Richard Sutton’s Thrive is a rich source of unique and practical skills and tools that are easy to apply to help you develop and harness your resilience and to realise your fullest potential. An extract from the book has been republished below with permission from the publishers.
WHAT IS RESILIENCE?
Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, resilience has become one of the most popular concepts for teams and businesses to focus on and it would be difficult to find a team or business that doesn’t have the word ‘resilience’ as part of its core value set. This is not surprising considering that COVID-19 has been superimposed on the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR), creating a new set of socio-political economic conditions, the likes of which the world has never seen.
It is as if the world we live in and share has become scorched, not only by drought or through the compounded effects of decades of global warming, but by negative human emotions of fear, uncertainty and panic.
Our historic understanding of resilience has been centred around grit, greater resolve, more persistence, the ability to ‘pivot’ and unwavering determination in every and all endeavours. While these are powerful psychosocial traits and are key contributors to human performance and success, they are limited within the context of the promotion of long-term resilience.
The reason for this is that a new set of socio-economic conditions emerged seemingly overnight and continue to rapidly and exponentially evolve, morph and recalibrate. Fixed behaviours, no matter how powerful, cannot defend against the changes that we are experiencing and are likely to go through in the future.
If resilience is broader and more expansive than persistence, determination or grit, then what is it? The Oxford English Dictionary defines resilience as:
noun: capacity to recover quickly from difficulties; toughness
While the definition of resilience is clean, simple and easy to grasp, there are two significant limitations within this description. The first lies with the notion of simply ‘recovering’ from life’s challenges. While recovery is advantageous in all areas of health and wellbeing, it is a reactive situation that doesn’t necessarily prepare us for impending and ongoing challenges. In many respects, it locks us into the past as opposed to creating a stage for improved coping and performance in an uncertain future.
The second issue with the definition has to do with the broader concept of toughness, either mental or physical, and its relationship with overcoming challenges, adversity, change and uncertainty.
? IS MENTAL TOUGHNESS AND GRIT ENOUGH?
In 2007 I was offered my dream job – a senior director with the Chinese Olympic team, which had a real shot at winning the games and making sporting history. I committed myself to making a difference, ready to throw everything I had and more into this once-in-a-lifetime role. It was a moment of clarity where every athlete I had ever worked with, every book and research paper I had ever read, every weekend and holiday I had ever worked through had culminated in this incredible opportunity.
Within days of my arrival in Beijing, I realised the sheer scale and magnitude of the position I had been given and the immense challenges that came with it. The phrase ‘Careful what you wish for’ couldn’t have been more apt.
Essentially, I was an outsider going into an established and well-oiled team. The athletes had lived, trained, eaten and socialised with each other for years, if not decades. They were a tight-knit family who were suspicious and guarded when it came to foreigners. Being accepted, trusted and respected was going to take time and a lot of effort on my part and, even then, it wasn’t a given.
At the same time, the expectations from the administrators, coaches and stakeholders (in this case, the Chinese government) were stratospheric. The weeks and weekends were undifferentiated and the nights and days became merged. In other words, the days were nothing short of a marathon. Support in any form was a rarity, which paralleled the complete social isolation I was experiencing due to the language barrier, movement restrictions (not being allowed to leave the training precinct), limited internet access and phone services. To add pressure to a strained situation, the leaders and administrators showed little to no transparency, care, respect, clarity or appreciation – in other words, justice and fairness in all its forms was scarce. Lastly, the authority or control to make decisions pertaining to my professional responsibilities, let alone personal decisions as to when I exercised, when to wake up and when I went to sleep, were removed until further notice.
It was a tough environment, but what I had taken to Beijing was mental toughness, grit, hardiness, resolve, determination and strength of will forged in an abundance of childhood adversity and refined during compulsory military training, all things that I believed would stand me in good stead – but I was wrong.
As the weeks passed, my dream job turned into a nightmare experience and took a huge toll on me. At first it manifested in a higher frequency of colds and flu that I put down to the notoriously high levels of pollution in the city. But I then began to lose mental clarity, focus, motivation and the ability to learn quickly and progressively. Finally, there was an emotional cost. My low mood progressed into states of mild depression and anxiety, specifically in the form of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), most notably a need for symmetry and orderliness.
I kept telling myself that I had been through challenges before and could draw on resources and skills I had developed and mastered historically to overcome this. I self-dialogued, telling myself, ‘You’ve got this’; I tried to exercise as regularly as possible, avoided alcohol and limited coffee to half a cup in the morning. But none of this was enough and, in fact, didn’t even touch sides.
The steady decline in my health forced me to shift my goal orientation away from medium- and long-term aspirations to very short-term ambitions, which turned out to be simply getting through the day. I was perplexed. How was this even possible? I had been through some really difficult situations in my life, yet this challenge impacted me differently and so broadly, causing a radical decline in my emotional, mental and physical wellbeing. The resilience tactics I had polished and refined over decades of struggle seemed to be rendered utterly ineffective in this situation. Even with all the grit and determination and persistence, I ended up as one of the 34.3%5 of individuals who become significantly impacted by adversity.
Perhaps I was being too hard on myself, after all many of the stressors I was experiencing were established triggers in mental and physical health compromise. For example, long working hours and high demands increase the risk of developing anxiety, depression or sleep disorders by 60%, a lack of support by 38%, not feeling valued or having limited growth opportunities by 49% and not having a say or control in matters that directly affect you on a daily basis by 42%.6 Independently, these stressors can have a profound impact on mental health, yet I was experiencing them collectively. In hindsight, it is little wonder that I was hanging on by a thread.
After several long and incredibly challenging months, the opportunity arose for me to travel to England with the Chinese national tennis team. Five extremely talented women, some of whom would achieve rankings as high as number 1 and 2 in the world, were on their way to Wimbledon (the most prestigious event on the tennis calendar) and due to my extensive experience in the sport, having worked with many of the world’s best players and teams since 2002, I was instructed to accompany them.
? WIMBLEDON – THE GRASS BECOMES GREENER
Being back in the familiar world of tennis validated the stress of my work environment in Beijing and the perceived weight of my challenges. The excitement and bustle of Wimbledon, reconnecting with friends and a more manageable schedule transformed my physical and emotional wellbeing within days. I was once again training hard and felt energised, motivated, passionate, focused and excited about life. For three weeks, it felt like a psychological load had been lifted, liberating the best version of myself. But the tournament was nearing completion, meaning I would soon have to return to Beijing and my perceived challenges. This realisation always triggered many negative emotions as I relived many of my negative experiences.
During the final week of the event, I was fortunate to receive an impromptu and unexpected coaching session on reframing by the iconic Billy Jean King. ‘Reframing’ is another term used to describe cognitive reappraisal, the ability to screen and evaluate our thoughts and replace negative ones with positive ones. It involves conscious reassessment or reinterpretation of adversity to find a positive perspective and something meaningful through the challenging events of one’s life. Positive reframing has been shown to be a strong predictor of resilience, especially in adolescents and athletes.