Please enjoy this transcript of my interview with Susan Cain (@susancain), author of Quiet Journal: Discover Your Secret Strengths and Unleash Your Inner Power, Quiet 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.
Transcripts may contain a few typos. With many episodes lasting 2+ hours, it can be difficult to catch minor errors. Enjoy!
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Tim Ferriss: Hello, boys and girls, ladies and germs. This is Tim Ferriss. Welcome to another episode of The Tim Ferriss Show. Welcome, friends. My guest today is Susan Cain. That’s C-A-I-N. You can find her on Twitter @SusanCain. Susan is the author of Quiet Journal, Quiet Power: The Secret Strength of Introverts, and Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, which spent eight years on the New York Times Best Sellers list and has been translated into 40 languages. Susan’s TED Talk has been viewed more than 40 million times and was named by Bill Gates as one of his all time favorite talks. 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, all good people, to curate the Next Big Idea Book Club. They donate all of their proceeds to children’s literacy programs.
For my first conversation with Susan on the podcast, you can go to tim.blog/susancain. Her newest book, which she’s been working on for some time, and I know because we talked about it last time, Bittersweet: How Sorrow and Longing Make Us Whole. And I am very excited to dig into this. We’ll provide links to all the social in the show notes, but you can find everything Susan Cain at, you guessed it, susancain.net, Susan, welcome back to the show. Nice to see you.
Susan Cain: It is so great to see you, Tim. Thanks for having me.
Tim Ferriss: And I thought I would start with this title, Bittersweet, which is interesting and also funny to me on a couple of levels. Am I making it up or was there a point in your life that you had dark chocolate at least once a day? Am I inventing that? Am I just making that up whole cloth?
Susan Cain: No. The funny thing is that you’re casting that in the past tense when in fact it’s just a constant ongoing present. I don’t think there’s ever been a day in my life that I haven’t had dark chocolate.
Tim Ferriss: What’s your daily driver? And then what are your indulgences when it comes to chocolate? Do you have any favorites or go-tos?
Susan Cain: I like luxury chocolates and all that stuff, but I don’t even really need that. I just really love little semi-sweet chocolate chips that I stick in my yogurt and I’m happy as a clam.
Tim Ferriss: It’s the little things. It is the little things. I’d like to start on the sort of creative process side with respect to the new book because I enjoy chatting about that stuff, and I’m thinking a lot about creative process these days for myself. So where I thought we could go and I’m going to do a little retrospective, just like you said, you’re treating things in past tense, but maybe they are present tense. That’s going to be really my first question. If we look back at Quiet, it took seven years to write. If I’m remembering correctly. You had two kids during that time. And your philosophy about writing is that it’s deep love that has to be protected at all costs. By the way, you can reserve the right to revise any of these. But this is from the last conversation. Because of that, I don’t care how much time it takes.
And then asking about how you’re writing. This is what I remember/am reading from the last time. So you take whatever thesis you’re working on. Then you spend a year or two just walking around the world looking at everything through the lens of that thesis. And then, and I want to know what has changed, if anything, asking how you organize your notes. So you stick everything in this monstrous Word doc, it’s like 700, 800 pages by the time you’re done. Then you separate out things by topic, putting them into eight or nine loose leaf binders. Then you organize them and try to take advantage of emotional states as they come up during the organization. So all of this is super cool to me. If we apply this to the new project, just as a rough scattering of concepts, how did you come up with the thesis for the new book? And then what did the creative process look like after that?
Susan Cain: So those are two really different questions. So let’s do one at a time.
Tim Ferriss: Yes.
Susan Cain: How did I come up with a thesis for the new book? I feel like the only point of writing really, at least to me, is telling the truth of what it’s like to be alive, telling truths that people don’t really talk about in everyday life because if they talked about it everyday life, you could just get it just from chatting with your friends or your colleagues or whomever, but there’s something about writing and art in general where people are just really digging deep. And 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.’ I know them and maybe they lived 2,000 years ago and I still know them.
With this book, Bittersweet, I have been feeling for my entire life and there was an event that happened 25 or 30 years ago where I really felt it, I’ve been feeling my whole life when I would hear bittersweet, minor key music, music that expresses a kind of longing for some state that is forever elusive to us. I’d hear music like that, and it’s supposedly sad, right? Minor key music is sad music, but I didn’t feel sad. I love that kind of music and what I felt when I heard it, what I still feel when I hear it is joy and uplift and goosebumps and a kind of love and communion and a gratitude to the musician that they were able to transform pain that all of us have in one way or another to transform pain into beauty.
And what happened is, 25 years ago, I used to be a lawyer. That was a whole detour in my life.
Tim Ferriss: Oh, I remember. I remember.
Susan Cain: Yeah. Yeah. And so I was in law school, and I was listening to music like this in my dorm. And some friends came to my dorm and I was like, blasting it out on my stereo speakers. And the friends came to pick me up for class, and they thought it was the weirdest thing. And one of them was like, “Why are you listening to this funeral music?” Yeah. And I had that reaction like you. I thought it was really funny. And then I went to class, and that was the end of the story, except I could not stop thinking about it. Why am I so drawn to this music?
And then I started looking and finding that turns out that people listen to the happy songs on their playlist 175 times. And they listen to the sad songs 800 times. And it’s the sad songs that give them chills and make us feel connected and sublime. This might sound at first blush a kind of small question. What is it about sad music that could be so moving? But it became a much bigger quest for me. I went off into this five- or six- or 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. And it’s something our culture will never tell us.
Tim Ferriss: I, as expected, have a number of follow-up questions.
Susan Cain: Of course you do.
Tim Ferriss: So the first, and you might hate this because it’s just like, “Jesus, Ferriss, can we get away from the nitty gritty, prescriptive autobiographical stuff?” As far as minor key music goes or music or musicians who utilize minor key well, do you have any suggestions for people who might want to do a taste test?
Susan Cain: Oh, gosh yes. In fact, I put together a Bittersweet playlist, you’ll be able to find it, but I’ve been obsessed my whole life. I’ve had this deep and crazy love my whole life for the music of Leonard Cohen. I mean, I love him and I had never actually really paid attention before to why I love him so much. I just loved him. But when I was searching this book, I came to understand exactly what it was because it’s like his whole life philosophy that’s embodied in all his music is exactly what I have believed viscerally before I had words to articulate it. I could tell you now what it is or we could save it.
Tim Ferriss: Let’s jump in. I’ll bookmark and come back to some other are questions that I have, but take it away. This is freeform.
Susan Cain: He has so many different songs, but there’s one line that people quote again and again for a good reason. And the line is, “There is a crack in everything. That’s where the light gets in.” And it’s this idea everything’s broken, everything’s beautiful simultaneously. That’s the nature of life. And there’s such a truth and there’s such a relief in being able to express that this is actually what life is. And he in turn, I found out, was drawing from this tradition of the mystical side of Judaism, the Kabbalah. And the idea there is that all of creation, all of being was originally one vessel of divine light that then shattered. And we’re living now in the world after the shattering, but the divine shards of light are still all around us. And so like they’re buried all around us. And the goal is to just be discovering the shards and picking them up wherever we can. And the amazing thing is that you are going to pick up, I know this, completely different ones from the ones I would notice. To me, it would look like a lump of coal, and you’re going to see this gleaming thing.
Tim Ferriss: The Leonard Cohen line also makes me think of, and I think I’m getting the attribution right, but poetry from Rumi. In fact, I don’t know if it’s the crack. It may be the wound where the light enters us, and I want to come back to that sort of in an adjacent way a little bit later because I want to ask you about Sufism specifically because I believe you had some exposure in the process of doing research for this book. And I want to ask why that’s the case, but before we get there…
Susan Cain: Very much so, and I’m just going to interrupt to say so much so that I actually have a Rumi poem, like sitting within hand’s length.
Tim Ferriss: Oh, wow.
Susan Cain: So here it is. Yeah. We can talk about that.
Tim Ferriss: Wait, wait. Okay. So now I have to… I’ll snap at the fly lure on the water. Can you read the quote, please? Would you be willing to share the poem that you have?
Susan Cain: Absolutely. The quote is an excerpt from a poem, so I just want to set up the story of the poem because it’s this poem called “Love Dogs,” and it’s about a man who is praying to Allah. And then a cynical person comes along and says to him, “Why are you bothering to do this? Have you ever gotten an answer back?” And the guy is like, “No.” He thinks about it. “I have never gotten the answer back.” And he stops praying and he falls asleep into a kind of fitful sleep and then Khidr, who is the guide of souls, comes along while he’s sleeping and says, “Why did you stop praying?” And he says, “Well, I never got the answer. I never heard anything back. So it’s pointless.” And this is what Khidr says to him. And this is the part I have inches away from me every day when I work.
It says, “This longing you express is the return message. The grief you cry out from draws you toward union, your pure sadness that wants help is the secret cup.”
Tim Ferriss: Ooh. That’s good.
