by Anders Carlson
The Upper Peninsula of Michigan, or the UP, has a deep-seated connection with the northern European country of Finland. With short days and long nights, warm summers and frigid winters, and an ecosystem extremely similar to that of Finland, the UP was a perfect reminder of home for the many Finnish immigrants arriving in the United States during the late 19th and early 20th century. Today, the region boasts more than 50 times the number of Finnish-Americans than anywhere else in the country, and Finnish culture permeates everywhere. Michigan Tech is no exception to this rule. Established in 1885 as a mining school, Michigan Tech trained mining engineers to work in the copper mines of the UP. As many of the miners in the UP were Finnish, their way of life undoubtedly had an impact on the culture of the university. One of these cultural concepts, sisu, still holds sway even today throughout the UP. There is no direct English translation of the word sisu. However, the closest approximation means the drive to continue forward through struggles despite repeated failures or overwhelming odds. Emilia Lahti, a researcher at University of Pennsylvania and a Finn, writes that sisu is “[…] about not seeing a silver lining in the clouds, and yet jumping into the storm anyways” (“What is Sisu,” n.d.). Students coming to Tech have the opportunity to make use of this concept in their studies. But will it help them? Can sisu help Michigan Tech students to be more effective in their studies? It is the opinion of the author that sisu can indeed do these things, if applied effectively. Sisu is such an abstract concept, yet it can do so much to inspire and energize those who can wield it. Sisu, however, has such prevalence within the UP that a counter-intuitive phenomenon can be seen: Everyone assumes that everyone knows what sisu is, and therefore no discussion needs to be had about it.
New students coming to the university who haven’t been exposed to sisu before might hear of sisu in passing, or see it on the bumper sticker of a Yooper’s car, but they will not fully understand the complexity of the term, nor will they be able to use in their studies. If this university can teach students about sisu, rooted in rich cultural and psychological concepts, it can and will help the students of Michigan Tech to become better students and overall stronger people.
Sisu as a concept has been around for hundreds of years. According to Dr. Tuomas Tepora, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Helsinki, sisu was originally meant as a generic word for temper or emotion, and remarks on the concept can be found as early as the 16th century. It had a very negative connotation, and was generally seen as undesirable. Having sisu meant that a person was badly behaved. However, by the beginning of the 20th century, the attitude towards sisu changed. The new nation of Finland became obsessed with this novel interpretation of the word, and elevated it to the highest level. As Tepora writes, “The word [sisu] came to denote a national character apart from its simple meaning of certain kind of temper.” Sisu became known not as a word to be shunned, but a word to be celebrated. The coming of World War II and the Winter War between the Finnish and the Soviets further strengthened the resolve of the Finnish that sisu was something special. Historian William Trotter describes the Finnish as “stubborn defenders, with a lot of sisu” (Trotter, p. 62). Finnish fighter pilots would often fly their planes into Soviet formations 10 to 20 times their size, and eventually gunned down 200 Soviet planes, while only losing 62 of their own (Tillotson, p. 160). Sisu was practiced and exemplified every day there. By the end of the 20th century, it had been transformed from a word of bad temper and malice to a word denoting strength, determination, and the will to continue forward no matter what. Even today, the word sisu is still revered and treasured by both the Finnish and Finnish-Americans. An online survey in 2013 found that around 83% of respondents (both Finnish and Finnish-Americans) believed that “sisu is a capacity which can be cultivated through one’s conscious efforts (as opposed to being a fixed-type, genetic quality), and they [were] also interested in engaging in such activities” (Lahti), and that a majority believed sisu should be talked about more within the media. Sisu has undergone a semantic shift within the minds of the Finnish people.
