Here is the full transcript of positive psychology expert Emilia Lahti’s TEDx Talk: Sisu: Transforming Barriers into Frontiers at TEDxTurku.
Listen to the MP3 Audio here: Sisu – transforming barriers into frontiers by Emilia Lahti at TEDxTurku
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.
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.
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.
But the thing is that sisu is nothing new to you if you’ve encountered adversities in your life. It’s just that you might have not had a word for it. And we could say that future is first an idea, or it’s a story that we tell each other. So as long as we don’t have a word for some phenomena or a construct, we sometimes fail to tap into its potential that it withholds.
So we are a sense-making species, and we try to understand the events in our lives through these constructs, and we pass on knowledge through using the stories. And we also learn and we find meaning in our lives through reflecting on these stories. So I found sisu through this similar self-reflective process, I found sisu through my struggle. And what I am doing today is it all began as this one woman’s quest to make some sense of what had happened and how she somehow survived.
So after a while I realized, though, that whatever I was doing in trying to figure my own shit out, was actually helping other people as well. And that was a wonderful discovery, how you can see people come together when we inspire each other, because we are all in this together. So as a result of that, I quit my job, which I had for a very long time, and I went back to school and studied psychology, which always was my first love. And I wanted to see what we could possibly do with this thing. And today, this sisu and the topics around it is really the reason why I wake up each morning.
So with my amazing team at Filosofian Akatemia, we are really excited to bring sisu to the world because there is so much amazing potential in it. So next year will be ‘the Year of Sisu’ globally, and February 28th will be the ‘Day of Sisu’ in Finland, which is actually already in our calendars; if you check you will find it.
And the reason why we are doing this is because we all share collectively adversities, we all encounter them. But what we also share is this amazing ability to overcome them. And that’s in the core of this idea of the ‘Year of Sisu’ to inspire people to transform those barriers into frontiers that they are facing, and more importantly, to support each other in this process, to see that the strength within them is stronger than the adversities that we often encounter.
Since sisu is such a powerful thing it’s important to remind that we shouldn’t be fooled to think that it’s the only thing we need, and sisu alone. Just push hard; that’s it. To answer the question what enabled me to go through my own experiences was definitely yes, I had sisu. I kept on showing up for life, and I didn’t give up, although I felt like doing so many times. But there is one thing which just cannot be left unsaid, and it’s that I had someone who believed in me before I believed in myself, and who saw this angel in that raw piece of marble before I saw it, and who also stuck around long enough to discover it. That person is my best friend and now husband.
So we have an immense power to open doors for each other and also close them through our actions, through our gestures, through our words. And I believe that when sisu, this inner amazing, beautiful power that we have, when that is met with social support, compassion, and love, there are very few things that are impossible to us.
And this sculpture here is one of my favorite ones. It was created to celebrate triumph over a massive sea battle. It depicts the goddess Nike, “Nike” meaning victory. And she is over two and half meters tall and 2,000 years old. And one of the most beautiful, moving things about this sculpture for me, and why it is my favorite, is that, despite this significant damage and incompleteness this sculpture is one of the most celebrated and valued masterpieces of our human history. And I believe that’s something that we can transport to our daily lives. How, if we see each other, despite some imperfections, some bumps, but with that potential and beauty, maybe we can help create a world where we are able to heal, and flourish, and exceed ourselves.
So I strongly believe that there is so much more to us than what meets the eye, and I’m not just talking about carbon atoms, but I’m talking about this other kind of life-giving ingredient called sisu. I believe that if we acknowledge and we celebrate this amazing potential within all of us, this universal potential which goes beyond cultural boundaries and geographical boundaries, if we include sisu in our collective conversation of our future, maybe, not only are we able to empower individuals here and there but perhaps, we are able to bring this human family a bit closer together. And that, I believe, is an idea worth sharing.