Susan Cain: Yeah. And I’ve been a deep agnostic/atheist my whole life, and one of the biggest things I learned from this whole 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.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah, for sure. And a lot of the sort of, let’s call it, rational materialists might abhor faith as it manifests in what they consider religion, but almost all of our lives and many of our beliefs and a lot of our behaviors are completely predicated on faith. That’s a broader topic that is probably for another conversation, but let’s talk about music for a second because just the existence of music and the fact that these kind of vibrations of sound in different organizations can have different effects on animals and humans and plants is mind-boggling to begin with. But why is it, do you think, that minor key music elicits what some would consider sadness? Is it just social conditioning because we are taught early on by other people that is the case or is there more to it neurologically or otherwise?
Susan Cain: So people debate this question. I do not believe it’s the product of social conditioning. I believe it’s the structure of the music itself. The nature of minor key music is that you don’t have resolution, and I think that’s the nature of being. It’s actually hard to get away from the religion question because what I really think is that —
Tim Ferriss: Oh, I’m open to the religion question. Yeah. My views have become much more — not flexible, but accepting of many facets of religion in the last five to 10 years. So I’m happy to dive right in.
Susan Cain: Mine too, and I’ve completely sensed that in you. I mean, heard it from you and sensed it also.
I believe that the fundamental heart of human, of humanity, of being alive is the sense that there is a perfect and beautiful world out there somewhere, and we’re not in it and we’ve been banished from it. I mean, that’s why the central myth of Western culture is the banishment from the Garden of Eden, but you see this kind of longing for a different world or the longing for the beloved of the soul in the Sufi tradition. You see manifestations of this in any tradition that you look at and what minor key music is really doing is expressing that. That’s really all it’s doing. It’s saying we love beauty. We love truth. We love love, and we can’t completely have it right now, but there’s something about the fact that we’re all stuck in this condition together of not having it, but also united in the desire to reach for it. And these beautiful acts that very deeply flawed humans sometimes take in order to try to get to that garden. That’s the best part of humanity. And that’s what the music is saying.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah. I’ve been very fascinated in exploring music that historically I’ve had almost no exposure to, for the emotions and the gradiation of emotion that they can elicit and specifically, and I’m no musician, so people feel free to correct me on the internet afterwards, I’m sure you will, but unequal, temperament music. So let’s say as examples, Turkish music, Persian music, what we might consider Arab or Arabic music have a range and a level of resolution in a sense, not resolution in a sense of finality or answers, but of fidelity that is unlike anything I’ve ever heard. So it’s produced in me emotions that are very hard to trigger using, let’s just call it modern, equal temperament music. So not to dwell on the music side, but I do think that it is such a simple way to get root access to the brain or to the emotional self.
It’s really incredible. I will say though, on the minor key side, so there is minor key music I love. And for the life of me, I can’t figure out why minor key piano music specifically is just, generally speaking, punishing to me, whereas we might consider stringed instruments, cello, et cetera, I find more nourishing in some sense. I have no idea why that’s the case, but that is the case for me. I have trouble with the… I get sad, and I want to ask you to sort of talk about the definition of terms, right? I would imagine people are… There are people who feel grief, say, with the death of a loved one. Then there are people who feel kind of depressed or despondent, and these are distinct. They seem to be distinct things. Perhaps we could just start there. Would you like to just define or put a microscope on what you were aiming to explore emotionally in Bittersweet?
Susan Cain: Bittersweetness, itself, I define 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. There’s an amazing Arabic expression, “Days of honey, days of onions.”
Yeah. Isn’t that good? And it’s also the sense of a deep awareness of the impermanence of this life. It’s also a kind of curiously piercing joy at the beauty of things. So it’s all of this, and I think of bittersweetness as a state mind that some of us, just by the nature of our temperaments, are drawn to from the get go. And other people arrive there, whether through life experiences or just as they get older or whatever it is, and in the book, you can’t really explore this idea of bittersweetness without them talking also about sorrow and longing and grief and everything that you were just getting at. And so we can talk about all of that, but I started with this nature of bittersweetness and what it is. And we did some preliminary studies. I say we. I did them with the psychologists Scott Barry Kaufman, cognitive scientist, and also David Yaden, who you may know. He’s at Johns Hopkins, and he does a lot of amazing research with psychedelics and spirituality. So he’s right up your alley.
And the three of us designed together a Bittersweet quiz and did some preliminary testing with it, and we found that people who are in a bittersweet state of mind are also in a state of mind that predisposes them to creativity and to states of awe and spirituality, and kind of wonder, and all those kinds of states. So it was really that whole suite of human experiences that I’ve just been deeply attracted to and that I feel like we do not have a language for talking about it. And if you look at psychology, psychology makes, right now it makes no distinction between melancholy and depression. and 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.
Tim Ferriss: So let me get personal for a second. That’s sort of directing the arrow back of myself and then I would love to your thoughts. So as someone personally, who has struggled with depression throughout my entire life, I think I have conflated those two myself. And if I see the onset or feel the onset of anything resembling melancholy with the exception of this unequal temperament music, which is interesting, I tend to have a panic response because I’m like, okay. I’m walking along a narrow path on the edge of, I wouldn’t say a cliff, but a very steep incline. And if I start to slip, there’s the potential that I fall and then tumble. And then off I go. Right, so I have this panic response. The question then is what is the value? I’m just going to stand in for the listener. Why should someone explore this?
Susan Cain: First of all, I hear you, and it may be, I don’t know that we really know, but it may be that these states are a difference of degree as opposed to a difference in kind. And I feel like your reaction is suggesting that it’s a difference in degree and you’re then afraid of…
Tim Ferriss: I’m not saying it’s a rational response. It’s just a kind of knee-jerk, fear reaction.
Susan Cain: Yeah. And it makes total sense, but the value in these states of being, and I’m sure you’ve experienced it when you hear that music that happens to speak to you like that we all have different triggers, but the value is it’s the root of our creative impulse. The word longing, we think of it in our culture as being a kind of passive and helpless state of you’re mired and longing, you would think, but the etymology of that word is to reach for something. You’re literally getting longer as you reach for something. So that’s what creative people are doing. Yeah. I mean, creative people, what’s motivating them, they may not be conscious of it. They know that there’s something more shining and beautiful over there and they want to bring it over here by bringing something into being. So one thing that’s in it for you could say is creativity.
Tim Ferriss: What’s the payoff, Susan, God dammit? Sorry. I’m kidding. I’m kidding.
Susan Cain: No, it’s good. It’s good. It’s good for you to ask the questions that people are skeptically thinking to themselves. And then another one is, it’s one of the best pathways that we have towards love and connection. And especially now when everything is so divisive. To shut ourselves off from one of the strongest pathways we have, I think is a real mistake. But I mean, I talk about this in the book and I don’t know. I don’t want to go on too much of a detour, but…
Tim Ferriss: Detour away.
Susan Cain: Detour away? Okay.
Tim Ferriss: Three-tour, if you must.
Susan Cain: Okay. So Darwin, he’s known for survival of the fittest, right?
Tim Ferriss: Did not see that coming. Didn’t see Darwin coming. Yes, please proceed.
Susan Cain: Okay. Wait, how do I say this? Maybe I won’t start with Darwin.
Tim Ferriss: No. I like Darwin. I like Darwin. I’m just giving you a hard time. I love Darwin.
Susan Cain: No, no, no, it’s cool. I’m just trying to figure out what’s the best way in. We are designed physically, viscerally, deep in our makeup to respond to the sorrow of other beings. And we think of Darwin as being all about the survival of the fittest, and Darwin himself was this incredibly kind of gentle and melancholic soul who was extremely horrified by the cruelty that people and animals are capable of. But what he also noticed is that both animals and people seem to have a kind of visceral response to the distress of other beings. And the great psychologist at Berkeley, his name is Dacher Keltner, kind of followed this line and he started exploring all of this, and he did all these amazing studies.
I’ll give you just one example. He found that we all have a vagus nerve. This is the biggest bundle of nerves in our body and the vagus nerve, it’s very ancient. It’s evolutionarily ancient as a part of us. It controls our breathing, our digestion, our sex drive. It’s really fundamental. And also, our vagus nerve responds when we see other beings in distress. Your vagus nerve is reacting.
So this gigantic collection of nerves in our bodies that does all our most fundamental things is also reacting to the sorrow of others. And I think that’s huge. At a time when everything is divisive politics, I feel like if we could just get into a mode where it’s just everybody gets to tell their stories, no action required for a while. Just tell the stories, tell what you feel and that’s it. And that’s a way of tapping into one of the best and most robust bridges that we have.
Tim Ferriss: I was also thinking as you were talking that part of the reason I have started listening to this music, because you might ask, “Well, if you’re so afraid of slipping, why you’re listening to this music?”
Susan Cain: Yeah. That is a good question.
