public, by their real names). Boy, has that led to some real pain. I haven’t even begun to describe some of the things that have happened to me once I started doing that: unreasonable professional losses, threats, and inexplicable behavior around me. I’ve been through hell and I’m still burning; but, from a distance, to burn is to shine.
Despite my interest in public truth, I keep it hard for the Internet to know much about me. That’s because my own personality is not what’s interesting. I’m actually a run-of-the-mill, fairly typical guy in most ways. I come from an average background, look like an average person, et cetera. As a person, I’m not that interesting, and I don’t wish to be. What is interesting is the underlying and general truth that we need to discover to move society forward, and it’s an accident of fate that has left me extremely well-equipped to do it. I wasn’t born to be the one who’d coin the term “open allocation” and thus become the savior (if I am effective, that is) of technology. There’s no prophecy behind it and certainly no genetic superiority (trust me, I have none). That was just luck. Yet, here I am with a unique array of experiences that has left me able to pose (and sometimes, to answer) some of the most important questions of the technological economy? For example, why has the formerly most creative industry out there (small-company technology) fallen so quickly into decline, and how do we fix that? Can we do it? What types of structures (financial, cultural, and technological) will we need to invent to solve the problem?
For a second, I will get into some personal stuff, even at risk of embarrassment. It doesn’t take much work to figure out that I was a gray-hat troll in the 2000s. It was a hard habit to kick, because I have intermittent hypergraphia (compulsive writing). When I was an angry, broken person, that led to some angry and broken writing. I created some bizarre, fictional internet characters, many of which (and I’m thankful for this) have never been connected to me. However, some of that stuff was easy to find, at least at one time, and trace to me. Yet it never interfered with my career, at least not to my knowledge. Gray-hat trolling is seen (correctly) as a weird often-public hobby. It has never “caught up” with me or done any professional harm, but I’m actually pretty embarrassed by it. If ultimately harmless, it’s still fundamentally dishonest to create weird fictional personalities and convince others that they’re real. Worst of all, it was a gigantic waste of time. Yet, I “got away” with it completely. It probably made me seem a little bit strange and, at the time, would have precluded leadership opportunities if found– but I was also in my mid-20s, so that wasn’t an issue– in its time.
What has hurt my career is the white-hat stuff: truthful revelations about organizational behavior, specific companies and what they did wrong, and general willingness to state obvious but undesired truths about the software career and the sociological forces preventing technological progress. We now lose hundreds of billions, if not trillions, of dollars per year to bad software management. Yet the consequences of simply revealing such things have been, in my experience, severe.
My trolling past has shown that one can be offensive and horrible and flagrant as long and get away from it as long as one lies; because lies from non-credible sources (and let’s be honest, that’s 99.9% of us) are ineffectual and harmless. They’re entertainment. Truth, on the other hand, is a deadly weapon and a feared one, because it doesn’t matter who holds it. The power of a lie is directly proportionate to the social status of the liar, and most of us have such minimal social status as to be harmless to those in charge. Truth, on the other hand, has eternal and status-independent power, which makes it dangerous.
Tell a lie as a non-credible agent, and you’ll be cancelled out by the rest of the world, as it generates a noise haze of counter-lies and oblique lies and inept supporting lies and uncomfortable humor that weaken your case and render what you said irrelevant. The people with stakes in reputations can count on the lie having no long-term net effect. Tell the truth, on the other hand, and there’s a risk (albeit a small one, moral courage often being thin on the ground) that the world will move with that revelation, as more people come out to confirm it. Truth is gunpowder (an equalizer) and the upper-caste sword-wielders (credible liars) can’t stand for anyone to have it.
Now, I’ll return to Mad Men. Don Draper’s truth isn’t just that he grew up in a coal-country whorehouse. There’s a lot more to it than that. To start, he establishes his pitch as a lie, pointing out that advertisement exploits untrue stories and what people want to believe. That’s not a truth to share with a client. Another unstated truth he brings out is that no one will accept his true upbringing, because there is supposed to be no one like him in a high position in that sort of firm. He duped the whole firm into buying his prestige. Account men come from the generational upper class, and creative comes from the Ivy upper-middle, and people like Dick Whitman shouldn’t even be on the floor, unless running the elevator. The humiliation of the firm comes from the revelation– in front of Hershey’s upper management, since the partners would probably accept the fact if known only to them– that they let him in.
Bert Cooper and Roger Sterling were duped, and they were happy to be duped when he was a brilliant creative executive. Being relatively progressive by upper class standards, they recognize prestige as an elaborate lie, so learning about Don’s charlatanry made no difference so long as he delivered. However, when he makes Hershey aware of his gate-crashing, the damage is so severe that he must be thrown out with the trash.
Finally, there’s a major truth, revealed throughout the show, about advertisement’s self-selling as a “creative” industry. Creativity (in advertising) takes a second-class standing relative to the corrosive politicking for which Pete and Bob Benson are so well-known. Peggy and Don take pride in their creative work, and Ted additionally takes pride (MacLeod Clueless?) in his leadership ability– he’s the only decent boss on the show. Yet none of the stuff matters. Not one of the creatives is present in (or even aware of) the decision to fire Don, because their opinions don’t merit concern. Creatives are just high-end light bulbs to be used, burned out, and discarded. That’s a truth that’s relevant to this day. Recall what I said about creative being cost centers and account men being revenue-producers. (Of course, creative work drives the long-term health of the firm, but that’s irrelevant to the year-by-year decisions around promotions and firings.) The upper class naturally gravitate toward the unsexy but leverage-providing revenue-center roles, and leave creative cost centers for the marginal people who need to prove themselves to stay in the game.
Replace “Madison Avenue” with “VC-funded Silicon Valley” and “copywriters” with “software engineers”. Conclude your own about that ecosystem and its fate, noting that the glory days of Madison Avenue ended a couple years after the events of the recent series. VC-istan is the successor to the world of Mad Men, with the same soul-devouring politics, except it’s even more of a sausage fest.
Don– to exploit the metaphor, the most honest whore in the brothel– has just burned out of an industry founded upon lies. He’s brought in truth. He didn’t belong, he got in anyway; and about a decade later, he fired himself on his own terms. A few stray flames are smoldering and truth is breaking through, but the total conflagration is yet to come. (Advertising will be just fine, but its “white-shoe” reputation and cachet will fall away in less than a decade.) Don has angered Power enough for it to come in to an office at 9:00 on Thanksgiving morning. Old lies are breaking down– that process started long before Don got in– but the consequences for revealing truth, in such a time, can be severe.
So it is, too, with VC-istan. Truth is breaking through. It has had, over the past two months, some excruciating revelations, between Sean Parker’s wedding, the revelation of inappropriate data usage, FWD.us, and various morale crises among software engineers that will not go away until terms improve. The exceptionalist acceptance once applied to technology’s new barons is waning. The edifice of lies is inflamed, and no one knows what will happen next. The only sure thing is that it will be fun to watch. As with Mad Men, all that most of us can do is wait, stay alive, and then enjoy the next season.