Please enjoy this transcript of my interview with Susan Cain (@susancain), Chief Revolutionary of Quiet Revolution and author of the bestsellers Quiet Power: The Secret Strengths of Introverts and Quiet: The Power of Introverts in A World That Can’t Stop Talking. Her writing has appeared in the The New York Times, The Atlantic, The Wall Street Journal, and many other publications, and her record-smashing TED talk has been viewed more than 20 million times and was named by Bill Gates as one of his all-time favorite talks. Transcripts may contain a few typos—with some episodes lasting 2+ hours, it’s difficult to catch some minor errors. Enjoy!
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Tim Ferriss: Susan, welcome to the show.
Susan Cain: Thank you so much for having me.
Tim Ferriss: I have been looking forward to having you on the show for some time. And we have a lot of terrain to possibly cover. So we may end up having a part two and three. But I don’t want to get ahead of myself. I thought that we could look at public speaking just for a second because many people will associate you with this blockbuster megahit of a TED Talk. And rumor has it that you – straight in the delivery room from the get-go – were a natural-born killer on stage. Is this true? Were you born a spectacular public speaker?
Susan Cain: Oh, my gosh. Okay. Well, everybody listening, you can’t see Tim right now. But he has a very devilish smile on his face because, of course, the answer is the complete opposite. So I had a lifelong – well, dating back to middle school, I know exactly when it started. I had an almost lifelong fear of public speaking. And a lot of people say they’re afraid of public speaking, and they’re telling the truth. But they didn’t have a fear the way I had a fear of it. It was so extreme.
Tim Ferriss: What was the triggering event?
Susan Cain: Oh, okay. The triggering event was I had recently switched to a new middle school. And I was in an English literature class. And I probably appeared to the teacher in that class to be not a shy person at all because I love English, so I was always participating. Anyway, she called me up to the front of the room. We were doing Macbeth. And she called me up with a friend of mine. And she said, “Okay. You’re going to play Lady Macbeth. And your friend Rob is going to play Macbeth. And just improvise this scene.” And for me, as a shy person in a new school, this was total kryptonite. And I couldn’t say anything. I just completely blanked out and just stood there dumbly at the front of the class and finally just had to sit back down red-faced, not having said a word. And –
Tim Ferriss: That sounds terrible. It’s making my palms sweat just listening to it.
Susan Cain: Yeah. And I know this now, now that I’ve studied all this stuff, that if you have an experience like that, it gets encoded into your amygdala which is the part of your brain that registers all your fears. And then the amygdala, for the rest of your life, is doing its job by saying, “Oh, I’m going to steer you clear of any situation ever approximating anything like that literature class ever again.” So after that, any time I had to give a speech – and I did it. I used to be a lawyer on Wall Street and stuff. Any time I would do it, I would just suffer my way through. And I would always lose five pounds because I couldn’t eat before, like for a week before. So then I started writing this book, Quiet, after I had left law. And I really, really, really cared about it. It was my dream come true to be a writer. And I cared so much about the ideas in the book. And I didn’t want my fear to stand in my way. And I was giving this TED Talk. So I had to overcome it.
Tim Ferriss: How did the –
Susan Cain: So –
Tim Ferriss: Sorry to interrupt. But now that I’ve had a cappuccino, as long-time listeners know, I tend to jump a lot. How did the opportunity for the TED Talk come about?
Susan Cain: So I had a friend who worked at TED. Told him about the book. And he passed on the idea to the curators at the time. And I think that they understood that most of the TED audience is really introverted. And so they knew that it would relate with their audience. And I think that that was probably why they invited me in. And I’ll come back to how I overcame my fear in a minute. But I will tell you they turned out to be so accurate that after I gave the talk, I came down off the stage, and I was absolutely mobbed for the whole rest of the week by every single other audience member who were all coming to tell me, “That’s my story too. And I’m going around pretending to be this very confident, extroverted person. And that’s not really who I am.”
Tim Ferriss: Amazing. Present company included.
Susan Cain: Is that right?
Tim Ferriss: Oh, yeah. Absolutely. I will steer us back. And you will also bring us back to what we were just talking about. But last night at a group dinner which I helped organize, keep in mind, at a wonderful restaurant here in New York City called ilili – it’s a Lebanese place – I had to take four or five bathroom breaks, which were not to use the bathroom. That is what I do at any dinner of more than one or two people. I have to exit not just the conversations but the environment to just recharge my batteries and gather my bearings for a few minutes –
Susan Cain: And is it –
Tim Ferriss: – and then go back on.
Susan Cain: It’s like you’re feeling a kind of overstimulation in a setting?
Tim Ferriss: Overstimulation.
Susan Cain: Yeah. That’s so interesting because I’ve heard you talk before about moving to Austin and having these group dinners. And I thought, “Oh, that’s so interesting that that’s what Tim wants to do,” because I would never choose to socialize that way. I always love to socialize one on one, almost the way we’re doing right now, sitting here just talking.
Tim Ferriss: There’s a kind of boiling point for me in terms of size. Four to six I can handle. It depends for me also on the environment I think more so than the number of people. So when I do these group dinners, I will generally host them at home or have them at one of my friend’s homes, not in a popular restaurant like I did last night. So y –
Susan Cain: I’m just going to say what’s interesting about that is how strategic you are about it. And I really notice this with people. So we were just talking about TED. I was just talking to Chris Anderson who runs TED about this whole phenomenon. And he describes himself as an introvert too. And he said he loves group dinners if there’s a specific topic that everybody is gathered there to discuss, and he knows it’s going to be something really substantive. Then he’s in his comfort zone. But if it’s just this amorphous socializing, he wants to leave.
Tim Ferriss: So just on the tactical, practical side, I also tend to very frequently cook the meal for the group so that I have a task while people are arriving and talking. Also deliberate because I’m often inviting people who don’t know one another. So I want them to have a chance to chat without having me as a mutual crutch if that makes sense. But in any case, we talked about that for a long time.
Susan Cain: Yeah. No, and that’s a really common strategy. I hear that from many people, wanting to have the task.
Tim Ferriss: I can play extrovert. I’m good at playing extrovert. But up until sixth grade, I wouldn’t even go out to recess. I would sit on a step and read, usually books about sharks and fish because I wanted to be a marine biologist. But I wouldn’t even go out to recess. So a lot of what you talk about and have written about certainly strikes a chord.
Susan Cain: Now I feel like I want to ask you so many questions about this.
Tim Ferriss: Well, sure.
Susan Cain: I think I’m really curious if we could go back and talk to sixth grade you right this minute, would sixth grade you have any idea that you would have the life path that yours has taken that’s so public?
Tim Ferriss: Absolutely not. No. Definitely not. What happened in sixth grade also – just for people who might be wondering, “Well, what happened in sixth grade if it’s up until sixth grade?” What happened in sixth grade – or I should say more accurately, the summer of fifth grade – is that I had a huge growth spurt. And I had been bullied really badly. I was born prematurely and very small. And I was bullied really, really badly up until the end of fifth grade. Then I left to a summer camp and gained about 30 pounds of muscle and grew four to five inches over the summer, came back, and then –
Susan Cain: It’s like a Captain America narrative.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah, exactly. And then the bullies who had been accustomed to bullying me tried their usual playbook. And I just went on this vigilante spree, like the Punisher. And that changed the social dynamics. So I was able to actually go outside and do things that I wanted to do at recess from that point on. So it didn’t mean that I socialized a lot more. But it has more mobility. So that was what happened. But like you – and this is part of the reason why I wanted to start with this question about overcoming a fear of public speaking – is that’s when the people see the finished product, it’s easy to assume that it comes from an attribute as opposed to a skill. And in fact, a lot of what appears to be natural appears only to be natural because it started off very, very unnatural and someone has worked at chipping away at it over time.
Susan Cain: I think that’s true. I think almost all – so often, when you see someone who’s really good at almost anything, it’s because they actually started out exactly the opposite. And then they cared so much about fixing that problem. But in terms of how I overcame that fear – I have this kind of evangelical desire to share it because it was so extreme. I feel like if I could do it, then I know anyone can overcome any fear. So first of all, I spent years sitting in therapists’ offices cozily discussing, “Well, what might be the sources of this fear? And what do I trace it back to?” and like that. And that does no good at all.
I’m actually a big believer in therapy. But not for this type of issue. So what really does it if you’re afraid of something is you have to expose yourself very slowly to the thing that you fear in really manageable doses. So you can’t start off by giving the TED Talk. So in my case, I signed up for this seminar in – it was a seminar for people with public speaking anxiety. It was here in New York. And you’d get there. And on the very first day, all you had to do was stand up, say your name, sit back down, declare victory. You’re finished. And that’s it.