Tim Ferriss: And the answer is, I feel like having had some exposure to it and having not slipped, and this is not going to be the best comparison or phrasing to use, but there’s this expression, the more you sweat in training, the less you bleed in combat. And I also feel that in this instance, if you are afraid of slipping, if you’re going to have a panic response, when you encounter certain emotions, for me at least I am trying to almost like iocaine powder in The Princess Bride, to expose myself little by little so that when it happens and of course it’s going to happen, you’re human. People are going to die. Tragedies will occur, love will be lost. Things will happen that I’ll be more resilient in the face of those inevitable times by inoculating myself in a sense, and then pursuing it in that way, I ended up enjoying a lot of this music, which I did not expect. That’s how I ended up where I am. I would love to talk about, or have you describe the research a bit, and explain where Sufism comes into it. My understanding, which is very, very minimal, or I should say my attraction to Sufism and other let’s just call it like mystic or mystical traditions, is that for me, at least, it describes more of a direct experience of what they might term the divine, as opposed to an intermediated religious structure that is predicated on certain power dynamics within a human organization, so the direct experience. And I just would love to know how on earth Sufism came into the picture and what other things came into the picture?
Susan Cain: I like your description of mystical traditions in general. I think they appeal to people who, for whatever reason, are allergic to dogma or tend to be skeptics or whatever it is, people who aren’t just going to accept something because it’s written down. You want to think for yourself, you want to experience it for yourself. So there’s that aspect of… And I am that type of person. I drive my husband crazy sometimes as I say, because I’m the person where if you say “X,” I’m thinking, “Well, what about Y?”
That’s just how my brain goes. But that aspect really did get me interested in mysticism in general, but Sufism in particular… I guess what happened was, I mean, first I met some Sufis and then as I started to learn about it, this one Sufi teacher, his name is Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee, whose videos you can find all over the internet.
Tim Ferriss: It’s an amazing name.
Susan Cain: It’s an amazing name and he speaks in just the gentlest, most lilting Welsh-inflected accent. He’s just mesmerizing to listen to. And somehow I found his videos, because when I met these Sufis, I got really interested in this question of Sufism and longing. Longing is the thing that I’ve been feeling all my life that I couldn’t explain. And anyway, he says Sufism was, at first, heartache. Only later was it something to talk about.
Tim Ferriss: Say more about that please. And just for those people wondering, Llewellyn, I’m not even going to try to spell, just throw L-L-E-W. The Vaughan-Lee, I thought it was V-O-N. It’s V-A-U-G-H-A-N-L-E-E. So could you say more about what you just said, just to expand on that a bit?
Susan Cain: You find the following idea in all the mystical traditions that longing carries you closer to the divine. So the heartache that you feel, Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee would say, “We mistake our sorrow sometimes as depression,” when what it really is is a longing for whatever you want to call it. He would call it the beloved of the soul, but I call it the perfect and beautiful world. Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz calls it “Somewhere over the Rainbow,” but we all have that. And there are a thousand different words for it. In every culture, you find it and I talk about a lot of them in the book. But we all come in with this fundamental heartache that we mistake. I don’t mean to say that people who are experiencing depression, that it’s not real. I’m not saying that at all. I’m just saying, there’s this other dimension of our experience.
Tim Ferriss: I was also just thinking that what you’re saying could be general in the sense of “Somewhere over the Rainbow” or longing for the beloved of the soul and we mistakenly label that as depression, which can have many causes. Depression, biochemical, could be event-based, any number of things. But also you could have all longing for, I was just thinking, connection with close friends.
Susan Cain: Yes.
Tim Ferriss: And feel the symptoms of that deficit and then mistakenly label it as this internally, generated isolated depression. Whereas in fact, you’re just longing for something that is deeply treasured or nourishing to you, whether you realize it or not.
Susan Cain: I think that’s right. And I think because our culture doesn’t really — we don’t have a language for longing, even though in the Christian tradition, the most quoted line from Saint Augustine is, “Our heart is restless till it rests in thee.” So as I say, you find this in every single tradition. This is a deep aspect of being human. But because we just have no language or concept for it in contemporary culture, it actually ends up causing a problem in our love relationships, because the same longing that we have for perfect and unconditional love from our loved ones and our friends, that’s just a different manifestation of this fundamental longing that all humans come into the world with. And so when we get frustrated with our partners or our friends because they have this foible or that one, or they’re not understanding this thing about us or that thing, yes, there’s concrete issues to work through, but sort of underneath it, there’s also this feeling of I thought you were going to be the Garden of Eden and you’re not. And so understanding this aspect of ourselves can be very illuminating for our daily lives too.
Tim Ferriss: You mentioned earlier in this conversation, the relationship between this longing or even sorrow and creativity. Could you elaborate on that? Just flesh out why you believe that to be the case, any examples that come to mind. Just speak a little bit more about how creativity could be the product or byproduct of these things.
Susan Cain: With creativity, there’s a long intellectual tradition of sort of noticing the association between creativity and a kind of sorrow. There have been studies done that have shown that many, highly creative people, a wildly disproportionate number of creative people, were once orphans, were orphaned when they were children. Then there’s another study where they took a group of volunteers and they had these volunteers give speeches. And half the people gave speeches to audiences who were told in advance that they should smile and clap and applaud. And then the other half gave speeches to frowning audiences who seemed incredibly disapproving. And after it was done, just as you would predict, the people who had given the speeches to the disapproving audience, they said they were in a bad mood.
And the other ones were feeling pumped up. And then they asked these people who had given the speeches to make collages, which they had professional artists rate for creativity later on. And they found that the people who had given the speeches to the disapproving audiences, created more creative, better-rated collages. And that this was especially true for people who came in with a hormonal profile that seemed to predispose them to emotionally vulnerable states. There’s a lot of these different kinds of studies that we can look at. And at the same time, there’s also data showing if you’re truly depressed, you’re actually much less likely be creative, because depression is such an emotional black hole that sucks up everything.
But I think there’s something about that in between state where you’re not depressed, so you’re functional, but you’re acutely aware of the gap between the desired world and the one that we inhabit and the desire to fill that gap. That’s really the creative impulse. If you look at my favorite, Leonard Cohen, he would talk explicitly about that being what drove him. His son, Adam Cohen, talks about how his whole idea was that this world is beautiful and it’s broken and what he was doing with all his songs, that they were a transcendence delivery machine, just the way cigarettes are a way of delivering nicotine. In this case, it’s music delivering transcendence to people who are inherently broken and beautiful.
Tim Ferriss: So I’m going to ask you, not yet, but I’m going to let this gestate for a minute or two. So I’m going to ask you about what methods or tools or resources people can use if they want to explore some of those in between states. And since you mentioned music, I want to bring up a specific piece of music and I’d like to ask you about it. And probably the first thing I’m going to need to ask is how on earth you pronounce these names? But let me… You’re going to love this butchering and then I’ll let you fix it.
Susan Cain: If I know how.
Tim Ferriss: So the song is called “Hinach Yafah.”
Susan Cain: Oh, yeah, yeah.
Tim Ferriss: By Idan Raichel.
Susan Cain: Idan Raichel. Uh-huh (affirmative).
Tim Ferriss: Okay, so there we go. So I want to know how you found this. I want to know why it had an impact and how it had an impact, and then use that as a segue into approaches people can take, tools, experiments, anything at all for exploring some of these in between states.
Susan Cain: Okay. That was a whole lot of questions, so I’ll do one by one.
Tim Ferriss: The first part is-
Susan Cain: How did I find it?
Tim Ferriss: This particular song, just tell me all about it. And then after that, what might people do, if they want to explore these states?
Susan Cain: Sure. Okay. So this particular song… I’m in my 50s. I was living in New York City back in the day when there was still those Virgin Megastore music places and you would go into them. I’ve always loved what they called world music, music from all over the place, and it was always at the back of the store. I would go to the back of the store and they had these listening stations and I would just go from one to the other and find stuff. And I found him that way. I found Idan that way. And somehow-
Tim Ferriss: Idan? How do you say the last name? Do you know?
Susan Cain: I believe it’s Raichel.
Tim Ferriss: Okay. I-D-A-N, last name R-A-I-C-
Susan Cain: R-A-I-C-H-E-L. Yeah.
Tim Ferriss: For people wondering, got it.
Susan Cain: Yes, for people wondering. He’s just this amazing guy who I’ve gotten to know and he collaborates with musicians from all over the world and he always places himself very much on the margins and in the background and showcases all these other musicians who he’s collaborating with. He’s just this really generous soul. But this particular song, I don’t know if there’s a way to play it actually as part of this podcast. Maybe we could-
Tim Ferriss: Oh, man. Well, if you know him?
Susan Cain: I could email him. I do. I do.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah, yeah. So why don’t we do this? Yeah, please. Just make a note to email him and see. We’d have to probably get some release or something. But if he’s open to having us play the song, that’d be amazing. I would love to do that.
Susan Cain: Yeah. Okay. Okay. I bet he would be open. I’m guessing he would be open to it. And I really hope you all can hear it because it’s so stirring and it’s basically, “Hinach Yafah” means here comes my bride, here comes my beautiful one, here comes the person I’m longing for. And it’s basically-
Tim Ferriss: And it’s Hebrew?
