Susan Cain on Transforming Pain, Building Your Emotional Resilience, Exploring Sufi Wisdom, Tapping into Bittersweet Songs, and Seeking the Shards of Light (#583)

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“I went off into this seven-year quest of reading art and literature and exploring all the wisdom traditions, talking to psychologists and neuroscientists to figure out what is this power of a bittersweet, even melancholic, way of being. And what I’ve learned is that this bittersweet tradition, it’s been with us for centuries. And what it teaches us is that we are creatures who are born to transform pain into beauty.”

— Susan Cain

Susan Cain (@susancain) is the author of Quiet Journal: Discover Your Secret Strengths and Unleash Your Inner PowerQuiet Power: The Secret Strengths of Introverts, and Quiet: The Power of Introverts in A World That Can’t Stop Talking, the latter of which spent eight years on the New York Times Best Sellers list and has been translated into 40 languages.

Susan’s first record-smashing TED Talk has been viewed more than 40 million times and was named by Bill Gates as one of his all-time favorite talks (and if you like that one, you should check out her most recent TED Talk with violinist Min Kym). LinkedIn named her the top sixth influencer in the world, just behind Richard Branson and Melinda Gates. Susan partners with Malcolm Gladwell, Adam Grant, and Dan Pink to curate the Next Big Idea Club. They donate all of their proceeds to children’s literacy programs.

Her new book is Bittersweet: How Sorrow and Longing Make Us Whole.

Please enjoy!

Listen to the episode on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Overcast, Podcast Addict, Pocket Casts, Stitcher, Castbox, Google Podcasts, Amazon Musicor on your favorite podcast platform. You can watch the interview on YouTube here.

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The transcript of this episode can be found here. Transcripts of all episodes can be found here.

#583: Susan Cain on Transforming Pain, Building Your Emotional Resilience, Exploring Sufi Wisdom, Tapping into Bittersweet Songs, and Seeking the Shards of Light

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What was your favorite quote or lesson from this episode? Please let me know in the comments.


Want to hear the last time Susan Cain was on the podcast? Have a listen to our conversation here, in which we discuss how she went from someone who feared public speaking to giving her own TED Talk, strategies for introverts dealing with group dinners, public speaking as a force multiplier for every other skill, terrible first drafts, writing process, the joy of bittersweet and minor key music, and much more.

#357: Susan Cain — How to Overcome Fear and Embrace Creativity
  • Connect with Susan Cain:

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  • Conversation around a book titled Bittersweet should always begin with dark chocolate. [06:00]
  • How did Susan arrive at the thesis for Bittersweet, and what did she learn about bittersweetness as a timeless human tradition? [06:52]
  • Where can someone curious about bittersweet music taste a sample of Susan’s favorites? [11:46]
  • Parallel wisdom for people of faith, hardcore atheists, and everyone in between from two of bittersweet art’s heaviest hitters: Leonard Cohen and Rumi. [12:14]
  • Why does minor key music often invoke melancholy? [16:31]
  • “Days of honey, days of onions.” Psychology may not (yet) distinguish between melancholy and depression, but wisdom traditions have known the difference for thousands of years. [20:04]
  • For those of us who closely associate depression and melancholy, what’s the value in seeking out the latter when we try so hard to avoid the former? [23:28]
  • Where Sufism fits in to Susan’s exploration of bittersweetness and search for a language of longing. [29:35]
  • Creativity as a byproduct of bittersweetness. [36:00]
  • Thoughts on the song “Hinach Yafah” by Idan Raichel. [39:08]
  • How is mono no aware expressed in your part of the world? [44:44]
  • How can someone begin attuning their senses to the feelings that feed into bittersweetness? [50:17]
  • Susan shares the now-framed email the man who would become her husband sent after their second date. [53:11]
  • Most of us long for people, places, and things that didn’t make it through the pandemic. RIP, Doma. [55:50]
  • An empathy exercise: what captions and subtitles would accompany the people around you? [56:53]
  • Can grief be inherited? Here’s what the science says. [1:00:49]
  • Learning to heal others helps us heal ourselves. [1:10:26]
  • What’s the unexpected benefit Susan enjoys by immersing herself in the theses of her books during the lengthy writing process? [1:13:08]
  • Favorite quotations from Art Is the Highest Form of Hope, a book Susan gifted my way a few years ago. [1:14:51]
  • A point Susan feels some readers of Bittersweet might underappreciate or misinterpret. [1:16:26]
  • A brief bask in the warm wisdom of Jana Levin and C.S. Lewis. [1:18:30]
  • Susan asks what made me shift gears from being an “I’m going to teach you to be successful” author to someone in search of ways to turn pain into beauty. [1:21:54]
  • Susan’s advice to her 30-year-old-self (and the any-aged rest of us), moral obligation, coping with life’s crossroads, and other parting thoughts. [1:37:12]


“What I’ve learned is that this bittersweet tradition, it’s been with us for centuries. And what it teaches us is that we are creatures who are born to transform pain into beauty.”
— Susan Cain

“I define bittersweetness as the state in which you know, you accept, and you truly inhabit the idea that life is always simultaneously joy and sorrow, it’s light and dark.”
— Susan Cain

“Right now, psychology makes no distinction between melancholy and depression. You could think of melancholy as being kind of a synonym for bittersweetness, but you won’t find it in psychology. You find it in all the wisdom traditions and the artists and the poets—they’ve been talking about it for thousands of years. But in psychology, no, it’s just depression. That’s all there is.”
— Susan Cain

“When I hear music, I’m like, ‘That’s what people are talking about when they talk about God.’ It is the same thing to me.”
— Susan Cain

“To me, the best moments in life are also when I’m reading a book or hearing music or whatever, where I feel like, ‘Oh, my gosh, that person just articulated something that I have experienced, and I never really thought about it that way, and I know exactly that person’s heart and mind.’ Maybe they lived 2,000 years ago, and I still know them.”
— Susan Cain

“I’ve been a deep agnostic/atheist my whole life, and one of the biggest things I learned from the Bittersweet project is that it’s such a false dichotomy, this difference between atheists and believers. We all feel this longing, and the longing we feel is the return message for everyone.”
— Susan Cain


The Tim Ferriss Show is one of the most popular podcasts in the world with more than 900 million downloads. It has been selected for "Best of Apple Podcasts" three times, it is often the #1 interview podcast across all of Apple Podcasts, and it's been ranked #1 out of 400,000+ podcasts on many occasions. To listen to any of the past episodes for free, check out this page.