Tim Ferriss: What was the organization?
Susan Cain: Oh, gosh.
Tim Ferriss: Was it Toastmasters? Or something else?
Susan Cain: No. And I’m a big fan of Toastmasters. But this was almost more remedial than Toastmasters.
Tim Ferriss: Toastmasters light.
Susan Cain: Yeah. This was pre-Toastmasters. So the guy’s name – he’s amazing. His name is Charles diCagno. And you can find his organization. It’s speakeeezi.com. And I think it’s spelled with three Es.
Tim Ferriss: Perfect. And I’ll put a link in the show notes for people as well.
Susan Cain: Yeah, because I really recommend him. And so you’d come back the next week. And maybe you’d stand up. And he’d do these things like he’d have people stand on either side of you, so you didn’t feel all alone up there on stage.
Tim Ferriss: That’s brilliant.
Susan Cain: Yeah. And then the audience would ask you questions like, “Where are you from?” and, “Where’d you go to college?” So really easy stuff. You answer the questions, and you’re done. And if you do that little by little by little, you actually really can overcome it. It’s crazy but true. But I will say, having said all this, still, there’s something about a TED Talk that’s on some whole crazy other realm of public speaking nerves.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah. Even if the setting is exactly the same, there is a performance anxiety associated with that three-letter acronym for sure.
Susan Cain: Yeah. We were talking about this before we started taping that so many of the speakers are really practiced on stage. And yet, you see them minutes before they go out, and they’re sweating bullets. And they’re all losing it.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah. We were chatting for a second about – and Chris Anderson can certainly correct me. I’m blanking on the exact term. But there’s some space right next to the stage behind the curtain called the Zen Room or the Relaxation Cube. There’s some very pleasant sounding name for this space. And it’s intended to be the next-up batting cage for the two or three speakers to come. And I remember it was probably 15 or 20 minutes before I was supposed to go live – or no. It couldn’t have been that. It was probably an hour before. And I really didn’t want to be around a lot of people. And in the Green Room, there were all sorts of staff and lots of people milling around and working on production. And I thought to myself, “I need to go to the Zen Room.” We’ll just call it the Zen Room.
And so I walk out to the Zen Room. And I won’t mention names, but there were three killers. These are consummate professionals who have done this type of thing thousands of times, people I look up to and would love to someday have a coffee with. And they are freaking the fuck out. And I was like, “Not helping. Not helping. I need to leave the Zen Room right now.” So yes. It’s a different beast. So how do you go from talking about your favorite color on stage with two people next to you to TED then?
Susan Cain: Right. Okay. So I graduated from that to Toastmasters, which I also completely recommend. And should I describe what that is?
Tim Ferriss: Yes, please.
Susan Cain: Yeah. Okay. So Toastmasters. It’s a worldwide organization. You can absolutely find one near you because they’re everywhere. And it’s basically this not-for-profit thing where you sign up for a group that meets near you. And once every two weeks you get together, and you practice public speaking together. And they have this ritualized way of doing it.
And some of the time, you’re practicing speaking off the top of your head. And sometimes, it’s a prepared speech. And it’s just giving you that exposure therapy of putting you in the beast of the thing that most frightens you. You have to show up every two weeks and do it. So I did that. But then the next stage after that – and it was my husband’s idea – was I hired a coach for the full week before the TED Talk, this really amazing guy named Jim Fyfe, who I also completely recommend. And since then, he has coached many other TED speakers. So I worked with him morning until night for a full week before the talk.
Tim Ferriss: Good for you.
Susan Cain: Yeah. And he –
Tim Ferriss: What did the working with him look like?
Susan Cain: Okay. So he did a really brilliant thing. He was very psychologically attuned. And I said to him, “I’m really comfortable, in general, talking to people one on one and cozily sitting on a couch and talking about life. I love that.” For me, at that point though, getting up on a stage and holding forth was the hard thing. So he said, “Okay. Let’s practice your talk sitting on the couch. And just talk to me about it. And we did that for two days. And it was only after that that we just moved to the stage and started getting into the theatrics of it. That kind of transition was so helpful.
Tim Ferriss: I just want to note that this is – I spend so much time with and I’m so obsessed with good teachers, good coaches. This is very common where they will effectively say, “Let’s start from where you are right now.” And they will always return if they sense any type of overwhelm or fear to bring you back to a point of familiarity or comfort and then edge into the next concentric circle of what is your limit of comfort.
Susan Cain: Yeah. And I think they also have to show a lot of non-judgment because I had some dark moments during that week. For me, this was the abyss. And I was just hanging out in the abyss for a week. And so he saw me. I had only just met him. And he saw me not in the most flattering circumstances, and yet I didn’t feel embarrassed by that. There was something about him –
Tim Ferriss: Did he do anything, in the beginning, to assess you or establish a baseline? Or was it more of an interview that he used like an intake? Do you remember what was –
Susan Cain: It wasn’t really formal like that. He’s such a human guy. It was just like we were just talking.
Tim Ferriss: Disguised as intake. Smart. Smart fellow.
Susan Cain: Yeah. So the amazing thing to me now is I now super ironically have a career as a public speaker. I travel the world going and giving talks to all different companies and conferences all over the place.
Tim Ferriss: Go ahead.
Susan Cain: I asked you, “Well, if we could tell sixth grade Tim where he would be, what would he say?” And I say that to myself too. If you could have even told me eight years ago that this would be my life, I would have been so shocked by it. And now, I’ve come to like it.
Tim Ferriss: Did you have any particular pregame ritual or anything that you did in the hours leading up to your talk that helped or that you didn’t do?
Susan Cain: I have things now. Back then, I just suffered.
Tim Ferriss: What do you have now?
Susan Cain: Now, have a few things. I do deep breathing just like everyone else. I’m sure you’ve heard that a million times. But it’s got to be real deep breathing where you really feel your belly and your diaphragm filling up. But for me, what I also do is I usually think to myself – and I do this especially when I’m speaking to an audience that I find more intimidating like a group of finance people at an investment bank or something – I will say to myself, “There, I am sure, is one person in this audience who has a child who is shy or introverted. And if that child has a better life because of one tidbit that that person hears today, then it’s all good.” And that pulls me out of myself instantly.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah. It gives you also a hurdle that you can clear for winning the presentation, so to speak, in that sense.
Susan Cain: Yeah. Right. It’s a manageable goal. But I think it feels deeper than that to me. It feels also like – I think when people get nervous about speaking, obviously, they’re really nervous about being judged. But this completely shifts the energy where it’s not any longer about how anybody judges me. It’s about “Can I help that kid out there?”
Tim Ferriss: And I want to say also that part of the reason I am more than happy, actually excited to spend so much time talking about this is that it is not specific to public speaking. This just happens to be a very common fear and perceived weakness of many, many, many people. Also, as a side note, what Warren Buffett says is his greatest ever investment. Put more specifically, a Dale Carnegie course that he took in public speaking because it magnified his ability to do almost everything else, to communicate effectively both in spoken word but also in the written word in some respects.
Susan Cain: Yeah. Oh, go ahead.
Tim Ferriss: I was just going to say that I’ve never – I don’t think I’ve ever spoken about this. But I also did Toastmasters. And if you have trouble finding it, oftentimes, there are large companies that will have within their HQ or any large location, their own Toastmasters group. And that’s actually how I found it in San Jose, initially. It was at Adobe. So I would go in. And I would do this Toastmasters. And your description of having this very logical progression of small wins layered upon small winds getting up on stage and then getting off stage. Getting up on stage, having two people next to you and answering a few questions and getting off stage – is so incredibly effective. And I’m laughing right now because I remember when I was preparing for my first presentation at South by Southwest – so this is a very large festival and conference in Austin, Texas.
And the timing was 2007. It’s about, I want to say, a month, month and a half before my book is going to come out, my first book which I’m very nervous about. There had been no speaking slots. But I had pitched Hugh Forrest at the time, who I had been introduced to, that I would take anything available. “Corner of a room, hallway, if there were any cancellations, I would really appreciate the opportunity to speak at the event.” And lo and behold, there was a last-minute cancelation. Not by a keynote speaker but by a sponsor who was going to have a stage to pitch their products from in this makeshift café.
And I was like, “I’m in. I’m in.” But I was so incredibly nervous about this that in the beginning, in particular, I was – and this is true today – too nervous to practice my rough, rough draft of the presentation in front of people.
Susan Cain: Yeah. I get this.