Susan Cain: I believe… It’s in Hebrew, yeah. But also part of the song is sung in Amharic, if I’m pronouncing that language correctly.
Tim Ferriss: Amharic. Really?
Susan Cain: Yeah. Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Tim Ferriss: Okay.
Susan Cain: Yeah. As I say, he’s all over the world.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah. Amharic, if I’m not… So is it Aramaic or Amharic? Amharic is Egypt, I think.
Susan Cain: I think it’s Ethiopian. I may be totally wrong.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah. Yeah, Ethiopia. Yeah, okay. No, Amharic is… Yeah, the written language is amazing and it should be Ethiopia. Afro-Asiatic language of the Southwest Semitic group and on it goes. Yeah, very cool. That’s awesome. Okay, cool. So it’s Hebrew and Amharic. Yeah.
Susan Cain: And this song, it’s basically a version of the Song of Solomon. It’s basically saying “Here comes my beloved. She’s coming to me across the desert.” It’s a love song. But the really interesting thing about this, and I hope we can get the music because you’ll hear it in the music —
So this comes back to our Sufism discussion because also according to Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee, the Sufi teacher I was talking about, what happened is that the Sufis had always used the metaphor of the love of a woman as a metaphor for the love of God. And then what happened is that the crusaders came east and heard these expressions and then they brought them back into the tradition of the troubadours, who then used that way of speaking and singing to serenade maidens underneath moonlit windows. And I love that because it’s telling us that impulse to fall passionately in love with another human is actually the same impulse as falling passionately in love with whatever you consider the divine to be. There’s no real difference between them. And you’re going to hear all of that in this song and all of it is expressed through longing. Once you become aware of your longing, I’m telling you, you won’t be able to listen to 75 percent of your playlist without hearing it because that’s what’s driving most of music.
Tim Ferriss: Oh, that’s — I’m excited to dig into this. I’m also excited to hear more Amharic. I’ve spent some time in Ethiopia, but I haven’t heard much spoken in the last 10. I’ve certainly heard very little music and you know how I was mentioning earlier, I’ve been listening to a lot of music from the Middle East, including Persia, cue Hafez and other poets?
Susan Cain: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Yep.
Tim Ferriss: I don’t think it’s a mistake that the longing we’re talking about is so well represented in these places where we’re finding poets who we’re citing, but also the exact locations or origins of the music that I’m listening to. And I wonder how much of it comes down to the language itself on some level, because Amharic is a Semitic language, like Arabic, so it has similar structure, similar prefixes, suffixes. I wonder how much of that longing is, or lack of longing, is a sufficiency or failure of language? For instance, and this is not an example that translates to these other examples, but if you go to Brazil, they may have the same word in Portugal, but saudade–
Susan Cain: Saudade. Yeah, sure.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah. So saudade or in Japanese, they have natsukashii, which is quite different, but-
Susan Cain: And mono no aware, too.
Tim Ferriss: Mono no aware. Yeah, that’s-
Susan Cain: Which I may be mispronouncing, but-
Tim Ferriss: No. Yeah, yeah. So mono no aware is totally, that is a really cool one. I recently put this in 5-Bullet Friday, in my newsletter, because someone had brought it to mind. Do you mind if I take… We’ll just do a little sidebar on mono no aware.
Susan Cain: I love mono no aware. Yeah, I think I talk about it in the book and I think I saw it in your newsletter and I was like, “Oh, yeah.”
Tim Ferriss: Yeah, yeah, yeah. No, go for it. Go for it. Yeah.
Susan Cain: No, no, no, go ahead. I don’t remember what you said in the newsletter, but I remember it speaking to me.
Tim Ferriss: Okay. I probably just grabbed… I thought the Wikipedia entry did a good job. So the mono no aware, mono is thing, so mono no aware is the pathos of things.
Susan Cain: Exactly.
Tim Ferriss: But it’s also translated as an empathy towards things or a sensitivity to ephemera, which by the way, cue Shintoism, if you want to really pay attention to Shintoism. And if you’re like, “Shintoism, what the hell is that?” if you ever have read any of Marie Kondo’s stuff, her name is actually Marie, but Marie Kondo’s stuff on talking to your objects and thanking your belongings and so on, this is actually a good example of what we’re talking about. Sensitivity to ephemera is a Japanese idiom for the awareness of impermanence, which is called mujo in Japanese. It also, by the way, could mean non-ordinary, the mujo, or transience of things in both a transient gentle sadness or wistfulness at their passing, which is very similar to saudade, as well as a longer, deeper gentle sadness about the state being the reality of life. So all of that is encapsulated into mono no aware.
Susan Cain: And when we have those cherry blossom festivals, and the whole reason that —
Tim Ferriss: Oh, perfect example.
Susan Cain: — as I understand it, that the Japanese love cherry blossoms the way they do, they’re very beautiful, but it’s not that they’re the most beautiful flower. It’s that they’re beautiful and they’re ephemeral.
Tim Ferriss: Exactly, yeah.
Susan Cain: So gazing upon them brings up the state that Tim was just describing, the gentle sadness of impermanence.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah, a perfect example. That is a perfect example. Yeah, so the sakura, or the cherry blossom viewing, which is hanami is for a very short period of time, very, very short period of time in Japan. And that’s exactly right. Yeah. This impermanence is something that, at least in my experience, is very heavily present in Japanese culture, mythology and to a lesser extent, the language.
Susan Cain: I feel like you might be suggesting, well I’m seeing this in a lot in Japanese culture and I’m seeing it a lot in certain Middle Eastern cultures, I would say from my walk around the world that I’ve done for the last few years, that it’s in all cultures and it’s just expressed differently. And in our culture, it’s there and it’s just buried. But for example, the ancient Greeks had this word pothos, which I may be mispronouncing, but it’s P-O-T-H-O-S and it basically meant the longing for that which is beautiful and unattainable. And for the ancient Greeks, they understood that state of being was active and not passive.
So Odysseus, at the beginning of The Odyssey, of Homer’s Odyssey, that poem basically starts with him weeping on a beach with home sickness for his native land. So he’s in a state of pothos. He’s described that way. And that’s the state that then ignites this whole epic adventure that Western literature is premised upon. And Alexander the Great was said to be seized by pothos when he looked out at a river bank or something and thought of all the lands that he wanted to conquer. So it’s not my favorite example, but there you go,
Tim Ferriss: Takes all kinds.
Susan Cain: Yeah. Yeah, and so there’s really no culture that you look at that doesn’t have a way of expressing this idea.
Tim Ferriss: I agree with you, some more elegantly than others perhaps, but I think the feeling exists, whether we like it or not. So given that we have thousands of years of creatives and artists, it would make sense that likely being attuned or at the very least interested in these things, there would’ve been expressions of it in these many disparate cultures. Mu question, just to bring it back to the second part of my very long, 17-part question, for people who may feel like they don’t have access to this or haven’t experimented with it, what can they do? What are some options?
Susan Cain: So there’s a few things that you can do. If you think about the way that looking at the cherry blossoms or really looking at anything that’s beautiful can make you cry from a sense of being moved, the reason that we’re crying usually is because deep down it’s triggering in us this sense of like, “Oh, my God, this thing is so beautiful, but this world that we live in actually is not really that except for brief moments.” So just this state of being immersed in beauty is one of the best things that you can do. I will tell you, I actually had an experience like this myself, during the pandemic. So at the start of the pandemic, I was very much in the habit of waking up and doomscrolling on Twitter. I also lost my father and my brother to COVID-
Tim Ferriss: I’m so sorry. I didn’t know that.
Susan Cain: Quite early on in the pandemic. So all this stuff was happening and I decided that I was going to… It wasn’t even… I don’t know why I did this. It wasn’t like I had a programmatic reason to do it, but all of a sudden I decided I was going to start following art accounts on Twitter. And I just tweeted and said, “What should I follow?” And the next thing I knew, my whole feed was full of art. And then from there I started posting art. Almost every day now on my social media, I start my day by posting favorite art, together with an idea that I’m thinking about or a quote or whatever. And it’s become a just amazing daily practice that I’m sharing with people all over the world, which is so cool, which is also a long way of saying, one thing you can do is immerse yourself consciously into a state of beauty.
Tim Ferriss: Haven’t you done that also when writing? Finding locations that are beautiful or attractive? Hasn’t that also at some point, maybe it still is, been part of your writing process?
Susan Cain: Yeah. Wow, I can’t believe you remember that. Yeah. I mean, pre-COVID, it used to be in cafes because I love so much cafe energy. It’s just my happiest place in the world. And I don’t do it so much now, so now, I’m here in my office.
Tim Ferriss: It’s a pretty good-looking office. I’m not going to lie.
Susan Cain: Yeah. Yeah and so I’ve created this other thing. So I have my candle and that’s the first thing I do when I come in the morning. I light that. I always have my latte because that’s magic for me. And then I have this thing I will show you. This is a whole story in and of itself.
