Sisu – Finding Strength in Extreme Adversity

July 20, 2016 Katharina Lochner

How do humans persevere in the face of extreme adversity?

This question Emilia Lahti asked herself after going through extremely difficult times herself. Being from Finland, she recalled the Finnish concept of Sisu and started exploring it. Sisu refers to extraordinary determination and resoluteness in the face of extreme adversity. It is an action mindset or life philosophy that is useful when tackling extremely challenging tasks or tasks that might seem to be beyond one’s capacity.

On the website Creativitypost she writes that “A person with an action mindset will (1) sign up for a seemingly impossible task (2), stand up for what is right despite potential harm or even danger (3), persevere against all possible odds, and (4) hold on to the slimmest thread of hope and start anew from scratch”. As already mentioned it is a term and a concept that comes from Finland, however, as Emilia Lahti says, it applies to everyone on this planet since all of us can end up in the situation where we don’t see a silver lining, but jump into the storms anyway and strive through the situation.

The concept seems to be closely related to grit, or passion and perseverance over a long period of time. Perseverance in turn is striving for a long-time goal. Resilience, or the ability to grow in the face of adversity, is also related, but Sisu is maybe more the path to resilience. In contrast to grit, Sisu is not about passion because in a situation that requires Sisu we are in a place where we don’t want to be. It pushes us beyond the boundary and gives rise to an action mindset. Sisu is maybe the agent or bridge between this moment and the next one and that connects all the other concepts. It is about making sense from what has happened. And it also has an altruistic component: While we are working our way out of our own problems we help others as well.

How does all this apply to work life, you might ask yourself now. An article on Business Insider sheds light into this question: It is nothing desirable, but it is very likely we also face adversity in our work lives. We might lose our jobs because the company downsizes, goes bankrupt, or because someone considers us to be too old or not productive enough. Or it might simply be that we don’t make the career we wanted. We worked extremely hard to get a certain job or to be promoted and then someone else gets it. Projects that we pursued with all our lifeblood might not work out. Or we might be in a situation where there is severe bullying at our workplace. So there are many things that can happen, and Sisu will help us deal with them.

In order to cultivate Sisu, Emilia Lahti gives three recommendations:

  • Run long distances since it helps you push yourself.
  • Recall times when you needed Sisu to persevere since this will give you the confidence that you can also overcome the difficulties you are currently facing.
  • Find others who needed Sisu and use them as role models.

Sisu is a mindset from Finland that all of us can cultivate and use to deal with extreme adversity.

About the Author

Katharina Lochner

Dr Katharina Lochner is the former research director for the cut-e Group which was acquired by Aon in 2017. Katharina is now a researcher and lecturer at the University of Applied Sciences Europe in Iserlohn, Germany. In her role at cut-e, she applied the research in organizational and work psychology to real-world assessment practice. She has a strong expertise in the construction and evaluation of online psychometric tools.

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