5 Lessons from Game of Thrones for the Professional Creative

*** NO SPOILERS: This article contains no spoilers. So it’s safe to read on. If you do comment, be respectful of those who might not be as far into the series as you.

Every decade there are a handful of television shows that send shockwaves through the contemporary zeitgeist and irrevocably change the very fabric of the medium. There is perhaps no better example of that recently than HBO’s Game of Thrones (“GoT” for short). As I am often known to do, I like to look for life or business lessons from pop-culture. (like my 7 lessons about networking from the movie Swingers or 4 amazing life lessons from Elf.) A recent thread on Facebook reminded me of the show and what lessons we can glean from the land of Westeros and the mind of the story’s creator G.R.R. Martin and the showrunners D.B. Weiss and David Benioff. So here are the top 5 lessons every professional creative can learn from the show.

1. Play the Long Game

This is actually the lesson that came to mind from the aforementioned Facebook thread. There are going to be times in this business when you will be faced with choices that may go against your immediate reaction to a situation. Assuming nothing sordid or illegal is involved, you may still be faced with emotions that make the choice a hard one to make. You need to ask yourself, “Ultimately, what is best for the business.”

Little Finger

In GoT there is a character in the show who is a master at playing the “long game.” He is making decisions and forming alliances that won’t pay off for months, if not years down the line. You need to do the same. Don’t let emotion or pride get in the way of doing what will in the long run be better for your business or career.

I have a long-term client who just over a year ago informed me they were going to start doing all of their video work in-house. Naturally this was a disappointing bit of information, especially since this was one of my most consistent clients for the prior two years. I could have taken the stance that I would do nothing to help this client and begrudgingly wished them “good luck with that.” Instead, I actually offered to help them. This was a decision they were going to make regardless. It would do me no good feeling sorry for myself or wishing them ill will. In the end, I earned some consulting revenue in the process, continued the relationship as I helped their internal team set up a DIY system, and ultimately continued to get work from them. If I had let me emotions and frustration get in the way, I definitely would’ve lost business.

Another example of playing the long game is building networking relationship with potential clients who may not hire you for months or years from now. Keep those relationships going. Stay in their minds. You never know when they may need your services.

2. Sometimes You Need to Partner with Your “Enemies”

Characters in the show are frequently forming alliances with enemies in order to shore up their own position. The analogy for professional creatives is that there may be times when you will want to collaborate with your competition. You may have a large job that requires more help and the best people to turn to are other professionals in your area vying for the same audience and business. I hesitate to use the term “enemies” because I personally do not think of competition in my area as enemies. But in the context of the show, that is the best example.

3. Have a Team of Trustworthy Advisors

A common thread in GoT is the election and importance of advisors and trustworthy counsel. Have people in your life and/or business that can advise you about marketing, sales, input on your work, etc. If could be business partners, mentors, a coach, etc. If you’re a filmmaker, this is particularly important because filmmaking is such a collaborative art form. A good producer/director listens to her writers, DP, editors, etc. But just about in any professional art form, heeding the advice from a creative team will be hugely beneficial to your business.


I do want to note that your team needs to be trustworthy. There are many stories of people being burned by those they’ve entrusted. In GoT it can lead to your death. In your business, it might not lead to physical death, but sometimes it leads to deaths of friendships and lost business. My advice is that when picking or working with partners, find people whose interests complement yours.

4. Subvert Expectations

I don’t think any other show in the history of television has done such a fine job at the power of subverting our expectations. In fact, the show is famous for it. From that harrowing event in season 1, to its “colorful” weddings, GoT seems to have a perverted pleasure in making you fall in love with a character, then killing them off when you least expect it. In doing that, the show always keeps you on the edge of your seat. You can’t go into any situation with the confidence that the “hero” will survive. In that way, the show mirrors real life; in real life, the good guys doesn’t always survive.

[I will note that ultimately, I don’t know how long that can be maintained. We watch shows and go to movies to escape real life. I know there is still a lot to play out in the series, but I for one will be really upset if in the end, the bad guys win. But then again, another beauty of the show is that good and evil are often conflated. Very few (if any) people on the show are inherently 100% one or the other.]

Ned Stark

So what does all of this have to do with you as a professional creative? Everything. The best way for you to maintain your competitive edge is to set yourself apart from your competition. And one way to do that is to subvert expectations. Infuse your work and your business with a unique style and sensibility that is refreshing and new.

5. “Winter is Coming”

Without a doubt, this is perhaps the most iconic line from the show. In the world of GoT, seasons are freakishly long, and this “winter” people keep talking about sounds really bad. So there are characters in the show doing what they can to prepare for the long cold and all the other “demons” that winter will bring.

As a small business owner, there  will come a time when “winter” will come. When business won’t be as good; when funds will be low in the bank. You need to have a plan of action now to prepare for those slow times. Start saving. Don’t go into debt. See if you can establish a stream of passive income. Be wise.

I am sure there are other lessons one can glean from the show. If you can think of any, share in the comments (but remember, NO SPOILERS).

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