Sisu

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If you hang around Finnish people long enough (five minutes or so), you're bound to hear them talk about SisuSisu is a Finn term that is central to who we Finns are and what we're about, but it's challenging to define.  Here is Wikipedia's best attempt: "stoic determination, grit, bravery, guts, resilience, perseverance and hardiness."  The thing is, it's even more than that.  It's about taking action in the face of adversity.  It's about rising up and moving forward and keeping at it despite setbacks.  As noted later in that article, it's "a consistent, courageous approach toward challenges which at first seem to exceed our capacities."

Unfortunately, Sisu isn't sold in stores unless you count the multivitamins by that name, which I suspect, while helpful, don't really do the job.  Rather, Sisu is that inner strength that you tap into, or try to, when shit gets real.  I would argue that it's something you're born with, Finn or otherwise, although it sometimes feels elusive.  

To my mind, there are some important things that Sisu is not. 

Sisu is not infallibility. It doesn't mean that every move you make is the right one.  It means that you see setbacks as an opportunity for a running start to your relaunch.

Sisu is also not unflappability.  It is not about steeling yourself, grinning and bearing it, nor is it about denying the struggle and all the bad feelings and experiences that struggle brings.  It's about carrying on in spite of them.

Sisu is not a limited resource.  It is your full potential and the source of all you are capable of accomplishing and overcoming, which is more than you think.  It is always there.  Sometimes you have to dig deep, but it is there. 

As an imperfectly translated concept, the quality of Sisu is the topic of pretty animated discussion amongst academics and, I imagine, Finns who like their vodka.  I belong to the school of thought that Sisu is something that you can cultivate: that there are ways you can strengthen the pathway to this wellspring of grit and determination to improve ease of access for when you need it the most.  I've been thinking about how to do just that and these are a few of the techniques I'm trying:

  • Be still.  I think Sisu is what's left when all else falls away.  It's that quiet voice that whispers "You got this" and sometimes you need to be still for awhile, away from distractions, so you can listen for it. 
     
  • Sit with it.  Once you've sensed the Sisu within you, sit with it awhile.  Get familiar with how it feels to be strong and capable, so you'll recognize that feeling within you when you most need to, even when the signal is weak.
     
  • Trace the story of the Sisu within you.  This is really more of that cognitive behavioural therapy technique I've talked about before that involves examining the evidence.  Think about the times when you've thought you couldn't go on...and then you did.  Once you get to thinking about it, you'll likely find that there have been a lot of times in your life when your Sisu has carried you through.  And if it was there for you then, it is here for you now.
     
  • Find inspiration in others.   Sisu is what my great-grandmother surely drew upon when she travelled across the ocean with two young children (one of whom was sick) to follow her husband to Canada, a new home she knew nothing of, knowing she would likely never again see the family and friends she left behind.  When I feel like I can't keep going, I think of her and I remind myself that her blood flows through my veins, that her Sisu is my own.
     
  • Strengthen your Sisu.  Think about other sources of strength in your life.   These could be family or friends you love, motivational quotes or stories that inspire you, leaders or mentors who you look up to, or articulated goals that you're working toward that keep you focused.  Consider keeping physical reminders of these sources of strength close at hand (i.e. photos of your loved ones, post-it note quotes, an illustration or magazine clipping that reminds you of your goal).  For me, the two greatest sources of strength in my life are my daughters; they are the reasons I dig deep to call up my inner strength and keep going. It is appropriate, then, that my daughter wrote the word Sisu for me to include on my inspiration wall (above).  Every time I look at it, I'm reminded that I possess a fiery Sisu of my own, and my little one and her big sister fan that flame.

(You know when you've said or written a word so many times that it begins to sound weird?  I think we're there.  Sisusisusisusisu.)

Ultimately, Sisu is not about being so strong that you never fall down but, rather, about getting back up when you do.  Chumbawumba really knew what they were talking about.  

As do the Finns, so you should really listen to me/them.  And you know what else will probably happen if you hang around Finnish people?  You'll be fed Finnish pancakes the size of your FACE.  

Hold up - Sisu may just be the power of pancakes.  Disregard all of the above.