Today’s guest is Susan Cain. Through her new book, Bittersweet: How Sorrow and Longing Make Us Whole, she evangelizes the power of longing, sadness, and vulnerability for catalyzing beauty, innovation, and mental health. You should know Susan because she is the author of the 2012 bestseller, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking. This book validated the feelings of millions of introverts around the world. LinkedIn named Susan the 6th Top Influencer in the world, and her TED talk, The Power of Introverts, has over 30 million views. This TED talk was a source of great anxiety for her, and she worked for six days with a speech coach to prepare for 18 minutes and 48 seconds. In a nutshell, if you liked her work with introversion, you will adore Susan’s second book. What could be more valuable than learning how to turn longing, sadness, and vulnerability into beauty, innovation, and self-actualization?
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I'm Guy Kawasaki, and this is Remarkable People. I am on a mission to make you remarkable.
And today's guest, Susan Cain, is going to help with that process.
Through her new book, Bittersweet, How Sorrow and Longing Make Us Whole, she evangelizes the power of longing, sadness, and vulnerability for catalyzing beauty, innovation, and mental health.
You should know Susan because she's the author of the 2012 best seller, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking. This book validated the feelings of millions of introverts around the world.
LinkedIn named Susan the sixth top influence in the world, and her Ted Talk, The Power of Introverts, has over thirty million views.
This Ted Talk was a source of great anxiety for her, and she worked for six days with a speech coach to prepare for eighteen minutes and forty-eight seconds.
In a nutshell, if you liked her work about introversion, you will adore Susan's second book.
What could be more valuable than learning how to turn longing, sadness, and vulnerability into beauty, innovation, and self-actualization?
I'm Guy Kawasaki, this is Remarkable People. And now here is the remarkable Susan Cain.
When I read about Min Kym and her relationship to her Stradivarius, I found myself longing, to use your term, longing, for something that could mean so much to me, as much as that Stradivarius meant to her. So am I nuts? Is it wrong to long for something like a violin?
Yeah. First of all, I'll say about you, we haven't met before, but I've followed you for a really long time. And you do seem to me to be motivated by some kind of longing for beauty and you call it enchantment. It seems to me that you're living that way also, you already are.
But, maybe just to back up, when we talk about longing, I'm really talking about the longing for what I call the perfect and beautiful world. And I believe it's a longing that we are all born with, and religious people know it well because they would say, "Yeah, of course, what we're longing for is God."
And I think different manifestations of that are longing for beauty or longing for unconditional love or whatever it is. And these are all manifestations of the same fundamental longing.
It's basically, why does anybody look at something that's really beautiful and tears come to our eyes? Why do the tears come to our eyes when we see something beautiful?
And the reason is that, that degree of beauty reminds us of the difference between the world that we live in, and the one that we desire to live in, the more perfect, more beautiful world.
And so the story of my friend Min Kym, Min was an amazing world class violinist who had the chance to buy a Stradivarius violin while she was still young and up and coming. And this Stradivarius for Min became her life, her heart, her soul, her art.
She describes it as having been like her lover, and her child, and her twin, and herself. And she poured everything into it.
And those weren't just nice words for her. She lived in a little shoebox apartment because all her money went into the upkeep and perfection of the violin, which is actually a really costly thing.
And then I tell the story of how the violin one day was stolen for of her and her whole life came apart because everything that had made her whole wasn't there anymore. She suddenly felt broken, and she stopped playing the violin for some years and descended into this terrible depression.
And then as she came out of it, and she wrote a book about her experience, and the book was called Gone.
It so happened that Min's editor on that book is the same as my editor, and that editor sent the book to me.
And I stayed up all night reading this book, it was so incredibly beautiful. And I developed this fantasy that the readers of the world would fall in love with Min and her book and unite to buy back the violin from the oligarch who now possessed it. And when I finally got to meet Min, I told her about this fantasy I had.
And she said the most extraordinary thing. She said, "No, I don't think I should have the violin back now. Because, that violin and I used to be one, but we're not anymore. The violin has had its experiences and I've had mine."
And it was still the great loss of her life, but she said that all these cliches that you hear about loss and rebirth are really true, and she had reborn into a different person with new creative places into which she puts her longing.
So I don't think you have to feel envious of Min because she herself is directing her longing in another place now.
But to have had a relationship with a Stradivarius, it's an object.
Maybe I'm just showing the shallowness of my existence but, what a concept that you could just believe that a violin could complete you, even though obviously it turned out that it was stolen and not returned, and she's moved on.
But to be in that moment where something like that could mean so much to you. I don't know if that's an indictment of my personality, or confirmation, but what a feeling.
Wow. I love that story, as you can tell.
Yeah. What do you think it was that hit you so much about that story? Was it the wish to feel that kind of love yourself?
