Sustainability could do with more “sisu”

As is often the case, I got inspired to write this blog in a pub, having a chat with a friend. Whilst discussing my origins (I’m half Finnish, half Belgian), our conversation brought to me bringing up “sisu” – a distinctively Finnish term, but one that is not easy to translate. Even I couldn’t really explain it to him. Courage. Boldness. Stubbornness. Those are the words that popped up.

But they didn’t actually convey the meaning well enough. So I did what most of us would do these days: I pulled out my smart phone and felt thankful for the existence of Wikipedia.

 This is what wiki says (though also acknowledging the fact that it is somewhat untranslatable into other languages):

 What is sisu?

Sisu is a Finnish term loosely translated as strength of will, determination, perseverance and acting rationally in the face of adversity. (…) The word derives from sisus, which means something inner or interior. However sisu is defined by a long-term element in it; it is not momentary courage, but the ability to sustain an action against the odds. It is similar to equanimity, except the forbearance of sisu has a grimmer quality of stress management than the latter. Deciding on a course of action and then sticking to that decision against repeated failures is sisu.”

(As a side note, and while we’re on a Finnish language lesson anyway – sisukas is the adjective associated with the word sisu, thus referring to one that has sisu.)

 Urban Dictionary describes sisu as:

Endurance. Resilience. Tenacity. Determination. Perseverance. An inner reserve of diligence, capacity. The ability to face head-on and always overcome. 

But it goes further to say that sisu is craziness, the recklessness that inspires a person to take on something in the face of incredible odds. (Finns, crazy? No way…)

Or even: Sisu means that you finish (not Finnish) what you start, you don’t quit in the middle of a job, and you don’t whine.

Finally, Urban Dictionary contextualizes sisu in a quotation:

It doesn’t take sisu to go to the North Pole; it takes sisu to stand at the door when the bear is on the other side

(that is not the only amazing Finnish quote on bears by the way, ping me if you want more).

 So why do we need more sisu?

Quoting a dear friend of mine, “sustainability isn’t about what to do, but rather how you do it.” In that sense, it’s all about attitude. And in the Wiki definition, it’s actually quite easy to pick out the themes that are relevant to sustainability:

  • Being determined & persevering in the face of adversity: we need those qualities to overcome the many challenges and obstacles we face on the road to sustainability.
  •  Having a long-term approach & the ability to sustain an action: sustainability, after all, is about a future outlook and being able to provide for our needs without compromising those of future generations, ergo we need a long-term vision.
  •  Sticking to something despite failures – which are inherently part of sustainable development. As I said in my previous blog, there are no right or wrong answers and thus inevitable hick ups along the way.

We need people who are sisukas. We probably also need a hint of “craziness” that sisu embodies. This reminds me of the kinds of people that are described in John Elkington and Pamela Hartigan’s book on unreasonable people. In the introduction, they explain that Muhammad Yunus (founder of Grameen bank & father of microfinance) “described his breed as 70% crazy.” Crazy in the sense that they “look for, and often find, solutions to insoluble problems in the unlikeliest places.”

In the end, the reasons for needing more sisu are quite straightforward – citing George Bernard Shaw (who is also quoted in John & Pamela’s book):

The reasonable man adapts himself to the world, the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.”


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