Pain and suffering are fundamental to the human experience. We come into this world with the belief that there’s a better, more beautiful world out there, and we long to return to it. This pain can consume you if you let it, but it can also be a potent catalyst for creativity.
Questions to get things rolling:
- Do you typically repress the pain, internalize it, and let it damage the way you treat yourself and others?
- What is the pain you can’t get rid of?
On today’s episode of Chase Jarvis Live, I’m joined by Susan Cain. Susan is the author of “Quiet Journal, Quiet Power: The Secret Strengths 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 seller list, and has been translated into 40 languages. Susan’s TED talk has been viewed over 40 million times and was named by Bill Gates as one of his all-time favorite talks. Her new masterpiece, “Bittersweet: How Sorrow and Longing Make Us Whole,” hit the market April 5, 2022.
Joy and sorrow are eternally paired in this world. So why do we so willingly accept and celebrate one, and try to distance ourselves from the other? Susan encourages our listeners to see their pain, sorrow, sadness, suffering, as their own creative superpowers. We have all experienced the phenomenon that Susan calls “bittersweet.” Sometimes listening to a sad song and looking out the window just feels good. So good in fact, that as humans we play sad songs 5x more than happy songs.
Something inside us is drawn to the artist who takes a painful experience, and turns it into something beautiful. We find validation and permission to take a similar journey with own own pain. Some of the best art stems from an individual having the strength to move toward something that is in some way difficult or embarrassing to express. The fundamental brokenness in all of us comes from an identifiable gap between where we are and where we want to be. Creativity has the ability to make something beautiful within this gap.
As a Brené Brown fan myself, I had to ask Susan where vulnerability plays into this equation. She followed up by asking a question that I believe is important for us all to think about: can you truly be creative without being vulnerable? As humans, our immediate reaction to pain can be to suppress it and try to run away from it. Allowing yourself to be vulnerable enough to feel it entirely can set your creative spirit free.
One of the greatest gifts of humanity is the innate ability to take something painful and turn it into an expression of beauty. This expression acts as a positive coping mechanism. When that transformation occurs, we grow through it, and come out the other side with a new understanding of the magic that exists behind painful experiences. There is no shortage of feelings on this journey, but how we use these feelings can make all the difference.
Susan leaves us off with an important message: Seek beauty daily.
The more you look the more you’ll find.
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Chase: Hey, everybody. What's up? It's Chase. Welcome to another episode of The Chase Jarvis Live Show. This is the show where I sit down with amazing humans, unpack their brain with the goal of helping you live your dreams. Today's guest is the one and only Susan Cain. Susan was the author a number of years ago of a book that spent eight years on the New York Times bestseller list called Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking. We have her on the show today to discuss her new work, Bittersweet. Brilliant set of themes that we talk about here, understanding and embracing introversion, understanding why we seek beauty as human beings, why the power of those who seek beauty can unlock and help us transform our lives.
Chase: We also talk about the toxic and false framework of winners and losers, as well as a three-step plan, maybe even call it a recipe for how to pursue the highest versions of ourselves. She is a brilliant thinker, and she speaks super plain language. Obviously, in world like we're discussing Quiet and introversion and Bittersweet, how sorrow and longing actually help us become incredible people, she is such a great example of how you can take something that pop culture doesn't understand and how we can twist that in a way that helps us realize that we've been wrong all along. She is brilliant. I can't wait for you to enjoy this episode, yours truly and Susan Cain.
Chase: Susan Cain, thank you so much for joining us. Welcome. We're grateful to have you today.
Susan: Thank you so much, Chase Jarvis, for having me. I know we've been talking about this for such a long time. I mean, you'll probably relate as a fellow creative person. I think you first reached out maybe two years ago or so, and I so wanted to be on your show, but I am the ultimate creative single-tasker, and I was finishing up Bittersweet and I just couldn't do anything else. I still have the visual. I printed out the invitation and it was sitting right next to where I am right now. I was like, "Okay. I'm going to get to that." At first I was like, "I'll get to that in three months," because I thought that's all it would take me to finish the book, but of course, three months became two years.
Chase: Well, I'm so grateful. One of the reasons that we originally reached out was because your previous book, Quiet, had such a profound impact on me and my wife, specifically my wife. She just rolled in one day and was like, "I feel seen. You have to read this," and you'd been on the radar for me for a while just because of the work that you put out there in the world. I was like, "Oh, my gosh! I can't believe you got to that before I did, Kate." That's my wife's name.
Susan: Hi, Kate.
Chase: So we bonded deeply over that, and what an amazing, so timely, and inspirational, and just I would say aperture opening book that you wrote for so many people, and speaking of being a creative single-tasker, which is that's I think what we all probably should be. So thank you for setting a good example. I'm very happy that this took two years because it took two years for all the right reasons, but let's start out-
Susan: Oh, thank you. Two years is only since the day you happened to invite me on the show. It really in real life must have taken, I don't know, I say five years because that sounds respectable, but it was probably more like seven years, honestly.
