Richard Sutton has built an industry on stress — or rather, the management of it — and, in addition to being an adviser to companies and their CEOs, has written two bestsellers, The Stress Code and Stressproof. He also works with worldclass athletes and Olympic teams. So, it’s a shock when he kicks off this new book, Thrive, by saying, “I had a PhD in pain, failure, setbacks, disappointments and hurdles, which had all given me some incredible gifts.”
Raised in Joburg, he was beaten and abused by his alcoholic stepfather, hiding the welts on his back from his teachers, and moved frequently with the family when they were evicted. He took a job as a waiter at the age of 13 so he could stay out of the house in the evenings. Sutton barely scraped through school and resigned himself to a life of mediocrity. Ironically, it was the thing he dreaded most that turned his life around: compulsory national service. “I was taught my first major life skills, which included the power of grit, persistence and perseverance.”
In Thrive he demonstrates how he has synthesised these qualities into the crucial power of resilience. He insists repeatedly that we are not defined by where we come from, how we were brought up, or even our genetically inherited abilities.
He lays out in encyclopaedic detail the way to build resilience, what he calls a skill that helps us not only to withstand pressure but also to develop a collection of behaviours and psychological traits that will let us fulfil our potential. There are chapters on the neuroscience of resilience, on the biology of the immune system and how it determines our resilience, on diet and supplements that build vitality, and on the necessity of support and connection with other people.
His anecdotes about the athletes he has known season the scholarly, scientific passages: how tennis star Kevin Anderson was largely ignored by the inner circle of South African tennis but managed to disassociate from what Sutton calls the exclusionary hostilities against him to get to the top, while others vanished without a trace. Here’s British tennis player Andy Murray’s training schedule with its gruelling rounds of treadmill and swimming, and former client and US tennis great Martina Navratilova wracked with nerves and self-doubt before every game. Dutch track-and-field star Sifan Hassan was an asylum seeker from Ethiopia who spent months in a refugee centre before being given a second-hand pair of running shoes, sparking her love of athletics, while tennis legend Billie Jean King told him once, while they were in the gym at Wimbledon, that “pressure is a privilege”, and that all champions adapt to survive.
Sutton believes that we have much to learn from elite athletes because of the resilience skills they require to succeed; the ability to learn from mistakes and keep getting back up and out there when they’ve lost. These are skills that are just as critical for bankers, musicians, engineers, scholars or developers. But it’s not just high performers who need them. Sutton’s book is timeous, dealing as it does with the aftermath of Covid and the social, economic, and mental damages the pandemic wrought on South Africa. Crushed by corruption, worn down by rolling blackouts, every single one of us needs resilience to navigate our way forward; positivity to remain responsive, creative, and adaptable; and optimism to keep us looking ahead. To thrive. The “incredible gifts” he believes his hardscrabble upbringing gave him were empathy, compassion, heightened sensitivity, and enhanced perceptual processes.
Sutton’s manifesto is that we are all capable of extraordinary lives and should not allow ourselves to be bound by limitations. He is convinced that we all have the ability to endure hardship; that we are genetically hardwired for it. Easier for some, you might say, but there are many lessons to be learned in this book.