Yeah. And I think part of it is that, who among us would admit? That's just not a popular thing to say that this violin meant so much to you. Many people would say your relationships, people, your art, your whatever, how can this thing made out of wood and horsehair mean so much to you?
But I can see that, I can see how it could mean so much to her.
So, you don't have to be my psychiatrist, I just like bearing my soul to you.
But yeah, one of the reasons I love her story so much is that I believe that we all infuse meaning and love and to different people and states and objects and works of art or whatever it is.
And one of the best parts of being human is this longing that we feel for better state and our capability of infusing our everyday life with that kind of transcendence.
So are you, to use one of my terms, are you now an evangelist for longing? Should we long for longing?
I don't know if I'm an evangelist for longing, but I came to write Bittersweet because of experiences I had, which weren't longing for love of violin but, kind of related.
Which is that all my life, whenever I have listened to beautiful minor key music, like the Albinoni that you were talking about at the beginning, that kind of music unleashes in me a state that is not sad at all.
It's a state of uplift and joy and it's a profound gratitude for the ability of a musician to transform pain into beauty and to express the sorrow that all human beings have to pass through at some point in their life and to express it with that much beauty.
So it's just this crazy sense of communion.
And I tell a story in the book about how I was listening to music like this back when I was in law school and I was in my dorm room and some friends came to pick me up to class and I was listening to this music and they were like, "Why are you listening to this funeral music?"
Yeah. And that was my reaction when they said that I was like, "Oh, that's really funny." And I laughed and we went to class and that was it.
Except that I couldn't stop thinking about this for the next twenty-five years. “Why do I listen to that music? And why does it seem embarrassing in this culture? And what is it about that music that feels so deep and profound?”
And it set me on this journey to answer this question. And what I've realized is that these states of happiness and sadness together, and joy and sorrow together, and these states of longing, these are some of the best states that humans have access to.
And they lead us to creativity, they lead us to connection, and they lead us to love. And we're living in a culture that doesn't even have a language for talking about these states, let alone for accessing the powers that they can give us.
Can people put themselves in this state? Let's say they buy into what you just said.
How do I get into this bittersweet state?
For some people they're kind of like born that way, or they come to it through various life experiences. And I have a quiz that I've developed for measuring whether you're in that state or not. And I did that with a cognitive scientist, Scott Barry Kaufman and David Yaden so, we can talk about that.
But if you think you're not in that state, let's say before you even take the quiz, you think you're not in that state now. I would walk through the world and pay attention to, what are the places that deeply move you with their beauty or with a sense of poignancy? Like where do you feel moved?
Because everyone does and I know you do because of the way you talk about enchantment. That there's no way that you don't feel this quite a bit.
So I would move through the world, looking for those places, where are those trigger points for you? And it might be for somebody like, watching their child splashing joyfully in a puddle.
And like, why do you tear up at that moment? Well, you're tearing up because it's wonderful and you love them so much. And also you're aware of the fragility of the moment. You're aware that they're going to grow up and all kinds of things are going to happen, and you won't be there maybe later on when they're fully grown up.
And there's actually research by the psychologist, Laura Carstensen, that has found that when people are in a state where they're deeply aware of life's fragility, they're actually at those states, the most connected to meaning and communion.
And in those states of mind, they're much less likely to feel angry, they're more likely to feel gratitude. She's found that older people feel this precisely because, to get older is to constantly be reminded of life's fragility.
But you don't have to wait to get older to be reminded of it.
Do you think quote unquote positivity has just reached toxic levels in America?
I do. And I think we've been there a long time to the point where it's almost become a kind of cliche. But yeah, I do think we do. And I also think that because of this, we don't even really know how to talk about the other side of life.
When we do talk about it, I think we talk about it in weird fraught ways because we're so unaccustomed to it.
But yeah, in the book I trace how we got this way, I think for the last century and a half, we have been a culture that divides the world into winners and losers. And whereas we used to think of loss as something that would just happen to you. Like you lost your watch, you lost a person, misfortune came down on you...What started to happen was that we thought of loss as being a personal failing.
Like the very word loser, came more and more into our vocabulary. Like all the way back in the depression, there were newspaper headlines that would say things like, "Loser Goes Bankrupt and Commits Suicide."
So it wasn't, all these forces have come down and the person became bankrupt. There's some quality in the person that turned them into a loser.
And therefore, because we started thinking that way, we started to feel the need to show that we had the emotions of a winner, the emotional state of being like really cheerful or victorious in our day to day lives.
And so all the states of being, of sorrow and longing, that happened to anybody, and that actually contain some of the best bridges that we have to connect with each other became forbidden.
And so how do we transcend this toxic positivity desire for, in quotes, “effortless perfection”?
Oh you. Yeah.
Can I talk about where that phrase effortless perfection comes from before we talk about how to transcend it?
