This week’s conversation is with Susan Cain, the author of the bestsellers Quiet Journal, Quiet Power: The Secret Strengths of Introverts, and Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking.

Quiet has been translated into 40 languages, spent eight years on The New York Times best seller list, and was named the #1 best book of the year by Fast Company magazine, which also named Susan one of its Most Creative People in Business.

Her record-smashing TED talk has been viewed over 40 million times, and was named by Bill Gates as one of his all-time favorite talks.

Susan also has a new book, Bittersweet: How Sorrow and Longing Make Us Whole, which is one of many reasons why I was excited to speak with her. We talk about what it really means to feel sorrow and longing as part of the human experience, as well as the power of introversion.

“You can’t be happy unless you’re being fully human and actually being who you are – as opposed to denying half of who you are.”

In This Episode:

What does bittersweet mean to her?

It’s a state of happiness and sadness at the same time, which it’s probably the state in which I live, more or less. And I know this because the reason that I started down this path in the first place… And I have been on a kind of five year or more quest to look at the bittersweet tradition and the way that it has spanned centuries and continents. And it’s in our wisdom traditions and our artistic and literary traditions. So our artists and thinkers and theologians have been talking for thousands of years about the fact that joy and sorrow are forever paired. And that in that understanding, there is a curiously piercing joy at the beauty of the world that comes from this knowledge. It’s a kind of gateway to creativity and connection. 

The power of “sad” music

I started down this path just because all my life, for decades, I have loved sad music, bittersweet, minor key music, especially the music of Leonard Cohen. And I just became kind of transfixed by this paradox of why it would be that something ostensibly sad could make the listener happy. And it’s not just me, there’s studies that find that the people whose favorite songs are bittersweet, listen to them 800 times on their playlists. While people whose favorite songs are happy, listen to them only 175 times. So there’s something about that kind of music that kind of makes us feel like we’re closer to touching the sky in some way. And that was what I really wanted to understand. And it started out as kind of this small question, but it became an inquiry really into the deepest states of being alive and the strongest gateways that we have to creativity and communion.


When you look at sorrow, it turns out we are evolutionarily designed to respond to each other’s sorrows. And this is because the species, and this is true of all mammals, couldn’t survive if we didn’t respond to the cries of our infants. But because we have that capacity that kind of radiates outwards from there to respond to the distress of all beings. And we actually have the vagus nerve, which is the biggest bundle of nerves in our bodies. And it’s very fundamental to us. It’s the vagus nerve that helps control our breathing and digestion and sex drive. And it’s also the vagus nerve that responds when we see another being in distress, that’s what makes you feel the wave of compassion? So, this ability to express sorrow and to hear it in other people and to have a culture that could do that more readily than ours does, that’s one of the greatest powers that we have to come together.

This is not about being “anti-happy”

I’m not at all anti-happy, like I love to be happy. I think it’s a very worthy goal. What I’m saying is that there is a deeper form of happiness than just like, “Yay, smiley. I’m feeling great all the time.” Kind of way into it. And maybe one way to put this is to talk about the longing side of what I talk about in the book. You can’t be happy unless you’re being fully human and actually being who you are as opposed to denying half of who you are, which I think is the state that we’re in right now. And what humans really are, we are creatures who come into this world with a sense of a longing for a more perfect and beautiful world that we kind of feel like is always at a distance. And maybe we’ve been banished from it in some way.

The role religion plays

I started out working from a completely secular place. I’ve always been deeply agnostic, but I really have gone through quite a transformation in writing this book. I mean, I’m still just as agnostic from an intellectual point of view, let’s say, as I ever was. But I’ve become much more aware of how the experiences, the beings, the art forms, everything that I value most, that the reaction to them is the same reaction that religious people talk about when they talk about God. I don’t think there’s really a difference. I think we have a false dichotomy in our culture, because we have this great political tradition of separation of church and state. We unfortunately also have a kind of intellectual dichotomy between the secular and the spiritual. When in fact, I think they’re the same thing, but just different manifestations, different language used for the same experience that all humans have.

We don’t talk about our sadness enough

Because there’s something so ineffable about it, it’s very hard to put it into words. I could try, I could say it’s the feeling you have when you look at something so gorgeous that brings you to tears. And why are you crying? You’re crying because it’s a representation of this state of perfect love and beauty or whatever that we’re longing for. But it’s hard, it’s very ineffable. So that’s reason number one, and reason number two is that you can’t really talk about it without of a kind of sorrow. It’s like a sorrow that we’re not in Eden, we’re here. And we don’t like to talk about sorrow. We see that as distasteful and we can talk about why that is. There’s a whole historical answer to that question, but we don’t like to go there. We see it as disempowering and vaguely embarrassing.

