How to Cultivate the Courage to Achieve Your Goals

Photo by Joshua Earle
Photo by Joshua Earle
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The Challenge: It’s hard to stay standing when faced with extreme challenges.
The Science: Cultivating an action mindset can enable us to actuate inner visions of the future
The Solution: Push through the barriers that come before you–and make that dream a reality!

Adversities are a natural part of the human experience. What is it that enables us to persevere through hardships despite feeling we have reached the end of our capacities? The Nordic country of Finland has a cultural construct known as sisu, used to describe the enigmatic power that enables individuals to push through unbearable challenges. Sisu is a term which dates back over 500 years and is still deeply embedded within Finnish culture. However, the concept has remained rather elusive and understudied. In the spring of 2013, I set out on a quest to uncover the deepest essence of sisu, and to examine it as a psychological strength capacity for the first time in its history.

Sisu as a psychological capacity refers to extraordinary determination, courage and resoluteness in the face of extreme stress or adversity. Sisu also contributes to what I call the action mindset; a consistent, courageous approach toward challenges which at first seem to exceed our capacities. The term ‘action mindset’ conveys the dynamic quality of sisu as an action-enabling strength capacity. Based on the survey data collected from 1,060 respondents this past spring, sisu and the action mindset seem to be especially useful in generating the impetus to tackle highly challenging tasks.

We are creatures of reason, driven by the instinct to survive and preserve equilibrium. Humans constantly run mental simulations of their current situation and environment, in order to detect opportunities and especially possible threats. When we observe a challenge which appears greater than our perceived resources, it is only rational to back down. Evolution comes before survival only in the dictionary, as the millions of cells in our bodies each bear witness to the triumph of natural selection and survival. We are programmed to evolve just enough to ensure survival, and not to evolve any further; evolution occurs only when it is conducive to the continuity of life. However, in order to thrive and evolve, we must also sometimes step out of the comfort zone, and engage in activities which stretch our mental reserves. Having an action mindset allows us to expand our capacities, dive into the deep end even when there is no certainty of coming back in one piece. A person with an action mindset will (1) sign up for a seemingly impossible task (2), stand up for what is right despite potential harm or even danger (3), persevere against all possible odds, and (4) hold on to the slimmest thread of hope and start anew from scratch. The corresponding examples of these numerically listed courageous acts are visible at the bottom of this article in the footnotes.

I suggest that part of the power of sisu lies in its hope-inducing nature (and hope is the spark plug of all action, as we know from the research of Dr. Shane Lopez). It invokes visions of one´s future self. If we dare to see beyond our present situation and capacity, we start to act and move toward our goals, pushing past our barriers. To expose the mind to a story is to prospect and imagine future scenarios and possibilities. Furthermore, an action mindset contributes to how we approach problems. I would describe it as akin to signing up for a marathon or an Ironman before you have any clue what you are actually doing. It provides a daring ´leap before you look´ attitude, so we are not paralyzed by the idea of what might go wrong. All of the major developments of modern civilization have depended on a person or group of people’s ability to prospect possible futures, and to be bold enough to dream and go where no one has gone before. It is about taking a leap of faith, and trusting that when the moment comes we are able keep up the practice, stand behind our vision and push through the obstacles.

Cultivating the action mindset, at its deepest level, is about awakening potential. It is about seeing into what we might be, into the dream, beyond what Aristotle describes as our ‘actual reality’ and its limitations. Instead of stopping where we feel our abilities end, we push through the pain barrier. This barrier might be fear, uncertainty, physical pain or lack of trust in oneself, among many other such limits. As we step past this boundary, we redefine it as a frontier –what could have been the end has become the beginning. In this way, action mindset can serve as a hugely empowering tool with the potential to create massive change in people’s lives. To understand this you only need to recollect perhaps some of the turning points in your life, when you chose to be courageous and take on a challenge instead of being complacent. The inspiring stories listed in the footnotes epitomize this courageous attitude and the action mindset. Without being crazy enough to dream, and badass enough to reach toward a seemingly impossible vision, none of those victorious stories (and your own stories) would exist. Luckily however, they do. May our minds be forever stretched by the power and brilliance they exude.

“What we achieve inwardly will change outer reality.” Plutarch

With sisu.

Emilia


 

Footnotes:

(1) In April 2012 Norma Bastidas set out to run a distance of over 2,600 miles in order to raise awareness of and to end violence against women and children, as well as human trafficking. Furthermore, she has competed in numerous endurance events around the world and is the fastest woman to have run an ultra on all seven continents. Brave, beautiful sprit. You can hear Norma’s story here.

(2) Malala Yousafzai is a 16-year old Pakistani school pupil and education activist who was targeted and shot by extremists on her way to school. After a long road to recovery, Malala is back and determined to keep making her voice heard. She is a symbol of courage and also the youngest nominee for the Nobel Peace Prize in history.

(3) Nick Vujicic was born with tetra-amelia syndrome, a rare disorder characterized by the absence of all four limbs. Vujicic persevered through significant obstacles (including severe depression during adolescence) and is now a motivational speaker who has shared his message of hope to over 5 million people in 44 countries. He lives in California with his wife and son.

(4) Janne Kouri crashed his head into a hidden sandbar while diving, and was instantly paralyzed from the neck down. Kouri´s spinal cord was fractured in two places, and doctors gave him no hope of ever walking. Today, six years later, Kouri can stand up on his own without a walker and has turned the tragedy into his thriving life’s work. Check out NextStep Fitness.

Further resources and references:

Carroll, Patrick & Shepperd, James (2009). Preparedness, mental simulations, and future outlooks. In K. D. Markman, W. M. P. Klein & J. A. Suhr (Eds.), Handbook of imagination and mental simulation (p. 425-440). New York: Taylor & Francis Group.

Edel, Abraham (1996). Aristotle and his philosophy. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers.

Lahti, Emilia (2013). Above and Beyond Perseverance: An Exploration of Sisu.University of Pennsylvania.

Lopez, S. J., Snyder, C. R., Magyar-Moe, J. L., Edwards, L., Pedrotti, J. T. Janowski, K., … Pressgrove, C. (2004). Strategies for accentuating hope. In P.A. Linley & S. Joseph (Eds.), Positive psychology in practice (p. 388-404). Hoboken, NJ: Wiley. Luthar,

Mullins, Aimee (2013). The Opportunity of Adversity. My Favorite TEDtalk on transforming barriers into frontiers and seeing into ‘what might be.’

This article originally appeared at Creativity Post.

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Emilia Lahti
Emilia Lahti (M.Sc., MAPP) is a researcher whose work revolves around understanding how individuals summon strength in the face of extreme adversity and come out of hardships with a newly discovered sense of purpose and adaptability. Emilia studied positive psychology at the University of Pennsylvania under Dr. Martin Seligman, the founder of the field. Through her current PhD work on the Finnish construct of sisu (denoting extraordinary mental toughness and determination), Emilia seeks to create practical, empowering solutions that alleviate human suffering and increase well-being on a global scale.
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