This is your episode, Susan, you can talk about anything you want.
Okay. So effortless perfection. This is a phrase I learned.
So I went to Princeton for college, which I mention because Princeton has a very particular culture, or it did then, of everybody appearing like extremely shiny and in control and wherever you were supposed to be in life, you had already arrived. That was the feeling.
And I wondered, did everybody actually really feel that way? And I couldn't go back in time, but I did end up a couple years ago going back to Princeton as an alum of thirty years already and showing up with my writer's notebook. And asking students, how do they really feel? What was going on?
And I swear, it was like two minutes into our interviews, they start using this phrase, effortless perfection, that they're all talking about.
And what it means is, this pressure that they all feel to be thin, and attractive, and get great grades, and be socially adept. And for all of these bounties to appear to come to them effortlessly.
And then I found out that effortless perfection is a concept. It's not just at Princeton, it's at many universities that students talk about it.
And so you get this rash of media reports of students who are dying by suicide days after posting on Instagram, smiling photographs of themselves, surrounded by all their friends, holding a beer or something.
And there's this profound mismatch between what they're showing to the world, and what they're truly feeling.
So what do you do about that? There's a lot of ways to transcend it. There's one technique that I love that we can talk about. It's called expressive writing that was discovered by a UT psychologist, his name is James Pennebaker.
And he did this amazing, astonishing series of research where he basically shows that people who write down their troubles, and they're not like writing them to turn them into a bestselling book, they're just writing them, and they may throw them away five minutes later. They're just writing down their troubles.
People who do that end up with all kinds of better outcomes, like better health, better sense of wellbeing, lower blood pressure, all this crazy stuff.
He did one experiment with a series of engineers, fifty something engineers who had just been laid off from their jobs and were very depressed about it and couldn't find work.
And he had half of these engineers write down their troubles and feelings. And the other half were just asked to write what they were wearing that day, or what did they eat for breakfast, neutral stuff.
And he found that the group who had written expressively about what they were actually going through were significantly more likely to have found work a few months later, lower blood pressure, the whole works.
So the simple act of articulating what you're actually experiencing instead of filtering it through the lens of self-presentation, which is what most of us do most of the time, is quite powerful.
Do you think you've had to overcome your Princeton education in a sense? Or socialization at Princeton?
I don't know if I would say I've had to overcome it. I think it's more, I wanted to make sense of it. It's just who I am, I've always been bittersweet by nature, that's just my way.
So I think I was like that all through Princeton too. And just wondering why the world seems so mismatched with my own inner experience, that's really what it was.
So, this finding of writing down your troubles and feelings, does it circle back to giving your mom your diaries?
Oh gosh. Yeah, what a question. I'll tell the story of that so people will know where your question comes from, and then I'll answer that.
And I don't know if I can possibly tell the whole story here. I'll just give a shortened version of it, which is that, I had a very tumultuous relationship with my mother that went from garden of Eden, perfect love and mutual devotion during my childhood, to a real serious rupture in my adolescence, that was terribly painful for both of us, like really painful.
And that pain continued while I was in college. And my way of dealing with it was to write everything down. And I didn't know about James Pennebaker back then, but I just wrote everything down, and it did help.
And at the same time, I write about this in the book. There came a moment at the end of fresh year, I'd been writing down all my deepest, most painful feelings about my mother, and at the end of freshman year, for some reason that I can't recall, I had to like to send my suitcases home, but stay on campus for a few extra days.
And my parents came to take my suitcases home and just as they were about to leave, I handed the diaries to my mother. And on a conscious level, I never expected her to read them. I just thought I was sending them home for safekeeping.
But of course she did read them, and that precipitated a really painful break between us that lasted for quite a long time. And that we have thankfully been able to recover from.
But yeah, because of all that, I've given a lot of thought to what it means to write everything down.
Would it have been better if you didn't give her the diaries?
Oh yeah, absolutely. Absolutely.
I think I gave them to her because unconsciously, I must have wanted her to know everything that I was going through and feeling.
But I think I was so overcome by all the emotional stirring of that time of life and everything that was happening, that I made that mistake.
But I don't think keeping the diaries was a mistake. That I don't think at all. I wish I had them now, but I don't have them.
And the reason is that, at a certain point I lost them. When I was in my twenties and you're moving around from place to place, when you're that age, I left them somewhere in some dorm room, or apartment building or something. I used to keep them in this backpack with a combination lock on them to keep them secure.
And I left the backpack, so, I think at a certain point, I didn't need them anymore. It was like the act of writing everything down had already done its magic.
Maybe somebody listening to this went to some garage sale and bought that backpack.
It's out there somewhere.
And it's going to be found. Would that be a great story?
So is this idea of writing down your troubles and feelings, is that akin to Julia Cameron's theory of the Morning Pages?
