No light at the end of the tunnel

The Finns call it Sisu. It’s the ability to keep going even when there is no light at the end of the tunnel. It’s to take the approach that whilst it feels like you will not prevail, it’s better to keep trying than to give up. I’ve been lucky enough to break a cycling record. But it took five years and three attempts. During that time, there was absolutely no certainty that we would ever manage to do it. Picking oneself up after each failure, hunkering down to start the process of the next attempt required Sisu. Be under no illusions, getting your head around having to start an 860 mile non-stop bike ride takes some doing. Even more so when you’ve failed twice before. Sisu is a useful trait to have in many situations in life. Whether it was failing to save a document before the computer crashed and and having to start all over again, or having the wherewithal to keep going when an incident has shut operations and hundreds even thousands of customers are all baying for blood.

What I have noticed when people do give up is that there is always a reason that generally has little to do with them. The computer crashed, or, the manager let me down, or I got an injury and couldn’t carry on. It’s very rarely “I wasn’t good enough” or “I realised I didn’t have what it takes”. Being able to blame something or someone else feels a lot better than coming to terms with one’s own limitations. In blaming others though, there is very little opportunity for growth. Very little opportunity to develop resilience. To be resilient is to respond to a potentially traumatic event in a way that, whilst it may be very challenging and possibly result in failure, you learn and grow from the experience and become more able to cope in the future.

I accept that in extremis, the experience may be so traumatic that it becomes permanently damaging and it is not a question of Sisu, but survival. The example that springs to mind is the victims of child abuse. This horrific crime results in neurological and physiological changes in the victim that go way beyond anything that simply changing your mindset might affect. But for most very demanding, hard, difficult situations, how we choose to respond is a choice. How do you choose to persevere rather than to find the excuse and give up? My sense is it begins with a strong connection with the goal you are trying to achieve. The more it matters to you, the more you may be willing to tolerate. Therefore ensuring you really understand why the goal is important to you and what you hope it will bring is the first step to preparing yourself to demonstrate Sisu when the need arises. Secondly, it’s useful if the goal is more than a binary “did it” or “did not do it”. By having a range, it allows you to maintain the effort for the next best outcome rather than no outcome at all. For example, when thinking about a race, a simple binary objective might be to win the race. But if halfway through it looks like your going to lose, do you then stop and give up? Or do you keep going? If the goal was broken down into sub goals, such as:

  • Winning the race
  • Being the first placed age grouper
  • Beating a personal best time
  • Completing the race

Now there are options. Such that when misfortune falls and affects what you can achieve, there are always the secondary goals to aim for. And who knows how things can pan out?

Another way that can help is to break things down into the smallest of steps. As the adage goes, a thousand mile journey begins with the first step. By working out the smallest steps you can take, at least you are continuing to make progress. Sometimes goals can be so overwhelming and so huge as to seem impossible. As a result, we cannot get our head around the enormity of the challenge and so we give up. Instead, if we park the goal in the back of our mind and focus on the simple this we can do right now then we get to feel a sense of accomplishment that can fuel the drive to keep going. For example, writing a book begins with working on just one small section…and then the next….and then the next, and so on. A 60,000 word book written over 18 months is roughly 180 words a day allowing for 6 weeks holiday and not writing at the weekends. Most of us probably write more words than that in texts and emails each morning.

So no matter how great the challenge, in the first instance make sure it is something that really matters to you, give yourself gold, silver and bronze options such that there is always something to aim for. Secondly, no matter how hard it gets, think of the Finns and their national trait of Sisu and decide to keep going even though it seems impossible. Dream of that goal to help you get through the dark times. And in the deepest darkest moments, focus on the simple things you can do right now to keep things progressing. Enough small steps will add up to an amazing journey.

Dominic Irvine © 2019 All rights asserted