“The difference between peak performance and poor performance is not intelligence or ability; most often it’s the state that your mind and body is in.” Tony Robbins
Grit. Moxie. Holy chutzpah. And now this – “Sisu” – one of the latest terms making the rounds in Positive Psychology circles. Sisu is a Finnish word that has no direct translation but embodies the qualities of bravery, empowerment, inner strength, and the crazy recklessness that inspires someone to take on something in the face of incredible odds (kinda like Pinchat the Zealot – before zealotry got a bad name).
I know this is not exactly an academic source, but I liked the definition I came across in the Urban Dictionary: “It doesn’t take Sisu to go to the North Pole; it takes Sisu to stand at the door when the bear is on the other side.” Unlike resilience, hardiness and the search for meaning – which are long game ventures – Sisu is urgent, the bold undertaking of a mission that could be kamikaze, were it not for a micro slim chance of success. Sisu is the very opposite of analysis paralysis. But don’t get me wrong; it’s not a fool’s errand, but rather a heroic and noble gesture for something quite worthy.
Don’t Do This at Home
This week’s Torah portion is named Pinchat, after the man who acted heroically at a crucial time when the leadership was frozen with indecision and inaction. In killing Zimri, who was engaged in a flagrant shocking public display of sexual immorality, Pinchat risked forfeiting his own life, for he acted without authority, and Zimri was the leader of his tribe. There was neither punishment nor retaliation, however, for Pinchat’s brave and selfless act stopped a plague that God had brought against the Jewish men (for their complicity), and Pinchat was inducted into the lineage of the High Priesthood.
Unfortunately, some can misconstrue this episode as validating violence for a so-called “sacred cause.” The caliber of Pinchat’s character, his selfless agenda, and love of the Jewish people raises the bar way above most of our heads. There is an applicable lesson to be learned, however, for there are times when the elements of Sisu and the traits of Pinchat can serve us very well.
Do This at Home – The 5 Second Rule
How many times have you had an instinct to call someone you haven’t spoken to in a long time, felt the urge to do an impromptu act of generosity big or small, thought of telling the stranger at the checkout line that you thought her haircut was fabulous or wished you could have interrupted the person who was badmouthing a friend? How many times do you wish you could have acted, but didn’t, and then the moment was over, and the opportunity gone, sometimes forever?
Often, when we get the urge to do something (good, that is), our brain starts to come up with excuses or reasons why not it’s not a great idea, or no biggie if we let it go. We pass the homeless person on the street and while our first inclination may be to drop a dollar in his bucket, we know we don’t have easy instant access to cash, and really, it’s not a good idea to start to root around in one’s purse or wallet, after all, when you’re walking in the city you should never display money out on the street, I mean one’s purse or wallet could easily get snatched if you get distracted, and come to think of it, that homeless guy looked a little drunk or high, and…and…and by now you’re halfway down the block anyway. Oh well. You meant to help.
In an interesting book called “The Five Second Rule” by Mel Robbins, Robbins posits that the moment we have the instinct to act on a commitment or goal, we have a 5 second window of opportunity before the brain shuts us down. When we hesitate to act, the brain interprets that as danger or uncertainty, and it devises ways to be protective. When inspiration hits, states Robbins, before you hesitate you should immediately count backward 5-4-3-2-1 and then move physically. The backward count (as opposed to forward, where you can keep adding to the numbers) is finite and acts as a “pattern interrupt.” The point is to interrupt the ingrained patterns of thinking that keep you from acting and to train your brain to act while disconnecting from feelings that drag you down. After all, no one really feels like acting outside his or her comfort zone. And by moving, the change in physiology disrupts the inclination to remain inert.
I had drafted an email to someone asking for feedback on one of my blogs. Because I considered this person to be way above my pay grade, I was afraid to send it, and the email sat in my drafts folder day after day, where I would edit and revise it, ad nauseum, waiting for the bravado of perfect words. An insomniac, I was listening to “The 5 Second Rule” as an audio book, and all of a sudden, I thought of this email and I got fired up with the courage to send it. Before my brain could convince me to wait until morning to send it (and then never), I counted 5-4-3-2-1 and then I immediately got out of bed, went to my computer and pushed send (without further reading or revising).
Sisu the Moment
Emilia Lahti, who studies Sisu and how it applies to our lives explains: “It is not so much about achievement as it is about facing your challenges with valor and determination….Sisu provides the final empowering push, when we would otherwise hesitate to act.” The instant I sent that email I felt a sense of exhilarated freedom, because at that moment the power resided in me, not in someone or something else, and whether the individual I sent it to will ever read my writing or respond to me is pure incidental gravy.
Chances are something is popping up into your mind right now as you read these words and it doesn’t have to be heroic or death defying. It could be the apology you’re embarrassed to make, the medical procedure you’re delaying to schedule, or words of love you don’t have the courage to say. Before your brain can convince you of all of the reasons not to act, count 5-4-3-2-1 and then get up and do the thing your heart tells you that you need to do.
If he had thought about it even for a moment, Pinchat could have come up with lots of reasons to stay under the radar and steer clear of the conflict. After all, the conflict was neither his responsibility to fix nor his mess to clean up. Jewish history is filled, however, with people who followed their instincts without having the time to think it through, and they just did what had to be done. Had Pharaoh’s daughter not reached out the instant she saw Moses’ basket floating by in the Nile, he could have been lost forever. Had Nachshon not jumped into the Sea of Reeds, the sea may never have parted and we could have been slaughtered on the shore by the Egyptians.
Says Robbins, “The moment you move is the moment you discover your strength. The best time to do it is when your heart tells you to. Life becomes harder when we hold our greatest selves back by listening to fears and convincing ourselves to wait.”
Never leave something important unsaid or undone. With a little Sisu and the ability to count from 5 to 1, little acts of heart-based courage and instinctive acts of valor could transform your life and relationships in a big way.
Mel Robbins, The 5 Second Rule: Transform Your Life, Work and Confidence With Everyday Courage, (Mel Robbins, 2017).