But when I first met my husband, I had just stopped practicing law. I wanted to be a writer and he had just come from his… He had spent the ’90s working for the UN doing peacekeeping in the world’s worst war zones of the ’90s and he had published this memoir about it that was amazing. And at the time, all I had really done with my writing, I was writing this memoir in sonnet form, because that’s what I was doing.
Tim Ferriss: Wow. That sounds hard.
Susan Cain: Yeah, and I told him about it and I showed up at our second date and I handed him some poems that I was working on. And then that night, he went home and he sent me this email, which I now have printed out in my office. So I’m going to hold it up, but I’ll read it in case people are listening.
Tim Ferriss: All right. I hope people are listening.
Susan Cain: Oh, I mean, in case people can’t see the video. That’s what I meant. Wait, I’m actually thinking this isn’t even going to come through on the video that well, so I’ll just read it.
Tim Ferriss: No, that’s funny. I can only see a little bit. It actually looks great. I can piece it together in Memento style, but why don’t you read it from there?
Susan Cain: Okay.
Tim Ferriss: It’s beautifully framed and just to be clear, it is not a printed out email. It’s actually been formatted with typography and really, really jumps. Or did he actually make that?
Susan Cain: He actually… Well, I mean the email, all these gigantic letters in big, bold red that you see, that was what the email looked like.
Tim Ferriss: Oh, it was in the email?
Susan Cain: Yeah.
Tim Ferriss: Wow. Overachiever. Go for it.
Susan Cain: Very emphatic kind of person. Okay.
Tim Ferriss: It’s like the Crazy Eddie email. All right. Reference for people from Long Island.
Susan Cain: Yeah, I recognize that. I grew up in Long Island too. So he wrote this is in response to these poems, he wrote, “I want more. Give me more. I know you hate to be told what to do, but fuck you. Keep writing, drop everything. Write. Write, woman, write.” And the “Write, woman, write,” that’s in the big red letters.
Tim Ferriss: Oh, God. I need one of those. Is he on Fiverr? Can I hire him to send me just an email about writing? I could really use it.
Susan Cain: He’s very motivating. He will do it. Creating a sanctuary space where whatever is beautiful to you or moving to you.
Tim Ferriss: Are you in New York City at the moment?
Susan Cain: Actually, not. I’m outside New York City.
Tim Ferriss: Outside New York City.
Susan Cain: Uh-huh (affirmative).
Tim Ferriss: So pre-COVID, were there any favorite spots in or around New York just in terms of beauty for working? I’m just curious if you had any favorites.
Susan Cain: Oh, my gosh. I mean, I wrote all of Quiet in the world’s most magical cafe. And talk about longing, I just feel like for the rest of my life, I will be searching for a cafe that it’s like-
Tim Ferriss: What’s the name of the cafe?
Susan Cain: Well, it doesn’t exist anymore, that’s-
Tim Ferriss: Oh. No.
Susan Cain: This is the thing. I used to travel so much before COVID and every city I went to, I would be looking for a replica of this cafe and I can’t find it. It was called Doma, which means home in Czech. It was owned by Czech people and it was beautiful. And it was also frequented by like the world’s most just creative and thoughtful souls and you could just feel them as you were there typing away inside your head.
Tim Ferriss: All right. Somebody… Doma, find it. D-O-M-A, is that right?
Susan Cain: D-O-M-A. Yep.
Tim Ferriss: All right. You can find photos online, find some video. The world wants it, or at least the two of us do. So exposing yourself to beauty.
Susan Cain: Yeah.
Tim Ferriss: Creating a sanctuary space. What are other options? Music we’ve talked about. And we’ll include a link to your playlist in the show notes. Any other suggestions or even recommendations, I think, about this? If someone has made the leap from, “I don’t want to feel that,” to, “Maybe I should feel that. I wonder what it would be like to feel these things,” any other suggestions?
Susan Cain: Another one is captions, and I’ll tell you what I mean by that. There was this viral video and it was put out by the Cleveland Clinic Hospital. And it was originally meant to just be a video for its caregivers to teach empathy, but it ended up going viral.
And the way this video worked, it took you on a visual tour down the hospital corridors. So you’re just passing all these humans and these are people who you would normally just walk past in the corridor without really thinking that much, but in this case, the video had captions underneath each one telling you what they were experiencing at that moment. And in some cases, they were experiencing something joyful like, “Just found out he’s going to be a father,” I think is one of them. But because it’s a hospital, more often, the captions are things like, “A little girl visiting her father for the last time,” or, “Just found out that the tumor is malignant,” or whatever it is.
And maybe we can link to this also in your show notes.
Tim Ferriss: Oh, for sure. We’ll find it.
Susan Cain: Yeah. I mean, you can’t watch this video without tearing up. But it’s more than the tearing up, you can’t watch it without having that physical sensation of your heart opening up, it’s like, it’s just opening.
And the lesson for me of that video and I try to do it now when I just walk around is think, well, what are people’s captions, just random passers by like the person who’s checking out your groceries, what are her captions? And it’s just an incredible way of kind of letting sorrows in and normalizing them.
Which also reminds me like another concrete thing I think people could do in the workplace. So we know one of the studies I talk about in my book was done by two people named Jason Kanov and Laura Madden and they looked at people’s description of their work lives. And what they found is people would describe to them all these terrible things that had happened to them at work. And the stories revealed how terrible they were. But when they describe their emotions, instead of saying they had felt anxious, they would say they were angry and instead of saying they had felt sad, they would say they were frustrated. And we need a way of opening up this language.
Because I noticed this the other day, I did a talk about introversion, in this case, it was a Zoom call for a company. And at the beginning of the Zoom call, it started out the way it often does with like a nice chat. And somebody asked the question like, “How’s everybody feeling this morning?” And all the answers were like, “Pumped. Yay. I’m feeling great. I’m energized. Happy.” And these are all amazing emotions, I’m not trying to take away from them, it’s just, you have to ask, what are the chances that every human responding in that chat box was truly feeling only those emotions? What are the chances of that? They’re actually incredibly low.
I believe there are ways for workplaces to normalize the expression of all of the different emotions that we have even by something as simple as, in a physical workplace where people are really showing up, having like a board up on the wall where people can just write down that morning, what are you actually feeling? What are you actually going through? In schools, they call that a parking lot. And I think we need a parking lot in workplaces too.
Tim Ferriss: I didn’t realize. I didn’t have one of those growing up.
Susan Cain: Yeah, exactly.
Tim Ferriss: So there are schools where they actually have a blackboard or whiteboard where kids write down how they’re feeling?
Susan Cain: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Yep.
Tim Ferriss: This might be a good segue for talking about sort of kids, what kids are feeling. And then, of course, as kids age, they turn into these things called grownups. And sometimes, grownups have kids. This is going somewhere. Don’t worry. I know you have written about, in some respects, inheriting the grief or griefs of our parents and ancestors. Could you speak to that and also mention if there’s anything to be done? Or is it just like having genetics for like small calves and you’re like, “Well, I can go to the gym, but they’re always going to be pretty small?” Or is there something that we can do with whatever we have accumulated through our bloodline?
Susan Cain: I went down this whole path of looking at inherited grief and I ended up devoting a whole chapter of the book to it because originally it was just because I went to this seminar for bereavement counselors because I was just curious to learn more about that. And what I found was we were each asked to tell a story of loss that we had experienced. And I really didn’t want to tell my story because I felt like it wasn’t as bad as some of the other stories that I heard that day and I felt wrong to be talking about it, but I felt like I had to because it seemed ungenerous not to tell my story. And then when I did, I found my myself crying much more than anybody else had.
And the seminar was run by this incredibly skillful guy named Simcha Raphael. It was at the New York Open Center. And I forget how he came to it, but he basically said to me that I seemed to be carrying a grief that was like apart from what I personally had experienced, that I was carrying a deeper grief than that and that it was a kind of grief of the ancestors. And I started realizing that I come from this family, that’s kind of mired in loss, really, on both sides. On my mother’s side and my father’s side, we lost almost all of our relatives in the Holocaust. And although those weren’t people who I knew directly, there’s kind of a shock wave that reverberates through. When he said that, I realized that I had always had this kind of tendency, even when I was a kid, to cry at any kind of moment where it was that which once was will never be again. Even though at that point I had not really experienced any loss in my life, and I had a happy life, I still had this intense reaction.
And once he opened up that idea, I started researching the whole area of inherited grief. It’s absolutely fascinating. There’s all this research that finds that the children of Holocaust survivors have particular biomarkers that you wouldn’t find in another control group population. And you can find this in animals too. It’s a pretty new area of research, but the results are incredibly compelling. There seems to be this idea, this thing that we can inherit from the people that came before us. And in a way, the question of whether it comes to us biologically or because of what we learn from our parents culturally, it almost doesn’t matter, we’re inheriting it somehow.
