Sisu lessons: failure and persistence

We’ve been in Finland for about 6 weeks now – and by the outset we are all settled.  But, I still can’t shake this feeling of late: What if I fail at my project?

With words I sound dramatic – but in many ways, also good to acknowledge.

I have become dispirited of late because the data I am working with is sparser than what I am used too.  Many of the processes I am modeling are observable – to an extent. However the methods that I have been working with (going technical here: MCMC parameter estimation, coding in R) either are too computationally slow or not robust enough for me to produce meaningful results.  This is not an easy problem to solve (which is good, challenging, exciting, all at the same time).

But yet, being here, in Finland, is such an investment in me – by my family, by my colleagues at the University of Eastern Finland, by the Fulbright Finland Foundation, that failure is not an option. 

Once I pull on the thread of “I am going to fail”, it spirals downward.  I know these moods for me are like the polar vortex: when it settles in, it is here to stay. 

It is easy for me to provide a pep talk to myself, which in my internal monologue sounds something like one of the following: (a) “You will be fine, don’t worry.” (b) “Well you have all this time in Finland, you will figure it out.”  (c) “At least you aren’t teaching.”  Yes, those are all true, but ….

I am not the only one who feels this way (imposter syndrome for example). Science, (and probably more broadly) needs to normalize the discussion about failure.  Showcasing more stories of persistence and resilence (such as here) are an important first step.

Intersecting this conversation is also a critical discussion about justice, diversity, and equity.  As a white, cisgendered male I come from an extraordinary place of privilege; the impact (externalized or internalized) of failure is non-uniform across different identity groups.  I need a laser-focused equity lens to support and nurture my students – and to help them realize that failure is not a dead end.

Perhaps two lessons could be learned from Finland.  The first – the Finnish concept of sisu – is the quiet persistence through obstacles (internalized for me in this discussion I said to myself “Well if what you are doing isn’t working, find another way.”)  The idea of a growth mindset and the power of the “not yet” is a natural offshoot of sisu. I preach the growth mindset this to my students, and perhaps need to internalize my own lessons more.

Nordic theory of everything.

However is there a broader societal role as well?  The second lesson is related to what the author Anu Partanen in The Nordic Theory of Everything: In Search of a Better of Life calls the “Nordic theory of love”. (A longer explanation and analysis into the lessons learned from that book is needed – soon hopefully!).  But let’s start.  Allowing oneself to fail is related to the ability to take risks.  Innovation – which includes the freedom to take risks and fail – is permissible in Finland due to how society is structured.

For example, companies take a long-term view of their employees. There is a broad societal understanding and appreciation in an appropriate work-life balance (and health care is considered a human right).  In summation, this structure frees employees and companies to take risks, and perhaps normalizes failure.  As Partnanen states “A more humane pace, and flexible work practices, nuture it [innovation] as well” (p 293).  There is something to be said about how freedom from worry about health care, retirement, education allows more freedom for innovation.  But perhaps there is more to that story, which is for another time.

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