Sisu: The Finnish of Courage With Joanna Nylund

Joanna Nylund

Have you ever faced an insurmountable barrier?

If so, a Finnish idea may help you solve that problem. Sisu is a concept that means strength of will, determination, perseverance. It’s kind of like stoicism.

Finnish author Joanna Nylund delves into this concept in her book Sisu: The Finish Art of Courage, which was published in 2018.

I recently had the chance to catch up with Joanna and in this interview, she explains:

  • What exactly Sisu is and why it's so useful
  • How this Finish concept can help become a better entrepreneur, writer or author
  • Her process for writing the book Sisu: The Finnish Art of Courage
  • Why she uses so many visual elements in her book
  • How photography informs her writing and creative work

I started by asking Joanna how she went about explaining a finish concept outside of her native country.

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Transcript Below

Bryan Collins:                     When I was reading the book Joanna, you described how the concept of sisu is a difficult one to explain in English so how did you go about explaining this to people outside of your native country?

Joanna Nylund:                 Well basically what I say in the book is that it's untranslatable using just one word so I would use several. I would describe it as a kind of courage, as resilience, as a kind of tenacity, a sort of go get 'em attitude that you plug into when you come up against a really difficult crisis or a difficult place in your life. It's a concept that has a lot of different layers but we just … And even in Finland I think you would find people who understand different things by sisu but it's kind of all under the umbrella of courage and tenacity and resilience.

Bryan Collins:                     And you describe in the book about how there are three S's in Finland and season was one of the with three S's.

Joanna Nylund:                 Yeah.

Bryan Collins:                     What are the other two S's?

Joanna Nylund:                 The other two if I can remember correctly because there are several different variations on it but I think it's Sibelius, our famous composer, and then it's salmiak, which is this really strange, very black licorice kind of sweet that we absolutely adore and nobody else really understands.

Bryan Collins:                     Yeah. I haven't had it.

Joanna Nylund:                 I don't think you can really find it outside of Finland. It's that unpopular everywhere else.

Bryan Collins:                     I'll look for it when I'm in Finland next.

Joanna Nylund:                 Yeah, do that.

Bryan Collins:                     How have people reacted outside of Finland to the concept of sisu?

Joanna Nylund:                 Their reaction has been really really positive. I mean I've had … The book came out last year and I've had such a huge amount of feedback from different countries. It's been translated now into 10 languages and I think a lot of people are just contacting me to ask, “What is it,” and, “How can we use it,” and, “What do you think about it,” and all these things. As a cultural concept I think it's kind of spreading and it's also been fairly unknown outside of Finland which is probably one of the reasons why people are now finding it so interesting to discover.

Bryan Collins:                     If I've say started a business and I'm having trouble with [inaudible 00:02:34] for example or finding customers. How could I use this concept to get around that problem?

Joanna Nylund:                 Well you can apply it. It's kind of a live attitude that you would apply to anything pretty much but I would say you would probably apply it to not giving up. Trying to reach inside yourself for that extra mile, for that extra tenacity to just keep going and not give up which is I think a quality that you really do need when you're in business.

Bryan Collins:                     Yeah. I suppose another example that would stand out is the idea of an endurance athlete who perhaps find the first 10 or 15 miles of a marathon quite difficult but then they could use this concept to complete the marathon.

Joanna Nylund:                 Absolutely, yeah. It's like sisu is the reserve fuel tank that you tap into when all your other strength is gone basically.

Bryan Collins:                     Okay. Okay. And how did you find writing the book? I notice on your Instagram channel you were saying that you're a photographer as well so it sounds like you brought together some different profession experiences to write this book.

Joanna Nylund:                 Yeah, I suppose but I think mostly I just used my experience as a Finn. I think it was … The thing about sisu is we've had it in Finland for at least 500 years, probably a lot longer, and it's something that is so ingrained in our culture that the regular Finn would never stop to think, “What is it and how do I define it,” and so on. And I was just like that. I was using it all the time and I was using the word in conversation and so on but I wasn't really thinking about what all it entailed.

