in: Advice, Character, Podcast

• Last updated: March 16, 2022

Podcast #695: Sisu, the Finnish Art of Strength

In Finland, “sisu” is a concept that, while it can’t be strictly translated into English, roughly corresponds to a combination of bravery, resilience, grit, and determination. My guest today will help us unpack it further, and offers advice on how everyone can live life with more sisu. 

Her name is Joanna Nylund and she’s the author of Sisu: The Finnish Art of Courage. Joanna explains what sisu is and how it was exemplified in the David and Goliath story of the Finns facing down the Russians during the Winter War. We then talk about what it is about Finland that birthed the quality of sisu and ways to develop it even if you’re not Finnish, including embracing discomfort, getting out despite the weather, and seeking silence and solitude as a way to develop inner strength. We also talk about the Finnish practice of retreating to a rustic cabin in the summer to reacquaint oneself with simplicity, manual labor, and nature. We end our conversation with the sisu way of communication, and how to foster sisu in children.

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Show Highlights

  • What is sisu? How long has the word been around? 
  • How the Winter War of 1939 exemplifies this concept 
  • Does sisu contribute to Finland’s place among the world’s “happiest” countries? 
  • How Finns embrace discomfort to cultivate sisu 
  • Embracing the contrasts of life 
  • The cabin culture of Finland 
  • How does silence cultivate sisu?
  • What’s the sisu way to communicate?
  • What can parents learn about fostering this sort of resilience in our children?

Resources/Articles/People Mentioned in Podcast

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Read the Transcript

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Brett McKay: Brett McKay here and welcome to another edition of The Art of Manliness Podcast. In Finland, sisu is a concept, that while it can’t be strictly translated into English, roughly corresponds to a combination of bravery, resilience, grit and determination. My guest today will help us unpack it further and offers advice on how everyone can live a life with more sisu. Her name is Joanna Nylund and she’s the author of Sisu: The Finnish Art of Courage. Joanna explains what sisu is and how it is exemplified in the David and Goliath story of the Finns facing down the Russians during the Winter War. We then talk about what it is about Finland that birthed the quality of sisu and ways to develop, even if you’re not Finnish, including embracing discomfort, getting out despite the weather, and seeking silence and solitude as a way to develop inner strength. We also talk about the Finnish practice of retreating to a rustic cabin in the summer to re-acquaint oneself with simplicity, manual labor and nature. And we end our conversation with the sisu way of communication and how to foster sisu in children. After the show’s over, check out our show notes at Joanna joins you now via

Alright, Joanna Nylund, welcome to the show.

Joanna Nylund: Thank you. Thank you so much, Brett.

Brett McKay: So you are the author of a book called Sisu: The Finnish Art of Courage. We’ve written about sisu on the site before, and you say it’s like this untranslatable Finnish word. So I’m gonna ask you how to translate sisu into English. What is sisu?

Joanna Nylund: Well, I would say, perhaps, if you would ask me for one single definition, I would say stubborn determination. I think that probably covers most bases, but it’s also, I think for me, personally, the closest one would be resilience. There’s a lot of tenacity in there, but also a kind of courage. So that’s why I argue that not only is sisu untranslatable from Finnish; we need one word to cover all those different aspects, in my opinion.

Brett McKay: How long has this word been around? Is it a relatively new word or has it been around in Finland for a long time?

Joanna Nylund: It’s been around for a really long time. I think the earliest written record was from 500 years ago, but that’s just the written record, so I would guess… It feels like it’s been part of us forever. [chuckle] And certainly part of our vernacular and our identity. So I think probably from time immemorial, basically. It’s been impossible to trace.

Brett McKay: Alright, so sisu, it’s like a grit, a determination, a courage, all those things in one. And I think, really, to understand sisu, you can’t really say it in words, and even then, it’s like… They say, well, if you asked a Finn like, “What is sisu?” They’re like, “I can show you what sisu is, but I can’t describe it.” So let’s try to describe sisu with some action. I think the story that we’ve written about on the site that I think really captures this idea of sisu was… It’s from the history of Finland. It was during World War II, and this is the Winter War against the Russians. For those who aren’t familiar with the Winter War, can you walk us through it and how you think that exemplifies sisu.

