I Thought I Was Don Draper, But Was Really Pete Campbell

I like to re-watch movies and TV shows I loved from before years later. Often I’ll still love them, but beyond scratching that nostalgic itch I think doing this allows us all to appreciate them differently.

Where we are as people is usually pretty different, especially when it’s a movie you watched when you were 17 and then again at 30. Or in this case, a TV show you loved in a very tumultuous and insecure time of your life versus a few years later when the world has humbled you into a more human human.

When I first watched Mad Men I was working at a marketing agency. Predictably the allure of Don Draper was intoxicating. As a writer trying to make a name for himself at that agency, the idea of carrying myself with that degree of swagger, throwing ideas out there seemingly effortlessly on game-changing campaigns… well that was pretty much how I modeled my life.

I was enamored with it.

Years later as I watch the show again it struck me one night like an errant school bus, “I always wanted to be Don Draper, but was really Pete Campbell.” (Check out We Are All Pete Campbell.)

Put simply, Pete Campbell is a version of Don Draper without the handsome face, flawless confident demeanor, and impeccable grasp of other people. But he’s a guy who thinks he’s these things, or at least embarrasses himself by trying to be.

As much as I wanted to be an honest guy in an industry of sharks, I also wanted to be one of the guys more. I had some cool ideas, but like Campbell my insecurity made me petty and vindictive. I needed to be respected, my work admired. I didn’t go out of my way to step on anyone per se in my climbing, but also interpreted any reluctance for collaboration in my coworkers as hostility and spent more time playing defense than creating.

More energy spent trying to look great than be great.

My best friend told me once, “If we’re not embarrassed at our former selves, at least a little bit, we’re not growing.”

The last few years have been some of the hardest of my life, financially and emotionally and not in that order. But I regret none of it because however hard the door seemed to slam in my face, it also washed away an insufferable sense of entitlement.

Life felt like falling overboard and paddling frantically toward the boat in merciless waters, the ultimate goal being clawing your way back onto the boat being sidelined by an urgent sense of “never stop paddling or you’ll drown.”

I mean that in the most positive way it could be interpreted.

The first time you earn something by working harder than you’ve ever had to work for it you’ll respect it, and yourself, in a different way. When you save your own life by being someone you never thought you could be, and had not tried to be, it redefines possibility and priority.

Because you’re usually not the smartest person in the room, and even when you are no one really cares. Smart is not a replacement for hard-working, and life is way too complicated to justify walking around like you’re better than anyone.

On one hand become okay with being “just a guy” and embrace how liberating that is. On the other hand, don’t allow that to be a rationale for not trying to grow or be better.

These are some lessons I’ve learned.

I’m still not Don Draper, but I’m okay with that for two reasons. First, aside being a genius ad man he’s also a very broken man, something that didn’t strike me nearly as much the first viewing. Second, Don isn’t a person but an aspiration. He’s a stand-in for a fantasy, even for himself without spoiling much for those who haven’t seen the show.

But more importantly, I’m not Pete Campbell anymore. I’m Brian Watkins.