In the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, sisu has much the same connotation that it does in Finland. Many in the UP have direct heritage with Finnish roots, and their ancestors have passed down their knowledge and cultural ideas to them. Sisu is no exception, and is found in everything, from bumper stickers to the famous SISU Ski Fest held every year in Ironwood, Michigan. Although sisu may not hold the same reverent place that it does in Finland, it is prevalent within the heart of the UP and is exemplified often. Michigan Tech rarely closes school for snow, expecting students to push through the often terrible weather conditions to get to class. When flash flooding struck Houghton and dumped seven inches of rain on the town in a single night during the summer of 2018, residents immediately banded together and began cleaning up, struggling through mud and water to help one another. Adam Johnson, a photographer and owner of Brockit Inc., a photography and video company, told MLive about how he saw sisu shown during recovery efforts:
“A regional disaster coordinator told me today that we’re two weeks ahead of any recovery effort that disaster officials have ever seen. Maybe that’s because as Yoopers we have a lot of pickup trucks, shovels, axes, and 5-gallon buckets. But I don’t think so. I think it’s because we have sisu.”Adam Johnson, photographer and owner of Brockit Inc. (Gmiter, 2018)
Even Michigan Tech’s sibling school, Finlandia University, was explicitly founded on the principles of sisu and continues that tradition today. Michigan Tech students therefore have many of examples to go off when looking at sisu in the UP. If sisu could help Finland hold off the Russians in the Winter War, it could help a struggling student to start an essay they’ve been dreading. If sisu could help residents of Houghton and Hancock to push through the mud and water to help other in need, it could push another student through the pain of studying for exams. Sisu is a versatile concept, used in a myriad of difficult situations as shown by the above examples. College is no walk in the park, and sisu could be the perfect answer to the inner drive that pushes students to become better at what they do, and to ultimately succeed.
While sisu may have a cultural reason for helping Michigan Tech students to do better at school, it is not without a scientific reasoning as well. Positive psychology is a field of psychology that has flourished within the last decade. Sisu is a concept very similar to many other ideas advanced by pioneers of this field. Positive psychology was introduced to the greater scientific community in 1998 by psychologist Martin Seligman, then the President of the American Psychological Association. Psychologist Christopher Peterson defines positive psychology simply: “Positive psychology is the scientific study of what makes life most worth living” (Peterson). Within the last few years sisu has been introduced to the positive psychology community, and it was first introduced in 2013 at the 3rd World Congress for Positive Psychology. While sisu may be on the radar for some psychologists, however, there have been, unfortunately, almost no studies specifically researching and determining empirical evidence about the effectiveness of sisu. This limits research into this topic. One of the only papers published on empirically measuring sisu was done by Amato-Henderson et al. of Michigan Tech. It aimed to create a preliminary framework for measuring sisu in an academic context by measuring subjects feelings about different situations. The researchers took a questionnaire developed for athletic performance (Loehr), and adapted it for use in an academic setting. Amato-Henderson et al. (2014) found that “[f]actors contributing to the construct of academic MT [mental toughness] were positive cognition, drive/determination, visualization and impression management” and that “comparing these findings with the four factors reported in the [mental toughness questionnaire] resulted in a very similar construct structure” (p. 1436).
Essentially, mental toughness (or sisu) is characterized by these factors, and the findings of the questionnaire support this statement. This is by no means a comprehensive structure for sisu. It is merely laying the groundwork for future research. The authors themselves state that “[f]uture research will seek to validate this tool with a larger sample, investigate gender differences in MT, and determine if MT is predictive of success in STEM careers despite challenges and obstacles that one perceives, such as a poor course grades or microaggressions” (p. 1436). However, just because no pre-existing structures exist for sisu, that does not mean that no structures exist to describe it. There are several psychological concepts that have been studied extensively, and are very similar to sisu.
