Draper Syndrome

Posted here (week 2468).

I could tell. The minute she saw who I really was, she never wanted to look at me again. – Don Draper, Mad Men season 4, episode 3

We’ve been re-watching Mad Men, for the third time. I have been reflecting on how I empathize with Don Draper. Not because he’s creative, competent, handsome, or unable to control his impulses. Rather, I feel the fear of being discovered.

I’m familiar with imposter syndrome. There have been a number of times in life when I feel unqualified for the role I find myself in. This is normal, I think, for firsts: my first management job, my first time managing a P&L, the first creative decisions, the first time meeting with high-level corporate executives, the first strategy role managing a team I’m not qualified to replace, founding a company. But those are contextual and fleeting. Eventually acting as if I’m qualified convinces me I am, at least enough to subdue to worry I will fail.

But Draper Syndrome is something else. More than fear of false competence, it is a sense of pretending to be someone you are not. Or maybe more precisely, not belonging in the caste you find yourself in. When you are hanging out with people who grew up financially secure and with an expectation of international mobility, it feels like a dirty secret that I once lived out of a car in the Midwest and spent my early adulthood thinking of even a short trip to New York City as a once-in-a-lifetime event.

But, like Don Draper, everyone thinks I belong where I am. Even more than they do, perhaps, because how could such a stoic, confident man have any worries? I’ve had colleagues express they wish they were more like me, with “no angst.” 🙄

We’re just to the story arc where Betty learns about his past, and it gives me feels. I should focus on appreciating that Shannon knows everything about me. This eliminates the fear of being discovered, if not the general sense of being out of my league.