Tim Ferriss: And so what I did – I was staying at a guest bedroom at a friend’s house. He had three chihuahuas. And I went outside. I was playing with the chihuahuas. And they followed me into the garage. I practiced in the garage. I didn’t even want to practice in the house where my friend’s wife was. And I gave my presentation. I felt reasonably confident about the content. But I wasn’t comfortable with any of the performance aspects of trying to keep attention. So I gave my draft of this talk over and over again until I could get the dogs to sit and stare at me, somewhat bewildered, but to hold their attention. And that was the litmus test for me to graduate to giving a rough draft in front of humans. For those people out there who are wondering whether this all comes naturally to me, it does not at all.
Susan Cain: Have you talked about that before? Or is this the first time you are doing that?
Tim Ferriss: I don’t think I’ve talked about that. Certainly, I don’t think I’ve talked about it on the podcast. And for the TED Talk also, something I did – which I did not do for the South by talk, which I thought really made a difference – was I practiced giving the talk in front of small groups of strangers once I had a reasonably polished version. And I asked friends of mine who worked at larger companies who had teams during lunch hour if there happened to be an empty conference room, could they invite people to hear a rough draft of a TED Talk. And then I would ask them for feedback. And usually, there was enough time that I could give it two or three times. So I could actually incorporate their feedback, give another version. Once I had given the second version, there were a lot more people in the room who were willing to be critical. The first round, you get one or two.
Susan Cain: Yes. That’s so true.
Tim Ferriss: This is just something I’ve thought about a lot because I’ve been so nervous about public speaking for so long. And it, by the way, doesn’t really go away. At least for me, I still have those nerves. But with TED, very specifically, I assumed – and this came from sports, but I had never applied it – that I was going to be – my heart rate was probably going to be 30 beats per minute higher than normal and that it was not just important for me to practice the content, but to practice under the physiological stress that I would probably experience when trying to deliver the content. So I would do a bunch of pushups in another room and drink two double espressos and wait for it to hit and then go in and give my dress rehearsal to see if I could handle that stimulation.
Susan Cain: That was so, so smart. And listening to that story is reminding me of this crucial step that I left out and, in a lot of ways, a mistake that I made which is – I told you I worked with that guy, Jim, for a week who was amazing. And I thought I was pretty well ready at that point. So I talked to my friend Adam Grant, who’s a very dear friend –
Tim Ferriss: Very good speaker too.
Susan Cain: – and a really good speaker and who also started out as a very nervous and, by his description, a terrible public speaker. He says he used to get terrible reviews from his students. And he just worked and worked and worked at it. And now, he’s the most popular professor at Wharton. Okay. So I was talking to Adam about all this. And so he said – so I’m leaving for TED on Sunday morning to fly out to California which is where it was at that time. And he says, “Oh, I’m going to pull together a group of friends. And you can practice your talk in front of them.” And so this is Friday night. And I’m leaving Sunday morning. And so I show up at this apartment full of Adam and his friends.
And I think that I’m pretty well done with the talk. And this is the first time that I’m giving it in front of any kind of group because I didn’t have the foresight of what you just described. And not only was I so nervous, but I realized from the feedback that a lot of the content was all wrong. And it’s Friday night. And I’m leaving the day after the next day. So I went home, and I just spent the whole entire night rewriting the whole final third of the talk. And then I’m on the plane going out to TED trying to memorize the new talk. So I don’t recommend that kind of approach.
Tim Ferriss: You need to get real people in front of you. This is just like entrepreneurship, and people try to get the product perfect before exposing it to any prospective clients. You really need to get into the messy reality of what a live audience or a real customer looks like. And the same was true for me. I made a lot of changes in the last few days which I thought were just going to be fine tuning.
Susan Cain: Right. And then you end up –
Tim Ferriss: And I was like. Oh, actually, I really need to – I need to completely change 30 percent of this. And I was very, very nervous before the TED Talk. And I came off stage, and I did not think that I – I didn’t think that I blew it. But I didn’t think that I did a great job. I came off stage thinking that there were definitely bits and pieces I could have done better. But it worked out. Seems to have worked out.
Susan Cain: Okay. Wait. But I want to come back to one thing that you said and for the benefit of people who are listening now. So you said that you still are really nervous when you give a talk. But are you really as nervous as you used to be? Because I really want people to understand that you can get to a point – you might still have butterflies. It’s not like the nerves completely disappear. But they get to – in my experience, and from all the literature that I’ve studied on this, they really do get to a point where you can manage them. And the difference between manageable and non-manageable is gigantic in terms of its effect on your life and your career and everything. So I just want to make sure that people know that.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah. I can clarify. So it depends a lot on the event. So if we’re going to do a Q&A and it’s a friend of mine interviewing me on stage, that’s not, from my perspective, really public speaking. It is. But at this point, I could do that with zero preparation. If it’s anything resembling a keynote, if it is Tim on stage talking to an audience, and they expect something that has been well-rehearsed, my physiological response is still very strong. I get really sweaty hands. I pace. I have very minimal contact with anyone beforehand. But let me mention a few things. Number one, both Mike Tyson and Dean Martin used to vomit before nearly every performance.
But the way that they psychologically contended with that evolved over time. Well, since I mentioned Mike Tyson, Cus D’Amato, who was the trainer who really, in a lot of respects I think – boxing scholars or boxing fans would agree – made Tyson into what Tyson was at his prime as an athlete used to say something along the following, that the hero and the coward feel the same thing. It’s how they respond that’s different.
Susan Cain: Yes. Oh, I so believe that.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah. And there is no courage without the presence of fear. And for me, I have come to see those physiological symptoms that used to make me panic, that used to make me feel like I was doing something wrong, that used to make me feel like I was unprepared as simple precursors to a performance. So the way that I frame them for myself is completely different. And I’ve learned to view it as this energetic asset that I can use. And that has made all the difference. And it has decreased in some circumstances. But certainly, before TED, I had given hundreds of different presentations. And it was like I was getting on stage for the first time. In part, also, for people who don’t know, they are very – as they should be – strict about many things at TED, including running over.
Susan Cain: Oh, yes. Yeah. I was very nervous about that.
Tim Ferriss: If you’re running over – and I want to say – and this is exactly what they should say. But in effect, they say, “If you run over by – you should not run over, number one. Do not run over. If you run over, if you get to the point where you’re 30 seconds over, we will come up and remove you from stage.” And while I’m preparing and while I’m rehearsing, one of the things that made me most stressed out is that my finish times were really variable. And I would say 30-40 percent of the time, I ran over. Then other times, I would run two minutes under but miss something really, really important because I was rushing. And I was like, “Good God. This is just a crapshoot. I am at the craps table with my timing.” And that really was a concern for me. So that was another element that made TED unique for me was that degree of cutoff.
Susan Cain: Yeah. I felt that way too. And I did end up going over by over a minute.
Tim Ferriss: Oh, good for you.
Susan Cain: And there it is.
Tim Ferriss: And they were just like, “We cannot stop this performance.”
Susan Cain: Oh, I don’t know about that. But I want to say also, for anybody who is listening and who is right now in the grip of this kind of fear and isn’t sure whether they can really get past it, also, what is waiting for you on the other side of it is so gigantic because there’s something weird about public speaking where it has such disproportionate value to, in a way, what you’re investing in it. You’re going up on stage for 18 minutes or 40 minutes or whatever, or maybe within your own workplace, even giving a two-minute talk, suddenly, everybody is regarding you as a leader and as someone who they can turn to in a new way from if you hadn’t been willing to put yourself forward in that way.
Tim Ferriss: Definitely. There’s public speaking as the force multiplier for the value of your other skills which is absolutely true. And then public speaking, in a way, is also a wonderful diagnostic tool. And what I mean by that is I remember talking to a friend of mine who – he’s a wealth manager for a lot of muckety-mucks who you would recognize. And he said, “I know them generally better than therapists they’ve been seeing for a decade within the first few hours because money brings up everything. Talking about money brings up the full spectrum of someone’s insecurities, fears, desires, neuroses. Sex, also true. And public speaking, I think, if it makes you remotely nervous when you start to learn public speaking – at least for me – brings up all your stuff.
So if you were simply interested in personal growth, it brings to the surface many different pieces of your personality and psyche that you can then work on in a way that transfers to other areas. So that, to me, was my experience and I find really interesting. It’s like, “Okay. Well, maybe you don’t have to play hide and go seek with talk therapy for 20 years to find all of the bits and pieces when, rather than following these different gingerbread trails, you can use certain fearful circumstances to just bring it all right – or a lot of it to the surface.” That was my experience. I’m not saying it’s true for everybody. But it was one of those things like talking about money, talking about sex, or public speaking. It’s like, “Okay. Now we just bring everything to the forefront.” So for me, that was also – even if I had not had any interest in getting on stage and giving presentations, it would have been valuable in and of itself.
