Sisu: Transforming Barriers into Frontiers by Emilia Lahti (Transcript)

Here is the full transcript of positive psychology expert Emilia Lahti’s TEDx Talk: Sisu: Transforming Barriers into Frontiers at TEDxTurku.

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Emilia Lahti – Positive psychology expert

Hi everyone. I’m so excited to be here. My name is Emilia Lahti and I’m a researcher. And some really smart person once said that research is often, in fact, me-search. So we tend to get interested in things which are of some personal significance to us, and I’m no exception.

So what I will share with you today is a discovery that has impacted my life and thinking in a really profound way, and it originates from a trauma that I survived to, a few years ago.

As a result of these experiences, I became very interested to understand how humans persevere in the face of extreme adversity, and how do we keep on going when we feel that we’ve reached the end of our capacities. I’m sure we can all think of some people like that from our lives.

Here’s one person like that, whose story I would like to briefly share. Her name is Kati Lepistö van der Hoeven, and she may look like a completely ordinary woman to you — well, excluding the fact that she looks like some ethereal goddess of Lapland in this photo — but, the truth be told, Kati’s life is a beautiful ode to human resilience.

20 years ago, she experienced a massive brain stroke, which left her locked inside her physical body. Today Kati is able to communicate through using eye movements and an alphabetical board. For Kati, everyday of her life is a beautiful example of how humans push through adversities, and an example of how you have to imagine realities beyond the current reality that you see.

I’m so happy to share Kati’s story because it’s a beautiful segue to what I will share with you next. Because to be her requires something more than just resilience, which means to bounce back from adversities, or perseverance, which means to strive for a long term goal.

To be Kati requires something that we have in Finland for centuries, known as sisu. Sisu is something that we pretty much learn before we learn to talk or walk. And Sisu means to be able to strive over extraordinary difficulties, and it means to be able to have extraordinary determination and courage in the face of extreme adversity. It means that you don’t see a silver lining, but you jump into the storm anyways.

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And in the core of sisu is this beautiful idea that there is much more to us than what meets the eye at a given moment. And the thing here is that even though sisu is so deeply integrated into Finnish culture, it’s something that bears significance to you if you are a human living anywhere in the world. We all face adversities and we all have to strive through them somehow. So sisu is really embodied by those who hold on to hope anywhere in the world. And that is something that is one of my greatest passions to talk more about that.

The thing with sisu is that it doesn’t have a direct translation in any language. So it’s not merely the Finnish equivalent for willpower or perseverance, but is something more than that. In the Finnish culture, sisu is often seen as this mindset or a life philosophy. So you can associate things such as integrity and honesty to sisu.

And we have some words which technically could have become the word for sisu, and here is one which is periksi, anta, matto, and there is more, periksiantamattomuus. For someone who is not Finnish, it may take a little bit of sisu to even say that.

Sisu has been a big part of our culture for a long time, and we haven’t been able to necessarily explain what it is in its core. So I became interested in this. One thing that you will definitely find if you Google sisu, is Finns during the Winter war, and how we were against this massive opponent, and we prevailed against all possible expectations. So this event raised sisu to this almost sacred status in Finland for generations to come.

And The New York Times, back in 1940 wrote that “Sisu is the word that describes Finland,” which is really powerful. But at the same time, even though sisu has been such an integral part of our country, I wasn’t able to find an answer to whether if sisu is some kind of a character trait, is it a tendency, is it just a myth, or maybe it’s some genetic mutation of people who have to endure almost a lifetime without sunlight? I don’t know.

So I became interested — and because some happenings in our life always involve a little bit of serendipity. So in 2012, I happened to meet this wonderful woman called Angela Duckworth, who is a research psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania. I actually crashed Angela’s course one wintry February morning, where she was talking about her research on grit, which stands for passion and perseverance for a long term goal. And I became interested in seeing whether sisu and grit maybe somehow overlap, or maybe we can learn something.

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So I sent Angela an email with one simple question asking that, “Have you ever heard of sisu?” Angela being Angela, of course she had heard of sisu. So she kind of affirmed my intuition that sisu is something worth examining at its own right. I think that was the first push to start my own journey into the land of sisu as a research subject. And as a result of this, I started looking into other kinds of ideas, maybe little bit outside the usual scope.

And then I ran into this 19th century philosopher called William James, who was saying that we don’t know enough about the human spirit, and he was saying that we would need to create something like a topography of human spirit or human strength, which for someone unlike William, who went to Harvard at the age of 12, so to put that in plain language: to get some kind of an understanding of this map of how do we endure significant adversities in our lives. Because if we understand that maybe we are better able to understand human life and maybe help each other.

And William James also said that we rarely run far enough, or push ourselves enough, to realize that we have what he called “a second wind.” Like there is this extra power tank or something that gets ignited when we run far enough, and it’s something that only activates when we really need it. So this brought sisu to my mind and I was really excited to see whether understanding sisu a bit better could maybe add a little piece to this puzzle of this beautiful human experience, and maybe we could learn something through this.

So in 2012, I conducted a survey, and I wanted to understand the deepest essence of sisu like what is it really all about. So one of the main findings about sisu was this idea that it’s some kind of a extraordinary ability for this kind of action when you feel that you’ve reached the end of your physical or mental abilities. So it’s more about that than maybe striving for a long-term goal.