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Thrive – how to hone your resilience and reach your full potential

Thrive – how to hone your resilience and reach your full potential
Author Richard Sutton and Daily Maverick journalist Onke Ngcuka. (Photos: Supplied)

Richard Sutton’s ‘Thrive: The Power of Resilience’ provides an insightful guide for readers on how to reach their full potential by sharpening their resilience.

Resilience is about flexibility and being able to adapt, says Richard Sutton, a health and performance educator. “Resilience is something where every time you get challenged you get better at dealing with a challenge,” he adds, “because your skillset is so sophisticated and so established.”

On Tuesday, 24 January, Sutton launched his new book, Thrive: The Power of Resilience, during a Daily Maverick webinar in conversation with journalist Onke Ngcuka. In the book, Sutton explores how resilience can be harnessed to reach one’s full potential and overcome adversity.


Sutton says he, like many others, had a difficult start to life, where he was surrounded by a defeatist narrative. But he was exposed to an environment where people showed resilience despite facing challenges. He learned, “Our past does not define us, where we come from does not define us. We have the choice, we have the potential to be who we want to be.” But to do this, one must embrace change.

Science and resilience

Sutton also draws on scientific theories to illustrate the power of resilience. “I was looking at the science and how science can fundamentally unlock resilience within us.”

Humans inherit genes that influence their behaviour, intellect and personality, he says. “But our genes are only a partial contribution to the reality that can unfold.”

Genes are significantly affected by the environment a human creates for themselves, he says. If an individual who is “predisposed to limitations” is placed in a healthy, safe, loving and supportive environment they can “surpass individuals who are not predisposed to limitations”.

Optimism vs toxic positivity

A change in mindset, such as becoming more optimistic, can also motivate resilience. Optimism can help people get through difficult times, better than others who are realistic or pessimistic, he says.

Sutton says it is important to create a distinction between optimism and “toxic positivity”. Toxic positivity can involve staying overly positive during very challenging experiences, to the point where one dismisses or diminishes negative events and emotions.

“This way of approaching life where you condition yourself to believe that everything is fine… is a very dysfunctional way of being.” This leads to emotional suppression and ignoring the true feelings of others and your own emotions during difficult experiences.

Thrive: The Power of Resilience

Optimism, on the other hand, acknowledges when things become difficult and unpleasant, but instils hope that things will improve. “It’s a call to action — if we’re optimistic, we take the necessary steps to change our reality,” he says.

Optimism “also has a profound effect on our immune system”, says Sutton.

“When we’re optimistic — when we believe that the future is actually going to be okay, and we’re going to work toward that place and that space and time — it affects our immune system very positively.” This includes decreased inflammation, which occurs due to stress responses.

Facing adversity

Ngcuka noted that South Africa is facing significant adversity, when considering the energy crises, the war in Ukraine with its economic impact, and the climate crisis. During this time, it can be difficult to maintain a sense of optimism.

Sutton responded: “This is why we have to evolve and develop these skills. As an individual, in our personal lives, we can be optimistic. As a collective, as a nation, it is difficult because we are not in control of many of the decisions that ultimately will affect us.” Thus, optimism may have to be moved to one’s personal capacity, he says.

This is also where one of the most important resilience traits comes in — meta-cognition. Sutton describes this as a process of self-awareness and self-control. “Meta-cognition is simply the ability to control one’s emotional reactions and control one’s stresses.” It also involves being able to effectively visualise.

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Having goals is important. “When we undergo challenging experiences, or we have a failure or setback, we just stop. Our goals end at that point in time. Normally, our goal is just to survive that moment and survive the day. We have to look past that.” The only way to grow and evolve is to have a goal, he adds.

Sutton’s final words of advice centred on the importance of focus. “It’s so easy to get fixated and caught up with the externalities of life,” which includes the things that are out of our control.

“I think the message for this year is you have to understand what you need to do and what you want to achieve… Understand it clearly.” DM


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