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.
And at the same time, the thing that rose up was that sisu also seemed to render itself different from these other psychological capacities that we have. For example, resilience refers to the dynamic process of positive adaptation to a difficult situation. In the core of resilience is this idea to bounce back, start anew, get your head back above the surface. And I was thinking that sisu is more like something that acts as a pathway to this. So before you get head back above the surface, you need to sometimes fight some really strong undercurrents to get there, and sisu is something that helps us fight first, and then we can continue where we left.
And perseverance is striving for a long-term goal and not giving up even though you have obstacles along the way, so you have your eyes fixed on something. And grit that Angela researches is perseverance infused with zest and passion. And with sisu it’s not so much about passion. Sisu is really about when you are in that place where you feel that there is nowhere to go, it’s you’ve reached the end of every possible single capacity, or you might be at the wrong place. You’re too short, you’re too slow, something, and even people around you are saying that you shouldn’t go there; you are not up for it.
And sisu is that something that pushes us beyond the boundaries. So in short, you could say that sisu is more about the short term intensity in that moment, and not so much about the long-term stamina. So this is a very important distinction. And sisu also — at the same time when it’s this power capacity, it also seems to give rise to what I call ‘an action mindset.’
So an action mindset is this consistent, courageous approach toward challenges. It’s so beautiful to think that if this represents your opportunities and the limitations of the current moment, so there is something that evokes this vision of you in the future where you might be able to go if you dare to reach. So there is something that elicits hope in sisu what is one of the most exciting things to me about this construct, honestly.
But at the same time, as you can see from my slide, it’s kind of scattered around. And I was trying to find a way to describe sisu in a way that would pull everything together because it seems to be so multilayered and so nuanced, and so extraordinary. And one evening when I was watching Cosmos, I started thinking that, well, actually, I realized that maybe the solution to this is right in front of my eyes, exactly. I thought of the carbon atom and how carbon is this unique, otherworldly amazing atom because it’s the only thing that’s able to bond with up to four atoms at the same time and with itself. So in that way, it creates some kind of a system which enables the bigger entity to function.
So if you look at this molecular diagram you can see that maybe, sisu is like the carbon atom would be in this diagram. Something that is this life-enabling agent or creative power. Something that helps build a bridge between this moment and the next one. I think that’s one of the core ideas, and why I feel like sisu could be something that could help us maybe see we can use that in the future to empower people.