You might call it hardiness, determination, chutzpah, grit or even stubborn courage. The reality is there is no direct English translation for the iconic Finnish word sisu.
Sisu is multilayered, nuanced and, quite frankly, a bit of a nebulous concept for non-Finns to comprehend. That's because it's so much more than just a Finnish word; it's a mindset and a philosophy – one that's intrinsically linked to the national character of this sparsely-populated Nordic nation.
When you're 500ft from the top of the summit and it feels like you can't take another step: sisu. When your kids are driving you crazy but you've got a major presentation due in the morning: sisu. When your doctor gives you an ominous diagnosis but you refuse to give up hope: sisu.
Kulkea is a brand that, while launched in New England, has strong ties to Finland and its iconic state of mind. The word "kulkea" is, itself, Finnish, meaning "to go out and travel." The brand's founders, David and Steven Abramowitz, were raised by a Finnish mother who survived the Winter War with the Soviet Union before venturing out into the world and settling in America. Through her, they learned the power of perseverance, the artistry of adventure and the value of sisu.
"For me, sisu is really two things: to do whatever it takes and to never give up," explains David Abramowitz, Kulkea's CEO. "It's the Finnish survival instinct. The Finns are known for being innovative and to persevere for survival against all odds, be it the extreme elements or much larger enemies."
For Kulkea, sisu is imagining beyond what you can see. It's getting a second wind and pushing further beyond the possibilities. It's finding empowerment when you would otherwise hesitate to act. It inspires personal bests and the discovery of new frontiers.
Emilia Lahti is a researcher from Aalto University in Helsinki who's been studying sisu for the past decade. She defines the word similarly as "extraordinary determination and resoluteness in the face of extreme adversity."
"It means that you don't see a silver lining but you jump into the storm anyways," she explains in a 2014 Tedx Talk. "At the core of sisu is this beautiful idea that there is much more to us than what meets the eye at a given moment."
Lahti believes that this mental toughness gives rise to an action mindset toward tackling any and all challenges.
"There is something that evokes this vision of you in the future where you might be able to go if only you dare to reach," she says. In other words, it's the very thing you can rely on when you feel like you have nothing left.
The concept of sisu has existed for hundreds of years, but it became a buzzword following the Winter War of 1939 when the Soviet Union invaded Finland just three months after the outbreak of World War II. The Finns faced a formidable enemy and prevailed, against all possible odds, to remain independent.
The whole ordeal of the Winter War raised sisu to a sacred status for generations to come, leading to some 2000 men across the nation bearing Sisu as a name. In fact, The New York Times ran an article in 1940 under the headline "Sisu: A Word that Explains Finland." It began like this:
The Finns have a favorite word. They will tell you it is the most wonderful of all their words. It is not easily translated, because no other language has its precise equivalent. Even the Finns have difficulty in defining it, for, like so much of Finland which eludes definition, it is a thing felt, like religion or love. The word is sisu, pronounced see-su, with the accent on the first syllable. To understand sisu is to understand how a little country not much bigger than California, with no more than half the population of New York City, has so gallantly withstood the onslaught of a nation that covers one-seventh of the world's land area and outnumbers them in man power almost 50 to 1.
Even though this unique brand of stoic determination is something that is deeply ingrained in Finnish culture, Lahti believes sisu is something that bears significance to people living anywhere in the world.
"We all face adversities and we all have to strive through them somehow," she says. "Sisu is embodied by those who hold on to hope."
This concept is particularly valuable during the current coronavirus pandemic, when all of us around the world would be wise to search inside for some sisu. It is, after all, a reserve of power enabling extraordinary action to overcome the most challenging issue of our lifetime. It's a channel for us to tap into our hidden strengths and progress tenaciously onward even if we can't see the light at the end of the tunnel. It's stoic hardiness. It's gritty courage. And it may just be the very thing we need right now.