I think it's probably a cousin of it. Yeah. I think it's a cousin of it because we tend to actually wake up in the morning at our most stressful high cortisol point of the day.
So that's probably when we're most likely to be experiencing our troubles. And I think what she's really doing with that artist's practice is to say, discharge all that and clear the cobwebs, and then you'll be able to be your true self without all of that.
I've had Julia Cameron on this podcast twice. And once, I'll show you, insert foot in mouth bite down hard, I thought, “Oh, it would be really cool for my listeners to read what Julia Cameron has written in her morning pages.”
Oh, what a good idea.
But I was slapped back and said, "No, nobody reads other people's morning pages. Especially not Julia Cameron's morning pages.”
I think it was a good idea. I totally respect her decision not to share them, but I think it was a good question to ask.
I thought so too at the time, obviously.
So a lot of your book is about pain. And can you just describe the best or good responses to pain?
First let me just take a step back and say, to write this book, I have spent the last, I don't know how long, five years or may be more, deep in our century's old bittersweet tradition.
Because our wisdom traditions, and our literary, and artistic traditions have been grappling with these questions forever. Maybe our contemporary culture doesn't talk about it but, the centuries that preceded us, everybody was.
And then I talk to like contemporary people too, like Pete Docter at Pixar who created that amazing movie Inside Out, which talked about the power of sadness.
And I've talked to psychologists and neuroscientists and so on.
And what I believe is that, when pain comes to us we have two choices of what to do with it.
And one choice is to not deal with it, in which case, invariably, it is going to come out directed against ourselves, maybe in the form of addiction or some other self-destructive behavior. Or we're going to take it out on other people through abuse, or passive aggressiveness, or whatever it is.
And then there's another tradition with pain where you acknowledge it and accept it as a part of life. It's not like the detour from life, it is part of the main road, just a right alongside our joys.
And you take that pain, and you look at it and you wonder how you can transform it into something beautiful.
And maybe it's a creative action, or maybe it's an action to try to heal other people who have experienced similar kinds of pains, which is something people doing all the time.
In the Western tradition there's an archetype of the wounded healer. That's what a wounded healer is, somebody who has experienced certain wounds and then those wounds somehow give them the power to heal similar wounds in others.
Can companies apply and embrace this concept of heightened awareness, innovation, change, with bittersweetness? Is there a corporate version of bittersweetness?
So, first I'm going to just tell you about one study that shows you how much we need it, how much we need to do this on a corporate level.
So the psychologist, Jason Kanov and Laura Madden went through all this data, of all these different people describing their experiences of life at work. And they found that people would recount stories of all these terribly painful things that had happened to them at work. And yet they would never name their emotions that way.
So when they were describing having felt anxious, they would say that they were angry. And when they were describing having felt sad, they would label it as frustration.
And this is just to show you the automatic unconscious editing that we all do of ourselves in the workplace.
Or I had another experience not long ago. I was giving a talk over Zoom to a company about harnessing the power of introversion at work. When as often happens, the call started with somebody in the chat box saying, “How's everybody doing this morning?”
And you can predict exactly what the answers were. It was all, great, pumped up, full of gratitude, everything's wonderful. And you have to wonder what are the chances that every single person in that chat box, which went on for many lines, that they were actually all feeling that way and not feeling anything else? What are the darn chances of that?
So, I think there's a lot that companies could do.
One thing just in those kinds of chat boxes, I don't know if there's a way to do this anonymously or not, but if not, somebody has to create it. To ask people anonymously, to share what they're feeling.
A way that you could do that when people are working physically in person together is to have a kind of big white board up where people are invited to write down what their experience is that day. Like they do it in school sometimes, and it's called a parking lot.
So, having those kinds of spaces for people to share that kind of thing goes a really long way. And it also needs to be modeled by leaders who share these experiences themselves.
And let me tell you, for anybody who's listening, who's like hardcore, bottom-line person listening rather skeptically, let me just give you two case studies of this.
And one of them is, this place called Midwest Billings. It is a billing unit at a community hospital in Michigan, where the people working there have the extremely unenviable job of calling up former hospital patients to ask them to pay their bills, their unpaid bills.
So no one likes this job, turnover in this industry is notoriously high, high, high.
In this particular unit though, which was studied by psychologists at University of Michigan, they had developed a culture where people just spontaneously shared what was happening with them, and other people would actively come to their support.
They would come to their support if it was something dramatic, like domestic abuse or a parent had just passed away.
But even if people had a cold, everybody was very supportive, everybody felt free to share. And this unit had turnover rates of, I'm forgetting the numbers now, but like astronomically low turnover rates, really high bill collection rates.
This culture was fantastic for their bottom line. And we've seen the same thing, in case you're listening and thinking, okay, that sounds really nice, but maybe it's a kind of feminine culture.
