Fuel, Not Fear

Transforming the narratives of our past adversities

Posted Sep 09, 2018

 Photography by Nicole Millard
Source: Photo ©Joscelyn Duffy International Inc., Photo credit: Photography by Nicole Millard

Recently someone said to me, “You want to shape your business to make sure you don’t fall ill again.”

I was taken aback. In spite of having faced life-threatening illness twice, I’ve never seen myself as sick...nor do I really want or need anyone else to. I also don’t spend my days dreading that I could fall ill again.

The chosen narrative of my life is one of “yes, I can” and not “I can’t because (insert presumption about someone who has faced life-threatening illness).”

All I know is this: overcoming two blood clots, E coli in my blood, and subsequent flares of lupus nephritis was definitely not part of my plan for my early adulthood. It has however evoked the wisdom, insight, and clarity that have allowed me to work seamlessly as an ally to global thought leaders. It is what has gifted me the capacity to build the incredible international business I have.

Having faced illness served as a developer, not a detractor.

How I was able to reach this point of strength and clarity (a question I ask myself)?

In the times when we are physically, mentally and emotionally tested beyond the point of what we had previously perceived to be our capacity (whether during times of illness or adversity, or in the moments where those experiences come back to haunt us), it feels as though something bigger than us is being provoked—being asked to come into play.

For me, this force is what pushed me to rise above and beyond the moment where a doctor told me I was going to die, or those moments in which I lived in unbearable physical pain, lying in the hospital’s trauma ward.

One of the best descriptions of this force may very well be what researcher Emilia Lahti, MAPP teaches: the Finnish cultural construct known as sisu, or “that which enables us to endure the toughest of situations and take action against nearly impossible odds.” It is described as “what keeps us going, when we feel we have reached the end of our abilities.”

Etymologically the word is derived from sisus, which quite literally refers to the physical internal organs of a human or animal body (literally its guts). This word has connotations of mental toughness, determination fused with emotional intelligence. Sisu is about having strength of character and the ability to push beyond what you’ve know in the past or what you know (think) you can do.

Sisu is not a new concept (the term has existed for hundreds of years and the principle dates back much further), nor is our ability to make the choice to step beyond our current or past circumstances and courageously create something new—to forge ahead even when negating forces are present.

In her 2013 study, one of Emilia Lahti’s main findings was “the perception of sisu as a reserve of power which enables extraordinary action to overcome mentally or physically challenging situations.” It is a reserve, ever-present within each of us, available for use when trying times demand it.

Some of the most incredible leaders I’ve had the pleasure of knowing and working with have also faced or live with life-threatening illness. The commonality we all share is that our lived experience has become our fuel, not our fear. Our lives are about progression, not pessimism.

Our lived experience can be our fuel, not our fear.

We’ve transformed and moved past our past health challenges, choosing to use those experiences as springboards to do magnificent, big-scale work in this lifetime. None of us, none, are living in our stories...nor do we want anyone to be doing so for us.

One of Emilia’s main points is that sisu is about an “action mindset—reaching beyond present limitations and taking action against all odds and transforming barriers into frontiers.” It’s about doing what is necessary not only to survive, but to thrive, even when it’s difficult.

Only the idealist in us believes that we’ll never fall ill if we’re doing everything “right.” The realist knows that sometimes life happens—that we live in a world filled with crazy toxins and viruses to which no of us are fully immune. As a doctor once put it in conversation with me, “sometimes it’s just dumb luck.”

My favorite definition for sisu is “a knowing that things will turn out okay.” This is precisely the knowledge that allowed me to swiftly move beyond the comments that suggested I should tip-toe through my life and let fear be the director of what I may or may not create in my reality or keep pushing forward when I was told that I was going to die.

When it comes to how I build my business and live my life, I’ll take my chances on living big (while nurturing my mind, body and soul).

I’ve chosen to sustain my courage in the face of all adversity, knowing that it’s in these moments of challenge where we build what Wharton Psychologist Adam Grant fondly refers to as our “resilience muscle.” Because when that muscle is strong, we can be assured that we’ll have the know-how to be able to rise above and transform any of life’s unexpected twists and turns.

I’m choosing to use my experiences as FUEL, NOT FEAR and I wish the same for you.



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