Susan Cain: Yeah. No. That makes complete sense.
Tim Ferriss: Are there other things that you’re fearful of or have been afraid of that you’ve overcome?
Susan Cain: No. That was really the big one for me. We were talking about this. Before, I guess, my bugaboo, in general, is that I just tend to be a worrier. So I don’t know. Other than the experiences I had with public speaking, it’s not like I have full-on panic or anything like that. It’s more like it’s a very familiar companion for me. So I’ve had to just come up with various hacks around it.
Tim Ferriss: What are some of your hacks.
Susan Cain: Gosh, there are so many. Okay. Wait. So this is going to get us into another big topic. But why not?
Tim Ferriss: Why not?
Susan Cain: So for example, when I stopped practicing corporate law, and I decided that I wanted to be writer, I told myself that it’s really hard to make a living as a writer. And I said, “Okay. The goal is to publish something by the time you’re 75.” And at the time, I was 33, at the time that I said that. And I did that instinctively because I was always doing these hacks of just wanting to completely take the pressure off of something that I otherwise loved so deeply. And I just knew that if I turned this thing that I deeply loved into a source of, “This has to be the place where I make my living. This has to be the place where I derive some kind of professional stature,” it was going to soak a lot of the joy out of it. And so that’s the kind of hack that I just naturally do.
Tim Ferriss: On a very related note, could you give us a little bit of context around the leaving law, like why you left law? And then you decide you want to be a writer. And you alluded to it, but does that mean that suddenly, your rent is dependent on writing?
Susan Cain: Right. Okay. So I had wanted to be a writer from the time I was four. And then, for a whole bunch of reasons, and like so many people, I graduated coll – well, I took some creative writing classes in college. And I decided, “I’m not actually that good at this. And I need to make a living.” And I also had a desire I think to show myself that I could be out there as an alpha person out in the world of finance or something. So I went to law school. And I practiced Wall Street law for almost a decade. And during that time that I was practicing law, it was so all-consuming that I completely forgot about the fact that I had wanted to be a writer. It wasn’t like I was walking around conscious of this broken dream or something. I’d completely forgotten. And in the first few years of practicing law, I really loved it. It was just this crazy adventure that I was on. And as the years went by, it started to get really tough for me.
I’m not a very natural lawyer in a million different ways. But I was on this partner track. And I was committed to it. And then came the day. And I think I may have told you about this in an earlier correspondence. But then came the day when a senior partner in my firm walked in and said – I was supposed to be up for partner that year. And he said, “Well, we’re not going to be putting you up.” And the funny thing is, to this day, I don’t really know if he meant we’re not putting you up ever for partner or just not anytime soon. I don’t really know what he meant. All I knew was, number one, I burst into tears. And number two, here was my get-out-of-jail-free card.
So three hours later, I had left the firm. I was gone. I took a leave of absence. And I just started bicycling around Central Park. I didn’t know what I was going to do next. But as soon as that space opened up that I now had free time for the first time in 10 years, I started writing. And I had no idea that was going to happen. It was almost like in a movie.
Tim Ferriss: That’s cool. Yeah. It’s just been waiting for you.
Susan Cain: Yeah, literally. I remember that night, curled up in my sofa in my apartment. And I had just started writing on my laptop. And then a week later, I signed up for a class in creative nonfiction at NYU. And I just had this complete feeling of certainty that this was what I wanted to be doing and zero expectation that I would make a living out of it. And this is a really important thing I think. I think if you have that kind of a creative dream and a creative love, you have to do everything you can not to spoil it with the pressures of paying the rent and all those other things, or the pressures of needing to derive professional status from it. So I set up a little side business teaching people negotiation skills. And that was how I was paying the rent. But the thing I was really doing in my heart was this beloved hobby of writing.
Tim Ferriss: This is super, super, super, super, super important. I think it’s true in creative fields – which is pretty much every field, but just for the sake of illustration, writing, music, etc., also, in entrepreneurship – you hear these stories of desperation where necessity is the mother of invention and bada-bing, bada-boom. Magic wand. And then there’s a billion-dollar company. Or there’s J.K. Rowling or whatever it is. But those are, in my experience, the outliers. They make for great cover stories in magazines. But the fact of the matter is that from what I’ve seen certainly, with guests on this podcast is that – for instance, Soman Chainani, who has a number of mega-successful novels.
But he had an SAT prep counseling service that he offered well past the point that his first book was successful because he wanted to always feel like he had a safety net so that the writing would not be tainted or even subconsciously influenced to match the market or whatever the lens might become by this pressure. And that is something that, whenever possible, has come up as a really valuable – I suppose, on one hand, financial survival mechanism but even more so as psychological freeing device.
Susan Cain: Yeah. And I think we’re so addicted to having a really glamorous narrative for things. And the glamorous narrative is you had so much courage. You took the risk. You were dependent on this company or this book or whatever. And if it didn’t work, it was going to be a disaster, but you were the one who beat the odds. We love that narrative. And for most people, that’s a really bankrupt narrative. And there’s a deeper glamor, actually, in the kind of story that you just told because the glamor comes from you’re doing everything that you can to deeply protect the thing that you love most.
Tim Ferriss: Definitely. Now, the book, itself – people may not know the backstory. I’m sure a lot of people don’t. How long did it take to get that book done?
Susan Cain: Okay. So I’m laughing because it took a really, really long time, especially by Tim Ferriss standards. I listen to you and I look at your life trajectory. I’m like, “How does he do that?”
Tim Ferriss: Lots of cheating the format is the short answer. But I won’t take us off track.
Susan Cain: So yeah. From start to finish, it was about seven years. And I will say, in my defense, that during those seven years, I also had two children and was raising them. So that was part of it. But I also just think I’m a slow writer. I like to really, really think about everything super deeply. And what I think people might not know – I had a deadline, as all writers do. And I turned in some sort of draft upon my deadline coming due, after 18 months or two years. And my editor basically read it and said, “This is terrible.” And she said, “Go back and completely throw that out. Start from scratch and take all the time that you need.”
And you might think that when that happened that I would have been really bummed. But I was actually elated because I knew that it was terrible. And I knew that I needed much more time. And I had no idea what I was doing. I had never written anything before. I was just really happy to have that time. And it’s actually really unusual. They had given me a big advance for the book. And usually, they want their advance back. And they’re not willing to delay like that. So that was huge.
Tim Ferriss: A very understanding editor.
Susan Cain: Yeah. She’s brilliant. And I’m working with her again on my next book.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah. It’s also smart in the sense that – a mediocre book is more of a liability than no book at all for everyone involved.
Susan Cain: For everyone involved. Yeah. And because I have this philosophy about writing – that it’s the deep love that has to be protected at all costs – because of that, I don’t care how much time it takes. I’m just interested in doing it as well as I can.
Tim Ferriss: What does your writing process at this point look like? So you had your experience with that book. And now, when you are writing, do you have a daily process? Does it go through phases of research period, then organizing, then putting all of that into prose through synthesis? What are your writing routines? Or how do you think about writing these days?
Susan Cain: So for me, I take whatever thesis I’m working with. And then I spend a year or two just walking around the world looking at everything through the lens of that thesis. So it used to be introverts. And now, I’m on to a new topic. And I’m taking crazy notes through that period. So every conversation that I have, every book I read, it’s all going in.
Tim Ferriss: How do you take and organize your notes? Do you do it notebooks? Do you do it digitally? I know this is nerdy. But I’m –
Susan Cain: No. It’s not nerdy at all.
Tim Ferriss: – into it because a lot of writers do it differently.
Susan Cain: The reason I’m laughing is I’m thinking when you hear my answer, you’re going to know that I need a consultation with you for the next book because I don’t do it in a super systemic way. Basically, all those conversations, all those ideas and notes and thoughts I’m having, I stick them all into one Word document. And then I go – and that document becomes about seven- or eight-hundred pages by the time I’m done. And then I go through that document. And I’m tagging as I go along. And then I’m separating everything out by topic. So I end up with eight or nine loose-leaf binders that are organized by topic. But in each of those binders, it’s just –
Tim Ferriss: One big Word document.
Susan Cain: – one big mass of notes. And then I think about where do I want everything. And also, whenever I have an idea – whenever I’m emotionally moved by one of the ideas that I’m taking notes on, I try to write out the riff around that idea right then and there because you don’t know if that emotion is going to come back. So you have to capture it when it happens.
Tim Ferriss: I think that’s a perfectly fine system. So you –
Susan Cain: I just feel like technology must have come up with something better. I do it in Microsoft Word.
