The temperature had dropped to minus 50 Celsius. There were only 4 hours of daylight every day. Planes were dropping bombs everywhere, and you and your best friends were crawling through the snow as gunfire surrounded you.
It was three months after the start of World War II, and the Soviet Union had invaded Finland.
The Finnish were outnumbered three-to-one in manpower, thirty-to-one in aircraft and a hundred-to-one in tanks. Given that St. Petersburg alone matched the entire population of Finland, the odds appeared insurmountable.
Can you imagine what it must have been like to be a front line soldier? How hard it would have been to continue in such poor conditions, against such a superior force?
And yet, despite the odds, the Finns held their ground, leaving only a small part of the East side of their country to be taken by the Soviets.
Well, how the hell did they do that?
The Finnish claim their success was due to a concept they call Sisu.
It seems the word cannot be directly translated, but Arto Bendiken says it “refers to a stoic toughness consisting of strength of will, determination, and perseverance in the face of adversity and against repeated setbacks; it means stubborn fortitude in the face of insurmountable odds; the ability to keep fighting after most people would have quit, and fighting with the will to win.”
Finnish soldiers were even reported saying: “They are so many, and our country is so small, where shall we find room to bury them all?”
They mentally transformed the small size of their country into a confident advantage.
I love stories like this. They make me wonder how we can apply such strategies into our own lives. I personally don’t believe it makes sense to unquestioningly fight, without adapting when things aren’t working. So I wondered how Sisu could tie into my personal methodology for living in a meaningful way.
First, let’s look at this methodology as it stands.
The No Ctrl Z Guide to Living a Full Life
Step 1: Dare to Fail.
No one likes to fail, but without leaning into your discomfort, you will never move forward. You will remain stuck.
Yes, you will feel scared, vulnerable — and you should honour those feelings inside you — but you must trust your work. You must trust yourself.
These don’t have to be a huge steps all at once: it’s about baby steps and small wins. Gently does it:
- Daring to fail means picking up that pencil when the blank page is staring at you.
- It means going to the gym, putting yourself under weights that intimidate you.
- It means showing up.
- It means speaking up.
- It means telling someone you love them.
Step 2. Fail. (This is inevitable if you’re doing important work.)
I am the master of failure. I’ve struggled with a TONNE of stuff in my life, and I still struggle daily.
I’m currently struggling with a bad tendon injury in my leg. This has been going on for about a year. Now, I’ve had some pretty bad injuries before, but this one has even challenged my sense of identity. I’m a weightlifter. Being strong and independent, is who I believe myself to be. I don’t own a car; I cycle everywhere. So when I couldn’t walk, and had to keep relying on others to help me out… well, it was tough.
Without daring, and failing, you will never taste victory, nor learn from defeat.
How many times have you failed this week?
Failure can be used as an indicator of progress. I’m not suggesting you should injure yourself, but if you haven’t failed at anything in your daily life, maybe you aren’t easing yourself outside of your comfort zone enough.
Step 3. Find the Beauty in Failure (Learn and Adapt)
The final step to living a full life is where you remind yourself that failure is an event, not your identity.
It’s where you ask yourself: what can I learn from this experience?
After the initial grief of my injury, I adapted. I decided to work on things I don’t normally work on (like gymnastics, rings, and calisthenics). I was going to come back a stronger athlete. And even though I couldn’t even walk, let alone cycle, or go on adventures with my friends, I focussed on the things I could still do. I learnt that I need to take better care of myself. With this mindset, I was back at Step 1, daring to fail with new challenges I’d set myself.
But my injury regressed when my physio went on holiday. I got ill twice. I even sprained my wrist. This made my movements very limited, so basically all I could do was flap about on the floor like a beached whale and claim I was “working my core”.
There I was at Step 2 again, and I threw my toys out of the pram for a little bit. I was frustrated with my body.
There was — and still is — so much uncertainty. I am so used to my body being able to handle what I throw at it. I have no idea how long the injury will last, and what more I can learn from this experience. I’m still waiting for Step 3 to blossom.
Sometimes it doesn’t matter how many people you talk to, the answers just don’t seem to be appearing. And sometimes, no matter how many times someone tells you the answer, you have to find it out for yourself, the hard way.
Sometimes that means letting go of who you were, and embracing the uncertainty of who you will become.
So now what about those Finnish soldiers in the Second World War? What about Sisu? To me, it doesn’t make sense to go on with something that isn’t working. To me, Sisu has to encompass this ability to find beauty in the failure.
This is surely where Sisu lies. It’s the courage to start in the first place. It’s the strength to continue into uncertainty until you can find the lessons you need to move forward. And when you find those lessons, something will change inside of you.
So rather than continuing on, unquestioningly, Sisu gets you through the moments of weakness, doubt and uncertainty. Sometimes it will seem like there is nothing to be learnt. Life just sucks sometimes, and maybe in the future you’ll figure the lesson out, but maybe it will just be one of those sucky things.
But when the answers aren’t in front of you, Sisu is the energy that you can choose to surround yourself with.
- When you’re tired from your 9-5, but need to work on your business idea. Sisu.
- When your teenage daughter screams that she hates you. Sisu.
- When you’re in chronic pain and can’t walk. Sisu.
- When the whole world walks out. When it’s just you, and the ground beneath your feet. Sisu.
This article was inspired by James Clear.
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