Say what you will of Breaking Bad’s protagonist Walter White—and there’s plenty to say. He’s a ruthless, sociopathic meth lord whose quest for power has wrought death and destruction we’ve yet to see the end of.
But he’s also one hell of a businessman.
Note: If you aren’t currently caught up with your Breaking Bad episodes, you may want to come back to this post after you are to avoid any potential spoilers. If you are caught up, and you’ve seen the series’ finale like 5.9 million other fans, let’s indulge our mutual obsession by exploring yet another way to dissect this endlessly intriguing show.
While I’m not suggesting a life of crime is the way to go, there are some things we can learn from the man known as Heisenberg when it comes to blazing our own trails and pursuing our goals with unstoppable determination. (Click here to tweet this idea.)
Here are four of the big (legally and ethically acceptable) career lessons from Breaking Bad and what we can learn from Mr. White—and one warning we’d be wise to heed.
1. It all starts with quality
There wouldn’t have been a show if Jesse and Walt’s early days in the RV had resulted in only mediocre product.
Would they have made some money? Sure. Would international drug cartels and super meth lords like Gus Fring be desperate to get their hands on that product (and its creator)? Nope.
Walt would have just been some middle-aged chemistry teacher cooking drugs in his skivvies in the middle of the desert. His rise to mythological levels of power and notoriety started off with the one thing all wannabe entrepreneurs have to have: a solid, high-quality product. Walt’s meth was the purest in the marketplace, and his customers (and competition) recognized that—and that’s what gave him the leverage to build an empire from nothing.
Would-be business mavens, take note: unless your product or service is top-notch, all the advertising strategies and killer branding in the world won’t take you very far. It all begins with offering something consumers or clients can’t get enough of.
2. Brand matters
“The blue stuff” is Heisenberg’s trademark. It’s how you know instantly that you’re getting the best. When Walt leaves the biz behind, new meth lord Lydia insists that substitute cook Todd figure out how to replicate the trademark color, because that’s what people on the street are asking for. She isn’t nearly as concerned with the purity level of the new batch as she is with making sure their product retains brand consistency. It’s so critical it’s saved Jesse’s life (for now).
After you’ve got that top-notch service or product, you need to find a way to differentiate yourself in the marketplace — whether it’s a look, a feel or a certain brand personality. When you see an Apple product, you know it’s an Apple product. From the sleek design to the packaging, you can tell it apart from every other gadget vying for similar market share.
So, what’s your “calling card” going to be? What will let consumers know you’re different, and how will they be able to spot your “stuff” from the competition’s?
3. You are who you say you are
Walt first dubs himself “Heisenberg” in the episode where he shaves his head, confronts local drug lord Tuco and makes it clear (via surprise explosive device) that he isn’t to be messed with. It’s one of the first times we see Walt fully embrace his darker ambitions—he’s not just doing this for his family; part of him loves the power and fame, and he’s officially declaring his pursuit of that. As the debris settles, we as an audience know that he’s rounded a corner, and the streets of Albuquerque know there’s a new kingpin in town.
Whether you’re a meek chemistry teacher, an entry-level clerk or a college dropout turned startup owner, you create your own destiny by acknowledging your goals and going after them full-throttle. It doesn’t matter if the world doesn’t take you seriously at first; they will once you show them what you’re made of. Believe in the potential within yourself, act like you’ve already made it, and the world will start to respect.
4. There’s always a way out
Cops impound your car containing a laptop full of incriminating evidence? Get a gigantic magnet, b****, and erase that evidence in a way no one will believe actually happened. Kidnapped in the desert for days and not sure how to explain your absence to your family? Strip naked in a convenience store and pretend you’ve been in a cancer-induced fugue state the whole time.
The lengths to which Walt will go — and his utter refusal to believe he’s ever painted into a corner — are pretty damn impressive, and one of the reasons fans admire his ingenuity, even as they denounce his actions. He will not be stopped. He will not be beaten. While each cliffhanger episode leaves you full of dread and anticipation, you always secretly know that somehow, Walt will find a way out of it.
No matter what challenges, setbacks, or failures you face in your professional career, you have two possible solutions: lose hope and give up, or put on your thinking cap and figure out a way to tunnel yourself free, in whatever way possible. Nothing is ever truly hopeless if you’re determined enough. Never underestimate the power of creativity and resolve.
5. Know what you’re doing it all for
And now, for the warning.
Walt got involved in the whole meth scene out of a desire to provide for his family after his cancer diagnosis. As the series progressed, we’ve watched him devolve into a creature driven by greed, ego and a thirst for power. But he still seemed to have soft spots—for his kids (definitely), for Jesse (sometimes), for his wife Skylar (maybe?). It was one of the things that kept people rooting for him long after he’d clearly gone from hero to anti-hero.
Now that the show is winding down, the big question in everyone’s mind has been: Which Walt will be left when the smoke clears? Does he have any humanity left, or has Heisenberg taken over completely?
The most recent episode seems to lean towards the latter, but you never can tell with Walt. His motives have become so muddied he’d give up his entire fortune to save the brother-in-law who could turn him in—yet he has no qualms about kidnapping his infant daughter to “teach his wife a lesson.”
Walt’s two competing drives (and selves) are ultimately what’s done him in. Trying to walk the impossible line between taking care of his family and looking out for number one, he now stands to lose everything he fought for. One self is suffering for the other self’s choices. Wherever he’s going in that beat-up minivan, it’s not to celebrate his grand victory.
Don’t let an internal tug of war derail your own happiness. When it comes to your career, you need to be able to sit down with yourself and honestly identify why you’re pursuing what you’re pursuing.
Regardless of what everyone else expects of you, regardless of what you think you “should” be doing, what’s your real driving force? If you’re not clear on that, or you’re chasing something else but pretending you’re clear on it, even the most “successful” of careers won’t ultimately make you happy.
It’s your choice. Which way are you going to break?
Kelly Gurnett is Assistant Editor of Brazen Life and runs the blog Cordelia Calls It Quits, where she documents her attempts to rid her life of the things that don’t matter and focus more on the things that do. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook and hire her services as a blogger extraordinaire here.