Sisu – Developing courage in the Face of Adversity

“When life gets tough, the tough get going.” This timeless proverb may be true for some but, for others, hardship can be too much to overcome. When the going gets tough, their life simply falls apart. What is it exactly that separates those who thrive regardless of adversity and those who don’t? Is it genetics, luck, or pure willpower?

Consider that Nelson Mandela spent 27 years in prison before he became the first democratically elected president in South Africa. Abraham Lincoln failed in business, had a nervous breakdown, and was defeated eight times in elections before becoming president.
Oprah Winfrey was born into poverty in rural Mississippi to a teenage single mother and later raised in an inner-city Milwaukee neighborhood. She experienced considerable hardship during her childhood, saying she was raped at age nine and became pregnant at 14; her son died in infancy.

Einstein is currently known as the “father of modern physics.” That’s a pretty big title for someone who couldn’t get into college right away. Einstein was no child prodigy; his grades were poor, his focus in the classroom was sporadic, and when he first tried to get into college, he failed the entrance exam. Nevertheless, Einstein eventually graduated and developed some of the most important scientific theories of the modern world, which still form the fundamental basis for modern physics. Even if you aren’t familiar with the scientific value of his work, you know his name–it’s synonymous with scientific intelligence.

For most people, getting rejected from college would seem like the end of the road. An optimistic handful might think that a career in science is still possible. But Einstein blew those assumptions away and became not just a great scientist, but one of the greatest scientists that ever lived. Remember that the next time you’re faced with rejection.

Thomas Edison is often named as an example of why failure shouldn’t stop you from trying; different estimates purport that he built 100 to 1,000 light bulbs before he found one that worked. But James Dyson is a modern-day Edison who experimented even more before eventually finding success. For 15 years, James Dyson tried–and failed–to build a better vacuum cleaner, scrapping a reported 5,127 prototypes in total. But still, Dyson insisted that each prototype brought him one step closer to perfection, and today he’s a billionaire.

When you buy a stunning new product, you don’t get to see the countless ugly, unfinished versions that came before it. No matter how hard you work at your first draft, it’s probably going to end up looking terrible, so don’t get discouraged. Keep working at it, and eventually, even if it takes you 5,000 tries, you’ll get something great.

These examples are extreme, but they demonstrate the different routes people may choose when facing major obstacles. 
I have a clear memory from my childhood growing up in Kenya, where we slept many nights without lunch and dinner because there was food, we were very poor compared to many neighbors. I wore my first shoe when I was in grade 7. But all this did not discourage or stop me from dreaming, my mama always reminded me that where you start is not where your story ends.

As I write this I am aware that there many readers reading this and are probably going through some tough times. I have some encouragement for you. DO NO LOSE HOPE. If things get really bad, you’ll certainly benefit from following the Finnish philosophy of sisu. This principle can be roughly described in English as having a backbone and courage. However, sisu is more than just that. Sisu is an almost mystical concept that means being a hero of your own story. As Winston Churchill once said, if you’re going through hell, you should keep going! Sisu is a life-saving principle. No matter what happens to you, the best thing you can do is stay strong and remain hopeful.

Without warning, Soviet Union planes came roaring over the city of Helsinki, Finland on November 30, 1939. Finland was about to receive a violent shove into World War II.

The Soviets dropped more than 350 bombs during the raid. Innocent civilians died. Entire buildings were turned to dust. And it was just the beginning. Three hours before the air strike, more than 450,000 Soviet soldiers began marching across the Finnish border. The Soviet soldiers outnumbered the Finnish army almost 3-to-1. That wasn’t the worst of it. The Soviets also commanded more than 6,000 armored tanks and almost 4,000 aircraft. Finland, meanwhile, had just 32 tanks and 114 aircraft. 

It was the beginning of what became known as the Winter War. For the Finns, there was no question whether some of them would die. The question was whether any of them would survive.

The Winter War

The winter was brutal that year. In January, temperatures dropped to 40 degrees below zero. Furthermore, at that time of the year and with Finland being located so far north, the soldiers were surrounded by darkness for almost 18 hours per day. Vastly outnumbered, fighting in a brutally cold darkness, and facing near-certain death, the Finnish soldiers relied on a concept that has been part of Finnish culture for hundreds of years: Sisu.

Sisu is a word that has no direct translation, but it refers to the idea of continuing to act even in the face of repeated failures and extreme odds. It is a way of living life by displaying perseverance even when you have reached the end of your mental and physical capacities. During the Winter War, the extreme mental toughness of Sisu was all the Finnish soldiers could rely on.