Joanna Nylund: Okay, so yeah, basically, what happened was that in the winter of 1939, the Soviet Union attacked Finland. And obviously, Finland was and still is a very small country. Now, there’s about 5.5 million of us, and I think back then, it was probably less than four, and versus the Soviet Union, which was obviously a super power. And the Russians had three times as many troops and I think 30 times as many aircraft and 100 times more tanks. And basically, Finland had nothing. Even the reserves that had to be called in, there weren’t uniforms for everyone, so people had to bring their own clothes and they had to make these white camouflage clothing out of bed linen, basically, and it was all really a do-it-yourself kind of war. [chuckle] But we decided to fight it anyway because it was basically for our sovereignty, that was what was at stake.

And in the, I think in the global press, I think it was maybe the New York Times or someone who called it a David versus Goliath kind of situation because the odds were just completely, hopelessly stacked against Finland from day one. But we kind of… We, I mean I wasn’t obviously part of it, but this is something we feel very passionately about in Finland. But what we did was basically to use our small size to our advantage to try to be as, have as much ingenuity as possible when it came to how to defend ourselves, which basically meant guerilla tactics and trying to make all those very scant resources go as far as they possibly could. And Finns, we did have an advantage being in our own country, and knowing how to ski and use snow shoes. And knowing the landscape and things like that, obviously, worked to our advantage. But nobody, I think, least of all us, expected it to go as well as it did ’cause we lasted for from November ’39 to March 1940.

We did, eventually, have to cede some territory to the Soviet Union, but we didn’t lose our independence, our sovereignty, and we didn’t lose nearly as many men as the Soviets did. And I think that the figure is just somewhere around 25,000 Finns versus 200,000 Russians. And this changed, not only, I think, our sort of, the course of our future, but also the course of the war, according to some because for those of you listening who know their World War II history, they know that Hitler, he decided to attack the Soviet Union with the Operation Barbarossa, and he did that, basically, because he felt that they must be pretty weak if Finland can beat them. And that was obviously the beginning of the end for him. But for us, this has been a really pivotal time and a pivotal moment because I think even the decision to just, to even decide to fight under those circumstances, to actually try is, it was an act of sisu, most definitely.

Brett McKay: So there’s a lot of things you can take from that, that can tell you about what it means to have sisu. So and what are some takeaways that you got from that experience that exemplifies sisu?

Joanna Nylund: Well, obviously, that stubborn determination never to give up even in the face of absolutely impossible odds. And that’s what I think, that’s the one definition that I think most Finns would agree on because then, if you ask… People have all kinds of definitions of sisu and for some, it’s a very personal thing, but I think that’s the one. You just go through, you go through hell and high water to just stick to what you’ve decided and to win the day, basically. So that’s obviously one. And then I think another one is really to use your perceived weakness to your advantage, and to think outside the box, to really get creative on when you come up against different obstacles, and to sort of let them challenge you instead of take away your courage. Those are just a few from off the top of my head.

Brett McKay: And so, this… Okay, this moment is pivotal in Finland. But again, what we’ve been talking about, sisu is that this is a concept or an idea that’s ingrained in your culture, and kids pick it up. Why do you think of… What is it about Finland that… What do you think led to developing this idea of sisu?

Joanna Nylund: Well, that’s a really good question because it’s, like I said, we’ve had it for such a long time. But I think, definitely, the climate probably has a lot to do with it because it’s been tough. We have nice summers and all that, but on the whole, it’s… I think it must have been a very difficult country to settle back in the day, and to scratch a living out of the earth, and all those things. So probably, you would have needed a certain kind of hardiness and definitely, tenacity and a tendency to want to stick things out just to stay, basically.

And I’m sure that goes for a lot of the Nordics and other cold regions of the world. But I think that, and then perhaps, in more recent history, we’ve been, like one guy that I interviewed for the book, he said that, “Well, you’ve been either colonized or invaded.” [chuckle] That’s probably gonna have an effect on your attitude towards life and towards how you see yourself, and I agree. Yeah, I think history plays a big role, but also the climate and probably something else like an X factor like: What is it that defines a certain people? What is it that gives them a character that lets you tell them apart from others? I don’t know, it’s maybe something a bit mysterious as well.

Brett McKay: But what’s interesting, so sisu is, I think, sort of grit, determination. You would think very like stone-faced, stoic and just you know?

Joanna Nylund: Yeah, yeah. [chuckle]

Brett McKay: But Finns are some of the happiest people in the world, according to some reports.

Joanna Nylund: Yeah. You know what?