Joanna Nylund:                 Writing the book I had to really sit down for the first time and actually think about it for myself. Okay, what are all the different aspects of it and how as well, what kind of application does it have in modern life? I mean in Finland we find it extremely useful but I was also trying to relate it to modern phenomena such as business and integrity and being online and all these kinds of more sort of modern aspects and marry them to this historical concept and how it's served us in the past.

Bryan Collins:                     And did it take you long to do that? To write the first draft?

Joanna Nylund:                 Not really, no. No. I think like I said a lot of it is kind of just there and you just need to sit down and think about it. And it was an interesting experience for me as a writer to write about something that is so close to me culturally and still is quite unexplored because I think I might mention in the book as well that we in Finland, we don't really have any books about sisu. It's been like extremely … It's just something we take for granted. And it's only now that it's also raising a lot of interest in Finland and my book was translated to Finnish which is kind of funny because there's hasn't been any popular science books about sisu since the 1980s so there was kind of that need as well. And I've talked about it a lot in Finland, which is a bit odd and funny but there you go.

Bryan Collins:                     What language did you write the book in originally?

Joanna Nylund:                 English.

Bryan Collins:                     Oh in English. Okay. Okay. And the book itself is quite colorful. There's lots of pictures and illustrations and so on. How did you go about creating those or did you work with a designer?

Joanna Nylund:                 I worked with a designer and my publisher was kind of in charge of putting together pictures and illustrations and then just asking me, “Okay, what do you think about this and how do we approach this?” It was kind of a teamwork with a really talented group of people who put together the illustrations. And my publisher, Octopus Books, they're sort of specialized in illustrated books. And this was … I'm really happy that this turned out to be an illustrated one because I think it gives a lot more gravitas to the concept this way.

Bryan Collins:                     Yeah, it feels like a book that kids and young adults could embrace too.

Joanna Nylund:                 Yeah. And also just people today who are very … Our attention spans are very short. I think people are kind of attracted to a book that you can just pick up and look at and it's got some interesting pictures on every page and so on and you can read bits here and there and you don't have to read it in sequence either. It's a good book for the modern human being.

Bryan Collins:                     And when you were writing the book did you have a set routine for working on your ideas?

Joanna Nylund:                 That's an interesting question. Yeah, I think the first thing I did was just to structure the book to make sure that I had everything planned out. What I want to include and how I want to include it and what I want to say. And then I was basically just using that structure to put flesh on the bones in a way. And that worked very well for me. Also, with illustrated books you have to think about the pictures and illustrations as you go along so it's quite different from writing another type of book I imagine.

Bryan Collins:                     Okay, yeah, you've an interesting section about finding your voice in the book. I was wondering, is that something you could elaborate on?

Joanna Nylund:                 Are you referring to my personal story of …

Bryan Collins:                     Yeah. Well, it's the section, I think it's around Chapter 2 or Chapter 3 where you are talking about learning how and national communication norms are one thing.

Joanna Nylund:                 Yeah. Yeah, yeah, yeah, absolutely, yeah. Well, I think I was saying something along the lines that of course you have a national culture but then we all know that we have family cultures and families can relate quite differently to each other, even within the same culture. And mine had a culture of extreme politeness and we just didn't really … Conflicts of course existed but we didn't really deal with them. It was just sweeping them under the rug and then you sulk for a bit and then your friends again and that kind of thing. I wasn't really good at conflict resolution at all until I had my first boyfriend, poor guy, who was … And I learned how to argue constructively for things and basically just to solve conflicts. And solving conflicts I think in general is something that Finns are quite good at so that's why I put it in there as sort of a thing that doesn't necessarily come naturally.

Bryan Collins:                     Yeah, it feels like it's a good skill to have in the workplace too. Perhaps you have a conflict there.

Joanna Nylund:                 Oh, yeah.

Bryan Collins:                     With a colleague or a boss or something like that.

