Reflections on Sisu, Creativity and Mastery

In the series of ‘incredibly inspiring women in science and must read books of 2014′ I am excited to introduce you to Dr. Sarah Lewis’ stellar new book ‘The Rise: Creativity, the Gift of Failure, and the Search for Mastery’ which came out in March. Lewis is an author, curator and historian who currently sits on the faculty of the Yale School of Art. Her beautifully written book discusses the (somewhat lost) art of mastery and the ability to not only walk but dance on thin ice. What excites me on a personal note is that Lewis also addresses sisu (p. 174-175), which is a new construct within the psychological discourse relating to achievement and mental toughness.Sarah Lewis

What matters in mastery is not only what we do and how we do it, but how we speak about what we are doing. “The soul never thinks without a picture”, Aristotle declared a few millennial go. To a great extent ‘words make our worlds’, because language is the foundation of how we communicate. It affects our thinking and the way we view the world and ourselves. It gives birth to constructs which become our mental imagery and help us describe and define our lives and the world we live in. Language can even be said to define the boundaries of our world since we cannot express what we do not have the words for (Wittgenstein, 1922). Lewis writes:

When we don’t have a word for an inherently fleeting idea, we speak about it differently, if at all. There are all sorts of generative circumstances — flops, folds, wipeouts, and hiccups — yet the dynamism it inspires is internal, personal, and often invisible… It is a cliché to say simply that we learn the most from failure. It is also not exactly true. Transformation comes from how we choose to speak about it in the context of story, whether self-stated or aloud.

Only through having the words and constructs to describe the world and the phenomena around us can we strive to interpret it, and therefore, to understand more and to be more.

One of the main prerogatives of researching sisu and introducing it into mainstream discussion within academic research and the popular culture is to expand our language and thinking, and to thus transform the ways in which we perceive our opportunities. On a similar note, the gift of increased conceptual clarity and understanding of the creative process in regard to failure is what I consider to be one of the most beautiful contributions of Lewis’ exploration into what can be called the art of “where we would rather not and expand in ways we never knew we could.” The book is highly recommended for anyone interested in deepening their understanding of how to ‘transform barriers into frontiers’. I think at the deepest core of Lewis’ book is a study of how we may rise to our best potential not in spite of failures, but because of them. This idea of viewing adversities as opportunities (and seeing them as a very natural part of the human experience) is deeply inherent to sisu and the action mindset as well.


Furthermore, I am greatly interested in the concept of near-win (which Lewis mentions), where the close proximity of a greatly desired goal (and in fact, missing that goal) works as a propeller for the future fine tuning of our artistry and effort. The closer we are to our goal, the greater the frustration of missing the target. Research shows this rather clearly, for example, in the case of athletes who end up with a silver medal as opposed to getting bronze. Indeed, in Finland there is a saying which goes something like this: “A bronze medal is a win but a silver is always a loss”.

Originally I misheard the term ‘near-win’ as ‘near-wind’, which was great because this mistake took me on a little mental excursion (the gift of failure). The metaphor of wind made me think of something so utterly powerful that it kind of sucks you in and spins you up. This notion of ‘near-wind’ actually fits sisu quite well, because sisu is about enduring extreme adversity through gaining access to certain kinds of psychological power reserves which we may not have access to in normal conditions. Indeed, I describe sisu as being something that we tap into when all else seems to be lost, and we have reached the end of our perseverance and grit (as well as our observed mental or physical capacities). In fact a concept of ‘second wind’ as used by William James, the founder of American psychology, seems to capture rather aptly what sisu is all about. Below is an excerpt from James’ book The Energies of Men, 1914):

 Compared with what we ought to be, we are only half awakeOur fires are dampedour drafts are checked. We are making use of only a small part of our possible mental and physical resources … ‘second wind’ is a reality in the mental as in the physical realm and it can be found and used when needed … A third and a fourth ‘wind’ may supervene. Mental activity shows the phenomenon as well as physical, and in exceptional cases we may find, beyond the very extremity of fatigue-distress, amounts of ease and power that we never dreamed ourselves to own, sources of strength habitually not taxed at all, because habitually we never push through the obstruction, never pass those early critical points.

sisu Emilia Lahti what is sisuSisu is an age-old Finnish construct relating to mental toughness (within this context most recently explored by Dr. Scott Barry Kaufman in the Scientific American), resilience and courage. However, besides being an effort-related character trait, in its native Finland sisu is perceived as an entire way of life, and a philosophy that has impacted and inspired people over generations. So far it has been a well-kept secret of Finns, but this is about to change as the bold construct is finally getting the kind of broad global attention it deserves.

In the future, it may be exciting to examine sisu also within more unusual contexts, such as creativity (in problem solving) and the ability to imagine new, potential futures amid an impossible situation (and therefore, spark optimism and hope). I can see this work aligning in some ways with the wonderful examination of creativity, the gift of failure and mastery, which Lewis has presented so brilliantly in her book.

Not only is Sarah Lewis’ personal story a glorious inspiration for many future trailblazers, but her work sheds some much needed light into our understanding of the determinants of mastery, achievement, success and even thriving. I think grasping some of the main tenets of this masterful piece comes down to understanding the dichotomy of success vs. mastery.

In my positive psychologist mind, the relationship between the two reminds me of the relationship between happiness and meaning (for more, see here and here). Happiness is like success in that it is more about the momentary and often fleeting experience of subjective well-being or an individual’s sense of achievement. However, mastery and meaning are what act as the strong, sustainable building blocks of our life’s narrative and therefore contribute to what is a more deep-seated understanding of our entire purpose and existence. Meaning and mastery have a more solid feel to them and they are future-oriented. Happiness and success, on the other hand, are like those small but crucial fueling stations along the course of an ultra run.

Just like sisu, mastery is essentially about prospection and seeing beyond the limitations of our current situation. It is about waking up morning after morning, not complaining but doing what must be done – until we see the gorgeous long-awaited rise of the brand new day we have been waiting for.

You were born for greatness. Now choose your artistry and begin to work.

2 thoughts on “Reflections on Sisu, Creativity and Mastery

    1. Thank you, dear one. Knowing the incredible level of mastery you hold in your own profession (which practically has zero tolerance for mistakes), I am not surprized at all. *You* are an epitome of relentlessness and diligence <3

      E E L


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