The Small Council Question
How a question from Game of Thrones helped me work out what I want to be when I grow up.
It took a year after graduating from UCL for me to truly realise why I attended in the first place.
As an aspiring scientist in school, I thought I chose my alma mater for its rigorous academics. But why then did I reject offers from much tougher physics programs? The true deciding factor dawned on me after rereading the congratulatory Facebook comments under my graduation photos.
I chose UCL for its prestige. I picked my university based on how many of my parents’ friends had heard of it.
It turns out I’ve been trying to impress others for a long time. I was fairly well-liked in school, got good marks at university, and secured a respectable graduate job. I’ve done well in pretty much every environment I found myself in. But last year I realised I was coasting. Caught in the currents of other people’s desires, I went with the flow. I was living in a way that might’ve seemed impressive to some people. But I wasn’t deciding how I wanted to live for myself.
Since I left university I’ve been figuring out how to make this decision. Trying to do my own thing has been hard. Sometimes it feels like I’m having my mid-life crisis a quarter-lifetime early. But I’m making progress. After 18 months of reflection I’m beginning to understand what I want from work and life. Asking myself one question in particular has really helped.
I arrived at this question after some journaling, many conversations at the pub, and repeatedly binge-watching Game of Thrones.
I call it the small council question, and it has helped me understand my values, motivations, and the environments I’m best suited to. Maybe it can help you too.
The small council question
The scene is King’s Landing.
The birds are singing, knights are fighting, and you are sitting in an urgent convention of the small council, a meeting of the most important minds in the Seven Kingdoms. The master of coin is there, beside an unfurled satchel of leather bound ledgers. The archmage hunches next to him, his ponderous chain clanking as he sits. In the shadows lurks the master of spies. The king strides in, accompanied by the Hand of the King, his second-in-command, protected as always by the captain of his guard. After bowing to acknowledge his Highness, everyone sits, and the council begins.
The question is this: on the small council, which character are you?
The small council question helps me understand myself better than any personality test. Discovering my “strengths at work”, is more boring than imagining my unique character in a fantasy novel. This question freed me from the unrealistic expectations that I’d inherited from the corporate world. And the fictional scenario unhooked me from my old frame of reference, allowing me to play around with what I’m really like.
To know where you belong, you must understand yourself and your unique points of difference. The small council is a balanced team composed of different personalities. No two characters are alike by design and every character has a special role to play. This question forces you to think about yours.
Do you like to take and give orders, like the captain of the guard? Or do you prefer to work autonomously in the shadows, like the master of spies. Good answers to this question think about how you like to work as well as what work you like to do.
Choose your fighter: Which character are you like?
Everyone describes their small council in a different way, but many answers share similar features. I’ll describe some of the more common characters people choose for themselves below.
The King’s Right Hand
This character is a type-A force of nature: a cross between the captain of the guard and the Hand of the King in Game of Thrones. He’s the King’s most trusted servant, his arm and his voice. He makes the King’s words reality.
This character is a doer not a talker, exceptional at getting shit done. Once he’s been told where to play, the King’s Right Hand will work out how to win, and he’ll do all in his power to take home the trophy.
The Right Hand is the archetypal athlete: a good leader within his domain, inspiring others by his tireless example. Like any well-coached athlete, the Right Hand is also good at being led. People who identify with this character would make excellent soldiers, salespeople, or investment bankers.
The Archmage is a master of magic scrolls and incantations, a purveyor of esoterica and endless font of wisdom and advice. With her encyclopaedic knowledge, she is able to provide helpful context and information to problems that seem arcane and unsolvable.
This character is not a doer, nor a talker, but a reader. Rarely dirtying her hands with anything other than parchment, the Archmage spends her time exploring curiosities and gathering information. Her broad and deep wells of knowledge make her an invaluable asset to the rest of the small council, who regularly mine her for insights.
People who identify strongly with this character would make excellent conspiracy theorists, academics, or university challenge contestants.
The King’s Left Hand
The King’s Left Hand is like the Right Hand’s evil twin. A hybrid of the Master of Spies and Hand of the King from Game of Thrones, the Left Hand operates more in the shadows than his chiral cousin.