Same thing, Harvard Business School case study of an oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico, that was led by a guy named Rick Fox, that like an environment suffused with machismo.
And one guy who worked there described it to NPR as a very dangerous place. And one of his coworkers had been killed on the job. And he went back to work fifteen minutes later, because it was like, you get the job done.
So Rick Fox, who's this deeply thoughtful and charismatic leader there, they were moving to a much bigger and more dangerous version of the rig. And he knew that he needed to find a way to keep people safe. So he brought in this consultant, and he started telling her all about how the business worked and how many barrels of oil they produced a day and like that.
And she said, "That's all really nice, but you have to talk about what's really happening here, which is your fear of keeping everybody safe or your fear that you can't do it." And she had him come in, him and his coworkers and people who worked for them, and they came into these intense sessions where they started talking about what they truly were feeling.
And predictably, as you can imagine, some of the guys didn't like it and were kind of resistant. But most of them opened up and were really grateful for the experience. And their accident rate after that declined by over 80 percent, by over 80 percent.
And it was because they had created this environment where it was okay to share knowledge, not just about themselves, if someone didn't know how to do something, or had an idea of a better way to make things work. They were now in this environment where it was normalized to express doubts and questions and so on. And so everything just started working more smoothly.
Imagine if we could do that with the truckers driving around DC. Put them in a room, say, “What's your fears? What's your trouble? What's really happening?” That would be very constructive, I would think.
I think we need to do that across all party lines, across all tribal lines, across all the places where we have our greatest divisions.
I think what we need is a time where amnesty isn't exactly the right word, but some kind of space where people could really just talk about how they see things without any action being implied.
To put policy aside, and to put action aside, and just have the time where everybody is talking about how they see the world. I think that would be really beneficial.
One of the trains of thought in the book was that showing sorrow is more powerful than showing anger. I found that so fascinating that as a leader, sorrow is more powerful than anger.
It's a different kind of power. Showing anger as a leader is associated with positional power. When you show anger as the leader, people perceive you as having the ability to fire this person and hire that person and so that's one kind of power.
But showing sorrow as a leader can be associated with relational power. Where people trust you, and like you, and want to work with you and for you.
So, they're different kinds of power.
But want you say that the stereotype is for the anger positional power? How many leaders do you think in business show sorrow?
Not a lot.
But, wouldn't it be good if they understood this showing sorrow is not a sign of weakness and is actually useful.
Absolutely. That's why I wrote this book. That's one reason. That's one reason that I did. Yeah. Yeah.
Can you see that happening?
I can see it happening. Absolutely. Because we are going through a period where the idea of humanizing the workplace in all kinds of ways has become much more mainstream.
So I think people are much more open to embracing the full dimension of human experience. And I think people are increasingly aware of how much of ourselves we leave behind.
I want to say, I'm living reality. And I think this stuff is tricky, but the whole idea of take your full self to work…well, do we really mean that? There is an aspect of sometimes it's a relief to want to go to work and be presenting just your game face.
And it's nice for the people around you and it's nice for you also. So I don't mean to be discounting all of that. But I think that there's a happy medium in there somewhere that we can be striving towards.
If it's true for a leader of a company, it's got to be true for a parent.
How often do parents show sorrow? Aren't they always trying to show power?
Well, not always, but some parents.
I don't know about showing power exactly. I think parents are afraid of showing too much sorrow for fear of their children feeling insecure in the world. That, “Oh my gosh, if my parent is really distressed, then things must be really bad.”
I believe there's a way of expressing these aspects to our children that will strengthen them. The few years that our children are with us, they pass so quickly. And in those years we have the ability to expose them to the fact life is joy and it's also sorrow.
And that you can get through that and that it's okay. And that it can even be part of the experience that makes life precious and poignant.
I'll give you an example of what I'm talking about. It's a small parenting moment, but one that I really learned from.
When my kids were really small, I have two boys, we took this vacation where we rented a house in the countryside and right next to the house, there was this field where two donkeys lived.
And the boys fell in love with these donkeys, and they spent the whole time feeding them apples and carrots. And about two days before it was time to go home, the boys suddenly realized like, no more donkeys, we have to say goodbye. And that kind of thing hits a young heart pretty hard.
So they started crying themselves to sleep at night. And these are like happy kids, but oh my gosh. That whole idea of, that which was will never be again, they're being confronted with that.
And we had various things that we said to them to try to comfort them. Like “Maybe we'll come back and you'll see the donkeys again.” Or “A new family will come, and they'll take good care of them.” And none of that worked.
And the only thing that worked was when we said, "You know what? It's normal to feel this way. And everybody feels this way when they goodbye to people or situations that they love, and you felt it before, and you're going to feel it again, and it's okay. And at some point the acuteness of these feelings is going to pass and you're going to have happy memories. But in the meantime, just know this is part of life."