Brett McKay: Do you think sisu, yeah, do you think sisu has something to do with that?

Joanna Nylund: Yeah, I do think it has a lot to do with that. But that always makes me laugh because when… I think we’ve been… We’ve been the happiest country in the world for the third year running now. And people here just scoff when they see that. They’re like, “Pfft! Like, really? We’re not happy. Everybody knows we’re not happy.” Because first of all, I think people mistake what is meant by happiness in the happiness index, which I think is more a sense of satisfaction with life, basically, and a sense of security and a sense of self-determination, and all those things. I think that’s what is really measured in that happiness index, and that’s where we rank really high. And I think people would agree if it was phrased more like that.

But it’s just that the word “happy” rings very, it has a very strange ring to a lot of Finns because we’re not a carnival kind of people. [chuckle] We’re quite serious and unsmiling, although there are individual differences and all that. But yeah, so that’s the funny thing because I get interviewed about that sometimes and it’s always like the reaction in Finland is always like, “They should come here and see what it’s like if they think we’re the happiest people.” [chuckle] So there is that.

But I think definitely, what is it that makes people happy in a deep, deeply-felt sense? I think having a society that you’re proud of and a society where you feel like there is an opportunity for me to fulfill my dreams or at least try, and to be safe, and for my kids to be safe, for them to have good schooling, for just a general sense that things are running well, and we can trust our government, and those things. So I think sisu has definitely built the society that we now have. That is my firm belief, anyway.

Brett McKay: Well, I think it’s an interesting point. So I think when oftentimes, when Americans think of sisu and grit, they’re gonna think of… ‘Cause we’re individualistic, everything. Well, it’s an individual trait, but you described sisu, there’s a collective sense, there’s a group sisu as well. You can see that with the Winter War, that wasn’t just… There was individuals who exemplified sisu, but they also had to exemplify sisu as a group.

Joanna Nylund: They did, yeah, and I think in general, too. My grandmother who was a young mother when the war broke out. She said, she always said that people came together, like at no time before. She’d never seen anything like it before or since. Just that sense of community that, “For this time, we need to pull together. We need to set our differences aside, and we need to come together and just be as one.” And we are in difficult times right now, the world. And I think, this is my own personal theory, that basically, nations that aren’t as divided are probably doing a bit better in fighting COVID because it does require that kind of community thinking and all for one and one for all. And I feel that that’s what community sisu is about, is that you go through something difficult, but you go through it together and you try to be there for one another.

Brett McKay: So in the book, this section that I had a lot of fun with, where you described how, the way sisu is used in language, how parents talk to their kids about sisu. And there’s sisu sayings that kinda like pump-up sayings. What, can you walk us some of these Finnish sayings about sisu?

Joanna Nylund: Yeah, well, there is one. There’s a few of them mentioned in the book. There’s one called “Sisällöllä Ja Sydämellä,” which is, “With sisu and heart,” and that’s something that you see used a lot because it basically is that’s what we want to embody, that’s how we want to live. We want to have sisu and we want to have heart. And then I think I mentioned this “Läpi Harmaan Kiven,” which is literally means, “Going through the gray stone,” and the gray stone referred to is granite, it’s gray granite, which we have a lot of in Finland and it’s really, really hard.

And that kind of that, it doesn’t mention the word “sisu”, but it’s a very sisu saying in the sense that that’s how we feel, that you’re just, “We’re just gonna like go through this rock, basically, if that’s what it takes, you know?” [chuckle] Yeah, and I think there was something else, but I can’t remember. [chuckle] I don’t have the book in front of me.

Brett McKay: Yeah, and one thing I liked is that parents tell their kids… The best compliment a kid can get is when a parent says, “You have sisu,” makes a kid’s day.

Joanna Nylund: Yeah. Yeah, yeah, yeah. Yeah. Yeah, it makes you sort of grow 10 inches, at least. [chuckle]

Brett McKay: Yeah.

Joanna Nylund: As a kid.

Brett McKay: Well, let’s talk about some ways people can cultivate sisu in their own lives, even if they don’t live in Finland. And so the most obvious way, I think, people can develop sisu is like, “Well, I just do uncomfortable things.” So how do Finns embrace discomfort to cultivate sisu? And how, what can other people from other countries learn from that?