The Finns would suffer more than 70,000 casualties during the Winter War. But that number would pale in comparison to the 323,000 Soviet casualties during that same time. By the end of winter, the Soviets had seen enough. The Moscow Peace Treaty was signed in March 1940. In total, the Soviets had attacked with over 900,000 soldiers during the Winter War. By the end, 300,000 Finns had managed to fight them to a standstill. 

Emilia Lahti, a PhD candidate at Aalto University in Helsinki and former student of Angela Duckworth at University of Pennsylvania, studies the concept of Sisuand how it applies to our lives. According to Lahti, “Sisu is the concept of taking action in the face of significant adversity or challenge. It is not so much about achievement as it is about facing your challenges with valor and determination.” She goes on to say, “Sisu provides the final empowering push, when we would otherwise hesitate to act.” 

In many ways, Sisu is similar to grit, which has been shown to be one of the best predictors of success in the real world.  Sisu runs even deeper than grit. It is a type of mental toughness that allows you to bear the burden of your responsibilities, whatever they happen to be, with a will and perseverance that is unbreakable. It is the ability to sustain your action and fight against extreme odds. Sisu extends beyond perseverance. It is what you rely on when you feel like you have nothing left. In many ways, Sisu is similar to grit, which has been shown to be one of the best predictors of success in the real world. Sisu is a life-saving concept in situations of survival. This can mean a life-threatening situation, or simply staying strong when life throws you a curveball. Whether it is trouble at work or personal life, adapting sisu is all about adopting an attitude of never giving up or giving in. No matter what comes your way, it will help you see hope, stay strong, and persevere against all odds.

Sisu most often focuses on getting through today instead of making long-term goals. It is like getting the ‘second-wind’ when running out of energy. Sisu is what happens when all other sources of motivation are depleted, yet, it is an unbreakable and unstoppable force.

At the same time, sisu implies that you keep fighting through the obstacles while also maintaining humility and integrity. It is a combination of physical endurance, mental acuity, and emotional intelligence.

Sisu is a life-saving concept in situations of survival. This can mean a life-threatening situation, or simply staying strong when life throws you a curveball. Whether it is trouble at work or personal life, adapting sisu is all about adopting an attitude of never giving up or giving in. No matter what comes your way, it will help you see hope, stay strong, and persevere against all odds.

In the deeper sense, Sisu allows you to go through the ascension process regardless of the odds stacked against you. In a sense, it is akin to the hand of Providence itself helping you along the road of life no matter what the outside world tries to place in the way of your higher purpose.

Whether we like it or not, adversity is part of life. Overcoming adversity is one of the biggest hurdles we face. 

As Havelock Ellis wrote, “Pain and death are part of life. To reject them is to reject life itself.” Problems, large and small, present themselves to us throughout our whole existence.

Regardless of how sharp, clever, or happy-go-lucky we are, we will encounter struggle, challenges, difficulties and at times, heart wrenching moments. Is this meant to be a negative, cynical assessment of what we have to look forward to? In any adversity we can build sisu in ourselves to meet any adversity.

Stay in the present moment – Don’t create extra problems that don’t exist yet by looking into the future or mulling on past regrets. Staying in the present means we focus on the problem as it is rather than how we think it might be

As a result, we don’t needlessly exaggerate problems. Doing so rarely helps and instead paralyses our desire to take action.

Of course, this does not mean problems can’t be horrendous or extremely tough to manage. We’ll grieve, cry, become angry and curse the gods for leaving us here. 

However, this cannot be the only thing we do. 

Make a choice to take action. When the Finnish were fighting, they had to make the conscious decision that they were going to do something about it. This is important. While we’re likely to think we’re going to do something, often times, we do just that. Think about it and never move forward. 

It’s much easier to think about how you’re going to handle something difficult indefinitely by getting stuck in the loop of justifying yourself. Never facing the fear of completing what you set out to do. Sometimes it’s best to let the fear pass but in these difficult situations when Sisu is needed, the cloud of fear may never leave you reveal a clear sky. You jump into the storm anyway. 
We all experience failure, but mentally tough people realize that failure is an event, not their identity. Sisu.

The Tips For Overcoming Adversity

Be aware of, and accept that adversity is inevitable in life. As has already been pointed out, adversity is part of life. To avoid or resist it will only make it persist. Everywhere you look in the world there is unmistakable struggle. There are floods, tsunamis, wars, and calamities of all types. Even within your own circle of family and friends there is death, loss and tragedy. Although pain is inevitable, suffering is optional. So what do you do?

Build your internal resources. Before adversity hits, work on cultivating emotional strength, courage and discipline. When you make yourself aware that certain difficulties are inevitable, you can prepare yourself mentally for confronting adversity head-on. It would be no different than a warrior going to battle. He (or she) prepares himself physically and mentally for any possibility. He knows it could be ugly, daunting, and grueling, but he is equipped. More often than not, when you’re prepared for the worst, the worst never happens, or it’s much less severe than anticipated. Another invaluable inner resource is faith. Faith that everything will work out; faith that there is always light at the end of the tunnel, and faith that “this too shall pass.” Everything in life has its place and purpose.

