If 2020 has taught us anything, it’s that most people are capable of handling far more than they thought. During the past few months, many of us have experienced unprecedented changes to our work, home and social lives. And just when you think you there’s no possible way of taking on another single thing, something happens, and somehow we manage. But at the same time, six months into the year, it’s getting to be a lot. That’s why it’s the ideal time to learn about the Finnish concept of “sisu.” Here’s what it means and how it can help.
What is ‘sisu’?
If you’re looking for an exact English translation of sisu, you’re not going to find it here (or anywhere). In fact, an article published on January 14, 1940 in the New York Times under the headline: “Sisu: A word that explains Finland” notes that the word “is not easily translated, because no other language has its precise equivalent.”
Probably the closest we’ll get to a definition of sisu is found in Joanna Nylund’s 2018 book “Sisu: The Finnish Art of Courage.” According to Nylund, this “action-oriented mindset” has been around for at least 500 years, and can refer to “stoic determination, hardiness, courage, bravery, willpower, tenacity and resilience.”
And here’s a helpful description of sisu from Finlandia University:
Sisu is not momentary courage, but the ability to sustain that courage. It is a word that cannot be fully translated. It defines the Finnish people and their character. It stands for the philosophy that what must be done will be done, regardless of cost.
Sisu is an inherent characteristic of the Finnish people. You might call it backbone, spunk, stamina, guts, or drive and perseverance. It is a measure of integrity that surpasses the hardship and sees through to the end.
Sisu is the quality that lets them pick up, move on, and learn something from previous failures. It’s the hard-jawed integrity that makes them pay their war debts in full. In short, it’s the indomitable will that sets Finns apart and explains many of the incredible things they do.
How to apply ‘sisu’
Given that this is a pretty broad concept that can take be applied to almost all aspects of life, there isn’t a straightforward sisu checklist. But throughout her book, Nylund does provide readers with sisu-based tips to help you use actions and strength to overcome obstacles. For example, her “top tips to help you recharge” are to:
1. Truly disconnect
2. Embrace the silence
3. Schedule alone time
She also provides some “top tips for getting back to nature,” which are to:
1. Think low-key
2. Think know-how
3. Think preparation.
Getting into the mindset of thinking of failures and mistakes as learning opportunities and chances to improve is an important part of sisu. At the same time, though, this combination of resilience and integrity could also have another side to it; namely, stubbornness and hesitation for showing weakness or asking for help when you need it, a BBC article explains. The key to avoiding this and using sisu to your advantage, Emilia Lahti, a researcher of sisu from Aalto University in Helsinki tells the BBC, is combining sisu with compassion for yourself and others.