Joanna Nylund:                 Oh, for sure. Definitely yeah.

Bryan Collins:                     And how did your work as a photographer influence the way you put together the book?

Joanna Nylund:                 Well probably in the sense that I am a visual person so I'm thinking about how text and images go together. I didn't actually use any of my own photographs for the book but I did have a pretty clear idea about what I wanted them to represent and the diversity and different kinds of nature pictures and all that. I think nature especially is something I photograph a lot and it's also something that is very important for Finns. It's very close to our hearts and so it's no coincidence that the book is pretty much full of different kinds of nature pictures.

Bryan Collins:                     And have you embarked on any other writing projects like this?

Joanna Nylund:                 Well I'm working on something right now actually and it's coming out early next year so this will be my second book.

Bryan Collins:                     Okay. Okay. Do you find the writing process takes long?

Joanna Nylund:                 Yes and no. I think the thinking process usually takes quite a bit. But again, I think I'm a fairly unstructured person myself so I like to sort of … I just know myself well enough that when I get the structure in place it's much easier to think based on that. I think that's the big hurtle. But then actual writing is something I very much enjoy and provided that I have enough time to do it it's always a joy to do that. Yeah, it's a bit of both.

Bryan Collins:                     Do you find that the creative process for photography is similar to the creative process for writing?

Joanna Nylund:                 I think with photography, because I don't really, I do some journalistic work as a photographer but aside from that I don't really have paying customers. I work more in the fine art photography trying to develop it as an art form for myself. At the moment at least it's very much a joy for me and I pick my own projects and I decide what I want to do so it's very … I feel very free in it and I don't have a lot of constraints. Maybe there I think I'm a bit more intuitive than when I'm writing where I have to be more structured.

Bryan Collins:                     Yeah. And speaking of structure, what do you think an ideal early morning routine should look like for somebody who wants to embrace sisu or even write a book about something like sisu?

Joanna Nylund:                 An early morning routine.

Bryan Collins:                     Or even your early morning routine.

Joanna Nylund:                 Right. Well, it's pretty structured. It's pretty much the same, which kind of again goes against my natural personality which is a lot more all over the place. But it's not really where I thrive. It's not really where I can make the most of my gifts and my energy and so on. I try to provide a good structure for myself and have pretty much the same routines every day. Breakfast at the same time, start work at the same time and put up a few rules for myself and this is important because I work by myself so I have to be leading myself in the sense that I don't use social media for instance during the day. I log on at the end of the day because I know that if I get going down that road I'm not going to be able to do actually do what I have set out to do. I think setting up a target for everyday work wise is something that is really essential for me.

Bryan Collins:                     Yeah, that's interesting because your Instagram channel is fairly active and as a photographer that's understandable. I'm just curious, you talked there about a target. What would be some examples of a target that you would [inaudible 00:12:53], even somebody listening might be creative?

Joanna Nylund:                 Yeah. Well I think being in the … Doing creative things is perhaps even more dangerous because you can so easily go off on a tangent and not accomplish things. And still I think if your idea and notion is to be moving forward with your work or even to develop your skills I think it's really really important to have some goals. And even if it's just for yourself. I think that's the part where it gets dangerous because you might easily feel that, “I'm just doing this for me at this stage so it's not too important. It doesn't really matter how I do it.” But I think it does.

Joanna Nylund:                 I think having these kind of like certain part goals at least that you have, that you want to accomplish this by this time and so on can be really vital to your development in your creative field. And also with the whole aspect of discipline like I said. I think creative people are usually not the most disciplined, at least what I've found, so that can be a challenge as well. I don't know if that answers your question.

Bryan Collins:                     It does. It does. Towards the end of the book you actually talk about how you wonder if you were the right person to write this book. I think that's a common belief that many writers have when they embark on a project. How did you get over that limited self-belief or how did you decide I'm going to write it anyway?

