Want to achieve your goals? The Finnish have a word for that.

Sisu is an ancient concept that is an integral part of Finland's national character.

man running an ultramarathon up a mountain
An ultra trailer walks past the Mont Blanc at La Flegere path on September 2, 2018 near Chamonix, as he competes during 170 km Mount Blanc Ultra Trail (UTMB) race around the Mont-Blanc, crossing France, Italy and Switzerland. (Photo by Jeff Pachoud/AFP/Getty Images)
  • Sisu is an important Finnish concept that helps natives tap into an "unexplored inner strength."
  • Researcher Emilia Lahti surveyed over 1,000 Finnish citizens to discover what the term means to them.
  • Lahti discovered her own sisu when completing 50 ultramarathons in 50 consecutive days to fight domestic violence.

For the second straight year, Finland was named the happiest country in the world in an annual publication produced by the United Nations Sustainable Development Solutions Network. The report monitors GDP, social support, healthy life expectancy ratings, as well as freedom to make life choices, generosity, and perceptions of corruption.

While reasons for the winning streak are many, one Finnish researcher points to sisu as a motivating factor in dominating this intriguing blend of individual and social achievements. In a new study at Aalto University in Greater Helsinki, doctoral student Emilia Lahti searched through 1,000 replies from her country mates about the meaning of this important concept.

"Sisu is a Finnish word that goes back hundreds of years and a quality that Finns hold dear but the phenomenon itself is universal. Taking a close look at the concept reminds us that, as humans, not only are we all vulnerable in the face of adversity but we share unexplored inner strength that can be accessed in adverse times."

Lahti relates the concept to extraordinary perseverance, an almost "magic" ability to push beyond perceived limitations to accomplish challenging tasks, ranging from running an ultra-marathon to beating cancer believed to be fatal. While an English equivalent is considered imperfect, notions of grit, gutsiness, and resilience come to mind.

TED Talk – Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi – Flow – 2004

This isn't the first time sisu has made its way into American consciousness. In 1940, Time wrote about it, calling it a "compound of bravado and bravery, of ferocity and tenacity, of the ability to keep fighting after most people would have quit, and to fight with the will to win." Relating wartime events in Finland to an American public, Time included the concept in coverage again in 1943 and 1952.

In June 2013, the 3rd World Congress on Positive Psychology included the concept of sisu for the first time, inviting Lahti to speak on the topic in Los Angeles. During the conference she noted that an "action mindset" is necessary; bravery without follow-through renders you impotent. Pushing through unbearable hardships has helped the Finnish collectively in overcoming invaders, yet it also helps individuals deal with emotional and physical issues.

The manifestation of sisu isn't about passion, though it can be involved at times. In fact, it might rely on the opposite, at least in the American sense of the term. You don't necessarily need to love the challenge in front of you—accomplishing seemingly outlandish goals is more perspiration than inspiration, as the sentiment goes—but you do need to pursue it with all of your being. This is where those embodying sisu thrive.

In describing this concept, I'm tempted to invoke flow, Hungarian-American psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi's concept of the highly focused mental states that distorts time and aids you in pushing past perceived boundaries. Yet the specificity of the neurochemical event might be too narrow to properly capture sisu. Flow states are actual events; sisu seems to be more the drive behind each event on your mission.

Perjantai-documentary: Emilia - Sisu not Silence

Another potential comparison is the placebo effect, an incredible yet often dismissed (or poorly understood) phenomenon. Humans achieve incredible feats simply through belief; it's how, for example, homeopathic "medicine" works (since no active ingredient is present). That our brains could stimulate our immune system to heal our body due to a belief that we're healing our body is one area of science that is desperately under-researched, yet it perfectly shows the intrinsic power of directed thought.

Sisu likely operates under such principles: the focused mind achieving the impossible. Magic need not apply. A conspiracy of forces working in your favor guided by the power of belief. In a world in which so many people talk about the power of thinking, it's incredible that we don't have enough faith in ourselves to actually believe it to be true—magic and metaphysics are convenient excuses for not facing the innate power of biology.

Lahti doesn't dwell on metaphysics; she relates sisu to having a "spare tank of gas." Benefits are derived from the adversity itself. Pushing beyond perceived limitations reminds me of American investor John Doerr's suggestion in Measure What Matters: "If you seek to achieve greatness, stretching for amazing is a great place to start."

Yet Doerr, an early investor in and advisor to Google, doesn't stop there. Quoting his old boss at Intel, Andy Grove, the first stretch is, well, only the first:

"In our business, we have to set ourselves uncomfortably tough objectives, and then we have to meet them. And then after ten milliseconds of congratulations we have to set ourselves another [set of] highly difficult-to-reach objects and we have to meet them. And the reward of having met one of these challenging goals is that you get to play again."