Tim Ferriss: There are probably better tools available. But I would say also that a lot of people confuse new tools for better content. It’s very easy, at least – I’ll speak for myself for a second. When I’m writing, I have to disallow myself from thinking about, say, marketing because marketing is fun and exciting and –
Susan Cain: To you.
Tim Ferriss: – easy for me because I had insomnia as a kid and watched too many infomercials or something. In any case, that take – it’s a way to procrastinate doing the harder piece, which is the actual research and digging and prose. That’s the hard part for me. Always has been. But it’s the most important part. And I think similarly, a lot of folks can become consumed by upgrading their tools, multiplying their tools versus just the words. You got to put the words in. And I have some questions about this Word doc, though. So when you’re going through and adding things to the Word doc, and you come in, and you’re tagging things so you can separate them – and you mentioned binders.
So you’re printing this stuff out and then separating them. Does that mean that when you put in a new note in the Word doc, you go to a new page if it’s tagged differently, so you can separate them more easily later – does that make sense? – as opposed to each time you add a note, then hit return twice and then add a new note? If they’re tagged differently, it would seem like you would have to cut up the page into multiple pieces. So do you start a new page – are there any particular ways that you tag? For instance, would it be a chapter name? Or would it be a theme? What would a tag look like? A lot of questions.
Susan Cain: Yeah. It would just be a topic or a theme. So every time I’m adding a new note, if I know that it relates to something I’ve already done, then I’ll search for the thing I’ve already done so I can add it to that section to make it easier later. But sometimes I don’t, or I can’t think of it. And then I’ll just add it to the end of the document.
Tim Ferriss: Control F, right? Word. And then good to go.
Susan Cain: Yeah.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah. Simple works. Robert Rodriguez, the filmmaker, keeps a journal. Puts it in almost every day at midnight. And it’s Word docs. It works.
Susan Cain: Yeah. I will say I tried – for this next book, I spent a few days reading the instructions for Scrivener, one of these programs. And I just ended up thinking, “This isn’t for me. It looks great, but –”
Tim Ferriss: Scrivener. Well, some other time, we can sit down. That is one tool that if you set it up really simply and you don’t use 98 percent of the features, I find really useful just because you can create a view by which you see all of your separate documents. Or actually, I should say rather, you see your tentative table of contents on the left side in a vertical pane. And then you can look at what you’re – on the right-hand side, then I would have it set up so that I have two split windows. So the left-hand side, you see your table of contents. And then there’s research. And you have whatever research you want.
That way, you can be working on a document in the upper right-hand pane while you have your research that you’re working off of in the bottom right. And if you decide to move docs around to see how it affects flow, it’s just drag and drop. It’s actually quite wonderful. They did have some issues with footnotes. Or maybe I was just too technically incompetent at one point when you then had to export when the publisher insists on, say, Word which maybe that’ll change at some point. But I’m getting a little geeked out. But I’ve used Scrivener for almost all of my books. There may be one exception. I think 4-Hour Chef, because of how visually intensive it was was done outside of that. And in terms of routine or ritual, you spend a year gathering these notes. So then you have –
Susan Cain: Yeah. A year. Maybe more.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah, or more. So you have 700 to 800 pages. That’s a big Word doc. And then what happens?
Susan Cain: Yeah. So then I spend the time sorting them out. So I get to the point where I’ve got my eight or nine loose-leaf binders that are more or less organized by what the chapters are going to be. And then comes the time to write, during which, I’m still doing more research. But I’m starting to write. For me, the writing, the sitting down with my laptop and thinking about it all, that’s – I want to say it’s my happy place. But that’s not really the best description. It feels like it’s this place that I go deep in my mind. And I really love being there.
And it’s like no matter what happens to be going on in my outside life, I always have those few hours a day where I’m going to a café or a library or whatever, and I’m sitting with my laptop and my cappuccino, and I’m just doing it. I’m stressing the emotional aspect because that’s so huge for me. And I feel like I trained myself to associate writing with all of these pleasures of sitting around in cafés and things like that.
Tim Ferriss: Do you have a consistent time when you sit down with your cappuccino and do this? Are you a morning writer? Or are you just catch-as-catch-can writer? Are you an evening writer? You also have kids. You have other obligations. So when do you tend to do your writing or do your best writing? You can answer it however you like.
Susan Cain: Well, there’s what I do, and there’s what would be ideal. But as you say, I have kids. So my routine is that I drop my kids off at school. That’s at around 8:00. Then I go and I either play tennis or do yoga every day. And then after that, I do my writing. And that’s a pretty good time for me. But –
Tim Ferriss: What time of day would that typically end up being?
Susan Cain: Oh, yeah. That probably ends up being around 10:00 or so that I’m starting. But if I had no other obligations, the best times of day would be more like either 7:00 in the morning and also super late at night. So two time periods that I have no access to for this stage of life.
Tim Ferriss: And you start writing – this is really interesting to me. Hopefully, interesting to other people. So you start let’s say around 10:00. Do you break for lunch? Do you skip lunch? Do you have a standard type of lunch that you would have? And the reason I ask is that I think part of the reason so many writers seem to work between the hours of – just make this up, but 10:00 p.m. and 7:30 a.m., and they tend to either be night owls, like me, or early risers is that there are fewer distractions. And they can get a relatively uninterrupted block of three to five hours. But if you’re starting at 10:00, then most people would have lunch scheduled shortly thereafter, like two hours later.
So do you break for lunch? Do you have something really small? How do you handle that? Because for me, just speaking personally, I might have time – of course I have time for a five-minute phone call. But if I do a five-minute phone call about something very mechanical or mundane like calendaring stuff or whatever, and I’m juggling 15 pieces that were on paper in my head, I have to start over a lot of times. I drop all those balls I’m juggling because of the task switchings. So I’d love to hear – not that that’s true for everybody. But it’s true for me. So what does your schedule look like then once you sit down?
Susan Cain: I’ll just go until I realize that I’m not concentrating well anymore. And very often, it happens after two or three hours. And I just have to take a break. I have a lot of discipline if my brain would cooperate. So I would happily sit there for seven hours until my kids come home from school. But at a certain point, I’ll notice that it’s just not coming anymore. And so then I’ll take a break and I’ll eat or something like that. But I would say – I think you were mentioning, “Well, people might work at night because it’s when you get uninterrupted time.”
And I think that that’s one factor. But I also think the reason that those hours tend to be so good – so nighttime is when your cortisol levels are really low which, of course, is your stress hormone. And so I notice this in myself all the time, that the ideas that I come up with late at night are different from the daytime ideas because they’re completely unfettered by any stress. And so I’ll just – I don’t know. I just make different kinds of associative leaps. And there’s a softness and an ease in my thinking and my feeling about the ideas. So I think that’s one advantage of late night writing. And then in the morning, you’ve got the high cortisol. But you also have this acute attention.
Tim Ferriss: I can totally see that. I can definitely see that. I also find that writing late at night – if I’m writing at 2:00 in the morning, it’s very hard for me – I want to say it was Ayn Rand who wrote a – she had a book about the craft of nonfiction. And there was some – it wasn’t a metaphor. I think it was a real-world example. But in effect, she’s saying many writers will do almost anything to not write. And there’s this story about the white tennis shoes, like, “I have to clean my white tennis shoes before I’m going to write because I’m going to go out and da-da-da.” And when it’s 2:00 or 3:00 in the morning, “I have to check email to make sure X,” is just not a viable excuse. So it also just removes a lot of bullshit distraction that I would impose on myself to avoid doing what it is that I find hard.
Susan Cain: Oh, my God. I so relate to this. So when I was writing Quiet, I suddenly developed this idea that I had to learn everything in the world about digital photography. And I was reading all these books about it and the rule of thirds and all this stuff. And I have never had any interest in photography before or since. It was just these two weeks of mania where I didn’t want to have to be looking at that manuscript over there.
Tim Ferriss: Are there any particular – you are a student of the craft, right? You’ve taken creative nonfiction courses. Are there any particular books or resources or writers who have had a significant impact on how you view or practice writing?
Susan Cain: Oh, gosh. I’m sure the answer is yes.
Tim Ferriss: And I can try to buy some time too if helpful. Draft No. 4 by John McPhee I think is really – I was very fortunate to spend time with him when I was an undergrad in college because he was teaching a seminar. But the structure –
Susan Cain: Yeah, at Preston. That’s where I took my creative writing classes.
Tim Ferriss: Right. Yeah. Thinking about structure in the way that – a few things about structure saved me because I thrive with some type of predetermined blueprint for structure. It’s very hard for me to just freehand, flow of consciousness let things take some emergent form. It’s very hard. I do know friends who do that really, really well. That terrifies me. So I need the scaffolding. Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott –
Susan Cain: Oh, I love that book. Such a good book.