Joanna Nylund:                 Well I wrote the book knowing that sisu is this kind of, also partly this kind of daredevil character trait. Mountaineers and these adventurers, that's the image that a lot of people conjure up when they hear the word sisu and I of course didn't see myself in that. And that was essential as well to the message of the book is that it's not something that is the prerogative of only people who want to climb Mount Everest. It's something that every person has and every person can utilize and it doesn't have to be outwardly big. It can be big for you to reach a goal for instance or to overcome some kind of challenge in your personal life. I mean we all have our own mountains to climb and I think that's basically the theme that convinced me that I am as suitable for writing this book as anybody else would be. I answered my own question that way.

Bryan Collins:                     I like that. I like that. When it came to marketing and selling the book it's an unusual title and concept to explain to an English audience so how did you go about promoting the book?

Joanna Nylund:                 Well I had a lot of help from my publisher so they kind of took the reins at that stage and arranged for lots of different interviews for me and kind of I suppose also banking on the fact that these Nordic phenomena, they get quite a lot of traction and it's always interesting, especially I think to the UK and Great Britain audience to explore a new Nordic thing, a new Nordic phenomenon. I think I was standing on the shoulders of giants in a sense because you had hygge, the Danish word for how to make yourself happy, the simplified way. And [lagom 00:16:22] came out just before me and all these things. I think it was easy in that sense that it was a good time for that kind of book to come out.

Joanna Nylund:                 But of course I've tried to … I've done a little bit of marketing myself as well but not that much actually because my publishers were so great and setting things up for me. I just basically said yes to everything. Every interview, every contact, and that was a good decision.

Bryan Collins:                     Who has the book resonated the most with or is there any particular type of people that have been in touch with you about the book?

Joanna Nylund:                 Yeah, there's been lots of different kinds of people but I think one thing they probably have in common is that it's people who are interested in … It's a bit of a double edged sword for me because I don't necessarily want to label it as a self-help book but I realize that it kind of is because it's very practical and it's about how to improve your life so obviously it is a self-help book. And I think that's quite a big segment of my readership is people who read self-help books and want to know, “Okay, this is a new thing. What's in it for me? How can I make the most of it? Is this my thing?” They might have already tried a couple of other lifestyle trends and now they're willing to try this one. I would say that's definitely in this kind of pop psychology vein. That's one segment.

Joanna Nylund:                 But then I've also been contacted by quite a lot of athletes and people who are professionals at a high level in business and in sports and who are looking to milk their performance for just that bit more. Those extra seconds or something and thinking that, “Well, maybe this mindset is something that I could get into.”

Bryan Collins:                     Did you find any tips for those people in business who contacted you?

Joanna Nylund:                 Yeah, well I have some stuff in my book which I think explains how Finns use sisu in business life and in negotiations and so on so I was referring them to that. Basically it's just, our culture is a very straightforward one and it's very much we like to do things more than we like to speak and I think that's something that's useful to know as well if you're trying to create a business deal with a Finn.

Joanna Nylund:                 But also otherwise I think in business sisu is really applicable because it can give you that extra push to be clear and concise about your message and also to not give up at the first sign of trouble or resistance basically from the other partner.

Bryan Collins:                     Yeah. Yeah. It kind of reminded me of stoicism, some of the ideas in the book.

Joanna Nylund:                 Yeah, yeah. It does. It does ring true for that as well. Yeah.

Bryan Collins:                     Where can people find you online Joanna or your book?

Joanna Nylund:                 Well they can find my book … It's probably more easy to find me. I'm on Instagram. It's my name there. It's a bit of a mouthful but I think if you just type in Joanna Nylund you should be able to find me. My tag is joannaulfsdotter which is my [inaudible 00:19:37]. But you can find my book on Amazon. You can find it in most bookshops in Ireland as well and just in different online bookshops. And also have a website that you find also on my Instagram. And I'm on Facebook as well as Joanna Nylund so you can look me up there.

Bryan Collins:                     Okay. It was lovely to talk to you today.

Joanna Nylund: Yes, thank you so much. It was really nice to be on your podcast/interview.

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