The beginning of Sisu 2.0


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:

A wishful applicant visiting UPenn campus and on her way to crash Angela's class.
A wishful applicant visiting the UPenn campus (on my way to crash Angela’s class). I remember eyeing this quote and thinking “Yeah right. Except when you don’t get accepted into the program and the doors are slammed shut. Oh, the irony.”
First day of the Master of Applied Positive Psychology program. Look at these happy smiles!
Luckily, I was accepted into the program. Look at these happy Duchenne smiles on the first day of MAPP. James Pawelski and Marty Seligman beaming in the front.
The program took quite a lot of this (and coffee).
The program took quite a lot this (and coffee). Note the amazing Dr. Esa Saarinen‘s systems intelligence paper under my mug to keep me going. I remember putting in 80+ hour weeks while studying and working full time for the first few months of the program. What an organic sisu cultivator that time period proved to be! case of too much coffee and statistics, it's best not to leave any brains lying around. This unlucky cauliflower was used to demonstrate to hypothetical location sisu. Tbc.
…in the likely case of way too much coffee and statistics, it’s best not to leave any brains lying around. This unlucky cauliflower was used to demonstrate the hypothetical location of sisu at the ventral medial prefrontal cortex. To be continued.
This day came too! Of course I had to close the circle : )
Eventually, this day arrived and I returned to the same spot I where I posed as an aspiring student 2012. In the words of fierce Amelia Earhart, put it: “Adventure is worthwhile in itself.”
With the Queen of grit, my thesis mentor Angela Duckworth right after my presentation at the Positive Psychology Center.
With my thesis mentor Angela Duckworth. The picture was taken right after one of my first presentations on Sisu at the UPenn Positive Psychology Center. Angela was one of the first people to see the potential benefits of researching sisu. Forever grateful for her.

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.”
Carl Sagan

4 thoughts on “The beginning of Sisu 2.0

    1. Sweet Kat! Thanks so much for your kind note.

      I’m working on a ton of things related to sisu and will hopefully get my first paper out soon. In the meanwhile… here is something you might be interested in:

      My contribution is definitely done following M.A. Numminen’s advice to young Esa Saarinen (when Esa was nervous about giving speeches) “Sönkkäät nyt vain rohkeasti”.. että näin.

      Your fan, Emilia


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