In November of 1939, the Soviet army invaded Finland. Three hundred and fifty bombs were dropped over Helsinki, turning buildings to dust and killing many innocent civilians. The Finns were unprepared for the invasion and badly outnumbered in both men and equipment. The Soviet army was three times the size of the Finnish one and the 6000 Soviet tanks were no match for the 32 tanks the Finns had.

The invasion of Helsinki marked the beginning of the Winter War. Before it was over, many Finns would die, but the real question was if any of them would survive.

By January, the temperatures were 40 degrees below zero and the country was in darkness almost 18 hours a day. In order to survive the brutally cold, dark winter while they faced a vast Soviet army, the Finnish soldiers relied on an idea that had been a part of their culture for centuries. They called it Sisu.

Sisu doesn’t have a direct English translation, but the word refers to the idea of “continuing to act even in the face of repeated failures and extreme odds.” It describes the inner power and mental toughness that is required in order to persevere and continue even when you are at the limit of your personal mental and physical capabilities.

In the end, nearly 70,000 Finns would die during the Winter War, but the Soviet Army lost nearly five times that number. By the end winter, the Soviets were beaten. They signed The Moscow Peace Treaty in March of 1940.

Emilia Lahti, a PhD candidate at Aalto University in Helsinki who studies the concept of sisu and its application wrote, “Sisu is the concept of taking action in the face of significant adversity or challenge. It is not so much about achievement as it is about facing your challenges with valor and determination.”

In many ways, sisu is similar to grit, which is an attribute that I think is essential to achieving the success you want. (I put a whole chapter about it in my new book. It’s one of my favorite ones.).

The willingness to stay in discomfort for extended periods of time is the essence of grit and sisu. In this way, grit becomes far more than determination or perseverance or hard work. It is exercising all of these things—determination, perseverance, and hard work—in the face of incredible discomfort, for as long as it takes. As I wrote in my book, “Grit is the mental power required to make the lonely painful push through the uncomfortable and sometimes excruciating moments that precede achievement of any kind.”

As modern human beings, we are not really very good at discomfort. We live in a world of air conditioning and quick and painless travel, readily available food and drink, running water and indoor plumbing. If there are inconveniences, someone has figured out a way to eliminate them.

Don’t get me wrong, I think innovation and advancement is one of the things that makes being a human in the world today so amazing. But it does, perhaps, diminish our personal capacity to exercise grit or sisu in our lives. I believe that actively practicing the attribute of grit leads to more capacity to succeed in the face of even apparently insurmountable odds.

The hardest part about exercising grit, of course, is that we are working against our own brain. Our brain is programmed evolutionarily to seek pleasure, avoid pain, and conserve energy.   Staying in discomfort for any length of time means directly confronting all three of these deeply ingrained, biological mechanisms. In other words, when you exercise true grit, you are doing exactly the opposite of what the brain is biologically wired to do. And it’s going to put up a fight. It’s going to try to talk you out of your goals in order to avoid discomfort.

Think back for moment to the long four months of the Winter War. It would have been so easy for the Finns to give up in the face of so much discomfort. Clearly, they could never hold out against such a large, well-equipped army. They were probably out there in the cold darkness for nothing. Why didn’t they just give up, be reasonable, or “face facts?” But the Finnish army and each man in it never let the discomfort dissuade them. They exercised their sisu and accepted the discomfort required to reach their goals.

It is no different for each of us.

No matter what your goals are—make a million dollars, lose forty pounds, become a morning person, run a marathon, write a book, earn your doctorate, 10X your business, become an industry leader—discomfort is the price you have to be willing to pay to achieve it.

Your brain will try to sell you on the idea that everything doesn’t have to be this hard, that life was meant to be enjoyed, that discomfort is just the currency the foolish people pay. There has to be an easier way. When you indulge your brain and entertain this kind of thinking, you are wasting time. Instead of working on your goal, your brain spends its energy finding evidence to support the idea that the whole endeavor should be easy.
(Unqualified Success, pg. 85-86)

But what if that’s the problem?

What if the desire to avoid discomfort is the only thing keeping us from winning the war and achieving our goals?

What if the belief that “this should be easy” is the only thing holding you back?

The Finnish army knew it would be hard, and maybe it would prove to be impossible, but they weren’t going anywhere. Even if it was hard. Even if it was painful. Even if they failed. This is sisu. And this is what each of us needs as we go after all the hard, impossible things that are available in our future.

When you are willing to be uncomfortable, to embrace the fact that pain and discomfort are a necessary part of achieving any goal, the sooner you “make peace” with what is required, the sooner you can release your resistance and move your energy towards achieving what you really want.

What about you?

What has surprised you about exercising your own sisu and grit? What have you learned about yourself and your ability to “stay in discomfort” for as long as it takes?

1 Comment

  1. Rich Kincaid on January 24, 2020 at 10:22 am

    Everything is very open with a very clear description of the challenges. It was truly informative. Your site is very useful. Thanks for sharing!