Editor’s Note: Bruce Craven is the author of “Win or Die: Leadership Secrets from Game of Thrones.” He is on the Columbia Business School Executive Education faculty and teaches the graduate elective Leadership Through Fiction. The views expressed in this commentary belong to the author. View more opinion at CNN.
This Sunday the curtain rises on the final season of HBO’s “Game of Thrones.” If you aren’t already a fan, you will still want to take a seat for the battle between Ice and Fire. The show is a master class in the importance of being resilient. If you are already a fan, you probably know what Arya Stark says when her Braavosi sword-trainer, Syrio Forel, asks, “What do we say to the God of Death?” Arya’s response is one we all must remember, even if we aren’t carrying a sword. Arya answers: “Not today.”
This line exemplifies the fearless grit that Arya shows as she trains to be an assassin – and she’s not the only character who confronts danger and finds the necessary strength to persevere. Although her sister, Sansa Stark – who is far more posh and put together – faces unthinkable psychological and physical abuse, she also finds her way out of her horrible imprisonments and turns adversity in her favor.
In the first season, the Stark sisters leave their home in the frigid north, with one hoping to learn to use her sword, while the other plans to marry the dapper Prince Joffrey. The journey south doesn’t go well for either of them. In the capital of Westeros, King’s Landing, they are forced to confront unthinkable odds. They face brutal situations where it would be understandable to fail and easy to give up. But both young women choose instead to face their challenges and, as the series continues, operate with remarkable resilience.
The show, based on George R.R. Martin’s epic fantasy series “A Song of Ice and Fire” (Bantam Books), is far more violent than what most of us confront in our daily lives, so it might seem like a stretch to compare the fantasy to reality. But if you dig deep into the fictional struggles in Essos and Westeros, you’ll find that, even if you don’t bring dragons and swords to work, there are parallels to our real life adventures. Looking back on my own life, I can see similar themes.
In the mid-’90s, at age 35, I found myself nearing the end of my first night working at a bar in Manhattan and subleasing an apartment in New York’s Lower East Side. The apartment had wood floors that needed varnishing, a toilet in a closet by the front door and a bathtub in the kitchen. Nothing I faced was comparable to the young Stark women’s challenging journeys in “Game of Thrones,” but I felt the weight of my own recent struggles. I had just returned to New York City after a year of attempting to break into screenwriting in Hollywood. My first novel had been published two years earlier and I thought I could parlay that into a career writing both novels and screenplays. I was wrong.
Los Angeles was my hometown, but my move to Hollywood was not unlike Sansa’s trip to King’s Landing: I was excited about the adventure and expected perfect results. Instead, like many others who attempt to break into a new industry, I found myself in a competitive world and an environment I didn’t fully understand. I might not have been confined in the Red Keep, threatened by Queen Cersei, but that didn’t mean it was easy.
I lost two people close to me that year as I was writing in Hollywood. My former mentor and boss at Columbia Business School, Mary Anne Devanna, passed away. I knew she was ill, but didn’t quite understand how serious it was until she phoned me in California and told me about her situation. Then, just like that, she was gone. My good friend, Tim Dwight, was also fighting to stay alive in Santa Monica. He was brave beyond anything I could imagine, but he didn’t make it either.
That Christmas Eve, I went to bed, feeling like a failure in my professional work. I couldn’t make money to sustain myself as a writer. Both a script and a novel had been on the verge of selling, but hadn’t sold. I had no money for food, rent or gas for my vintage Mercury, not to mention any cash to buy Christmas gifts for my parents or sisters.
My failures felt daunting, but I woke up on Christmas Day and realized it was time to push forward. I had no reason to complain. I had reported to a woman as encouraging as Mary Anne, who helped me learn about business education. I had been chosen as a friend by someone as supportive as Tim, who helped me believe in my writing abilities. The fact they both had passed away too early hurt. It is still with me, but I also felt lucky to have known them. I understood that I was blessed. People in my life believed I could make it, and I needed to keep believing in myself. I realized I was hungry to write more and keep fighting. The fairy tale I had pursued in Hollywood didn’t pan out, but I found a new, temporary home for myself back in New York City.
I spent some time sleeping on friends’ floors before I found that apartment, and worked temp jobs filing microfiche before I started bartending. It wasn’t glamorous, but I focused on the positives. I was meeting new, creative people. My battered, poetic apartment was perfect in the cold New York winter, when I could take a hot bath in my kitchen, open the large windows and watch snow drift down from the sky. On sunny days, the apartment was filled with light. There was a tiny black-and-white TV, on which I used to watch “The Simpsons.” There was a large desk where I could write.
I kept working toward my goals, even when they seemed out of reach. I had a passion for writing, as Arya had a passion for fighting. And, as I returned to work for Columbia Business School, I found a new passion for teaching leadership. After Sansa’s dreams of marrying Prince Joffrey collapsed, she was guided by a new passion to return to Winterfell, and regain her home from those who had hurt her family. My resilience is not comparable to that shown by Arya and Sansa, but I still remind myself that when my back was against the wall as a writer, I chose to soldier on instead of deciding to quit.
In life, we all face unforgiving competition, unpredictable adversity, occasional betrayal, and too often: doubt and despair. These are inevitable roadblocks on the long journey of pursuing our goals. This will happen if we compete to win.
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As “Game of Thrones” comes to an end with its last season, we should all come away having learned a lesson from the Stark sisters. We don’t know what the final season will bring for them, but we do know that both Arya and Sansa found a way to live with passion and perseverance in a brutally competitive environment. They remind us that even though the fairy tale may not last, we can choose to operate with grit and resilience in the face of adversity.