For Lahti, the concept is personal. As the video above documents, her goal of running 50 ultra-marathons in 50 days across New Zealand to speak out against domestic violence is certainly an inhuman goal—one she needed plenty of sisu to accomplish. Accomplish it she did, powered by her cultural legacy of sisu.

--

Stay in touch with Derek on Twitter and Facebook.

This is what aliens would 'hear' if they flew by Earth

A Mercury-bound spacecraft's noisy flyby of our home planet.

Image source: sdecoret on Shutterstock/ESA/Big Think
Surprising Science
  • There is no sound in space, but if there was, this is what it might sound like passing by Earth.
  • A spacecraft bound for Mercury recorded data while swinging around our planet, and that data was converted into sound.
  • Yes, in space no one can hear you scream, but this is still some chill stuff.

First off, let's be clear what we mean by "hear" here. (Here, here!)

Sound, as we know it, requires air. What our ears capture is actually oscillating waves of fluctuating air pressure. Cilia, fibers in our ears, respond to these fluctuations by firing off corresponding clusters of tones at different pitches to our brains. This is what we perceive as sound.

All of which is to say, sound requires air, and space is notoriously void of that. So, in terms of human-perceivable sound, it's silent out there. Nonetheless, there can be cyclical events in space — such as oscillating values in streams of captured data — that can be mapped to pitches, and thus made audible.

BepiColombo

Image source: European Space Agency

The European Space Agency's BepiColombo spacecraft took off from Kourou, French Guyana on October 20, 2019, on its way to Mercury. To reduce its speed for the proper trajectory to Mercury, BepiColombo executed a "gravity-assist flyby," slinging itself around the Earth before leaving home. Over the course of its 34-minute flyby, its two data recorders captured five data sets that Italy's National Institute for Astrophysics (INAF) enhanced and converted into sound waves.

Into and out of Earth's shadow

In April, BepiColombo began its closest approach to Earth, ranging from 256,393 kilometers (159,315 miles) to 129,488 kilometers (80,460 miles) away. The audio above starts as BepiColombo begins to sneak into the Earth's shadow facing away from the sun.

The data was captured by BepiColombo's Italian Spring Accelerometer (ISA) instrument. Says Carmelo Magnafico of the ISA team, "When the spacecraft enters the shadow and the force of the Sun disappears, we can hear a slight vibration. The solar panels, previously flexed by the Sun, then find a new balance. Upon exiting the shadow, we can hear the effect again."

In addition to making for some cool sounds, the phenomenon allowed the ISA team to confirm just how sensitive their instrument is. "This is an extraordinary situation," says Carmelo. "Since we started the cruise, we have only been in direct sunshine, so we did not have the possibility to check effectively whether our instrument is measuring the variations of the force of the sunlight."

When the craft arrives at Mercury, the ISA will be tasked with studying the planets gravity.

Magentosphere melody

The second clip is derived from data captured by BepiColombo's MPO-MAG magnetometer, AKA MERMAG, as the craft traveled through Earth's magnetosphere, the area surrounding the planet that's determined by the its magnetic field.

BepiColombo eventually entered the hellish mangentosheath, the region battered by cosmic plasma from the sun before the craft passed into the relatively peaceful magentopause that marks the transition between the magnetosphere and Earth's own magnetic field.

MERMAG will map Mercury's magnetosphere, as well as the magnetic state of the planet's interior. As a secondary objective, it will assess the interaction of the solar wind, Mercury's magnetic field, and the planet, analyzing the dynamics of the magnetosphere and its interaction with Mercury.

Recording session over, BepiColombo is now slipping through space silently with its arrival at Mercury planned for 2025.

Learn the Netflix model of high-performing teams

Erin Meyer explains the keeper test and how it can make or break a team.

Videos
  • There are numerous strategies for building and maintaining a high-performing team, but unfortunately they are not plug-and-play. What works for some companies will not necessarily work for others. Erin Meyer, co-author of No Rules Rules: Netflix and the Culture of Reinvention, shares one alternative employed by one of the largest tech and media services companies in the world.
  • Instead of the 'Rank and Yank' method once used by GE, Meyer explains how Netflix managers use the 'keeper test' to determine if employees are crucial pieces of the larger team and are worth fighting to keep.
  • "An individual performance problem is a systemic problem that impacts the entire team," she says. This is a valuable lesson that could determine whether the team fails or whether an organization advances to the next level.
Keep reading Show less
Photo by Martin Adams on Unsplash
Culture & Religion
She was walking down the forest path with a roll of white cloth in her hands. It was trailing behind her like a long veil.
Keep reading Show less
Scroll down to load more…
Quantcast