Joanna Nylund: Well, first of all, I just wanna say that yeah, definitely, sisu is a universal trait. It’s not something that we only possess; it’s just that we have happened to name it and make use of it. I think probably, you mentioned discomfort, and I think that’s a really key element in cultivating some sisu for yourself. And I think one thing that we do it is obviously, like I already mentioned, the climate. That when you live in a place where the climate is tough for big parts of the year, you have to decide how you’re gonna let that affect you. And I’m sure this is true for, like I said, all regions in the world where the climate is a bit of a challenge, is that you learn to work around it, and you learn to not let it dictate what you can and can’t do.

So that’s something, I think, like we see now, for instance. We still have winter here, and it doesn’t matter how cold it is. You’ll see people cycling, you’ll see people running, you’ll see them obviously skiing and skating and doing all these things, but it’s like an every day thing, where you sort of quietly defy any circumstances that are set against you. [chuckle] And also, to experience, I think, the joy that lies on the other side of that, that if you, for instance, as a child… I think I mentioned in the book that if you do something that is a bit uncomfortable and maybe you get cold or maybe you get wet, or it’s a bit tough, you just feel so much more empowered afterwards. And that’s something I notice equally much, I think, as an adult, that it does me good to actually push myself a little, even if it’s just a daily discomfort or like…

Well, I’m sure you’re gonna mention the summer cottage thing perhaps later on, but that’s also an aspect of that. That we actually want to spend some of our holidays in discomfort. [chuckle] That’s a very Finnish thing. But I think basically, don’t be too soft on yourself, maybe that’s the core message. Don’t always go where the sort of the threshold is the lowest. Don’t always be so extra kind to yourself. Try to push yourself a little bit and see what happens. That’s probably…

Brett McKay: No, and another… Yeah, but another, yeah, another takeaway I got from that is that Finns really embrace contrast or extremes. So you said the winters are very cold, it’s very dark. And in the summer, it’s wonderful, it’s beautiful, but the days are longer, and they embrace that. But the other thing you embrace for contrast is you have… Well, in America, we say sauna, but I’ve learned that it’s sauna.

Joanna Nylund: Oh, very good; it’s very good.

Brett McKay: Yeah. So you have the sauna culture as well. It’s a… You go from extreme cold to extreme heat.

Joanna Nylund: Oh, yes. [chuckle] Yeah, we do, yeah. [chuckle]

Brett McKay: Do you have a sauna in your house, in your place?

Joanna Nylund: Yeah, I live in an apartment building, but sure, yeah, yeah, we do. You can sign up and you can, you sort of book a time on Saturday or Friday or Sunday or whenever, and you go with your spouse or your family and for an hour or so. Yeah, it’s wonderful.

Brett McKay: Yeah. No, I’ve got a sauna, it’s one of the biggest…

Joanna Nylund: Oh! Oh, great, wow!

Brett McKay: Yeah, it was one of the biggest and the best purchases I’ve ever made. It’s fantastic, I love it. And it’s been great here in Oklahoma this winter. We’ve had a really tough winner, got a lot of ice and snow. It’s negative six degrees, and it was great to get in the sauna. And then being there, it’s 190 degrees, and then come out into the air where it’s negative six, you’re like, “This is amazing! It feels fantastic.”

Joanna Nylund: Yeah. [chuckle] Well, you’re on to something there, yeah. [chuckle]

Brett McKay: Yeah, develop some sisu. Okay, so that you mentioned the cabin culture. I thought this, I didn’t know this about Finland. So having a summer cabin is a pretty fairly common thing, but it’s not like a cabin where there’s electricity and running water; it’s just like… It’s basically a building with four walls and a roof.

Joanna Nylund: Yeah, basically. For the die-hards, I think I did add in the book as well that of course, things are changing because we are more comfort-loving, and I think my generation is and probably the next one, even more. But for the die-hards, yeah, it has to be a proper… It’s basically back to nature, that’s… And like you say, it’s a good point that we always seem to be like… We’ve had to live with these contrasts, but we all also seem to search them out, I would say, because obviously, we have very comfortable homes in the city or wherever we live, always double-glazing and well-insulated houses, and we’re very snug and warm in wintertime, and all that. But then, we want this simplicity, we want this feeling of coming back to something more primal, I would say, something more, something that is a lot more connected to nature. And I think to some degree, we are, as a people, we are still quite connected to nature, or even feeling a longing for it, or that we belong in nature. And we don’t want to bring all of the comforts and perks of modern life into that. We actually want to lead a simple life for a few weeks every summer and come back refreshed. So yeah, that’s a bit weird, probably.