The Right Hand is a warrior, the Left Hand is a rogue. If the Right Hand leads the troops into battle, the Left Hand makes sure any enemies are caught unprepared.
The Right Hand is a lion, the Left Hand is a fox. If the Left Hand works out how to navigate traps, The Right Hand fights off wolves.
The Left Hand might covertly gather information on enemies and ensnare them in traps. Or, like Tyrion in Game of Thrones, he might take charge of an unglamorous initiative like managing the sewer network of Casterly Rock. The Left Hand quietly carries out those uncertain, vital activities which ought to remain under the radar.
The Left Hand thrives without direct supervision, and is more comfortable working alone than leading or being led, though he can do both if he must. People who identify with this character might make excellent hackers, early-stage startup employees, or intelligence agents.
The small council question has no model answer. You can dream up a small council with whatever characters you like on it. The best answers go deeper, describing the other, complementary, characters on the council in as much detail as they describe their own.
Which environments do you thrive in?
Either you choose an environment or one is assigned to you. After understanding what you’re really like, you must next understand which environments you’re suited to, and which you should avoid.
History is filled with stories of deeply flawed people. The flawed people who made it into textbooks overcame their weaknesses by finding complementary collaborators. The pessimistic realist Danny Kahnemann and the optimistic idealist Amos Tversky were an unlikely pair, and their approaches to social science were as different as their personalities. But their partnership kickstarted the field of behavioural economics, as their thoughts flowed into one another like day leads into night.
Your colleagues are the most important part of your environment, and finding complementary collaborators is such a reliable method for success that some companies actively encourage it. People work best when they complement each other, each person a unique piece of the puzzle, fitting together perfectly to make a pretty picture.
The qualities of each character determine which environments they’re suited to, and who they’ll work with best. There are many ways you can slice-and-dice the inclinations of the different character personas, and because I’m a slut for 2-by-2s I have of course created one. The y-axis splits environments in terms of high to low uncertainty. The x-axis maps whether the character prefers to act directly on their environment or consider it passively.
Obligatory 2x2, this time with neoclassical theme.
The characters at the top don’t mind being managed, because their environments are certain: in them, results can be measured and outcomes can be forecasted. It’s easy to set sales targets when you have a history of selling. The characters on the bottom prefer to exercise more latitude, because due to uncertainty, results are difficult to measure and goals are hard to articulate. You can’t tell what will be useful or interesting in advance.
The characters on the right prefer taking direct action, while those on the left prefer more passive consideration. There is a continuum here. Consider the example of a researcher: interviewing people directly is more active than reading interview transcripts, which is more active than reading articles informed by interview transcripts. And so on. All tasks are useful, but in different environments, some tasks are more useful than others.
The four characters, and their personas in italic, roughly correspond to different jobs.
The scribe is the persona of organisation man, the kind of detail-oriented, process-driven person who thrives in a bureaucratic environment like a mature company or government. In their organisational bubble they are removed from their customers, and spend much time carrying out processes as efficiently as possible.
The Warrior is the persona of the athlete or salesman. This person is “results-driven”, and cares most about winning. She thrives in an environment where she is measured and rewarded based on the tangible results she brings in, be it sales made, goals scored, or heads stuck on spikes.
The Alchemist is the persona of the philosopher. This person loves to spend all day thinking about what might happen. He is most likely to thrive in an unconstrained environment, where he can jettison his head into the clouds, only rarely coming back down to earth. Today, these environments can be found in some academic circles or independent research.
The Rogue is the persona of the explorer. While the Alchemist thinks about what might happen, the Rogue is in the field, learning about and affecting what is happening right now. The Rogue thrives in an open environment, with lots of freedom to work out how to meet his goals. These kinds of people are drawn to new fields, like startups or Indiana Jones-style anthropology.
When you have articulated the qualities of your character, and the environment your character thrives in, you are ready to choose. This is a career-defining choice. It may even define the rest of your life.
Your choice is this: Pick environment suited to your character, or force your character to conform to an unsuitable environment.
