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Finland punches above its weight within the global economy. How has a country with a population lower than that of Minnesota given the world companies like Nokia, Rovio (developer of Angry Birds), Supercell (Clash of Clans) and elevator manufacturer KONE? It’s not just innovation either; Finland is a leader when it comes to education and social progress too. There isn’t something in the water in Finland, but there’s something that runs through our blood: “sisu,” a mindset that defines our national psyche and character. Think of it as Finland’s equivalent of the American dream.
It’s impossible to translate sisu into a single English word, but it loosely means strength of will, determination, perseverance, long-term thinking and acting rationally and with integrity in the face of adversity. It is about pushing your boundaries and approaching seemingly insurmountable challenges head-on, even if the odds appear firmly stacked against you.
Etymologically speaking, sisu comes from “sisus” which means “interior” and “entrails, guts”. This provides a glimpse into its true meaning, but it’s important to stress that there are differences between sisu and the likes of “guts” or even “grit”.
As Joanna Nylund, author of Sisu: The Finnish Art of Courage puts it: “Grit is what people employ when they get started doing something – the strength you need to leave a bad relationship, decide to lose weight – but Sisu is the extra fuel tank you didn’t know you had. The one you tap into when you’re already on your way and the going gets really hard. What you call on when you’re struggling to reach your goal, that’s when Sisu comes in.”
The history of sisu
Finland’s tough history and often brutal weather are to thank for sisu being ingrained through generations of Finnish people. Over the past 900 years, Finland overcame difficult times through sisu including the occupation by foreign forces such as Sweden and Russia. The need to dig in and practice the sisu philosophy was no greater than during World War II when 810,000 soldiers defended Finland in -40°F against 2,500,000 Soviet troops. This Herculean effort led to the New York Times to take notice in 1940, writing: “The Finns have something they call sisu. It is 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.”
While Sisu emboldened us to retain our independence on the battlefield, how can it be applied to other elements of life, both personal and professional? As a Finn who grew up with an encompassing awareness and respect of sisu and then traveled the world and experienced many diverse cultures, I have seen how even non-Finns can learn from its values.
Sisu in everyday life
A good way to introduce the sisu philosophy into your life is to integrate it within your everyday routines. Start small, such as try running that extra 30 minutes just as you begin to think your body can’t take much more, or dedicate time and energy every day to learn a new language. Even if you feel as though you aren’t making any progress, dig deeper and stay the course.
Just as you can alter, or “rewire” your brain in order to react more effectively to certain situations, you can slowly but surely implement sisu into your way of thinking so that it’s second nature to persevere through the most difficult, arduous situations. You subconsciously strive that extra bit to accomplish your goals, and that is a powerful ability to possess.
Sisu in business
Sisu has guided me throughout my career countless times. In the early stages of my company, it would take 40 prospective customer visits before securing our first client. A prominent individual in the Finnish business scene claimed that we should give up, that there was no future in this kind of concept. These were tough times, and many would have considered these setbacks as being demonstrative of a flaw in our value proposition. Rather than give up, sisu was the devil and angel that provided the determination and willingness to succeed.
It pushed me to think about winning not just during working hours, but also during the evenings and weekends as well. We Finns favor a “less talk, more action” approach – we try, and then try even harder, focusing solely on the solution that will beat the opposition. After all, there is no glory to be had in being a runner-up. So if something does not work at first, you need to do it differently and apply even more effort until you come out on top. Sometimes this process can literally last for years.
By challenging yourself against the odds, sisu can be the difference between securing investment from the VC you’ve been courting and not. It will force you to put in that extra 50% of effort day-in-day-out in order to hit your quarterly sales target. It can, as we have seen with so many successful Finnish companies, provide you with the determination to turn your startup or small business into a truly international business that makes a real difference to the world.
As a business leader, you’re going to take hits as you build something from scratch, but sisu teaches you to use these hits to your advantage. Successful people will always tell you to never give up, but at times of real despair and professional strife advice like that is meaningless. The leaders who succeed are those who, at their very core, understand that quitting is not an option worth considering as it’s not even on the table. It’s this inbuilt rejection of failure that encapsulates sisu. When the going gets tough, the sisu gets going.
March 6, 2019 at 05:46AM
Forbes – Entrepreneurs