And that's what stopped them from crying to know that this is part of life.
How old are they?
Oh gosh, this was years ago. So they were really little at the time. They're twelve and fourteen now so, I don't know. They were five and seven, three and five, I'm not sure, but like they were young.
But it comes as a relief to them because it's telling them that these experiences that they're having are normal and that they're shared by everyone. And there's something about that fact of us all being in this situation together, that's deeply comforting to all humans.
And I think we can teach our children early enough.
The Silicon Valley parent reaction to that situation was, "Okay, we'll go home and we'll buy two donkeys. So you'll always have donkeys. We'll buy a place in Montana and then we can come in our private jet and see the donkeys every week, honey."
Yeah. Worst possible response to the problem.
Exactly. Exactly. Do you think that this longing sort of bittersweet and the appreciation for the positive aspects of that, do you think that's a personality type or episodic?
That’s a good question. I do believe there are some people who are predisposed to feel this way by personality, but also that many people come to it via life experience. And for some people it is episodic.
But one of the things I realized from doing this research is that, as a culture we tend to think of bittersweetness as purely episodic. We think “That was a bittersweet moment and then this one is not.”
Whereas, the tradition that we've inherited of all our wisdom traditions and our art and literature and so on, is not teaching that. It's more teaching that the nature of life is bittersweet because life simultaneously contains joy and sorrow.
Like there's an Arabic expression, "Days of onion, days of honey." And that's the condition of life.
So I think some of us come to that realization at different times of life and some people enter life somehow knowing that.
I was going to say, I can tell you some of the questions on the bittersweet quiz, if your listeners want to measure where they think they are right now.
So let's see, some questions are; Do you draw comfort or inspiration from a rainy day? Have other people told you that you're an old soul, or does that description resonate with you? Do you react intensely to music, art, or nature?
So those are some of the questions. Do you like sad songs? Won't surprise you given what we were talking about earlier.
And I took the quiz, I was pretty low, Susan. I'm not a bittersweet kind of guy, or at a least I'm not in a bittersweet episode of my life.
And honestly, as I was reading your book, I wrote this question to ask you. I'm basically a really happy person and in reading your book, there are points where I said, God, I began to feel that I'm unhappy because I'm so happy. I started wanting to long for longing because of the positive things that come from longing and bittersweetness.
Am I nuts?
No, there's a lot of positive things that come from being happy too. Right?
So, this book just happens to be focused on one aspect of existence. And one that I believe, regardless of our temperament, we all get thrust there eventually. So I want people to understand it, right? For when it comes. Even if you're not that kind of a person to start with.
Like we're all going to pass through periods of loss or longing. Life is going to thrust us there. And so I'm glad that you're feeling happy.
Okay. But seriously, I had that reaction. I said, “God, maybe I'd be more creative and more innovative, and I'd be a better writer if I were more bittersweet. And if I were longing for something more than a relationship to a Stradivarius.” That line of thinking entered into my brain, Susan.
I want to be really clear about one thing for someone who's listening and hasn't read the book yet. That there's absolutely nothing in the book or anything that I would ever say that is advocating for depression.
And one of the things I really try to do is distinguish between depression and the state of bittersweetness in a way that psychology is not currently doing.
There's melancholy here, and there's depression there, and they're completely different states.
And yet, if you look in the psychological literature, there's nothing there really, you have to find it on the margins. But I want to be really clear about that. And when we talk about creativity, it is true that one of the great sources of creativity is this state of longing for a more perfect and beautiful world, and then you try to bring it into being through creative work.
But it's not the case that depression brings on that state. It's actually the opposite, when you're depressed it's a kind of emotional black hole where it’s very hard to be creative.
So I just want to be super clear about that.
I guarantee you Susan, I don't long to be depressed.
No. No one does and no one should.
There were quite a few pages talking about the quest for a soulmate. And I just want to make sure that I understood it right that basically, it's a futile and overrated pursuit. Did I get that right?
First of all, this has been a debate through our intellectual history of, is there such a thing as a soulmate or isn't there? And I'm coming at the question, I would say from, neither the either, nor the or.
But rather talking about this fundamental aspect of humanity that is longing for that other world. And that longing manifests in a thousand different ways, and one of those ways is the realm of romantic love.
And so we come into our romantic love relationships, longing for a kind of garden of Eden. And whether or not we're with a fantastic mate or somebody who's really well suited for us, we'll all be set with that longing.
And I think it's really helpful to understand that because, when things happen in a relationship as they inevitably do, we can tend to feel like, oh my gosh, this is a sign that something's terribly wrong or whatever, because it's not matching up with that longing that we're feeling.