You ignore your own character at your own peril. Some environments will force you into a role you’re not suited to and don’t want to become. If you don’t recognise this, you’ll lash out against it and perform poorly. Even worse, you might not realise this is happening. Years of being rewarded for behaviours you dislike can turn you into someone you hate.
I ignored what I was really like for years. I didn’t appreciate that I want constant novelty and fast feedback, and resent “off-the-shelf” solutions and micromanagement. My ignorance caused me to choose environments like the interior of big companies, which I ended up hating. A bit of self reflection would have avoided months of misery.
If you’re serious about self reflection, you can reach much deeper. You may notice one member of the small council’s description is missing. Some people manage to successfully integrate all the different characters into their personality. By doing so, they gain such agency and emotional resilience that they can thrive in any environment.
Who do you want to become?
Whenever I ask the small council question, very few people identify with the King. In the ideal small council, the King is the singular embodiment of the well-balanced team. Most people, acknowledging their strengths and confronting their failings, don’t see that balance in themselves. But with effort, I believe it’s possible to achieve it.
There is a school of thought which goes like this:
The highest agency people have integrated the parts of themselves they have an affinity for with the parts which don’t come naturally. They do this by plunging through uncomfortable, unfamiliar experiences and emerging, changed, through the other side. Doing this gives them a stillness that can only be attained by truly knowing yourself.
This idea is a Western trope. Jungian psychologists call it “integrating your shadow self”. Joseph Campbell, the author of The Hero’s Journey calls it “the abyss”, where the hero dies and is reborn. In many fantasy novels, to know someone’s “true name” is to see them for who they really are, and to have power over them.
The more uncomfortable an experience is, the higher the risk of disillusionment and failure. But the more uncomfortable an experience is, the greater the promise of true self-knowledge. And with more self-knowledge you become a more complete person.
The most successful people alive today (certain messrs Bezos and Musk spring to mind) understand themselves well. They’re also incredibly emotionally resilient. In my speculative view, it’s not a coincidence that both of them have been through enormous hardships. Bezos grew up the son of an immigrant with an absent parent, and Musk suffered beatings from a tyrannical father.
Some people, sheltered and comfortable, go their entire lives without understanding who they are or what they want. They coast along like I did, carried by the currents of other people’s expectations and desires. Nothing uncomfortable happens to them, so there’s no need to reflect. Extreme adversity, the kind that Bezos and Musk suffered growing up, can be a shortcut to self-discovery.
I’m sure our boys Bezos and Musk would today both identify as the King of their councils. And I’m sure they could both play any of the other roles if they had to. But I bet this wasn’t always the case. The self-knowledge they’ve earned from extreme adversity led them to confront their weaknesses, attaining a balance within themselves.
For most people trying to understand themselves, unless you’re willing to suffer extreme anguish, there are no shortcuts. Instead, you can put yourself into productively discomforting environments, struggle, and adapt. Then reflect on what you’ve learned. Over time, this will back the layers of your psyche preventing you from fully understanding yourself.
To work out what to do, work out who you are
Without understanding yourself, you are imprisoned by the environments you’re born into. The lucky few stumble into environments which suit them by accident. But many people remain trapped in unsuitable environments for life. Understanding yourself lets you choose the environments you inhabit intentionally, leading to happier friendships, healthier relationships, and a more fulfilling career.
The question: on the Game of Thrones small council, which character are you? kicks off a simple three-step process which, if you play around with it sincerely, will help you understand yourself better.
Work out what you’re really like. Every character on the small council has a critical role to play. Which one suits you best?
Work out what environments you are best suited to. What are the characteristics of these environments? Is your current environment ideal?
Work out who you’d like to be. What kinds of environments will reward you for being more like the person you want to become?
As a child I spent cumulative weeks of my life thinking about what I wanted to do. I never got anywhere, because I never asked myself that question in a useful way. Don’t make the same mistake as me. Whether you borrow this Game of Thrones metaphor or not, the process remains the same. To find a path you’d like, you need to work out what you’re like. To work out what you want to do, first work out who you are.
Thanks to Katie Hollands for reading an early draft.