And then to your question of what can you do about it, I have found it incredibly empowering to know this because there’s a way in which you can get to the insight of I’m going to love those ancestors and I’m going to feel empathy for that which they experienced at the same time that you’re holding the idea that their story is not my story. And I don’t think we take the time to realize that you can hold both those truths at the same time. Their story is not my story and yet I love them, these people I’ve never met before.
Because music has been our theme here, there’s this amazing song also by Dar Williams, it’s called “After All.” It’s a masterpiece of a song and it describes how she had been beset by a kind of mysterious depression and to come out of it, she traveled down what she calls the whispering well of talking to her parents about her family history and realizing all the different things that she was carrying from the people who had come before her and how that process of excavating all of that and understanding it and loving it, that was what freed her. And then she comes out into a kind of shining light on the other side and it helps her with her depression. Whether we’re doing that through some kind of formal therapy or through our own sort of ad hoc process of traveling down the whispering well, there are ways to do it.
Tim Ferriss: We don’t have to take this right turn because it could really uncork Pandora’s box. But this is part of one facet of exploration in looking at psychedelic assisted therapies is multi-generational trauma or ancestral grief. And I also wanted to mention, lest anyone listening think, “Who are these whackadoodles. This sounds like some new agey bullshit,” I did a quick search just to pull it up because I know it exists. Here’s an example, and this is in Scientific American, “Fearful memories pass down to mouse descendants. Genetic imprint from traumatic experiences carries through at least two generations.”
And then this is from Nature magazine, which is also a very respectable, esteemed publication and there are, in other words, animal models and scientific studies and peer-reviewed literature that supports this in various species of animal, including mice. And the authors suggest a similar phenomenon could influence anxiety and addiction in humans. Now there’s a lot of skepticism, I’m just going to read a little bit of this very quickly. “Some researchers are skeptical of the findings because the biological mechanism that explains the phenomenon has not been identified.” I am kind of skeptical of such skeptics because we all use, for instance, microwaves every day, but very few of us understand how microwaves or refrigerators, if you don’t like microwaves, how they work. Right. So in the absence of a mechanism… This is also true for a lot of commonly prescribed medications… we still don’t actually understand how they work.
But putting that aside, “So according to convention,” this is going back to the article, “the genetic sequences contained in DNA are the only way to transmit biological information across generations. Random DNA mutations, when beneficial, enable organizations to adapt to changing conditions, but this process typically occurs slowly over many generations. Yet some studies have hinted that environmental factors can influence biology more rapidly through epigenetic modifications which alter the expression of genes.” And it goes into many more examples and so on. But there are a lot of scientists, very credible scientists, including, looks like many quoted in this Kerry Ressler, neurobiologist and psychiatrist at Emory University who have studied this in animals.
Someone could call BS on this, but I want to say that like this biological material can sometimes be transferable from one animal to another even if they’re not direct descendants. So if you use, say, electrical shocks to produce a state of acute anxiety and learned helplessness in mice, when you turn off the lights, that there is some way of transferring genetic material from that animal to an unrelated but same species animal that will induce a similar fear of the dark even though it has not been learned. So there is, in other words, a biological basis, there seems to be a biological basis for exactly what you’re talking about, right, because the Holocaust, in the grand scheme of things, as the example you used, not that long ago, really just not that long ago.
Susan Cain: I want to offer two other ideas of ways to cope with that if you’re listening and you’re thinking, “Oh, this actually might speak to my experience,” one is just kind of a simple reframing that Rachel Yehuda, who was the researcher who first discovered this epigenetic tradition in Holocaust survivors, she talks about how one of the people who she worked with, she started to understand this in herself. And she started to reframe when things would happen to her like she’d have a bad day of work and kind of overreact. She started saying, “Oh, well, I now understand that my shock absorbers are a little thinner than somebody else’s might be and so I’m just going to adjust around that.” The simple knowledge and acceptance is an incredible power.
But to take it even a step further beyond that, I talk to a lot of people who are what you might call wounded healers, which is a kind of archetype in the Western tradition, people who have experienced some kind of wound or pain and then use that to try to heal the same pain that they see other similarly situated people experiencing.
And I talked, for example, I write about this in the book, with a young woman who I called Farrah Kativ, she didn’t want to use her real name. She’s from the Middle East. And she felt that — she didn’t just feel, she came from a family in which all the generations of the women before her had suffered these horrible experiences of rape and bereavement and all kinds of things. And she just found herself called.
She had some sort of job for a multinational company doing marketing or something. And as part of that job, they had to do that thing you do where you do lots of focus groups and listen to people’s stories. And as she listened to the stories of other women, there was something in those stories that touched this nerve in her of all the generations who had come before her of women in her family. And she found herself leaving that job and flying back to the Middle East and starting to work with women prisoners and then starting her own not-for-profit to help women refugees. And there’s something about that work that she’s doing to help heal other people that is simultaneously healing herself.
And with all of this, I also want to say, at the same time, that’s kind of a grand story. And when we talk about creative people who transform pain into beauty and they turn out to be Leonard Cohen, that sounds like really grand also. But you don’t have to be doing these things on such a grand scale. You can be doing them on the most minute level and you’re still going through that same mechanism of taking pain and turning it into something else. It’s the mechanism that matters.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah. And maybe somebody can get me off my ass and actually suggest some resources, I have a very close relationship with my dog, she’s very well-trained, very calm, and I’ve often thought about volunteering to take Molly, my dog, through, say, hospice care or senior centers. And I just haven’t had the bandwidth to figure out the logistics of doing that. And I can understand why, hospital administrators probably don’t want just every rando coming through the hospital with their dog, which makes a whole lot of sense. But it doesn’t have to be big. And I do think, at least for me, trying to help other people heal has been a huge part of my own healing. And-
Susan Cain: Yeah, I’ve really seen that in you.
Tim Ferriss: Oh, thank you. Yeah, it’s been quite a fascinating road. And I also want to give Rachel Yehuda credit where credit is due on another level. She is at the forefront of using MDMA-assisted psychotherapy for veterans and is involved in a number of different capacities. So she really is an acute and astute observer of the human condition within the context of trauma, intergenerational trauma, one of the people out there who I think is really doing outstanding work. So I just wanted to give her credit where credit’s due.
Susan Cain: Her shout out.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah, give her her shout out. And you may have already answered this, I apologize if you have, but it’s a lot of work to do a book, it’s a lot of work to do any book. And as we’ve already covered, you take your time. You really immerse yourself, saturate yourself in exploration and travel far and wide. It’s a lot to sign up for. Why do that with this book?
Susan Cain: I do it because I would not rather be doing anything else. I love doing it.
Tim Ferriss: That’s a very good answer. Yeah.
Susan Cain: I love doing it. I’m usually drawn by some question that I’m driven to answer. And I’ve noticed, I didn’t actually set out to do the following thing when I was writing this book, but I realized in the end that there was a similarity to what I had done with Quiet, which is, it’s kind of the identification of a hidden superpower that our culture doesn’t normally talk about, the superpower of being in touch with the simultaneous joy and sorrow of life. I believe it’s one of the deepest superpowers we have and when do you ever get to talk about it? So that motivates me. And I think just the act of creating something beautiful, whether you pull it off or not almost doesn’t matter, just that attempt to do it, I don’t really know any better state of life than that.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah. Yeah. Hear, hear. And I just want to point out, this happens a lot, you’re not going to be able to see it if you’re just listening to this, so I just mentioned my dog, Molly, and-
Susan Cain: I saw that you were petting your dog. Yeah.
Tim Ferriss: She just came down after the mention to say hello. So she’s got a good-
Susan Cain: Love…
Tim Ferriss: She’s got a good radar. My external nervous system, as I often joke, although it’s not really a joke. We may have touched on this in the last conversation, but if not, and even if we did, we can always state it again, books that you have gifted most to other people, anything come to mind?
Susan Cain: Oh, I mean, there’s one that I actually gifted to you that I especially love.
Tim Ferriss: Ah, I have it.
Susan Cain: What the heck was it called? It was like, Art Is the Highest Form of Hope.
Tim Ferriss: Yes.
Susan Cain: I love that book.
Tim Ferriss: That’s exactly right. That’s a Phaidon book, I think, if I’m pronouncing that correctly. It’s-
Susan Cain: I think so.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah. Beautifully made. I have that on my coffee table in Austin. Yeah.
Susan Cain: Yeah. Yeah. And for those listening, it’s basically just this book of quotes from various artists.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah.
Susan Cain: And there’s one-
Tim Ferriss: Art Is the Highest Form of Hope. Yep.
Susan Cain: Yeah. I don’t know if there’s any quote that sticks in your mind from that book. I don’t want to put you on the spot.
Tim Ferriss: Well, I mean, I’m just looking at — the title itself is a first line expressed by the German painter, Gerhard Richter, in 1982. I quite like the marquee lights title quote. So you very kindly gifted this to me, probably what? It would’ve been a few years ago.
Susan Cain: I think so.