Have faith

It takes more energy to live a life full of fear than to live one full of faith. To fear is to convince yourself to live in the walls you build yourself. To have faith is to convince yourself to embrace change. You can either live in faith or live in fear; however, faith and fear cannot coexist. When your desire to overcome becomes greater than your fear, you’ll overcome adversity naturally. Fear will always attempt to immobilize you, while faith is designed to energize you. It turns out that overcoming obstacles provides an unexpected motivational boost, pushing you to deliver more than is expected. The stakes are higher but so are the rewards.

Limit complaining

Life can seriously suck sometimes. There are a multitude of barriers we might face. It ranges from eating spicy food, wiping your eyes with chili covered hands, crying then realizing you have no tissues to being in a violent spiral of debt. Endless complaining, no matter how justified it seems, prevents anything from happening and gives us reasons to complain even more. Much like venting our anger, complaining might become an enjoyable thing to do even if we can’t admit that to ourselves.

Be an obstacle pioneer:Brian Chesky, cofounder of Airbnb, is a self-confessed failure pioneer who equally credits obstacles as part of his leadership development. He writes in his personal blog: “If you want to understand Airbnb, you have to understand our beginnings. Our story started with a problem that those struggling financially know well. In October of 2007, my roommate Joe Gebbia and I were living in a San Francisco apartment, and we couldn’t afford rent. That weekend, an international design conference was coming to town, and all of the hotels were sold out. So we had an idea: why not turn our place into a bed and breakfast for the conference? We inflated airbeds and called it the AirBed & Breakfast.”

Today, Airbnb stands at the forefront of the sharing economy with more than 20 million people using its service and winning Inc. magazine’s “Company of the Year” title. If Chesky and his cofounders had given up at the first major obstacle, there would be no Airbnb.

Eat Problems for Breakfast: You are bound to fail occasionally. In failure are life’s little secrets: you cannot learn to ride a bike by reading how to ride one. James Dyson produced more than 5,000 failed prototypes before he invented his bestselling Dyson Air Vacuum. Embrace failure as your biggest teacher. It’s a vital part of the process of growing as a human being. A real failure is when you make a mistake and don’t fix it quickly and start over. The formula for success isn’t a mystery. It’s a conscious choice to learn from failure. Each wrong choice builds character and strengthens your mindset for the next challenge. Stephen Rapoport, founder of Pact Coffee, started Failboat by gathering startup founders around a table to discuss their failures and what they had learned. In an interview in the Sunday Times, he says: “I’m absolutely convinced you learn an awful lot more when you get things wrong than when you get things right. When you get things right, you don’t know whether you’ve got them completely right. When you get things wrong, you know where the line is.” Rapoport continues: ‘‘We have two modes: success and learning. I don’t look at learning as a failure, as long as you don’t repeat the same mistakes over and over. If you’re scared to fail, you will find it hard to make decisions, you will slow down and you won’t want to push yourself. In other words, if you’re not failing at all, you may not be trying hard enough.”

Take inspiration and learn from others who have dealt successfully with adversity. There are many inspiring stories of people who overcame seemingly insurmountable odds. They triumphed over their adversities to live successful, productive lives instead of surrendering to it.

Here are some examples:

Helen Keller: Lost her sight and hearing due to a mysterious fever when she was only 18 months old. She overcame her deafness and blindness to become a strong, educated woman who spoke about, and promoted, women’s rights. 

Winston Churchill: Overcame a stuttering problem and poor performance in school to become Prime Minister of the United Kingdom and one of the most influential political leaders of the twentieth century. He was also known for his powerful and rousing speeches.

Wilma Rudolph: The Olympian born prematurely, the 20th of 22 children. She overcame double pneumonia, scarlet fever and polio to become winner of three Gold medals in track at the 1960 Rome Olympic Games.

J.K. Rowling: Born to a poor family; left a bad marriage with a young baby to live on government assistance; wrote her first Harry Potter book and was turned down by most publishers until Bloomsbury Publishing picked it up. Need I say more?

Determination, resilience, and persistence enabled all of these great people to push past their adversities and prevail. If they could do it, surely the rest of us can summon the strength and courage to do overcome our adversities!

Ralph Waldo Emerson once famously wrote “Our greatest glory is not in never failing, but in rising up every time we fail.” Adversities are an unavoidable, universal part of the human experience. Striving to achieve meaningful goals, pursuing our purpose or standing up for our values are acts which often involve enduring numerous failures. Furthermore, we may face unexpected hardships and trauma, which take us to the very edge of our existence.

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