Monday, July 8, 2013

Grit and Sisu

What does it take to succeed in academia?  How is success measured?

For students entering graduate school, at least in many physics departments, the answer would seem to be "high GRE scores."  Recently I attended the APS Bridge Program Summer Meeting 2013 where much attention was directed to another factor that is harder measure but, many believe, ultimately more reliable: perseverance and passion for long-term goals.  Sometimes called "fire in the belly", this personality trait is known in the world of social psychologists as Grit.  An inspiring introduction is given by Angela Lee Duckworth.

In my household growing up, the word for grit was Sisu -- a Finnish word that is central to my cultural background.  Finnish Sisu repelled the Soviet invasion in the Winter War of 1939 .  Although Finland lost 11% of its pre-war territory, it preserved its independence and gave the world a new word for "guts".  One young Finnish farm girl -- my mother -- later emigrated to the U.S. and taught her son the significance of Sisu.

Sisu got me into academia.  A rocky start in college led to an instructor advising me not to pursue theoretical physics.  After switching into radio astronomy I recovered well enough to get into the Princeton astrophysics graduate program, where I was initially assigned to work on a project in theoretical cosmology.  My preparation was inadequate for the problem at hand and after a semester I moved on.  However, I wanted to solve the problem assigned to me so badly that I spent two years teaching myself fluid mechanics and mathematical methods of self-similarity without telling anyone, until I made a breakthrough.  When I presented my first-year supervisor the draft of a paper and asked him if he recalled the project and would comment on the suitability for publication of my solution, he was stunned.  I learned that he, too, had been interested in finding the solution and had enlisted the collaboration of a senior theorist from Japan.  Independently, they had just completed a paper on the same problem.  Our methods differed but our results agreed, and my supervisor kindly encouraged me to publish my work as a solo paper.  It was my first publication and the launching point for a career in theoretical astrophysics.

The next time a colleague asks about an applicant's GRE scores or "intelligence", ask him or her if they wouldn't rather know about Sisu and other personal qualities that do not correlate with performance on standard exams.


  1. Wow, Ed! This sure gave me the goosebumps (in a good way). I ran into your blog right after you had published this story about grit and sisu. You might find my research pretty interesting. I sure loved your article.

    With warmest wishes,
    Emilia Lahti

  2. Very inspiring, Ed! Thanks so much for sharing this story. I totally agree with the concept of Sisu. Grit is called Sitzfleisch in German, which means "Power to endure or to persevere in an activity; staying power" according to Google, and should not be mistaken for the other meaning: "One's buttocks."

    (I have to credit Scott Tremaine for this word)

  3. Thank you both for these comments, I hope others will find encouragement by the value of Sisu.

    Emilia, what a remarkable coincidence. Kiitos, with gratitude.

  4. When I asked my father (a professor) what it took to succeed in graduate school, he said 'you have to be stubborn, and just keep going.' I think there are (loosely) two kinds of people: the brilliant ones who find it ~easy - they do great until faced with a real challenge; and the stubborn ones that persevere. They are used to challenges, and just keep going... The luckiest ones are both!

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  6. I really enjoyed your post. It brought back memories of graduate school. I had lousy Physics GRE scores (the lowest by far of my class) and not great undergraduate grades (but had 5 years experience of working on HST). I was the last one admitted to the program, essentially off the wait list. In the beginning one of the professors took me aside and told me that they were concerned about my background and I would be watched closely to see if I could handle the program.

    What really buoyed my confidence was comments from older grad students who told me that I was the one they would put money on to finish my degree. They recognized my grit. I was also the only one of my class who did not earn a "low pass" grade on any of my courses.

    After finishing my degree, I decided to teach at a high school. We've been tackling the issue of if you can teach "grit" or the best way to nurture "grit".