Tim Ferriss: And I went through and I’ve highlighted all of my favorites, but I don’t have them in front of me at the moment.
Susan Cain: Sure. Yeah, sure.
Tim Ferriss: Do you have any favorites that come to mind?
Susan Cain: I do. And I think I even quoted this one in Bittersweet and it was a quote by Mark Rothko and he said, “The people who weep in front of my paintings are having the same religious experience that I had while I was making them.” I may have gotten that a little wrong, but that was the idea.
To our theme that we’ve been exploring about art and religion.
Tim Ferriss: So here’s a question.
Susan Cain: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Tim Ferriss: All right. So Bittersweet comes out, what do you think people might gloss over or underappreciate in the book? Because I know if I look back at my various books, and maybe it’s only possible to know that in hindsight, but I’m like, “God, I should have really emphasized X more because people didn’t pay enough attention to it or it wasn’t sexy enough.” And I have examples of those for many of my books. What do you think is valuable or important, but at risk of, perhaps, not being given appropriate attention? Anything come to mind?
Susan Cain: Just the way with Quiet, the book I wrote about the power of introverts, the danger was that people would think that I was talking about a kind of misanthropy like not liking people at all or like a kind of “Down with extroverts” or something, which, none of that was my intention or message. With this book, I think the danger is of people thinking it’s a kind of advocating for a depressive state and that’s really not what I’m talking about at all. It’s more like tell the truth about what it is like to be alive and life is both of these states simultaneously and it always will be. And I think there’s a tremendous freedom in that. And that we are basically taught, one way or another, that when things are going well and the company’s doing well and the family’s happy and everything, that’s the main road, and when things go wrong, it’s the detour from the main road. And just adopting the frame of mind or to my mind, just accepting the truth that both of these things are the main road because that’s what life is.
It’s incredibly liberating. It’s incredibly liberating because you’re no longer like fighting against it. And so much of the stress that we have is fighting against what’s actually true and feeling like we’re alone in it as opposed to feeling like, “Wow, we’re all actually together in this.”
Tim Ferriss: What you just said about the frame or the lens of looking at the challenges as detours, makes me think of a quote that I think about a lot actually, to try and build my equanimity to the extent that I can.
I think I’m pretty impatient and run pretty hot, but not that I yell and scream, I don’t. But I can get knocked off balance by certain events, which is true for everybody.
But the quote that I was going to mention is from Janna Levin, who’s an astrophysicist who’s been on this podcast. The quote is:
“I used to resent obstacles along the path, thinking, ‘If only that hadn’t happened, life would be so good.’ Then I suddenly realized, life is the obstacles. There is no underlying path.”
I have found that very freeing to revisit and try and embrace.
You have the Rumi poem, you’ve got your husband’s email, you sent me a book of quotes. You seem to like quotes and condensed wisdom, or encouragement in the case of the email.
Do you have any other quotes that you think of often, or that you’ve put elsewhere in your house, or anywhere as reminders? Do any come to mind?
Susan Cain: I don’t have to have them come to mind, because they’re taped up all over the place over here. You want me you to pull some down just at random?
Tim Ferriss: Yes, please.
Susan Cain: Wait, hold on. This one is C.S. Lewis. I don’t know if you ever read him, but talk about longing. He spent his whole life in the state of what he called “the inconsolable longing for we know not what.”
It’s interesting because in his case, he ended up concluding the way he put it was, if we have this thirst that can’t be satisfied in this world, it must be that we were made for another divine world.
For him, he ended up concluding that Christianity was the answer to this insatiable longing that we all have. I love his work so much. I just end up in a completely different place.
To me, 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. Anyway, this is this quote that he had. He’s the best.
Tim Ferriss: C.S. Lewis. I need to read more C.S. Lewis. I remember and I don’t self identify as a Christian at all, but I’ve read a lot of his work including The Screwtape Letters. I don’t know if you have ever read those?
Susan Cain: I haven’t read that one.
Tim Ferriss: I’ll let people investigate, but please continue. I’m excited to hear.
Susan Cain: He wrote:
“Apparently, then, our lifelong nostalgia, our longing to be reunited with something in the universe from which we now feel cut off, to be on the inside of some door which we have always seen from the outside, is no mere neurotic fancy, but the truest index of our real situation. And to be at last summoned inside would be both glory and honour beyond all our merits and also the healing of that old ache.”
Tim Ferriss: So good.
Susan Cain: I know. He’s the best.
Tim Ferriss: I forgot how good C.S. Lewis is.
Susan Cain: He’s the best. Can I ask you a question?
Tim Ferriss: Yes.
Susan Cain: I don’t know how long it’s been since I’ve been following your work. Really from the very beginning, when you first published The 4-Hour Workweek.
I feel you’ve really been on a pathway over the last five or more years. You’ve really been doing this thing of turning pain into beauty, and being willing to be really open about it.
I’m curious what made you shift gears that way? Because you started out as “I’m going to teach you how to be successful,” so it’s a very different mode.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah, it’s very different. Thank you for the kind words first. That’s very meaningful. I’ve realized about myself that historically, I’ve never let positive feedback land. I think that goes back a long way.
I just want to take a second to say that. As far as the why, with the caveat that I’m sure I have many blind spots in terms of self awareness and observation, but I think there are a whole lot of things.
First is being surrounded by reminders and mortality. I’ve lost a lot of relatives and close friends to things like opiate addiction, or alcohol, induced cardiomyopathy in the case of my uncle most recently.
That reminder of impermanence has led me to explore other things. Second would be recognizing, especially after the success of The 4-Hour Workweek and beginning to meet people I couldn’t have imagined meeting prior to that.
People who have hundreds of millions, billions, tens of billions of dollars that realized many things. Number one, is that being pulled towards something and being driven towards something by some demon whipping your back are very different things.
That many people who are from any objective external measure, the most successful in the world, got there because they were in some sense running away from something, not running towards something. Many of the best entrepreneurs I’ve met who are also of wonderful people.
If I’m going to invest in an entrepreneur, I’m also going to on some level look for this. They build and scale and so on as a compulsion, it’s not a want.
People are just, “I maybe want to be an entrepreneur.” For a smaller side gig, that might work. But if we’re looking at people who are building multi-billion dollar companies, they are compulsively, very often compulsively building.
That is very helpful from the standpoint of building a huge company. But I think the origins of a lot of those compulsions are the same as you would find in OCD, or an eating disorder, or treatment-resistant depression where the compulsive behavior in that case, is a repetitive thought loop or set of thought loops.
I’ve become a more nuanced observer of suffering and pain and trauma. Then I would say having observed that in myself and then through various types of therapy, but primarily through psychedelic assisted therapies recognized, say past sexual abuse, which I published an episode on some time ago.
Which if people want to listen to that, it’s not easy listening, but I do think it might be helpful for people with shared experiences, tim.blog/trauma, which took me years to get to.
I was not planning on doing anything. I was planning on writing a book after my parents passed away. Having that experience and learning to contend or trying to contend with that, has also made me realize that the full spectrum of feeling is necessary.
At least for me and my own personal path thus far. If you want any hope of reconciliation, or finding peace with some of these things. Not necessarily making meaning of.
Although one way to make meaning of that is to as one facilitator said to me, make it part of your medicine. Take that pain, take those wounds and make it part of your medicine.
I do think that, that translation has been very healing for me personally, and very hard quite frankly. Because I get stories and sometimes very graphic stories and calls for help and emails and so on constantly, because of talking about these things publicly.
But it’s no coincidence that I support psychedelic-related science and have for quite a few years now. It’s got to be millions of dollars a year at this point through my foundation, the Saisei Foundation.
Because it literally saved my life and I’ve seen it save so many other lives. It’s not a panacea, there are risks, but for the right indications, I think they’re incredibly powerful.
To just add onto that a little bit, and no one’s asked me this publicly, so sorry for the long answer. But when you have these quintessential psychedelic experiences, which humans have been having for thousands of years.
One could argue that in fact, our early hominid ancestors, almost certainly consumed consciousness altering plants and fungi as do animals by the way, to unclear motives or reasons. But many animals consume hallucinogens.
When you have a classical psychedelic experience, there is very often, and I’m not recommending anyone do this recreationally, because there are severe risks.
Especially if you have a family history of schizophrenia, you very often have the experience. I don’t know who first said this to me. I may have read it in Rumi or Hoffes, which is why I’m also drawn to a lot of poetry related to mysticism.
The feeling of a drop returning to the ocean. When you have this experience of ego dissolution and in retrospect, after the experience, you imagine that could have been your experience, putting your in quotation marks of this non localized free floating consciousness, before you were born or after you die.
We get into some very bananas territory as we go out there. But when you start getting into the realm of pan psychism and these types of things.
When you’ve had these firsthand experiences, a number of things can happen and at least have happened to me. Number one, you get back here and you’re like, why am I taking some of this stuff so seriously?