Understanding this nature is really helpful to us. There was that iconic book and movie, The Bridges of Madison County that came out a while ago. And it basically told the story of a woman who, in her case, she was in a pretty so-so marriage. And then her husband and kids go away for a few days and this handsome photographer knocks on her door looking for directions just some place or other.
And they strike up a four-day intense affair and he asks her to leave her family and go live with him. And she's wondering whether she should, and she's about out to do it. And then at the end, she decides to stay with her family.
And the idea is that after this encounter, even though they don't stay together, the photographer is creatively renewed by them having met each other and she herself is transformed by it also. And after this book came out and it's sold, however many gazillions of copies, the whole discussion about it in the media was like, “What did it mean? And should she have left her family, or shouldn't she have?” And all of these things I thought were the wrong question completely.
Because really, all that photographer represented in that book was that state of longing for some perfection that is in all of us. And in some ways the most important part of the whole story is when she says to him, "But even if I went with you, we would never actually stay in that place. Over time, we wouldn't be there anymore. And then the four days that we had together wouldn't anything at all."
So the most important moments of our lives sometimes can be the moments when we glimpse that kind of state of transcendence that we're longing for. And that keep us at being creative and being there for each other to get there again. And that's really what I think the book was saying.
Is it saying that be thankful you had that glimpse into what you were longing for? Or…I don't know how to interpret that book.
Are you saying it was a net positive because, she at least had that brief point of matching her longing? Or it was a net positive because she had it and she realized that it couldn't last and it grounded her, I mean that in a positive way, in reality, and allowed her to live the rest of her life?
Okay. First of all, I want to just say for the record, I'm like in talking about this, I'm putting to the side moral considerations of adultery and all that. I'm looking at it purely as a story and what it tells us.
And I guess I'm saying that the reason that book touched so many people and became the sensation that it did is because we're all beset by those kinds of longings. And the thing that we're longing for is actually the best expression of ourselves and our world and our culture.
And if we just understand what it actually is, we can transform that into a positive force. Instead of saying, "Oh my partner's not the garden of Eden that I wish that they were. And I'm not living in the garden of Eden, why am I not living there?"
Instead of understanding, it's actually our state of being, not to be living in it, but to be reaching towards it in a way that can be beautiful and constructive.
The very word longing, the etymology of that word, it literally means to grow longer, to reach.
So we think of it as being a kind of passive and helpless state, but its derivation is not that.
And that's the reason like, you look at our whole literary tradition, like Odysseus in the Odyssey, Homer's Odyssey.
That whole poem starts with Odysseus filled with longing for his native homeland Ithaca. And he's literally on an island beach weeping for his homeland when the poem starts. And he was beset by the word potós, it's the ancient Greek word for the beautiful state that is forever unattainable. And it's understood that state of being is what sets in motion, the whole epic adventure.
So it's not passive at all, it's an activating force.
So in summary, longing is a good thing, basically.
Yes. Yeah. Although it can be-
Painful though it can be. So do you think that compassion for others and self-compassion are at odds with each other or compliment each other?
Oh God, not at odds at all, at all, at all. No, I think it's very difficult to have compassion for other people if you don't have it first for yourself.
It's the ultimate being on the airplane thing where they say, "You have to put your oxygen on first, before you put the oxygen onto the people you're taking care of." Because your relationship to yourself is going to be your relationship to the rest of the world invariably.
Well, I bet there are people who think, "Oh, I can't be worried about myself. I have to be compassionate to all the other people who are less fortunate."
There's no reason it needs to be a zero sum, though. That sort of implies that there's a limited amount to go around and so you're ethically obligated to give it to others. But why should it be zero sum?
It's actually the opposite. Because the more you're at peace with yourself and taking care of yourself, the more wherewithal you have to extend it to other people.
Which means that, take care of yourself too. Don't feel guilty about it, basically, right?
Oh yeah. Absolutely. Absolutely.
And to pay like really close attention to how do we speak to ourselves in our minds? Because whatever your internal dialogue is and the emotional tenor of it, that's going to be your external dialogue also.
Because think how much time you're spending inside your own mind. So of course you're going to end up talking to others that same way.
Now I'm going to give you a piece of trivia that is absolutely meaningless, but I thought it was interesting.
In reading your book, I figured out that, Hallelujah and Macintosh, both came out in 1984. 1984 was a good year. Yeah.
Really? You mean the song Hallelujah.
Yeah. Did not know that.
1984. That was a good year.
And then there's George Orwell.
So I don't think it is mere coincidence. Can I tell you why I think that? The message of the song Hallelujah is basically that, everything is simultaneously broken and beautiful. And you may disagree with the following thing, but I feel that age of technology has also been that way.
It has mind blowing amazing possibilities and it's also gotten us into a lot of trouble.
So, I think that it's almost not surprising to me that Orwell's 1984 and these incredible creations all have at the same time.