One of the psychological constructs in positive psychology that is very similar to sisu is the concept of a growth versus a fixed mindset. Pioneered by Carol Dweck, professor of psychology at Stanford University, a mindset is a set of implicit beliefs a person has about their abilities. Dweck creates these two mindsets to be polar opposites of each other. A person with a fixed mindset believes their intellectual and physical capabilities to be fixed and unchanging, whereas someone with a growth mindset believes the exact opposite, that their capabilities can be enhanced (Yeager and Dweck, 2012). Additionally, students’ social capabilities can be developed. In a study done by Aronson et al. (2002), a group of undergraduate students were taught that their intelligence was not fixed, but was malleable and could be grown. This was done via classroom sessions, and a pen-pal program that helped the students to better articulate what they learned by teaching it to a younger person. Another group was taught the exact opposite; that is, they were taught that their intelligence was fixed and there was nothing they could do about it. The researchers compared the grade point averages of the fixed mindset group and the growth mindset group from the fall semester to the spring semester, and found that, on average, the growth mindset group had a higher GPA by about 0.23 points. It seems as though any area of life can see growth if one just puts in enough effort and believes in their own growth. However, growth mindset is not just a measure of effort. Certainly that plays a role in a growth mindset, but, as Dweck argues, it isn’t everything. The real magic comes in the staunchly held belief that your capabilities are not predetermined and that a practitioner of these beliefs can learn from their mistakes. Sisu is extremely similar to growth mindset in this way. If a person has sisu, they are not just pushing through their struggles; they are audaciously looking for new ways to improve and to persist in the search for improvement even through failure after failure. The concept of sisu exists within everyone, just the same as the ability to grow exists within everyone. A person without sisu would not feel this way. To them, a failure would mean the end, and without the drive to continue forward no matter what, they would continue to stagnate or fail entirely. A student could try for years and years to become a better student but ultimately fail because they didn’t try to understand where they went wrong with their mistakes. Michigan Tech students could benefit from sisu and, by extension, the concept of a growth mindset—the belief that no matter what, their capabilities as students and people are not fixed, but rather changeable and growable.
Another concept in positive psychology akin to sisu is “grit”. Defined by Duckworth et al. (2007) as “perseverance and passion for long-term goals” (p. 1087), grit is the drive to continue forward on a particular path, combined with a strong emotional reason for staying on that path. While this definition may seem identicall to that of sisu, the reality is more nuanced. The definition of grit relates to a particular goal an individual has, whereas sisu relates to a general philosophy of life. That being said, there are many benefits to having “grit.” In their seminal paper, Duckworth et al. attempted to determine whether the concept of grit they had defined would be an accurate indicator of success regardless of intelligence, the stereotypical factor for success. In one study in the paper, the researchers took a survey of 139 undergraduate students, and measured their results on their custom-made “Grit Scale,” along with their GPA and SAT scores from high school. Unsurprisingly, students who scored higher on the Grit Scale outperformed their peers lower on the scale. However, those who scored higher on the SAT tended to have lower grit than their peers who scored lower. Duckworth et al. speculate that “It is possible . . . that among relatively intelligent individuals, those who are less bright than their peers compensate by working harder and with more determination” (p. 1093). If we extrapolate grit from a goal-oriented trait to a life-oriented concept, it becomes almost identical to sisu. Additionally, having a lot of grit has been shown to be correlated with greater success in the classroom. Therefore, Michigan Tech students would benefit greatly from sisu, as it is very similar to grit.
Much reasoning has been given for the existence of sisu, and its potential to help students of Michigan Tech thrive. Finland and its culture has had a large impact on the culture of the UP, and sisu is a large part of this cultural influence. It has embedded itself into the minds of the people here, allowing students at Tech to readily access sisu, regardless of their nationality or background. Psychologically, sisu has also been shown to be akin to several concepts in positive psychology, both of which have been proven to be beneficial to students. However, it is not without its limitations in its effectiveness. To begin, very little research has gone into the idea of sisu and what it can do for others. So far, the only research found has been done by the researchers at Michigan Tech, along with a master’s thesis by one Emilia Lahti, which has yet to be published. The only real way sisu has been able to be explored is through analogy, such as the idea of growth mindset, and through historical examples, such as the Winter War. It is sufficient for now, but if sisu is to be effectively applied to help students succeed in school, it must be first understood completely. It is essential that in order to apply sisu in furthering student success, actions must be taken that disseminate the concepts of sisu to the student body. The specific actions taken by administration are beyond the scope of this paper, but with any luck, sisu may cease to be an implicit concept here at Tech and become more widely known and applied.
Anders Carlson is a first year mechanical engineering student and was drawn to the topic of sisu through his experience in the Finnish culture of the UP, as well as his cross country skiing experience in his home state of Minnesota. When not studying, he is a member of the Keweenaw Rocket Range, a student organization at Tech dedicated to designing, building, testing, and competing with high powered model rockets.
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