Why am I taking myself so seriously in this email? It’s a joke on some level, which can be demotivating. I’m not going to lie. It can be hard to strap down and bang out a bunch of email on your inbox when you’re just this doesn’t matter at all.
However, I think I’ve tempered that reasonably well. I’m trying to actually correct this, but on some level, my moral obligation to share what I have learned as trivial as it might be over the last say 10 years, because there are many essential parts of me that are the same, but I’ve also changed a lot.
Recently I’ve been sharing a rental with a friend of mine who’s known me since 1998 or 1999. He would say, having seen longitudinal long term, Tim Ferriss changes, because we don’t automatically evolve for the better, but the changes, he’s like, “You’re pretty much unrecognizable.”
There’s certain fundamental building blocks that are still there. But I know how people who are experiencing pain, or suffering, or who have gone through horrific trauma, I will say it bothers me that word is so overused.
Susan Cain: Yeah, I agree.
Tim Ferriss: I think it’s becoming meaningless. When someone’s like someone expressed microaggression on the internet and I’m so traumatized, I get really upset by that. I do think certain terms should be reserved for special cases. The word sacred is another one, so that they retain some semblance of power and meaning.
But let’s just say someone has been sexually abused, or has experienced death. There are many different ways to experience trauma. I do think there’s a tendency to view these things as permanent scars that you cannot circumvent.
It’s psycho emotional scar tissue, that is just part of you from this point forward, if that causes problems too bad. You have an excuse, you have a reason you can compartmentalize it, lock it away in this tight little box in the basement of your soul.
Do your best to not knock it over with your foot in the middle of the night. I don’t find that works very well. These experiences that we try to suppress, or these feelings that we try to suppress, end up squeezing out of the cracks of that box that we thought it was so tightly locked inside of.
It ends up if not doing damage to other people, just doing a tremendous amount of damage to us personally. Any tools that help me to not do that, to metabolize these things, to maybe even befriend them and use them in some way, I feel compelled to share.
Not excessively. I still do the business interviews and I still do talk about NFTs or whatever. I still have other interests, but at the end of the day I think for a lot of people, they climb the mountain, they realize that it doesn’t solve all their problems.
Whether that’s prestige in academia, whatever your currency happens to be. Lots of money. You may get to a point, if you win the game you’re playing where you realize for sake, this actually doesn’t fix anything. Or it fixes very few things.
You’re going to have to deal with it sooner or later. I’ll just stop because this has turned into a TED Talk, I apologize. I think very often about something Tara Brach said to me at one point.
She shared this apocryphal story of a sage, and the sage said, “There’s only one question that really matters, and that is what are you unwilling to feel?” I think about that all the time.
I think about that all of time, because I think it applies to so many people in so many contexts, including myself. Thank, insert God of choice, or universe, or coincidence and just blind luck, that I’ve happened to come across certain tools that I think will probably in conjunction with other things, completely change how we view the mind nature of mind consciousness, and certainly psychiatry and the treatment of what we consider intractable psychiatric conditions.
Because the results that we’re seeing in some of these studies, including phase three studies, these are well constructed studies, really defy any conventional explanation that psychiatry can currently offer.
We have people with, say, treatment-resistant PTSD from war, from rape, et cetera. I’m going to get the numbers slightly wrong, but they’re not that far off, who have something a median duration of diagnosed with PTSD of 17 plus years.
They’ve had complex PTSD for 17.2 or however many years on average. They’ve been taking medication. Treatment-resistant generally in this case means it’s failed at least two different interventions.
They have two or three sessions of MDMA assisted psychotherapy. Even say, six months later, 60 plus percent of them no longer meet the criteria for diagnosis of PTSD. That is staggering.
Susan Cain: I know, I’ve seen some of that research, you just can’t believe it.
Tim Ferriss: Which means many of the assumptions that gird and underlie our beliefs about psychiatry and even on a neurological level, just neuroplasticity and the ability to use compounds, whether they are ketamine, which I’ve some interest in, but not great interest or psilocybin, more interest, the actual effects that they have on neurogenesis. Some of the effects may be conferred by actual structural changes, right? Dendrite growth, as an example.
But then a lot of them seem to be determined by content, and rewriting the narratives that govern our perception and navigation of the world.
Shit gets really exciting and wild when you start pulling on that thread. For people interested in the MDMA psychotherapy, there’s a documentary called Trip of Compassion.
Susan Cain: Oh, my gosh. I’ve had that on my list to do ever since you started recommending that and it’s so good.
Tim Ferriss: It’s intense, but it’s very gratifying. Unlike in the US, this documentary, because it was filmed overseas, has actual client footage with client permission.
You get to see what would be very difficult to get approval for due to HIPAA and so on in other places. That’s my TED Talk. Thank you for listening.
Susan Cain: Thank you so much for sharing all that. There were so many things that one could say after everything that you just shared.
One is that it’s really interesting that you went to that place of all the different people who you’ve met along the way who are so successful on the outside, and then you find what’s really driving them.
I actually thought about this this morning as I was going through that list of questions that you ask, of “What would you tell your 30-year-old-self” or whatever?
I had a few things, but one of them was to understand that all these people who you meet, who seem like they have it so together, they’re so successful, that they’re all just humans.
I feel one of the great privileges of having written a book that turned into a bestseller, is that you get to meet all these people. Especially if it’s a book, like the kind that I write, people tell you the truth about what they really feel.
So now I’ve heard all these stories and have just become aware of all these dynamics that you’re describing.
The second thing I was struck by is when you talk about that moral obligation, because I have to say, we don’t get to talk to each other that much. But I have a sense of what you’re doing through the things you put into the world.
It really feels you’re driven by that. One of the things I talk about in the book is how we go through pain and then there’s a crossroads of what are you going to do with it?
If you don’t acknowledge it and turn it into something else, you’re invariably going to take it out, as you said, on yourself or on other people.
There’s this other crossroads that you can walk down of turning it into something else. I feel that’s what I’ve been watching you do for years.
Tim Ferriss: Thank you. I really appreciate that. I feel like, in a lot of respects, you’re doing similar work through your books. You’re conveying truth of human experience in a way that resonates with people who might struggle otherwise to identify, let alone express and describe what their internal experience is.
By doing that, I think you are not just providing a salve to people that they don’t know they needed, but you’re providing language, which is incredibly powerful.
I’ll save that for another podcast, but you’re providing language like Wittgenstein, “The limits of my language are the limits of my world.” I really believe that.
Giving someone language is no small thing, to label and interact with and convey and on some level, integrate their experience. Then you’re giving them also empathy through the stories that tell them they are not alone.
You’re doing a lot of things with your books that I respect tremendously. I respect it not just because it is valuable in the world and sorely needed, but because it is fucking difficult to do. I really appreciate the work that you do and that you put out in the world also.
Susan Cain: Thank you so much.
Tim Ferriss: Susan, is there anything else that you would like to add before we come to a close? Anything you’d like to ask of my audience? Anything else?
Susan Cain: For anybody who is listening today, who feels moved by what we were talking about or feels “This is me,” I just hope that you’ll connect with me one way or another on social, or through my book, or whatever, so that we can stay in touch. That’s all I would say.
Tim Ferriss: Perfect. I will say again, the new book is Bittersweet: How Sorrow and Longing Make Us Whole, where you’ll get to revisit mono no aware and all good things.
I really, really believe in the building of one’s emotional vocabulary and range. I think it not only gives you a richer experience of life, but it creates a certain anti fragility, that to life’s inevitable ups and downs.
I do think this is an important book. Bittersweet is the book. People can find you Susan Cain, C-A-I-N Susancain.net, on Twitter @susancain.
Facebook author Susan Cain, LinkedIn, Susan Cain, Instagram, Susan Cain author will link to everything, including this amazing playlist that I must get my hands on.
We will also put the playlist in the show notes tim.blog/podcast. Just search Susan and it will pop right up.
I would say to everyone listening until next time, be a little kinder than you think necessary both to yourself and to others. Thank you so much for tuning in.
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2 Replies to “The Tim Ferriss Show Transcripts: Susan Cain on Transforming Pain, Building Your Emotional Resilience, Exploring Sufi Wisdom, Tapping into Bittersweet Songs, and Seeking the Shards of Light (#583)”
Thoughts that came to me: 1) Think of the scale as a language 2) certain scales are associated with specific cultures 3) maybe the cultures that suffer more or harsher environment were drawn to minor scales 4) A band that came to mind for me for the music you were describing was The Silk Road Ensemble 5) The image I thought of for longing was all the Instagram models in exotic or picturesque photos – a longing for youth, beauty, adventure, wealth – the desires are infinite and our time is finite and even the idea doesn’t seem something I am capable of except for in my imagination. A very small percentage of people actually experience this in a very small percentage of time.
When I met my now husband, at age 38, and we married, I thought to myself, this is the bittersweetness of love, because as soon as I found my guy and we committed to one another, I could feel the vast emptiness of him being gone someday. People think I’m being morbid, but it just is. Everything holds in itself a beginning and an end, at least for us mortals.