Sisu – Developing Mental Toughness in the Face of Adversity

Sisu – Developing Mental Toughness in the Face of Adversity

Psychology August 10, 2016 / By Improving Slowly
Sisu – Developing Mental Toughness in the Face of Adversity

Life without any adversity will be a life without any progress. We have this idea that we become better despite our problems but what if we become better because of them?

World War Two. 30th November 1939.

The Finnish had a slight problem. 

The Soviet Union invaded Finland with a total of one million troops to the fins’ 300 thousand. 4000 planes to their 114. 2500 tanks to their 32. Being outnumbered 3 to 1 in war isn’t only near insurmountable, it is guaranteed death.  

Seeing no silver lining – they jumped into the storm anyway. 


This term, Sisu, doesn’t have a direct translation into English. Emilia Lahti, in her remarkable TED-talk, explains that it can be seen as “extraordinary determination and resoluteness in the face of extreme adversity”. 

Sisu is an interesting term because it is almost like the final boost we have when we feel like we’re breaking down in front of a problem. I’d liken it to getting a blue shell in Mario Kart but that’s disgraceful – Sisu is not. It’s remarkable. 

And much like those Finnish warriors, we all have it. 

The Winter War presented the Finnish soldiers with the biggest challenge they will ever have to face. A Goliath knocked on their door and demanded they surrender. Finland refused. The Goliath barged in and chose to take it by force. Again, Finland stood its ground. 

How do you approach such problems with high morale instead of feeling defeated? 

How do you keep on going when failure is the only thing inviting itself in?

What do you do when you’ve reached the end of your capabilities?


"Extraordinary determination in the face of extreme adversity"

How do we utilise Sisu?

Stay in the present moment – Don’t create extra problems that don’t exist yet by looking into the future or mulling on past regrets. Staying in the present means we focus on the problem as it is rather than how we think it might be

As a result, we don’t needlessly exaggerate problems. Doing so rarely helps and instead paralyses our desire to take action.

Of course, this does not mean problems can’t be horrendous or extremely tough to manage. We’ll grieve, cry, become angry and curse the gods for leaving us here. 

However, this cannot be the only thing we do. 

Make a choice to take action. When the Finnish were fighting, they had to make the conscious decision that they were going to do something about it. This is important. While we’re likely to think we’re going to do something, often times, we do just that. Think about it and never move forward. 

It’s much easier to think about how you’re going to handle something difficult indefinitely by getting stuck in the loop of justifying yourself. Never facing the fear of completing what you set out to do. Sometimes it’s best to let the fear pass but in these difficult situations when Sisu is needed, the cloud of fear may never leave you reveal a clear sky. You jump into the storm anyway. 

Becoming a person of action when faced with problems fills us with great confidence and shows us that we’re often able to handle it much more than we could have ever imagined. 

If you do these two things, a few benefits follow. 

1. We limit complaining

Life can seriously suck sometimes. There are a multitude of barriers we might face. It ranges from eating spicy food, wiping your eyes with chili covered hands, crying then realising you have no tissues to being in a violent spiral of debt. 

Endless complaining, no matter how justified it seems, prevents anything from happening and gives us reasons to complain even more. Much like venting our anger, complaining might become an enjoyable thing to do even if we can’t admit that to ourselves.

2. We regain confidence

Remembering Sisu helps us realise that we have more power over our problems than at first thought. When our intense effort and determination pays off, we’ll only have ourselves to thank. 

3. We remember that these are very human problems

This is one of those things that’s easier to understand than it is to explain. 

Everyone struggles at some point in their lives. Sometimes it lasts longer with greater intensity than others. 

The idea isn’t to compare your problems to others. Nor is it to think you’re solely unique. It’s extremely helpful to find strength in the fact that others have suffered similar fates and made it through. 

You might feel alone.

You might feel lost. 

You might feel hopeless. 

You can make it through the storm. No doubt it’ll be difficult and frustrating. But we’re stronger than we think. 

Life without any adversity will be a life without any progress. We have this idea that we become better despite our problems but what if we become better because of them? 

The obstacle in the path becomes the path. Never forget, within every obstacle is an opportunity to improve our condition”

This doesn’t mean we can’t dislike the adversity. I hate being in pain for example. However, that isn’t to say that I haven’t learned anything at all. I don’t think I would have started this blog or learned how to study effectively without it. 

Sometimes, we owe our strengths to the problems that forced us to develop them. 

Remember Sisu when you’re writing essays and revising for exams but feel like you have no more left. 

Remember Sisu when you’re in pain and the only goal you have is to get out of bed. 

Remember Sisu when everything in front of you seems to fall apart and blocks the light at the end of the tunnel. 

If the tunnel caves in, Sisu reminds us that there’s one more option – break the wall down and create the light at the end of the tunnel yourself.


Thanks to James Clear and Emilia Lahti (TEDx talk) for introducing this idea to me.

I have a poorly used twitter account. Follow it. Thanks. You the best. @ImprovingSlowly

This article originally appeared at Improving Slowly. 

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