Sisu – The Hidden Driver of An Entrepreneur
What defines the entrepreneur's mindset? Where do courage and determination come from, and can they be learned? Terence Mauri explores these questions and the Finnish concept of sisu in a conversation with applied positive psychologist Emilia Lahti.
Like modern-day explorers ascending K2 or reaching the North Pole, an entrepreneur’s mindset has what the Finnish call sisu, a flair for “extraordinary determination and resoluteness in the face of extreme adversity”. It takes sisu to stand at the door when a big angry bear is on the other side. That bear could be your competition or even a deep-seated inner fear holding you back from a brilliant future.
Emilia Lahti heads up the Sisu Lab and is a distinguished researcher of the Finnish construct of sisu. She holds an applied positive psychology Masters degree from the University of Pennsylvania and has been mentored in the fields of grit, self-control, and positive psychology by world-renowned thought leaders Dr. Martin Seligman and Dr. Angela Duckworth.
Lahti is the embodiment of sisu. She writes: “Evolution comes before survival only in the dictionary. We are creatures of reason, programmed to preserve energy and maintain equilibrium. However, in order to not merely survive but to thrive, we must occasionally crank our comfort-o-meter to the red zone. Having an ‘action mindset’ will help you bear the initial discomfort and reap the ultimate rewards.”[i]
You can watch her captivating talk about the power of sisu here.
In a recent interview, I spoke with Lahti about sisu’s role as a hidden driver of an entrepreneur’s mindset around the world.
Terence Mauri: What is sisu?
Emilia Lahti: Sisu refers to our ability to go beyond our preconceived physical and mental capacities. It is the ability to take extraordinary action and stay determined when all odds are against us. One of its underlying premises is that there is more strength to us than meets the eye. How sisu differs from perseverance and grit is that it’s more about the short-term intensity than about long-term endurance. It is our ability to take action against impossible odds, transform barriers into frontiers, exceed ourselves, and see beyond the limitations of the present moment. One could define it as the second wind of mental endurance or the sixth gear of tenacity. It’s not something you would tap into all the time but a force that allows you to push through the unimaginable.
TM: What is the main benefit of sisu?
EL: All of the great advancements of humanity and the progress of modern society are based on our ability to expand our psychological horizon, take a step into the unknown, and make a path where there is none. What this means is that we have to go beyond our comfort zone, try out new skills, and become learners. Whoever is able to tolerate this can become a leader and inspire those around her or him to replicate the same behavior. I argue that having this ability is not a luxury but is a necessity if we are to create a more positive human future. Now more than perhaps ever, we need the ability to imagine a new future and take action. Remaining complacent will stall progress, and it’s those with an entrepreneurial mind that can lead the intellectual quest for our humanity.
Entrepreneurship is a mindset and does not refer to only those who set up a startup. I think the challenges of running a startup are often overstated, as it is very rarely that the costs of failure go beyond a slight dent on one’s self-esteem. In fact, Silicon Valley has done a great job in re-imagining failure as a badge of honor.
TM: Success is never linear. Take FailCon founder Cass Phillipps. She helps entrepreneurs to learn from their own and others’ failures. The company’s motto is “Embrace your mistakes. Build your success.”[ii] Picking yourself up off the ground after yet another setback gets tiring after a while. FailCon aims to turn failure into a process for instant learning and reflection. In Latin, “reflect” means to refold, which suggests we look backward in order to move forward. As the nineteenth-century philosopher Søren Kierkegaard wrote, “Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forward.”[iii]
At FailCon, in the course of a one-day conference, self-confessed failure pioneers including Uber CEO, Travis Kalanick share battle stories of what went wrong and inspire each other with lessons learned to move forward. While most cultures just talk about success, it helps to organize a friendly peer forum to explore failure. FailCon now has a thriving community of entrepreneurs around the world.
TM: Is sisu learnable?
EL: Preliminary studies show that people believe it is. This actually plays a part in the process. Stanford University professor and motivation expert Carol Dweck has found that our beliefs regarding our abilities are the biggest indicator of our future actions.[iv] Similarly to resilience, I propose that sisu is something that is tied to our experiences, learning, and mindset. I suggest that part of the power ofsisu lies in its creativity and hope-inducing nature (hope is the sparkplug of all action, as we know from the research of Dr. Shane Lopez, and creativity enables us to imagine potential solutions to a problem). It invokes visions of one´s future self. 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.
Furthermore, an action mindset contributes to how we approach obstacles. I would describe it as akin to signing up for a marathon or an Ironman before you have any clue what you are actually doing. It provides a daring “leap before you look” attitude, so we are not paralyzed by the idea of what might go wrong.
Ultimately, entrepreneurs should aim to empower themselves and coach the “sisu mindset” for those around them. The greatest things are born from courage and relentless determination. Sisu is the secret sauce.
[i] Emilia Lahti, “The Brilliance of a Dream: Introducing the Action Mindset”, Creativity Post, December 2, 2013, .
The LER would like to thank and acknowledge Graeme Burns (MBA 2016) for making this article possible.