There’s a game called “Last Man” where people attempt to be the last person to learn the news of something that’s almost unavoidable to know, such as who won the Super Bowl. If I had been playing that game with the series finale of Mad Men I would not have won. Without ever watching the show, I inevitably found my way to learning about the final plot line.
When you look beyond the set dressing of the 50’s and 60’s, what’s left is the story of self-made millionaire Don Draper, and the theme it presents is actually quite a common one.
[Spoiler alert: If you’re a fan of the show and don’t want to know how it ends, stop what you’re doing right now, go watch the rest of the series, and then come back and read this.]
The series begins with Don hiding his true identity and living his life as a lie. As the series progresses, his past comes to light, and the parts of his life built on that lie fall way to make room for new things. But even those new aspects fall away, as Don continuously seeks to fill the void in his life he cannot name.
Don uses sex, alcohol, drugs, a divorce, a new wife, a new advertising company, and many more distractions to give his life meaning. But slowly all this “meaning” in Don’s life — his first and second wife, his apartment, his company, his car, his wedding ring — all of it is stripped away. In the end, he’s left with nothing but the clothes on his back and the typhoon of emotions storming inside of him. He can’t even manage to leave the Big Sur retreat center where he finds himself. In the end, he can do nothing but sit and get to know himself.
We have all lived Don’s story at some point in our lives. Many of us over-schedule ourselves, volunteer, sacrifice ourselves to our families or work, and much more, looking to attach meaning to who we are and why we exist. Almost everywhere we turn, someone is attempting to help us give our lives meaning. From external advertisements, political affiliations, work and family values, to our own internal thoughts and limiting beliefs. It’s so easy to get caught up in the game of meaning! However, attaching our identity to the things of our life only adds complexity, not clarity.
Imagine if, instead of spending more time, money and energy attempting to prove our identities true, we could just relax and let go of all the manufactured things in our lives, material and immaterial, physical and thought based, and simply be who we are in that moment. This is what’s called “being the flow,” “appreciating the present moment,” or “being at peace” with yourself.
When you look at personal development this way, the growth we all work on is more of a reductive process rather than an additive one. We’re not looking for some magical missing piece, but simply peeling away all of the layers of “not us.” If all these things in our lives were pieces of clothing, many of us would look like the little kid in A Christmas Story, who was so bundled up that he couldn’t move. By removing what is not true in our lives, we may seem to shrink in size, but in reality we are creating space for our truer selves to come forth.
Say the words “I am” to yourself and listen for the words that your mind puts forth to finish that sentence. Keep doing it until your mind runs out of responses. Is that how you most commonly identify with yourself? How is it serving you or holding you back?
“It’s only after we’ve lost everything that we’re free to do anything.” ― Tyler Durden, Fight Club