Tim Ferriss: Bird by Bird, for people who don’t know the book – I will say just before getting into a short description – has saved at least a half a dozen friends of mine from the precipice, meaning they were at the point of throwing in the towel and just quitting their books. And they were all writers in this case. But they were at the point where they were like, “I’m done. I can’t do this. It’s too stressful. I don’t like this. I don’t want to do this. It’s going to be terrible.” And they were going to, in some cases, return their advances and just walk. And I want to say at least half of them read this book, went on to finish their books. And their books went on to become New York Times Best Sellers. So talk about an important window for making a decision. And the gist of the book – the title, I should say, comes first from – I think it was her brother, Anne’s brother. Anne Lamott is a writer.
And her brother had this experience where he’d had something like an entire semester in – I’m making this up. But let’s just call it fourth grade to prepare for this end of semester project. And he was supposed to put together a term paper on birds or something like that. And it was the night before. He hadn’t done any preparation. And this poor kid – who, granted, kinda deserves it because he didn’t do any prep – but nonetheless, is having this nervous breakdown at the kitchen table with 15 books about birds. And he just is paralyzed. And I want to say it was Anne’s dad who came over and put an arm on his shoulder and said, “Just take it bird by bird, buddy. Bird by bird.” Something like that.
And it’s a psychological life raft, break glass in case of emergency kit for writers who are just hitting that point like maybe you did with the photography where you’re just like, “I want to do anything other than look at that screen or that page. I can’t handle it, and I don’t know what to do.” So for that reason – not necessarily for the nuts and bolts of the writing process itself but for the psychological component. It’s like if you were a top athletic coach, and you had your sport-specific technical coach, and then you had a mental toughness coach who also doubled as a shrink, the mental toughness coach who doubles as a shrink is the Bird by Bird.
Susan Cain: Yeah. And I’m remembering she also talks about shitty first drafts. And just those three words are incredibly helpful because when you’re looking at your draft – and it is always really shitty at the beginning. And so just knowing, “Okay. That’s what it’s supposed to be.” The other thing that’s been really helpful to me – so I told you I started taking that creative nonfiction class at NYU. All of us who took that class got along really well. So we formed a writers group after the class was officially done. And we stayed together for years. And we would meet once every week, every two weeks and read each other’s stuff. And especially at that stage, that really, really helped, getting the feedback but also having the camaraderie and support system. And in fact –
Tim Ferriss: Not feeling totally isolated. Yeah.
Susan Cain: Not feeling isolated. And I actually met my literary agent from one of the people who was in that group who was a publishing lawyer. And I said, “I have this idea for this book about introverts,” which at the time, to me, seemed like the most idiosyncratic project on earth. But she said, “When you’re ready, I know the right agent for that.” And that’s a really serendipitous thing because – wait. I want to share this. When I put together the proposal for the book that became Quiet, I sent it out to that agent who she recommended and to four other super amazing agents, two of whom I had connections to.
And every single one of the other ones passed. And some of them said, “I really like the writing. But I think this topic is not commercial enough. And I just don’t think it’ll sell. So could you come back with a different topic?” And the guy who became my agent instantly saw what the potential was going to be. And we’ve been together ever since. And I feel like I owe him everything. And I love him. And his name is Richard Pine if you are out there looking for an agent. And I think about this story all the time not only because of book writing but because all these people, these other agents, these are experts. And these are the culturally anointed gatekeepers. And they know what they’re doing. And yet, they didn’t see this one particular thing. And I think that that happens all the time.
Tim Ferriss: Totally. No, I’m glad you shared that. And I had a very similar experience. I reached out to – I want to say it was four agents who were introduced by a very successful author who I had met something like seven years earlier by volunteering at a nonprofit, which is a great way to meet people above your paygrade, as a side note, just filling water glasses for panelists. Works really well. And so I had the right introduction, the writing. I didn’t think my writing was Tolstoy or anything. But it was passable. And complete rejection from three of the four.
Susan Cain: Wow. This was The 4-Hour Workweek?
Tim Ferriss: The 4-Hour Workweek. Two of them were pretty heavy-handed about it. One of the third – I remember her name. Jillian Manus. A very good agent. And she passed. But she gave me a lot of really helpful feedback. And she didn’t say, “This won’t work.” She just said, “I don’t think this is the right fit for me.”
Susan Cain: Right. And that one, fair enough.
Tim Ferriss: Which is totally fair. “But here’s a bunch of advice.” And one of the pieces of advice she gave me, actually – wow. I haven’t thought about this in forever – was, “Think of each –” I was intimidated by the prospect of writing a book. I’d never written a book before. She said, “Treat each chapter like a feature magazine article. Beginning, middle, and end. Self-sufficient. Each chapter can live on its own.” And I’ve followed that advice ever since with nonfiction which makes it easier to write also because if you get stuck somewhere, it’s not like you have to cross that bridge to get to a chapter that sequentially, should show up three chapters later. You can treat it in a modular way. If you get really bogged down, you can skip, which also, in some cases like the rest of my books, leads to a book that can be read non-sequentially.
So three out of four turned it down. Finally signed with my current agent, Stephen Hanselman, who I still work with to this day, similarly. And he had just become an agent. He had just become an agent. But part of what attracted me to him was that he had a long career as a very successful editor and also is just an eclectic guy, went to divinity school, plays in a jazz band. Really my kind of person. And then we went out to sell it. And I think it was – I always forget if it’s 26 or 27. But nonetheless, it was something like 27 – somewhere between 26 and 28 publishers turned it down.
Susan Cain: Really? Wow.
Tim Ferriss: Yes. But you only need one. That’s the thing. It’s not about how many people don’t get it; it’s about having the right person or people who do get it, which is so clear with your book. You don’t need all the people in the world to think it’s a good idea. You don’t need half the people in the world to think it’s a good idea. You need the people who it resonates with to have it resonate. That’s it. And it does not need to be millions of people. It could be. But it doesn’t have to be. I have a note down also to just – and we don’t have to necessarily spend a ton of time on this. But just to clarify the – talk about introversion versus shyness. And I came across this when I was doing a bit of homework which is people think of, say, Bill Gates as maybe one example of someone who could be useful in distinguishing between the two. But could you clarify what an introvert is and how you define introvert and how it might differ from –
Susan Cain: From somebody who’s shy?
Tim Ferriss: Right.
Susan Cain: Yeah. So introversion is really about the preference for lower stimulation environments. And you can trace it to our neurobiology. Introverts have nervous systems that react more to all the incoming stimuli, and so that means that we’re at our most alive and happiest and switched on when things are a little more chill around us – which is probably why when you’re in those group dinners, you’re going to the restroom every so often because your nervous system wants to tone it down. And extroverts have the opposite situation and the opposite liability because, for an extrovert, you’ve got a nervous system that’s reacting less to stimulation. And that means when you’re in an environment that you find too quiet, you start to get really listless and checked out. So that’s the liability there.
And I always feel like my work has to do with both introversion and shyness, by the way. But shyness is much more about the fear of social judgment. So you’ll know if you’re a shy person because when you encounter someone who has a neutral expression on their face, you will have a tendency to read disapproval in there and to react really strongly to the disapproval. You feel really unhorsed by it. And it can take different forms. So it could be a fear of public speaking. Or it could be a job interview or any kind of situation where you feel you might be evaluated.
So in reality, lots of introverts do tend to be shy and vice versa but not necessarily at all. I don’t know Bill Gates personally. But my guess is that he’s an introvert but not especially shy. And then somebody like an Eileen Fisher who – she’s got this wonderful – and I think it’s been decades now – super successful fashion brand. She describes herself as a shy extrovert. So she really wants to be around people all the time. She wants to be connecting all the time. You talk to her. She’s constantly setting up this workshop and that program. And you look at her life, and she’s always surrounded by lots of people and things going on. But she’s often feeling intense discomfort and needing to work through that.
Tim Ferriss: Wild. Yeah. I would certainly describe myself as an introvert. And I never knew quite how to frame it until coming across your definition of preferring lower stimulation or environments with fewer stimuli because I’ve, ever since I was a little kid, been very sensitive. My sight is very sensitive. My hearing is very sensitive. But I’m not shy in the sense that I want to engage and ask questions and interact. But if the volume is turned up too much or there are too many speakers metaphorically or physically, I have a lot of difficulty parsing it all.
Susan Cain: But you don’t have – shyness would be like – before you go into those group dinners, are you feeling a kind of social anxiety?
Tim Ferriss: No.
Susan Cain: Right. That’s the difference. Yeah.
