An excerpt from the master’s thesis
Above and Beyond Perseverance: An Exploration of Sisu (2013)
It was warm and cozy at Annenberg Hall. I remember escaping the February rain and sneaking into the back row at Dr. Angela Duckworth´s class at the University of Pennsylvania. I tried to blend in with the young undergraduate class, but in reality I wasn’t fooling anyone. I had a Burberry umbrella and was nearly ten years older than most of the people in the room. The course I crashed was undergraduate course number 266, entitled “Introduction to Positive Psychology.” Little did I know, this day would later come to define my future and result in devoting the majority of my waking hours to this discipline of study.
On that very day, Duckworth spoke about grit (her research focus and passion for the last ten years), and I had a moment of sheer epiphany. Her analysis of grit reminded me of a familiar construct from Finland which I grew up hearing about. It is called ´sisu´, and any native Finn would be able to provide you with a story about or an example of it. The term lacks an exact synonym in any language but is often translated into English as determination, guts, perseverance and the capacity to endure hardship. However, even though every Finn is eager to claim they know exactly what sisu is (and the historical narratives around this construct go back hundreds of years), further inspection reveals its true nature to be somewhat elusive.
I left Duckworth´s class submerged in deep thought, and couldn’t even wait until I arrived back in New York to email asking if she had ever heard of sisu. As it turned out, of course she had. Later that year, I was accepted into the master of applied positive psychology program at UPenn. Being no stranger to adversity and personal experiences of trauma, and having as my stated goal the empowerment of those who have undergone traumatic experiences, researching sisu was a natural choice for my capstone project. What I didn´t know was what a fascinating treasure trove I was delving into.
This paper is the first step on a journey to increase our collective understanding of the construct of sisu, and therefore, unveil new facets of the determinants of resilience and achievement.
It seeks to explore the above and beyond of our preconceived notions of inner strength, and also suggests that perhaps we should re-imagine adversity as opportunity. After all, it is an inevitable part of our human condition (as far as we know), and quite often adversities end up defining us in the most profound ways. This was the case with me, and perhaps you can find similar experiences when you examine the turning points of your own life.
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, to understand more and to be more.
This is the main prerogative of this paper: To expand our language and thinking, and to thus transform the ways in which we perceive our opportunities.
“The soul never thinks without a picture.” -Aristotle
Bonus track for the visually inclined:
The first phase of the sisu journey in pictures:
Today, in particularly deep gratitude for all the mentors in my life,
past and present. You know who you are.
“Somewhere, something incredible is waiting to be known.”