Brett McKay: No, that’s a good point. So this isn’t a cabin you go to just for the weekend. They actually, they’ll take two or three weeks in the beginning of the summer to do that, right?

Joanna Nylund: Oh, yeah. Oh, yeah, and you know, some people did, they just wanna isolate completely. They just stay there, they don’t wanna see anybody. That’s their idea of a good summer holiday, is that you let your beard grow, and you walk around in your sweat pants from 10 years ago, and you do some odd jobs around the summer cabin because there’s obviously lots of things to do always, to fix and so on. [chuckle] But not seeing anyone and not sort of… Just kinda really leading a hermit existence for a few weeks, that’s… A lot of people, that’s their highest dream. That’s what they want to do. [chuckle]

Brett McKay: Well, so there’s…

Joanna Nylund: I fall somewhere in between. I’m not really that hardcore, but. [chuckle]

Brett McKay: Well, there’s some takeaways there from the summer cabin thing about other ways you can develop sisu. One is that solitude or silence. You talk about that in the book, the idea of silence. How does silence develop sisu, you think?

Joanna Nylund: Oh, I think I’m getting really excited about this. I even wrote a book about silence specifically last year, and because it intrigues me so much. But I think when it comes to silence, I think basically… To sisu, I think basically what creates sisu is this if you go really deep and philosophical, it’s this inner focus, this inner peace. And I think in order to develop it at all, you have to come face-to-face with yourself. You have to not be afraid to be by yourself in silence, at least for short periods of time. And there used to be a time not that long ago when that was self-evident and people would do that without even thinking. But now, obviously, life looks very different and we have to really commit to having even five minutes of silence in a day, sometimes, it feels like. [chuckle] But I think it’s really essential to sort of just center yourself to focus. And people talk about mindfulness and all that stuff, and maybe you could call it mindfulness, but for me, it’s just, it’s a form of connection.

And I don’t feel like I even know what’s going on with me unless I take that time every day because there’s so much input. There’s everything from social media to news coverage all the time, and there’s pods and radio, and there’s music playing, and there’s all these things coming at us all the time. And I really feel the need, personally, to just sit in silence for a bit and figure out what’s going on with me and connect with myself. And that’s where I think sisu starts, that I can’t really connect with this inner strength that I have unless I do that. And nature, obviously, is a really good vehicle for bringing out silence because that… You go out there and you already, you immediately, you’re plunged into this sense of peace and harmony, and it… Yeah, it just takes care of itself, I think. [chuckle] Sorry for the long answer there. [chuckle]

Brett McKay: No, it’s… No, I love it, it sounds like you’re passionate about this.

Joanna Nylund: I am. [chuckle] I am, yeah.

Brett McKay: So it’s a way to cultivate silence, just disconnect from the Internet, from the hive mind, make moments where you’re not checking your phone all the time. And then also, yeah, be alone. A sauna is a great place to be alone, if you want to.

Joanna Nylund: Oh, yeah.

Brett McKay: But then yeah, you said nature, yeah.

Joanna Nylund: But the sauna, too, and it’s quite meditative, don’t you find?

Brett McKay: Oh, yes.

Joanna Nylund: If you’re in it by yourself and in the heat and everything, and you find your thoughts slowing down and you’re thinking about nothing in particular, and it’s just the most wonderful feeling, I think. [chuckle]

Brett McKay: No, it’s true, I love it.

Joanna Nylund: Yes, yeah.

Brett McKay: So you mentioned nature. So Finns, I imagine, they love to hike, love to snowshoe, they love to be outdoors no matter what the weather is.

Joanna Nylund: Yeah. Yeah, yeah, yeah, absolutely.

Brett McKay: Yeah. No such thing as bad weather; just bad clothes, basically.

Joanna Nylund: Yeah, yeah, absolutely, yeah. And the Swedes have a saying like that, too. So I think it goes for all the Nordics because we’ve been faced with a choice that either we just sit on our couch for half of the year, or we decide that we’re gonna go out there no matter what, you know? I have my limits. For instance, right now, we’ve had really, really icy weather for about two days and I’ve tried not to go out because I really hate it when it’s that slippery. But that’s my only exception. Otherwise, I will go out no matter what the weather.

Brett McKay: Okay, so other, some Nordic countries have an idea. So we’ve talked about, we’ve had Meik Wiking on the podcast talk about hygge. I think it’s from Denmark.