I do not disagree with you. In fact, I think one of the funnier moments was, the Metta M-E-T-T-A.
And mark Zuckerberg's Meta M-E-T-A are homonyms because they're certainly not synonyms.
They're certainly not.
And just for people who haven't read the book or aren't familiar with Metta, M-E-T-T-A is, the poly word for loving kindness, meditation, and loving kindness practice.
If Leonard Cohen were alive in about twenties today, do you think he'd be a rapper or a country Western singer? What would be his type of music today if he were around?
Oh gosh, that's such a good question. I don't know.
And for those who haven't read the book, Guy is asking me this because I'm obsessed with Leonard Cohen, and I love him. I have a crazy love for him and for his music.
You long for him?
I do. I do. But I also feel like because of the genius of the technological age, I can just go onto YouTube and listen to him as if he's still here, it's an amazing thing. And I don't know.
I want to say that style of music still exists today. I think there's still a kind of like Indie folk rock type of singer songwriter expression, so maybe he'd still be doing the same thing. I don't know.
But if you look at the lyrics, you could diagnose me today in this episode as a little nutso, but there’s a rap sensibility to it in the power of what he's saying and how he's describing things that-
Wow. Say more. I've never thought of that before. And I'd love to hear.
That's about all I know. I mean, I don't profess to be an expert on rap. But I think it's the power of rap and the power of a song Hallelujah, I think are related, the cadence may be different.
Are you saying because they both have their grounding and poetry, really?
Yes. Yes. Yes. See that's why you're the New York Times bestselling author and I'm not exactly.
I don't know. Yeah, because he started as a poet. He actually never wanted to be a musician. He was a writer and a poet. And then I think he was in his thirties before he started setting his poetry to music.
So there you go. And I also think that he, and some of the best rappers are like really telling the truth. That's the other thing.
And they're poets.
And they're poets.
They are poets.
Yeah. Okay. So my last question for you. Is there a way to foster self-transcendent experiences?
That's a really a great question.
Yes. And I think it's going to be different for everyone. And it requires a bit of paying attention to that which most moves you.
For many people, for anybody who loves music, which is most people love one form of music or another. For many people there's experiences have been at concerts when there's a kind of confluence between the musical artist bearing their soul in one form or another and expressing it with so much beauty that it moves everyone. And you're all together when it's happening. That's a really quick way to get there. And for some people it happens in nature.
So I'd say the first step is paying attention to what your triggers are because we all have them.
You may find this ridiculous but, I thought that…did you wash the Super Bowl?
Yes, I did. I am not a sports person, but I live in a sports obsessed household. My husband and two boys. So yeah.
I think that the half time show was a self-transcendent moment for the country, truly for the country.
Yeah. Say more. That's fascinating.
I think you can really tell a lot about a person about their reaction to that halftime show. Were you threatened? Were you appalled? Were you saying how come there's no white people? Or did you think, “Oh, they finally captured it. They captured the spirit of America, this is what America is going forward.”
I think it's a litmus test your reaction to the halftime show.
Oh, that's really interesting. And then it also had an element of nostalgia in it also. Because, it was musicians from five minutes ago, an observation.
Someday in some college study they're just going to show them that halftime show and ask them what they thought and create some great psychological thread there.
And there's something I meant to tell you at the beginning that I didn't get to, but I'll tell you now. I am forever grateful to you. I don't know if you even remember this, but before my first book, Quiet came out, somehow, I don't even know how we did this, but we sent you the galley of the book.
And I had never published anything in my life, no one knew who the heck I was. I was writing on this, then obscure topic about quiet introverted people.
And we sent you the galley and you somehow took the trouble to read it. And then you posted somewhere on social media, and you showed a picture of the book and your kitchen. And you said, "Mark my words, this book will be a bestseller."
And I cannot tell you how much that meant to me. I still remember where I was when I first read that. And like how full of joy I was. And I couldn't believe someone like you was saying it. And so I just have to thank you. You probably don't even remember, but that's how meaningful it was.
That like makes me teary that I helped you so much.
So much, so much.
And I truly meant it and goddammit I was right.
You were right.
And here we are.
And here we are, years later.
And here we are a few weeks after the interview. Susan's second book, Bittersweet,is out and I predict, it too will be a best seller.
I'm Guy Kawasaki. I'm on a mission to make you remarkable, introvert, extrovert, anyone.
Thank you to my remarkable team, Peg Fitzpatrick, the woman who told me to help Canva and change the arc of my life, Jeff Sieh and Shannon Hernandez, the ACE sound engineers in Texas.
And the California team, Alexis Nishimura, Louis Magana, and the drop-in queen of Santa Cruz surfing Madisun Nuismer.
Until next time, Aloha and Mahalo.
Oh, P.S., Susan Cain introduced me to Min Kym, and she will be on an upcoming episode of Remarkable People.