Chase: Probably, probably was.
Susan: Yeah. It just takes me a long time.
Chase: Probably was, but clearly, the pace that you're working at is the right pace because the work that you're putting out is absolutely stunning, and that's what we want to talk about today. I always love to start off by honoring your previous work and for the handful of audience members who might not be familiar with you and/or your work, would you start off by describing yourself beyond the "I'm a single focused creator," but just give a little context to who you are, what you spend time doing. Again, this is for anyone who might not be familiar with your work. I know most people will be, but let's include those half a dozen people of the hundreds of thousands who listen to the show, let them know who you are.
Susan: Yeah, sure. Okay. So as you said a little while ago, I published a book called Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking, and that one, too, I had been working on for well over seven years, and I have more recently come out with a new book called Bittersweet: How Sorrow and Longing Make Us Whole.
Chase: We will talk about that in great light today.
Susan: Yeah. So I'm a writer and I like to go really deep, and my way of doing it is to come up with an idea and then walk around the world for years and years and years, and talk to everybody who I can, and read everything I can, and process it all into books. At the same time, in a most unlikely way, I have become a public speaker, and I say most unlikely because I used to be absolutely terrified of public speaking to the point of reliably losing weight every time I would give a talk because I just couldn't eat out of nerves-
Susan: ... for a week beforehand. It was very intense for me.
Susan: Then when Quiet came out, I gave a Ted talk about it and that went viral and then the speaking invitations started to come. So I now have this unlikely career as a public speaker and have become quite comfortable with it, which is something I never would've thought possible. So yeah, so my creative life now is one of writing and speaking, but I would say my sweet spot is still sitting in a cafe happily typing away.
Chase: Well, I love that one of the attributes that you just described there is this idea of going deep, and in a world where everything is now and so many things right our fingertips and in a helpful way, we now have more tools and access to things that can accelerate our progress and things that can help those of us that are creators or entrepreneurs or freelancers or are just radically curious that we can put our fingers in lots of jars at the same time.
Chase: I think that's beautiful, but one of the things that you have made, these are going to be my words not yours, that I believe you've made a career out of is being very non-obvious, being, well, quiet in a world that prior to this book coming out I think it was largely the common thread in popular culture that leaders and everyone was a boisterous type A extroverted person, and you have in this book cut the opposite way. Those are my favorite things in popular culture, things that help you step outside of the common framework and look at things in a different way.
Chase: It's very easy to say the same thing about Bittersweet, your most recent book, how sorrow and long actually make us whole, this thing that has historically been categorized as in the opposite way like, "Oh, longing and sorrow are bad, and happy feelings are good." So it strikes me when you said that that your work of going deep also runs counter to this popular notion that everything's at our fingertips.
Chase: So I guess this is a little bit of a creative process question for us to start with. How has that benefited you? How has ignoring the invite to be on the show for two years helped you? I mean, I'm just adjusting, of course, but-
Susan: No, I get it. I get it.
Chase: I mean, this is a beacon of inspiration for someone like myself who's I believe deeply in this idea. How did you come up with this? Is this just your natural way of being? I'm largely taken by this idea. So say more, please.
Susan: Sure. Well, it's funny because I recently or Ted recently released a talk that I gave about bittersweetness, too. As part of the protocol, they ask you to come up with a little bio describing yourself in just a few words, and I was like, "Well, what is it besides author?" What I ended up with was explorer of hidden superpowers because I think that's what I end up doing. I don't know if it's what I set out to do.
Susan: I would say with both books, with Quiet and with Bittersweetness, and maybe I should define what bittersweetness is, but in both cases, I was drawn to a certain way of being in the world that I believe has incredible powers and a long story tradition behind it, but that for some inexplicable or, yes, I ended up explaining it, but seemingly an inexplicable reason is undervalued in our culture, and with Quiet, it was the power of a more introverted and cerebral way of being.
Susan: With Bittersweetness, it's a biography of a feeling that I believe we all have, and especially creatives, and we can talk the overlap there, but just this sense that we all come into this world with, that there is a more perfect and beautiful world out there than the one that we currently inhabit, and there's a longing to go back to that more perfect and beautiful world.
Susan: We think of the word longing, as you just said, we think of it as being, we talk about mired and longing. It seems like a state that you would wallow in unproductively and really unhelpfully, and it's actually just the opposite. Literally, the etymology of the word means to grow longer, to reach for something.
Susan: So when we're being creative, that's what we're doing. We're possessed by a vision of something that's better and more perfect than what exists at this moment, and we're always trying to reach for that place.
Susan: Bittersweetness, I define as a recognition that joy and sorrow, and light and dark are forever paired in this world. We came up with a bittersweet quiz that you can take to figure out how drawn you tend to be to these states of mind. One of the things we found is that people who score high on the bittersweet quiz also tend to state that predispose them to creativity, and this did not surprise me at all, but it was really cool to find it. I did the quiz with the psychologist, Scott Barry Kaufman and David Yeadon, and it was just very cool to prove what I was finding in thousands of years of wisdom traditions, to be able to demonstrate it in a evidentiary scientific way was nice.