Joanna Nylund: Yeah, yeah.

Brett McKay: Do the Finns have a similar concept to that? There’s an opposite of sisu, that if you experience sisu, you can enjoy this feeling of, I don’t know, comfort or coziness, I don’t know what. Is there something like that?

Joanna Nylund: Well, I think they’re… I don’t think they’re related concepts, necessarily. I know Meik, actually. We did this speaking engagement together, like a panel for a few years ago, and it was really interesting to contrast these different ideas that we have in the Nordics, but I think we have hygge as well. Of course, who doesn’t like to cuddle up with under a blanket and light some candles and drink a glass of wine. [chuckle] And of course, we enjoy that, and I think that’s something that you need to… You can’t neglect that either, especially in wintertime. You have to… Because you will still be spending a lot of time indoors and you have to make yourself cozy. So I wouldn’t say necessarily that sisu is something that makes you cozy, but we just… We easily borrow from our neighbors and I think they borrow from us as well.

Brett McKay: So okay, so Finns cultivated sisu, embrace discomfort, get outside, embrace silence, disconnect so you can tap into that inner strength, inner reservoir strength. Then you also, in the book, you talk about how there’s a sisu way… You make the case there’s a sisu way of communicating. So what does that, what is it, what do… How do Finns communicate? And how has sisu influenced that?

Joanna Nylund: Well, I think we’re known as being fairly blunt and unsmiling. [chuckle] I don’t necessarily count myself in among that, but as a people. But behind that bluntness is a real love of honesty, and being genuine, and being authentic, and speaking the truth. And I have a chapter in the book about business negotiations because this is where I’ve observed this close-hand how Finns negotiate and what is different in our culture. And I think there is just a value of being a straight talker and of being very upfront about issues and problems, for instance, in a business because obviously, naming the problem is really necessary in order to be able to start work on it. So I think that’s the sisu saying.

It’s an integrity thing. And also, we really mean what we say in Finland. And there’s this… I don’t mean to say that other peoples don’t, but there is a culture where you have these phrases that don’t necessarily mean very much. A classic one, I think, is the American who comes, and you run into him in the street and he’s like, “Oh, this, it’s so nice to see you. And let’s meet up some time.” And the Finn will immediately bring out his calendar and go, “Okay, when?” [chuckle]

Brett McKay: Calling us on our bluff.

Joanna Nylund: Yeah, yeah, yeah, exactly. And the American will be embarrassed, and the Finn would be like, “But you said you wanted to meet up. I thought you were sincere.” So it’s those kind of kinda funny situations that occur. So we don’t really understand that kind of… We don’t really do small talk, and we don’t necessarily have all these nice phrases that tend to fill out things, and perhaps make people more comfortable, I don’t know. But the upside, I would argue, is that when we speak, you know that we speak the truth, and if a Finn is your friend, then he’s gonna be your friend for life, and he’s gonna stick by you.

And so it’s all that, that’s sort of putting a lot of value on being authentic and genuine, and being honest, and that your handshake and that your word really should mean something. That’s very sisu, and that’s very much, I think, part of how we communicate both in business and sort of at a state level with heads of state and so on. So that’s something that really runs through also our personal communication.

Brett McKay: Well, I imagine, too, sisu helps Finns have those hard conversations that other people would wanna avoid. So you’re like, “Nope. What’s this? I gotta have sisu here, dig deep, have some grit, and let’s say, let’s have this uncomfortable conversation.”

Joanna Nylund: Yeah, yeah. [chuckle] Yeah, yeah, I think… I don’t think it’s a coincidence that we’ve had some peace brokers, some successful ones have come from Finland. Because if you’re sitting there with two warring parties at the same table, I think you have to just call a spade a spade and be very blunt and upfront about what the issues are. And that’s where the Finnish-ness helps. [chuckle]

Brett McKay: So we have a lot of people who are listening to this podcast who are parents, and I know a lot of parents, particularly in America, they’re concerned about… They want their kids to be resilient, they want them to not be burdened by anxiety, or things like that. So what do you think American parents, or Canadian, British, I don’t know, whoever, South African, I don’t know, whoever is listening to this, Japan. What can we learn from the Finns on how to foster sisu in our children?

