5 Work Lessons We Can Learn from Peggy Olson

A look at how this Mad Men character went from secretary to copy chief

“You’re obsessed with Peggy, aren’t you?” a friend told me after I had dug into a couple seasons of Mad Men.

Who wouldn’t be? I thought. She’s young and impulsive but has her own breed of integrity. She’s ambitious and ruthless but full of empathy. (Plus, she’s a mid-twenties copywriter like me.) From watching Peggy’s choices, the good and the bad, I’ve learned a few lessons about work.

1. Hone in on what you can deliver that others can’t

Peggy first became a copywriter because clients were interested in a woman’s perspective, something she was more than ready to articulate. But part of the reason she became a copywriter rather than just part of a focus group was because she wasn’t afraid to say what things were actually like for women rather than just mimicking what she thought clients wanted to hear based on stereotypes.

Many types of people are still underrepresented in all kinds of workplaces. If you can tap into what makes your perspective hard-to-find, you may find yourself becoming necessary in new places.

2. Take cues from other people who ask what they want

Watching Peggy eye a newly opened office and then just ask for it shocked me. Being a Minnesotan, I was raised to be polite above all else — even if that means being quietly indignant. Writing my first invoice seemed rude and presumptuous. Now I’m used to it.

Peggy never apologizes for asking for what she deserves — and being a woman doesn’t stop her in the least. It’s hard to transform into bold Peggy-type in one fell swoop — but it does help to observe people who take advantage of opportunities and take notes. The more you know how it’s done, the more you’ll know what to do when your time comes.

3. View your co-workers as teammates, not competitors

One of my favorite Peggy moments was when Don charged her with hiring a new copywriter.

As she sorted through portfolios, Stan warned her to hire someone inferior to herself, saying if she didn’t, she might be hiring her future boss. Peggy ignored him.

This showed both confidence in herself, and the fact that she felt a sense of ownership over (and thus accountability to) all the writing in the agency. That’s what later led to her role as copy chief.

It can be hard to develop the sense of ownership (over a project or a workplace), especially if you’re new. But to see the big picture, rather than just your own performance, you have to find ways to become invested in it. The more you can put your ego aside and see other talent not as a threat, but as help in creating work you’ll feel proud of, the more mobility you’ll have at your job.

4. Let people know when they’ve crossed a line

When Peggy interviews Ginsberg, he continually asks about the man who he has to impress. Instead of just shutting up and then complaining to her friends over lunch, she flat out tells him he’s fucking up, and that she’s the one he actually needs to impress.

Peggy doesn’t waste time being quietly mad at people. She goes right up to them and lets them know. Of course this isn’t a recommendation to unbottle anger whenever you feel frustrated at work, but it does help to be direct and let people know when they’ve crossed a line with you.

5. Be a friend, but don’t expect to get ahead just because of personal relationships

This is a hard one when talking about Peggy, because she did have relationships with two men in her workplace, both of whom came with many strings attached. But even during her tryst with Chaough, she seemed to know that she was walking into something dramatic, uncomfortable and even a bit old-fashioned for her taste. Did she really want to be the other woman at the office? The woman sleeping with her boss? She seemed hesitant, although we’ll never know how she would have felt if it had fully played out.

But let’s put that aside and look at Peggy’s relationship with Joan. It’s always been a bit tense, mostly because both of them are bold, and both occasionally feel that the other has overstepped their bounds. It’s hard to know exactly what your bounds are when you’re an ambitious woman in the 60's, and hard not to feel a bit jealous when another woman beats you to breaking them.

Peggy isn’t afraid to correct Joan’s assumption that she slept with Don to get ahead. In that moment, you see how Peggy and Joan’s friendship evolved from intense competition to a place of hard-earned, mutual respect.

Peggy isn’t afraid to dive into close relationships with co-workers (look at her long, giggly conversations with Stan after she leaves SCDP), but she also knows when to pull back from those relationships and assert herself. Beyond that, she also seems to have a realistic view on just what to expect from them. Yes, being friends with co-workers will make for better workplace morale. Will being everyone’s pal (or lover) get her ahead? She relies on her talent for that.

No one on Mad Men is perfect. But Peggy’s the one quietly getting all the work done.

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