Tim Ferriss: There are so many questions that I want to explore. Because we have maybe 10 or 15 minutes more, let’s ask a few of the questions that I always like to ask. Are there any books that you have given the most to others as a gift or any books you’ve gifted often to other people?
Susan Cain: I think that the book I’ve probably, for the last few years, been giving out the most is Waking Up by Sam Harris.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah. It’s a fantastic book.
Susan Cain: It’s such a fantastic book. And it was really, for me, completely lifechanging I think for probably the reasons it is for many people which is I hadn’t really known much about meditation before reading it. I think by my nature, I’m a cross between a skeptic and a mystic or something. And the skeptical side of me – and it’s a pretty deep skeptical side. It really needed somebody like Sam, who’s such an extreme skeptic and then who, very conveniently, spent like 28 years of his life or something investigating all these different spiritual tools and then reporting back on them. For me, that was a narrator I felt I could really rely on.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah. It’s a fantastic book. Just because I think you’ll – we were talking a bit about Sam before we started recording because we were both fanboying and fangirling about his mediation app and a handful of other things. But I haven’t told you – and I don’t know if I’ve even mentioned this publicly, but here we go. So the first time I met Sam – this relates to TED. Went to TED for the first time as an attendee which, by the way, was too much stimulation. So I never went back. But I went to TED for the first time as an attendee. And I was invited to one of these group dinners. And so I go out to this group dinner. And we’re eating dinner. And off to the side on a separate table, there’s this tray of brownies. And I love brownies. It’s one of my weaknesses. It is an Achilles’ heel. And I have zero portion control. And these brownies are large brownies. And I sneak over in between courses.
And I’m like, “I’m going to skip one of the later courses and just substitute the brownies because I love brownies.” And so I eat two of these brownies. And about 20 minutes later, the host, who I shall not name, comes up to me and goes, “Tim, did you eat any of the brownies?” I go, “Yeah. I had two of them.” And he goes, “Okay. Everything’s going to be fine.” And I’m like, “Wait. What? Everything is going to be fine? What the hell are you talking about?” They were heavily dosed pot brownies. And I am not a habitual pot user.
And so I suddenly, in the middle of dinner, just get hit by this tsunami of cannabis. And you combine that with my discomfort with high stimulation environments, and I’m like, “I need to get the hell out of here.” So I excuse myself to go to the restroom. And by this point, I’m already a huge fan of Sam but have never had any contact with him. So I run off to the bathroom to escape. And I open the door. And literally, at the sink, run straight into Sam Harris in the men’s room. And I’m like, “Sam Harris. Hi!” off my rocker. And that was my first intera – and he looks at me. He’s like, “Hi,” kinda sideways because I’m just beyond reality at that point. And that was my first meeting with Sam.
Susan Cain: That’s hilarious. And did you tell him your brownie story?
Tim Ferriss: I did. I did tell him, which he appreciated because he does have some history with –
Susan Cain: Yes, he does.
Tim Ferriss: – altered states.
Susan Cain: But yeah. No. I found that book and the subsequent meditation app and all of it incredibly helpful and fantastic. The one piece of it that I’m trying to explore separately because I feel like he looks at much less is the whole tradition of loving-kindness meditation, all the meditations around that. So that’s really, really of interest to me. And so I’m charting a different course there. And I’ll tell you, even just last night, I was interviewing on stage this guy, Haemin Sunim. I don’t know if you’ve heard of him.
Tim Ferriss: I don’t know.
Susan Cain: But he’s a really renowned Zen Buddhist monk from Korea. And his books are all number-one bestsellers in Korea and lots of other countries. But here, he’s less well known. But anyway, he has a new book out. So I was doing this interview. And we’re up on stage. So you can see the audience. And it happens to be a pretty formal audience. So before we start, the audience is sitting there, still, in their seats. And then he opens by doing a loving-kindness meditation. And it was so amazing to see the transformation on their faces. And he did this for maybe one or two or three minutes. It wasn’t long. And suddenly, they’re totally smiling. And they’re open. And they’re happy.
Tim Ferriss: It’s remarkable. Yeah.
Susan Cain: It’s remarkable. And I think it’s so weird and dispiriting how in the mainstream media and in corporate life – it’s great that there’s been this incredible embrace of mindfulness meditation. But I think there’s a kind of allergy towards going too much in the loving-kindness direction. And I spoke to Sharon Salzberg about this, who’s one of the great teachers. And she said that people have this sense that it must be phony, that you couldn’t possibly actually have those feelings. And so it gives them a creepy feeling to do it. But I feel like that all needs to get completely rethought.
Tim Ferriss: Loving-kindness, the label, I think smells of hand-wavy, hippie associations. And therefore, people veer away from it. Or if they have a sensitivity to that stuff, which I do and have for a very long time –
Susan Cain: But so did mindfulness for many years.
Tim Ferriss: Absolutely.
Susan Cain: And that’s been recast successfully.
Tim Ferriss: But I mention that as a contrast to my then subsequent experience with loving-kindness meditation, also called Metta, M-E-T-T-A meditation, which I was introduced to – not first by Jack Kornfield, although I did spend some time with him, who’s of the same cohort of Sharon Salzberg. They’re close friends. And Sharon’s been on the podcast – but Meng. Chade-Meng Tan of Google, actually, who started this class within Google called – I think it’s Search Within Yourself. And it was a course that included many tools including mindfulness. And he has a book called Joy on Demand, which is fantastic. I thought it was a fantastic title. I was like, “I could use joy on demand. Let’s take a look at this.” And there’s a very short part in that book which I ended up excerpting for, I want to say Tools of Titans about loving-kindness meditation.
And he tells the story of this woman who, as an experiment, guided or suggested by Meng, did a one-minute loving-kindness meditation on the hour every hour for one work day. And she would pick people who were walking out of the office or so on. And she came back. And she said, “That is the best day I’ve had at work in seven years.” And I think part of that is, at least for me, that I am a very – historically, have been very trapped in my head. I’m very prefrontal. And I come from a family of worriers, people who are –
Susan Cain: Warrior or worrier?
Tim Ferriss: Ah, worriers.
Susan Cain: With an O?
Tim Ferriss: Not the battleaxe type, but the Larry David type.
Susan Cain: Yeah. I come from one of those too.
Tim Ferriss: Right. And when you are consumed with worry or anxiety – and this is not my description, but it’s been described to me as being trapped in the future. Depression is being trapped in the past. And anxiety or worrying is being trapped in the future. At least for me, it’s a focus on the self. It’s like, “Me, me, me.” It’s all things that might happen to me, things that I should do.
And the loving-kindness meditation, which can be so short and have an impact gets you – unlike most types of mindfulness practice that are popular or becoming popular in the west, it gets you out of yourself. And I recall when I was writing Tools of Titans, I decided to take Meng’s advice. And I did loving-kindness for literally two or three minutes every night. I was at this hotel. And they had a dry sauna. And I’d go into the dry sauna really late because I was doing my writing really late and just do two to three minutes of thinking about a friend and wishing them happiness and seeing them smiling and giving them a hug and having them smile back at me and wishing me the same. And it was transformative with regards to my mood. It was really just incredible. Low dose. Really, really low dose.
Susan Cain: And I’m curious. You mentioned that you were meditating on loving-kindness to your friend. Did you also start with the traditional practice of wishing it to yourself? Or is that less comfortable for you?
Tim Ferriss: This is a great question. So I did not – it did not even occur to me to do this until years later when I went to my first seven-day – it might have been 10-day. Seven-day? No. It was a 10-day silent meditation retreat at Spirit Rock. And Jack Kornfield was there. And I went in – they check in with you to make sure you’re not having a total psychotic break for a few minutes every other day. And I had this meeting with Jack and one of his co-teachers for the event. And we were talking about loving-kindness. And as I was leaving, the woman with Jack said, “Just out of curiosity, have you been doing any loving-kindness for yourself?” I don’t know how to describe this in a way that doesn’t make me look like an ass. But it just struck me as such a silly question. I was like, “No. Of course I haven’t been doing it for myself.” And then I realized how much that probably explained a lot of my problems. And she goes, “Yeah. You might want to try that. Why don’t you experiment with that?” And I remember Jack later saying, “If –” and I’m paraphrasing but, “If your compassion doesn’t include yourself, then it’s incomplete. And that has become –
Susan Cain: Yeah. And you can’t really give it to other people in a complete way through –
Tim Ferriss: Right. So that has become probably – I’m so glad you asked that – one of the biggest changes in my – and I could call it a mindfulness practice but my way of relating to the world and thinking about helping others has been actually taking time to show or think on self-compassion, specifically for the self at a handful of younger ages which I do at mealtimes. And I might talk about that more at some point. But that’s –
Susan Cain: Oh, I think you should.