Joanna Nylund: That’s a good question, yeah. I think one phrase that I used in the book was “cheerful empowerment”, which I feel is something that my parents did for me, is that they… When I would be whining and complaining and not wanting to do things, they would just have this fairly cheerful approach and be like, “Oh, it’s not that bad,” and, “You’ll like it when you’re out there,” and like, “If it’s too cold, just keep moving.” [chuckle] And all those things that I feel like I am much obliged to them for having done that because they knew that I could do it. It’s more of instilling in the child a sense of belief in themselves. And of course, that’s sometimes easier said than done, but I think part of it is allowing kids a little bit of freedom.

And I know that this is really a tricky one because there are so many dangers lurking out there. And obviously, if you live in a big city anywhere in the world you can’t just let your kids go out and play anywhere or just say, “Oh, come back by 5:00,” or whatever. So I know it’s a big challenge, but I think, at least in principle, to try to allow them some freedom, to try to allow them to get some scrapes and bruises, and to maybe fall off their bike, or fall off, fall down from a tree, if not too high. But to just maybe let them discover their own inner strengths, in a way, because it’s not something that they can really figure out if they don’t ever do anything, or if they’re never allowed to do anything and/or to try their own boundaries and see what they’re actually capable of. So it’s really difficult. It’s a very sort of shaky line to walk. I know that, but I think that that’s probably what lies at the heart of Finnish… How we raise our children, is that principle, a sort of supervised freedom, but freedom.

Brett McKay: Yeah, something like… Do parents just say, “Get out of the house,” and kids can go explore wherever they want and it’s like, “Be back by dinner time”? Is that how it is?

Joanna Nylund: Yeah. Yeah, yeah. I grew up in the countryside, and it was definitely like that. My mom would say… [chuckle] I have two older brothers, and she was a bit more cautious with me, she said. But with them, it was just… She wouldn’t know where they were. They were gone the whole day and she was, “Oh, they’re with their friends somewhere.” And this was way before cellphones or anything like that. And she would just be like, “Well, if… They’re supposed to turn up by 5:00. If they don’t turn up by 6:00, then maybe I’ll start to ring around their friends’ parents and so on.” [chuckle] So that sense of…

Not neglect, by any means, but just a sense of ease, perhaps, that they’re gonna be fine. And I actually think that kids are a lot more resilient than we give them credit for a lot of the time, that they’re not… They won’t break, or they won’t melt if it rains on them a little bit. [chuckle] That kind of thinking. That’s very Finnish, I think, and very sisu.

Brett McKay: Another thing you talk about your mom would say to you when you were timid about something, it was like, something like, “Go boldly,” or, “Do it boldly.”

Joanna Nylund: Yeah, yeah, yeah.

Brett McKay: I really liked that. I thought that was cool.

Joanna Nylund: Yeah, yeah. [chuckle] Yeah, she would say that, yeah, “Rohkeasti Nyt”, which means to just, “Boldly now”, basically, yeah, and…

Brett McKay: Boldly now, yeah.

Joanna Nylund: Boldly now, yeah. Just go for it. And it was me on my ice skates when I was four. But yeah, it’s a really good principle, I think. I still keep that in mind. I still have that phrase in the back of my head, that just go for it. And I think I would think that’s a very American notion as well, to not let your fears decide what you’re gonna do.

Brett McKay: Well, Joanna, this has been a great conversation. Where can people go to learn more about the book and the rest of your work?

Joanna Nylund: Well, basically, I’m not very active on social media, I’m afraid, but I do have social media accounts. So you can find me on Instagram and Facebook. The book, you can basically buy wherever books are sold online. And in the States, it’s distributed by Running Press. But yeah, I think it’s not a hard book to find.

Brett McKay: Well, fantastic! Well, yeah, not having a social media presence, that’s very sisu.

Joanna Nylund: Well, I do, but I’m not very active. And I don’t know, I don’t wanna be, I don’t wanna… I’m not an influencer in that sort of social media sense. [chuckle] But I do hope to influence people via my books and my writing and so on, but yeah. [chuckle]

Brett McKay: Fantastic. Well, Joanna, thanks for your time. It’s been a pleasure.

Joanna Nylund: Thank you, Brett, so much. It’s been my pleasure, absolutely. Thanks!

Brett McKay: My guest today was Joanna Nylund. She’s the author of the book Sisu: The Finnish Art of Courage. It’s available on and book stores everywhere. Make sure to check out our show notes at, where you can find links to resources where we delve deeper into this topic.

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