What is "Sisu" & How Can It Help You Build Inner Strength?

James Logie

Photo by mauro paillex on Unsplash

When you live in a harsh and cold climate, you need all the inner strength you can get.

The Finnish concept of Sisu is based on grit, bravery, and resistance — and we can all learn from it.

The people of Finland pride themselves on their Sisu, as it is all about having a stoic determinism.

We may call this perseverance, or “having a stiff upper lip” — but Sisu goes much deeper.

Let’s look at Sisu, what it is, and how you can use it for yourself to develop more inner strength.

How Long Has the Concept of Sisu Existed?

Sisu goes back hundreds of years and is one of the foundations of Finnish culture.

If you want to understand what the Fins are all about — this is the best way to understand them. Also, play hockey against them, too…

The people of Finland have always prided themselves to go beyond their own physical and mental capacity. Sisu sums up their people nicely in one word.

Sisu not only perfectly describes the Finnish, but it’s “the most wonderful of all their words.”

\It’s all about bravery, bravado, and ferocity. And that cold climate has a lot to do with it.

Sisu became popularized during the “Winter War.” The Winter War was when the Fins were invaded by the Soviet Union in 1939/40.

It was during this turbulent time period that Sisu rose to the forefront of what it truly means to be Finnish.

Time Magazine referred to this and pointed out that this “Sisu” displayed by the Fins was all about tenacity.

It revealed their relentlessness and ability to continue to fight after others would quit.

During the Winter War, the Fins were able to force the war into Russian territory.

At the same time, they withstood brutal attacks by a reinforced Russian army.

The Fins were able to get the upper hand as they could fight in the harsh winter conditions that slowed the Russians.

Breaking Down What Sisu Really Is

Sisu is the ultimate form of courage and reveals your true character.

Sisu is about what you do when your back is up against the wall and the odds are against you.

When you use Sisu, you stand your ground, stick to a course of action, and never back down.

No matter what type of odds you are up against — or the adversity you face — you don’t let it overcome you. This is Sisu in action.

But Sisu is not just about working hard — it’s about not backing down.

Sisu is all about displaying courage in the face of overwhelming adversity and those insurmountable odds.

Here is an example of Finnish success despite the odds against them.

Canada, Russia, and the US have dominated the hockey world for years. But the Fins have been slowly edging their way in.

In 2019, they won the IIHF World Championship.

This was considered a “mind over matter” win as nobody saw them beating Canada on opening day, then taking out Sweden and Russia in the finals.

Also in 2019, they beat Canada in the oldest tournament in the world — The Spengler Cup.

That same year, they won the World Junior Hockey Championship (the best players under 20). They also won it in 2016 and won bronze this year.

Their hockey achievements have continued to grow over the years. What’s remarkable is this is a country with only 5.5 million people.

Compare this to the 37 million in Canada, 144 million in Russia, and 328 million in the US — and it makes their achievements even more notable.

What Are Some Other Modern Examples of Sisu?

We can see the importance of Sisu in a military aspect — and in sports — but what about less violent settings? A great place to see Sisu in action has been in the tech world.

Many forget that one of the world's biggest phone companies — Nokia — is actually Finnish.

Despite the wireless phone market growing by leaps and bounds in the early 2000s, Nokia was able to hang in there.

The odds were stacked against them — but they kept up longer than expected.

Nokia faced constant obstacles as the cell phone market heated up in the mid-2000s.

Whereas other companies may have bowed out, Nokia displayed the guts that still kept them in the industry.

Nokia executives chalked this tenacity up to Sisu.

The CEO of Nokia noted how their Finnish quality allowed them to persevere and have endurance where other companies would falter.

Even though he’s not Finnish, we can see the traits that define Sisu in Steve Jobs. This is a man who refused to throw in the towel — ever.

His endurance, intensity, and relentlessness will go down in history. His mantra was to never give in, and “no” was never an option.

Steve Jobs is Sisu personified. Even when he was forced out of his own company, it only strengthened him.

He dug even deeper into his courage to persevere. He pushed forward, returned to the company he started, and made them one of the biggest companies in history.

Where Does Sisu Come From & How Do You Adopt It?

Sisu, again, comes back to those harsh Nordic winters. To survive in that environment takes the ultimate perseverance.

Think back to the pioneers and early settlers and wonder how they were able to make it through the winters.

If you live in a cold climate you at least have central heating and Netflix.

We have also seen Sisu to be a product of genetics, biology, psychological and social factors.

You may be born with some in you, and your environment can further develop it.

This means that the concept of Sisu can exist in anyone. Some people — like Steve Jobs — have this “never give up” mindset from the day they were born.

Sisu has been studied and acknowledged as being within the field of positive psychology.

Sisu, as a psychological power potential, was introduced for the first time in 2013 in Los Angeles at the 3rd World Congress on Positive Psychology.

It’s acknowledged as an “action mindset” which is a consistent and courageous approach towards challenges that at first seem to exceed our capacities.

They also state that it’s a “universal potential within all individuals.”

How Can Sisu Be Nurtured?

We all have the potential to harness Sisu. Some may be engrained in you, and some can come from growing up in an environment that fosters this approach.

If you don’t find yourself in an environment like this, you'll want to surround yourself with people who have those traits.

The more you are exposed to them, the more likely they will rub off on you.

This means getting out of your comfort zone. If you want to adopt it, you need to go find it. Team sports can be a great way to cultivate Sisu.

When you get a group of people together in a competitive environment, traits like this emerge.

In an environment like this, it becomes pretty easy to see who has resilience.

This gives you the opportunity to observe what it takes to persevere and try to emulate it.

The more people you expose yourself to, the more chances you have to find those who show traits of Sisu.

If you don’t have access to people like this, look for personalities and characters you want to emulate.

This can be characters in a TV show, certain celebrities, even people giving inspirational TED talks.

The point is, the more you expose yourself to something, the more likely it is to rub off on you.

When it comes to building inner strength, you need to constantly see it in action if you are to adopt it for yourself.

To Adopt Sisu, You Need to Retrain the Way You Think

Your brain is like a muscle and it requires repetition to develop and get stronger.

When you can change the narrative in your mind, you can change the way you respond and act.

This can be as simple as “acting as if.” Even if you don't always feel it, act as if you’re not capable of giving up. Act as if you can always overcome.

When you continue to act as if it eventually becomes your default way of thinking.

You need to catch yourself every time you doubt or second-guess yourself. Remember, it’s just your mind telling you these things.

It’s hard to ignore the negative self-talk in our minds because we are bombarded with it from our environment and culture.

We are constantly told we aren’t good enough, and it’s time to block that message.

Just like you would block a troll on social media, you need to block those thoughts from penetrating your mind.

You can do this by nipping those thoughts in the bud and changing the conversation.

The more you do this, the better you become at stopping those thoughts before they even enter your mind.

Final Thoughts

No matter what conditions or environment you find yourself in, we all have the potential for Sisu.

It helps if you are born with the predisposition for it, but it can still be a learned behavior.

It means being consistent with who you surround yourself with and exposing yourself to those who show perseverance and tenacity.

Over time, you can learn Sisu for yourself, and build the inner strength that can help you handle everything that life throws at you.

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Personal trainer, podcaster, Amazon best-selling author. Writing about some health, a little marketing, and a whole lot of 1980s.


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