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.
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.