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13 Replies to “Susan Cain on Transforming Pain, Building Your Emotional Resilience, Exploring Sufi Wisdom, Tapping into Bittersweet Songs, and Seeking the Shards of Light (#583)”

    1. Hi Sam,

      You can find it in the links from the episode in this post in the section “SELECTED LINKS FROM THE EPISODE.”

      The link is titled “Susan’s Bittersweet Playlist.”

      Thank you,

      Team Tim Ferriss

  1. Hi, Tim Thanks for the nice episode, you always fill up my brain with better thoughts. I become new when I head to your site. Thanks. I also have nice posts on personal growth and business tips, if anyone interested check this post here 7 signs of a mental breakdown.

    [Moderator: link removed.]

  2. Hello Team Tim – I am a long time listener of your show and a four time cancer survivor currently doing treatment. I am doing my Masters of Science in Regenerative Organic Agriculture and I am writing my thesis on: “Emergent Psychedelic Ecosystems” looking at regenerative and extractive potentialities/futures. I wanted to see if it might be possible to interview someone at your team about this thematic. I am hoping eventually to be part of the movement to help cancer patients access psychedelics to help with their wellness and ability to face their challenge from a brave/strong place rather than a defeated/anxious/rageful state.

  3. Hi Tim,

    Some food for thought.

    You mentioned in the conversation that you can’t tell Pothos from depression, and don’t know whether they’re quantitatively or qualitatively different. But does that even matter? The point is that they’re similar, just like anxiety and excitement have pretty much the same physiological symptoms.

    So maybe there is a way to reframe your depressive feelings as Pothos and in that way overcome the fear you feel when you think you’re slipping into depression, which I’m sure causes things to get much worse than they have to be.

    Hope that can be of help to you or anyone else reading 🙂

  4. Hi Tim, this is a shot in the dark but I guess you might like it! I am wanting to ask people with money for donations to The World Peace Project. There are numerous studies on how transcendental meditation transforms communities and situations and we are looking for a permanent paid group of meditators to bring peace to the world (we only need 9000 for 8 billion people). I am only going to ask for donations from those who believe in this, such as Eckhart Tolle and Joe Dispenza, but I don’t know how to go about asking in the right way. I have read all your books but this is fundraising for something huge and I don’t want to screw it up. Any ideas? Thanks Joanna [Moderator: link removed.]

  5. Super enjoyable, informative episode. Thank you both for the wisdom shared. I think I’m going to embroider “Days of Honey. Days of Onions” place it in a frame and put on my wall as a reminder to embrace and celebrate the bittersweetness of life.

  6. A lot to digest from this episode . . . since the discussion touched on trauma, I suggest George Bonnano’s recent book on trauma and the potential for human resilience . . . (“The End of Trauma”, available at all the usual sources, plus your public library).

    Best wishes.

  7. Hi Tim and Susan, your wonderful talk reminded me that Leonard Bernstein explained the difference in our affective response to the major and minor key in music. Your conversation, your insights…are terrific ( I listened twice and will listen a third time). But you never touched on the physics of our listening… I’m simplifying…but music is apparently a wave until it hits our inner ear and transforms into another kind of energy. I couldn’t find the passage in his Norton Lectures at Harvard, “The Unanswered Question” and I finally got a reply, and yes it’s there! Bernstein describes the minor key being felt as an interference…
    I’m not a physicist, I love music, I studied the piano at Juilliard (I hope you’ll reconsider, Tim!)
    I asked the Leonard Bernstein Institute in NYC if they could help locate the passage. I received this reply, and it’s exactly what I remember watching!
    Thanks for all you do!

    Is it this one in his third lecture: Musical Semantics on this video?
    The part I’m thinking starts at 1:18. The book of the Harvard Lectures

  8. I really enjoyed this interview with Susan Cain and I was especially excited to hear the reference to Rumi’s “Love Dogs”. I immediately looked it up since I’d not read that one. Susan’s expression of the power and maybe even meaning behind the feeling of longing helped me understand the deep emotion I often experience reading Rumi. Thank you!

    PS – My personal favorite is Rumi’s “All Day I Think About It”

  9. Hi Tim and Susan,
    Listening to you two talk about this brought immense relief to me in realising that I’m not alone in how I experience beauty through sorrow & longing.
    Here’s a sample of songs that does it for me:
    [Moderator: YouTube links to “Moira Kerr – MacIain of Glencoe” and “Searching For Abegweit” removed per link policy.]
    Thank you for your sharing.

  10. Hi Tim’s team,

    I work in senior living with a large network and would be happy to easily help get Molly in front of seniors for pet therapy in the Austin area. Pet therapy brings a lot of smiles to seniors.

  11. Another amazing guest and great conversation. You ask great questions Tim! I confess, I would enjoy this more if you resisted the urge to clarify & elaborate so much on each one. :/