The small Nordic country of Finland has a culture which holds resilience, grit and fortitude in particular reverence. They even have a special term for it, ‘sisu’, which you might have heard. Sisu does not have a direct translation in any language, but is often described with words that relate to perseverance, bravery and stamina. It is said to be essential for understanding Finnish culture, and yet the concept still seems somewhat elusive. Finland’s epic success in endurance running over the past century is one of the reasons why sisu often rings a bell with avid runners all over the world. Indeed, Finland won every 10K gold (except one) in the modern Olympics before WWII, and runners such as Paavo Nurmi and Lasse Virén are well remembered for their incredible achievements at the tarmacs of the world.
The Running Times magazine reporter Adam W. Chase recently traveled to Finland in search of the true meaning of sisu. He came back feeling somewhat disappointed: ”I didn´t feel I’d acquired a solid grasp of sisu. But with time and distance for perspective, it grew on me.” This sounds like a classic encounter with sisu. Even we Finns often feel like that. However, Einstein once said: “If you can´t explain it simply, you don´t understand it well enough.”
The origins of sisu go way back into the country´s harsh history. The late Dr. Richard Stites explained how Finnish history “includes lots of wars, invasions and foreign occupations. Finns are not merely the victims of severe weather. They have not been treated well by next-door neighbors Sweden and Russia, either. Sisu has sustained Finns through all of their long struggles.” Being a Finn myself, I have grown up hearing the stories that reiterated the numerous faces of sisu. When I began a closer inspection, however, I realized that very little empirical research had been done to unlock its deep essence. I decided to do something about this. In my current program (in which I am studying topics such as achievement and character strengths), I decided to focus on sisu in order to find out what it´s all about. I had a hunch I might discover something which would benefit all of us. I did. The study has attracted nearly 2000 responses by now and I´m about to start working on the thesis paper.
The adviser of this study is Dr. Angela Duckworth from the University of Pennsylvania. She has done fascinating job in pioneering the study of ´grit´and worked hard to help break the myth about IQ as the greatest determinant of success (well, it is not – that notion is completely old school. Today´s news flash). You can find Angela´s brand new TED talk here (aired on May 7th, 2013).
Finland may have the first dibs on sisu as a cultural construct, but it is a universal capacity and potential which exists within all individuals. As Ludwig Wittgenstein once said, “The limits of our language mean the limits of our world.” Only through having the words and constructs to describe the world and the phenomena around us can we strive to describe it, and therefore, understand more and be more. This is what my main prerogative with sisu is. To expand our language and thinking, and through this to transform the ways in which we perceive our opportunities.
In the following posts, you will get to take a front row seat on my journey into this fascinating psychological strength. I have planned to structure my posts so that each describes one element of sisu. It will be a combination of psychology (since that´s my passion), sisu (that’s what I study) and how all this relates to our daily life (since that´s what makes it worthwhile).