Altered States

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

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

— Susan Cain

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

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

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

Please enjoy!

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

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

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


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

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

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Note from the editor: Timestamps will be added shortly.

  • Conversation around a book titled Bittersweet should always begin with dark chocolate.
  • How did Susan arrive at the thesis for Bittersweet, and what did she learn about bittersweetness as a timeless human tradition?
  • Where can someone curious about bittersweet music taste a sample of Susan’s favorites?
  • Parallel wisdom for people of faith, hardcore atheists, and everyone in between from two of bittersweet art’s heaviest hitters: Leonard Cohen and Rumi.
  • Why does minor key music often invoke melancholy?
  • “Days of honey, days of onions.” Psychology may not (yet) distinguish between melancholy and depression, but wisdom traditions have known the difference for thousands of years.
  • For those of us who closely associate depression and melancholy, what’s the value in seeking out the latter when we try so hard to avoid the former?
  • Where Sufism fits in to Susan’s exploration of bittersweetness and search for a language of longing. [29:41]
  • Creativity as a byproduct of bittersweetness.
  • Thoughts on the song Hinach Yafah by Idan Raichel.
  • How is mono no aware expressed in your part of the world?
  • How can someone begin attuning their senses to the feelings that feed into bittersweetness?
  • Susan shares the now-framed email the man who would become her husband sent after their second date.
  • Most of us long for people, places, and things that didn’t make it through the pandemic. RIP, Doma.
  • An empathy exercise: what captions and subtitles would accompany the people around you?
  • Can grief be inherited? Here’s what the science says.
  • Learning to heal others helps us heal ourselves.
  • What’s the unexpected benefit Susan enjoys by immersing herself in the theses of her books during the lengthy writing process?
  • Favorite quotations from Art Is the Highest Form of Hope, a book Susan gifted my way a few years ago.
  • A point Susan feels some readers of Bittersweet might underappreciate or misinterpret.
  • A brief bask in the warm wisdom of Jana Levin and C.S. Lewis.
  • Susan asks what made me shift gears from being an “I’m going to teach you to be successful” author to someone in search of ways to turn pain into beauty.
  • Susan’s advice to her 30-year-old-self (and the any-aged rest of us), moral obligation, coping with life’s crossroads, and other parting thoughts.


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

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

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

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

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

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


The Tim Ferriss Show is one of the most popular podcasts in the world with more than 700 million downloads. It has been selected for “Best of Apple Podcasts” three times, it is often the #1 interview podcast across all of Apple Podcasts, and it’s been ranked #1 out of 400,000+ podcasts on many occasions. To listen to any of the past episodes for free, check out this page.

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