From my early martial arts days and collegiate wrestling days, through my military service and time as a gym rat, and in my wellness coaching career, my life’s journey has always been immersed in ideas and conversations about personal development and mental fortitude.
Often, we conceptualize mental toughness as an unyielding kind of grit – the relentless pursuit of a goal through unbreakable determination and persistence. But, I’ve discovered through my own experiences and observations, mental toughness is not solely this rigid trait, and toughness reliant on this rigidity is all the more fragile and susceptible to shattering in ways that make recovery incredibly difficult.
I’ve often encountered the narrative of mental toughness as this “do or die” relentless pursuit of a goal. It took me many failures and reaching some critical breaking points to realize that it is, paradoxically, just as much about flexibility, openness, gentleness, and adaptability as it is about grit and forcefulness.
True and sustainable, long-term mental toughness is a beautiful amalgamation of resilience and adaptability, determination and gentleness, persistence and openness. Just as harder steel, less forgiving and more rigid, risks catastrophic shattering when subjected to enough strain, the same is true for our mentalities.
You’ve likely heard of “sisu”, a Finnish term echoed in some fitness circles. It encapsulates an ideal of relentless determination, endurance, and hardiness. It’s an attitude for facing adversity and beating insurmountable odds.
“Sisu” is an idiom. It doesn’t have a direct English counterpart, but it symbolizes a blend of relentless determination, endurance, and hardiness. It’s an attitude for confronting adversity, and hardship, in true Viking-blood fashion, like a berserker on henbane. Do or die.
That’s great for a suicide mission. Or even for breaking through barriers, shattering glass ceilings, and boosting through plateaus in competition. But it’s not a mindset to build a sustainable, healthy lifestyle around. It’s more of a “here for a good time, not a long time approach.”
Across the world in Tanzania, there’s another phrase that captures a resilient and determined heart, in quite a different way, “hamna shida.” Though it’s often translated as ‘no problem,’ (a La ‘Hakuna Matata’ from The Lion King) essence is much deeper. It conveys an attitude of “Oh well… life happens. Accept it and keep moving forward appropriately, without making it harder on yourself & others by being angry about it.”
Very much akin to Stoicism, Zen, and Taoist ideas, this concept reminds us to meet the world as it is and to deal with the reality of things, rather than protest it internally—but not making the common mistake of doing so in an unfeeling and low-empathy, “just get over it,” sort of way, but rather as a reawakening to the stark reality that there is nothing else to do but keep going. Further, it invites us to consider which mindset would be more appropriate and helpful to us and others in the situation: one of focused anger, by laughing at the situation, by blocking emotion and getting through the moment to reflect later, or by generally keeping a positive outlook, staying focused on the goals or tasks at hand, and thinking about how to be helpful in the situation. None of these are inherently better or worse – their value comes from us and our intentions and goals. But often we sabotage ourselves and our relationships and have a detrimental effect due to choosing a hyper-masculine, low-empathy, gritty way of dealing with things as if it were appropriate and preferable in all situations.
When the path gets rocky, being an immovable boulder or a wrecking ball isn’t always the solution. At times, we need to be like water — adaptable, flexible, and accepting, capable of both flowing and crashing. There may be moments that call for sisu, but the philosophy of hamna shida is always indispensable, a constant companion on life’s journey.
This approach to mental toughness is what I’ve found most effective and sustainable. There might be moments that call for the rigid stubbornness of sisu, but even within that, the tranquility of “hamna shida” is always indispensable. So when the going gets tough, the tough get going, and we remember to be flexible and open.
This lesson was hard to learn and continues to be a daily practice, especially after being born with a soul of pure sisu, leading to me giving myself the Icarus treatment time and time again.
Hamna shida my friends. If the situation calls for force, channel sisu from a foundation of hamna shida.
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