How did the pandemic figure differently for introverts and for extroverts?

There’s so much discussion now of the resistance that people are having to go back to work the way it was before. Before remote work became such a feature, it was just an accepted feature of everyday life. And what I’m seeing is that we did not realize pre-pandemic, the extent to which everyone was expected to be on 24/7. And introverts were acutely aware of it because there was such a mismatch between an introvert’s preference of how they want to spend their time versus what the expectation was. But we’re starting to see it with extroverts as well, of there being a kind of mass reclamation of wanting to spend time in quieter ways. More time with family, less time in an airplane, less time spent fixing up yourself presentation so that you can be out there and “on.”

Daily shots of beauty

In terms of having some sort of a full depth of experience, I would say one thing is to practice what I call daily shots of beauty, to end/start your day with them. During the whole time I was writing my book, I fell into this habit where I started following all these art accounts on Twitter. And pretty soon my whole feed was full of art. And this was like a conscious reaction to the doom scrolling that I had been doing before that. So I suddenly had all this art coming at me. And so I started every day taking a favorite piece of art and then pairing it with an idea or a poem or a quotation or whatever that went along with the art and I would share it on my social channels… There’s something about immersing in beauty that was incredibly grounding for my creativity for the day.

How to make the workplace more inclusive to all feelings

I do a lot of virtual talks about harnessing the powers of introverts at work and so on. And I can’t tell you how often… I’m sure you’ve seen this. Like you come onto the talk and there’s an organizer. And they say, “How’s everybody feeling this morning?” And everyone’s typing into the chat box like, “I’m in Idaho and I feel great. And I’m in Connecticut and I’m pumped.” And it’s like that. And they’re always great and they’re always pumped and they’re always thrilled. And those are amazing emotions. But someone has to take the lead of being willing to introduce other emotions too, in order to make those acceptable for others to share. A practice that’s incredibly useful is called expressive writing. I’m sure you’ve come across this. It comes from the work of James Pennebaker at UT. And he’s basically done this radically astonishing series of studies showing the power of the simple act of writing down the troubles that are on your mind. And he’s proven it, in study after study that the simple act of doing this… And it can take two minutes and then you throw it away when you’re done. 

Introverted and extroverted leaders

One of the most self-aware things that any leader can do is know what you’re good at and where you are in limitations are. And so if you feel like your strength is in the other realm and not in this one, have a Lieutenant or a co-leader, whoever it is, who can do those things for you. I think one of the big myths is that the one leader has to do it all. And I really started with this insight out of my work on introversion, because the best companies and the best teams are benefiting from a more introverted outlook that tends to really think things through and see the potential downsides of a course of action before you follow it, really be thoughtful and intentional. And then a more extroverted approach, which is more like the joy of like, “Seize the day and go for it.” You really need both of those. So it’s really important if you’re a leader to know where you fall and to make sure you’ve got somebody else who’s complimenting you and filling in where you can’t do it.

What charges your battery?

One way to think about it is kind of like the battery, the internal battery that we all have. And if you imagine yourself going to a party that you’re truly enjoying. For an extrovert, their experience of the party is that the battery is getting charged. And so now they’re full of energy after two hours and they want more. And for an introvert, no matter how much they’re loving the party, their battery’s draining. So they’re wishing they could suddenly be beamed home after about two or three hours… t I always want people to understand is that idea of the battery. It’s a reflection of what is happening neuro-biologically. That introverts and extroverts in general tend to have, literally, different nervous systems. Where the nervous system of an introvert responds more, reacts more to stimulation. So it’s easier for us to feel kind of over stimulated when there’s too many things coming at us. And we’re in our sweet spot, physically, when things are mellower and for extroverts, it’s the opposite. Extroverts tend to have nervous systems that react less to stimulation.

Introversion vs. shyness

There really is a difference between shyness and introversion. Shyness is much more about that fear of what people think of you and the fear of social judgment. So you could be an introvert who just prefers the quieter environments without having any kind of excessive fear of social judgment… Introverts are disproportionately more likely to also be shy, but not necessarily. You could be a shy extrovert who really loves social life and all that, but still feels shy about how people are judging you.


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Author |

Susan Cain is a best-selling author and speaker, most known for her books, "Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking," and "Bittersweet: How Sorrow and Longing Make Us Whole."