Adversities are a natural part of the human experience. We all face them but seem to have very little to say in the kind of form and shape they take and when they knock on our door. What is it that enables us to persevere and even thrive, not despite of hardships, but because of them?
Since I was a kid I have been fascinated by exploration and adventure. Immediately after getting my first proper bicycle, at the age of six, I took off to the vast unknown called the city Seinäjoki, and went missing for an entire day. First I was following a bee on my bike, then a little stream of water and finally, I was just speeding straight ahead. It was only when I reached a busy crossing that I stopped and realized it had got dark. I was cold, had lost my gloves and felt spooked being on the other side of the city all by myself. I turned back and somehow knew the way home. I was met with my teary-eyed mother at the door. She hugged me and said she was worried something had happened to me. I had no clue what could possibly have happened but I was happy to get the hugs. We went inside and the bike was left leaning next to a green trash bin.
The following night I could hardly sleep. I knew I would have to conquer that busy crossing. Back then it was the scariest thing I could imagine. And that’s exactly why I felt I needed to do it. In the years to come, as we all, I would come across so many other crossings, bridges and face way bigger challenges. These challenges would lead me to ask the big questions such as: “What enables some people to persevere extreme hardships, why doesn’t everyone survive and what can we learn from those who do?” Eventually, I would end up researching the gutsy mindsets that enable humans to take action against slim odds and transcend fear, pain and insecurity. Just like back in Seinäjoki, it would be my very mindset of courage sprinkled with curiosity that would keep on going after the answers. I knew there was strength within me that was more powerful than the obstacles that would come my way. Key takeaway: it is a potential we all share. If there is one message this post has, that was it.
Sisu is an age-old Finnish construct that denotes extraordinary determination and resoluteness in the face of extreme stress or adversity. It tells us that there’s more strength to each of us than meets the eye. Based on data I gathered from over 1000 people for my study, it contributes to what I call an action mindset: a consistent, courageous approach toward challenges, which at first seem to exceed our capacities. It is a ‘super power’ needed by anyone seeking to push the envelope and make a dent in the universe, as the late Silicon Valley pioneer Steve Jobs put it.
However, we are creatures of reason, driven by our instinct to survive and preserve the finite energy we have. In fact, humans constantly run mental simulations of their current situation and environment, in order to detect opportunities and especially possible threats. When we observe a challenge, it is only rational to back down. Staying in this place of equilibrium saves valuable energy to sustain life, but it also hinders the organism from the benefits which delving deeply into its resources can bring. In order to thrive, evolve and blaze new trails, we must step out to the unknown, and engage in activities, which stretch our mental reserves. In a world where we are not under a constant threat of death (last time I checked there were absolutely no saber toothed tigers in Palo Alto or even Helsinki) overriding our natural inclination for safety and security is sometimes needed. Cultivating our ability for curiosity and courage can help.
In addition to having the courage to act, having the courage to dream big and imagine possible futures is of key importance. It invokes visions of one´s future self and the potential worlds we can create. Indeed, if we dare to see beyond our present situation and capacity, we start to act and move toward our goals, pushing past our barriers. To expose the mind to a story is to prospect and imagine future scenarios and possibilities. One could say that all of the major developments of modern civilization have depended on a person or group of people’s ability to prospect possible futures, and to be bold enough to dream and go where no one has gone before. It is about taking a leap of faith, and trusting that when the moment comes we are able keep up the practice, stand behind our vision and push through the obstacles. In this, it is not only our sisu or bold imagination, but our surrounding culture and community that play a huge role.
Nothing great was ever created or achieved alone.
I’m excited beyond words to come back home to Tampere, where I used to study, and be part of the exciting Twinkle 2015 experience. I’ve already been touched by the energy of the organizers and everyone working to make this event a reality. I have no doubt whatsoever that together we’ll co-create a space where each and everyone of us can be crazy enough to dream big and bold enough to start reaching toward even the most seemingly impossible visions. Let’s get this show on the road! Go, Tampere!
“What we achieve inwardly will change outer reality.” Plutarch
Emilia Lahti is a positive psychology expert, a researcher and the co-founder of a Silicon Valley-based startup. She will talk about transforming barriers into frontiers and SISU at Twinkle 2015.