Tim Ferriss: – become really – it’s become a very, very, very, very important ritual for me.
Susan Cain: But I don’t think you’re alone. Sharon Salzberg mentioned to me that many people have trouble – the traditional progression of the practice would be start with yourself and then move progressively outward to other people in your life. And she said many people have trouble beginning with themselves. And so I was really struck because last night, this monk, Haemin Sunim, who I love began in his meditation by directing it to ourselves. And I asked him about that afterward. And he seemed puzzled by the question which made me wonder if this is a uniquely American problem. I don’t know.
Tim Ferriss: It reminds me of this story I heard of this – I don’t know what it was. Nepalese or Bhutanese monk who came to the US. And he was in a car on the way to some event. And there were these – this was in the US. And there were these people jogging on the side of the street to get in shape. But they looked like they were dying. They looked like they were running from hyenas. And he was just like, “Are they okay? What’s wrong with them?” It was so foreign. My goodness. So we have just a few minutes. Let me ask you the billboard question. So if you could put a message on a billboard – and this is metaphorically speaking – to get a message, a quote, a question, anything non-commercial out to millions or billions of people, what might you put on that billboard?
Susan Cain: I think I’d probably put this one aphorism that I’ve loved since high school I think, which is, “Only connect,” by E.M. Forster.
Tim Ferriss: Only connect.
Susan Cain: Only connect. Yeah. At the end of the day, that’s all that really matters.
Tim Ferriss: What does that mean to you?
Susan Cain: It just means connecting on some really deep level with the people around you. And that might sound like an ironic aphorism for someone who wrote a book about introversion, but to me, those are not contradictory things at all. And so for me, connection, it can happen in person, for sure. But it could also happen just by listening to music that’s really touching you, and you feel completely connected to this musician who may not even be alive anymore or a writer who might not be alive anymore. But they’re expressing something deep and unchanging about what it’s like to be human. So I think there’s nothing more important than that.
Tim Ferriss: Only connect.
Susan Cain: Only connect. Yeah.
Tim Ferriss: Is there anything you’ve done that has helped you to more deeply or frequently experience those moments or any advice you might have for people who want to cultivate that?
Susan Cain: So aside from meditation, which I am a huge proponent of – but I think you really do have to pay attention to what works for you. And it really is so different for everybody. So for me, I love to have deep, one-on-one conversations. It happens through music. It happens through literature. And that’s how it happens. But I think it really is a different answer for everyone.
Tim Ferriss: For each person.
Susan Cain: And I’ll tell you – this is maybe a different topic, but the whole idea for my next book came out of one of these kinds of experiences, which is I have always had a love of bittersweet and minor key music. And the book’s not about music, but I’m going to tell you this story anyway. Okay. So when I was in law school, I was listening to music like that in my dorm. And a friend came by. And he was a funny, wise guy. And he said, “Why are you listening to this music to commit suicide to?” And I thought it was funny, and I laughed. But I thought about it for decades afterward. I was thinking, “Well, why is it – first of all, what is it about our culture that makes this music so suspect that you make that kind of joke? And also, what is it about the music itself that, for me, is not suicide inducing at all?”
It’s the opposite. I feel when I hear music like that, completely connected to everything because it’s like the composer is expressing some really deep truth about what it is to be human. So I’ve thought about this for decades. And the place that I’m going with this next book is that I think that tuning into the sorrows of the world actually is a kind of secret superpower that we’re not really allowed to access very often because, of course, we live in this culture that tells you, “Don’t go there. And always wear the smiley face,” and so on. But if I can say, look at somebody like you. Even before you started being really open and upfront about some of the demons that you’ve struggled with – which, by the way, all the honor to you for doing that. It’s amazingly brave and generous. But even before you did it and if you had never done it, I don’t think you would have been touching all those people the way you have all these years if it weren’t for those sorrows.
Tim Ferriss: I agree.
Susan Cain: Yeah. So it’s all about that.
Tim Ferriss: Well, I’m excited to read your next book. I think that’s a really, really, really, really important topic. That is really important. Well, we’ll have to do round two in that case.
Susan Cain: I would love that. That would be awesome. I just have to write a little faster.
Tim Ferriss: I will happily wait for your best work. So no need to rush. Well, Susan, this has been such a joy. And I’m sure people can hear it. But just to maybe underscore the point, you’re a very present person when you’re speaking with someone else.
Susan Cain: Oh, thank you. So are you.
Tim Ferriss: And I can feel that in the room. And so you’re walking the talk, which is always refreshing and not always the case. So thank you for taking the time today.
Susan Cain: Thank you so much. I really enjoyed it. It’s great to hang out.
Tim Ferriss: And I will link to everything in the show notes for folks including the name of the Korean monk that I couldn’t spell to save my life at the moment. But we will have links to everything at tim.blog/podcast. And you can just search Susan, and it’ll pop right up. People can find you online, presumably. Where are the best places to say hello, learn more about what you’re up to?
Susan Cain: Well, best thing is to sign up for my newsletter which you can get to if you go to quietrev.com which is for Quiet Revolution. So you’ll find it right there in the homepage. There’s a signup form. And there’s a newsletter that goes out every week. So that’s the absolute best. And then I’m also super active on LinkedIn and on Facebook.
Tim Ferriss: Great. And is that simply Susan Cain? Because I think Facebook – correct me if I’m wrong – I think is Author Susan Cain.
Susan Cain: Oh, gosh. Thank you for saying that. Yeah. So on Facebook, it’s Author Susan Cain. And on LinkedIn, I actually don’t remember. But it’s part of the LinkedIn Influencer – if you put in LinkedIn Influencer and my name, you’ll get there.
Tim Ferriss: It’ll pop right up. And then Twitter maybe less active?
Susan Cain: Yeah. I am on Twitter. A little less active.
Tim Ferriss: But @SusanCain.
Susan Cain: @SusanCain. Yup.
Tim Ferriss: And can’t wait to see the next book and continue to follow your work. Thank you for doing it.
Susan Cain: Thank you so much. I will say the same to you. What is the next book?
Tim Ferriss: What is the next book? Well, based on an episode that came out a few days ago, I think it’s going to be this book that I have been waiting to give myself permission to write which is about – it’ll be a close cousin to what you are thinking a lot about right now. It’ll be how to pay attention to these psycho-emotional undercurrents and components of life very closely and how to use tools, both on the beaten path and very, very, very off the beaten path for finding resolution for problems or challenges or insecurities or trauma that are at least in current conventional practice considered very difficult to treat or untreatable. So that would be, as far as I can tell – and I’ve been gathering notes for about five years now. That would be the thrust of it.
Susan Cain: That’s going to be your most important book.
Tim Ferriss: I hope so.
Susan Cain: What’s your timetable?
Tim Ferriss: What’s my timetable? Who was it? I think this is something I Heard on a TV set once. They didn’t want people to rush, but it was – the gist was people need to rush. But they didn’t want to say that and make you all panic. So they said, “We need everyone to move with purpose.” So I think my answer is move with purpose but not in haste because I want to treat it with the depth and thought that it deserves. So I don’t want to rush. I will probably write it without signing, before selling anything or signing any contracts. I’ll probably –
Susan Cain: Oh, you’ll write the whole thing first?
Tim Ferriss: I’ll probably do it on my own time.
Susan Cain: Oh, interesting. Okay.
Tim Ferriss: But it is a top if not the top priority.
Susan Cain: Wow. So are you working on it every day right now?
Tim Ferriss: I am in some fashion working on it every day. But it’s going to be a while before I get to the composition prose stage. But the vast majority of the work that I do on my books is the experimentation and the traveling for subjecting myself to all sorts of unusual things and the notetaking and the organizing of said notes. And I’m doing some piece of that almost every day.
Susan Cain: Wow. Oh, I’m so glad you’re doing this book. So if I can help – if you want an early reader or whatever, I would love to. It’s completely up my alley.
Tim Ferriss: Well, likewise. Likewise. This has been so much fun. And until next time. Thank you so much.
Susan Cain: Thank you so much.
Tim Ferriss: And to everybody listening, same. Until next time. Thank you for listening.
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2 Replies to “The Tim Ferriss Show Transcripts: Susan Cain (#357)”
I would like to ask you what is your “magic square”? How did you discover it? And how did you develop it over the years.
I describe the “magic square” as the greatest value or skill or aptitude or talent that has helped you succeed and become the person you are today.
This is one of my favorite podcasts! I’ve listened to it MANY times. Thank you so much for doing what you do and using your time to help so many others.