You are perhaps familiar with sisu as the epic, age-old Finnish term denoting extraordinary determination and courage in the face of adversity.
It may even be your motto (0:44:35 – 0:47:00), passion, life philosophy or your favorite licorice candy. You might even have encountered the famous New York Times cover story from 1940, or more recently US Foreign Minister John Kerry’s greeting to Finland in December 2014.
However, did you know that for hundreds of years Sisu has also been a name?
This year is special in that regard. For the first time in the history of the name, all Sisus will have their official name day in the Finnish calendar. This also means that the entire nation will celebrate sisu on February 28th EVERY YEAR from now until the sun swallows the Earth, and then (if Elon Musk has his way) we’ll just continue the tradition in our off-world colony on Mars.
Si nomen est omen —if the name in an omen—, then those bearing the name Sisu will traverse through life with their heads held high and with a powerful stride. They will not take the easy way out, but blaze new trails and opt for action against slim odds instead. They persevere, stand up for what is right and eat minor nuisances for breakfast.
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, the world we live in and also answer the question: “Who am I?”. Ludwig Wittgenstein once famously said that “the limits of my words means the limits of my world.” Sisu, which for long has remained under-studied and elusive, holds power to build empowering narratives. Only with precise constructs to describe the world and its phenomena (as well as our internal mental realm) can we strive to explain it and therefore, to understand more and to be more. This is also one of the reasons I became interested in researching sisu.
Words make our worlds
There is a growing body of research claiming that humans build their identities and self-image around narratives and the stories they tell about themselves. These stories may also be linked to our names. The following caption from a New York Times article, written by the stellar Maria Konnikova, goes on to elaborate this impact:
…recent research suggests that names can influence choice of profession, where we live, whom we marry, the grades we earn, the stocks we invest in, whether we’re accepted to a school or are hired for a particular job, and the quality of our work in a group setting. Our names can even determine whether we give money to disaster victims.
However, I am more interested in the significance a name carries for its bearer on an identity level – beyond whether we get invited to a job interview or not. Words and names construct stories and stories finally become the narratives we build our lives upon (e.g. “I am good, I can handle anything and I can have a positive impact on the world at large”, or “I am not talented, valuable, or important enough to be a change maker” etc.). Narratives are stories so big that our lives fit inside them. They build expectations and impact our thinking, values and behavior. In fact, there are really no meaningless thoughts because they manifest themselves through our attitudes, gestures and actions. What we think about the world, ourselves and our abilities is not irrelevant. Our thoughts give rise to the world within which we live in.
I argue that a great deal of our collective potential still remains locked away and hidden because of the negative internal monologues we have about ourselves, our abilities, self-worth and our ability to develop and change. This, however, is not any one individual’s problem alone, but a shared one. We as a society often fail to offer enough support for the creation and emergence of more positive narratives. This is especially true for minorities and those who do not fit the rigid expectations of mainstream culture.
This is very serious. Our mental radio has the power to make us or break us. In fact, research conducted by eminent Stanford professor Dr. Carol Dweck and her team indicates that a person’s beliefs are the single most significant predictor of their future actions. Whether you think you can or can’t do something, you are likely to prove yourself right.
Sisu as a name holds powerful potential to prime one’s thinking and perhaps give birth to positive narratives that celebrate not only tenacity, mental toughness and courage but also values such as integrity, honesty and the building of stronger communities. All of them are elements that (at least to me) seem like the building blocks for a successful and flourishing life – not only for the individual but also society as a whole.
Sisu is for everyone
Sisu as a name in Finland has been given to about 1700 individuals since 1899 (see Finland Population Register Centre).
Only 20 of these individuals were girls (0.01%).
Over the past four years, Sisu was given as a name to 789 boys and 0 girls. When it was finally added to the Finnish name calendar, it was intended to be added there as male name.
Stories offer a repertoire of schemas, which can inspire our actions. They have the power to unlock potential by opening our eyes to what might be. Aristotle described the difference between actual reality (the one which we experience as the present situation) and potential reality (real opportunities which are invisible in the present moment). To expose the mind to a story is to prospect future scenarios and possibilities. Similarly, if we cannot dream something first, we cannot do it; narratives direct an individual’s reactions and decisions. They equip us with response models, and prime our behavior.
Sisu is full of radical potential. I believe that anyone regardless of their gender (or religion, sexual orientation, ethnic background, or whatever the qualifier we humans are so keen on using) is deserving of the name Sisu, one which carries an empowering reminder of human resilience. Let’s bring Sisu to our boys, but let’s bring it to our girls as well. Empowerment is not meant to be constrained, but to be spread.
Whether sisu comes to you in the form of a name, motto or action, the main message is that we all have the potential for it. Let’s find ways to foster this strength in each other.
Yours, Emilia Lahti
Ps. The current year 2015 is the Year of Sisu. Read here to see how you can participate from anywhere in the world.