Chase: Well, I've got somewhere else I want to take that as well, this quiz, that I also had dogeared here for us to speak about.
Susan: Oh, okay. You'll have to tell us where you found the quiz.
Chase: No, no, no. This is all working just right into my plan. I love this. I'm going to read what you wrote here at the definition. "Bittersweet is a tendency of states of longing poignancy and sorrow, an acute awareness of passing time and a curiously piercing joy at the beauty of the world." That is beautiful just in the construction of those words, but the idea that this is somehow a superpower for you to identify, is the superpower that you mentioned your ability to engage with the bittersweetness or is your superpower the ability to look at something differently than we have looked at it before?
Susan: No. When I talk about superpower, I'm talking about more of the former. The fact that the ability that all humans have to enter this state of bittersweetness is a hidden superpower.
Chase: Got it.
Susan: Everything in our culture is telling us, "Don't go there. Don't go to that state of bittersweetness." When you listen to your very sad and minor key music, that's probably something you should do behind closed doors, and you shouldn't be blasting it from your speakers in your law school dorm, which I did, and I told that story, and people tease you for listening to that kind of music. Yes, it's high on the charts, but it's something better done privately.
Susan: So our culture is saying, "Keep it over there. Keep it locked away and limited," even though that state of being is one of our most potent gateways to creativity, but also to connection, and to love, and to a state of transcendence. I think we all know this because when you hear that kind of music, whatever, I love Leonard Cohen.
Chase: Leonard Cohen. It's like you go right into it, right off the bat.
Susan: Oh, my God! I love Leonard Cohen. So imagine, I spent my whole life trying to figure out, "Why the heck do I love this so much? What is it?"
Chase: What did you get, a phrase for him like the poet of ... What was it? Oh, gosh! I will find it while you're explaining. Sorry. Keep going on the Leonard Cohen bit there.
Susan: Yeah. Yeah. I couldn't figure out, "How could it be that this music that is so ostensibly gloomy made me feel so uplifted, not gloomy at all?" Then I found out, I started looking at the research, and it turns out that we play on average the happy songs on our playlists about 175 times, but we play the sad songs 800 times.
Susan: People will say that when they listen to that kind of music they're feeling a sense of wonder and awe and connection, all the sublime emotions. I think what's really happening is what those musicians are doing and what all creatives are doing, in some sense, it's a transformation of pain into beauty. That's why you feel this rush of gratitude almost when you hear music like that. It's like, "Oh, my gosh! The musician's bee there. They've experienced something I've experienced, too," and not only have they experienced it, but they've transformed it into this miraculous work of gorgeousness.
Chase: How much of this work, obviously with your most recent book, Bittersweet, again, just read the full title here, Bittersweet: How Sorrow and Longing Make Us Whole, but going back to your early work, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking, so how much of that was about you personally being seen? Did you approach this work in the, what was it? In the particular lies the universal? Is this my story, you went deep on your own experience and then lo and behold, you uncovered how an entire culture was feeling but not saying it or was there a mission to explore culture and then you found your own place in it?
Susan: That is such a perceptive question. No one has ever asked that before, I don't think.
Chase: I'm a professional.
Susan: You are a professional. That's a really good question. I have to say I do think it started with the particular, and in the case of Quiet, to my surprise, it was the universal. So with Quiet, when I started working on that book, I thought I was working on this really strange, idiosyncratic, vaguely embarrassing project, and I was just interested in it. I knew I came from a family of introverts. So I knew in a really visceral level how the tendency to be more quiet and prefer solitary activities and all those things, I knew what a power they were, but I didn't ... Look, I could look around the world and say, "Oh, yeah. That person contributed what they did because they were a quiet type. That person did, that person did." I knew all that, but I don't think I understood that it was going to touch such a big nerve until I saw it with my own eyes.
Susan: With Bittersweet, I think it's a similar thing. I mean, I just became possessed by this experience that I kept having when I was listening to this kind of music and feeling like I was on the verge time after time after time, on the verge of transcendence and trying to understand how that could possibly be.
Susan: At first, I didn't even know I was going to write a book about it. It was just like I wanted to answer that question. Then the more I delved into it, the more I realized that question sat atop a 2,000-year tradition that our wisdom traditions and artists and writers and psychologists have been talking about, even though our culture never identifies it.
Susan: In psychology, in mainstream psychology, we don't even make a distinction between melancholy and depression. They're all the same thing. Whereas the bittersweet tradition tells you they're completely different states. Depression is an emotional black hole from which no creativity or anything productive really comes. It's just pain. Whereas melancholy, it's much more of a spiritual state of longing for that other world, that more perfect world, and it's creativity and communion that come from that.
Susan: So yes, it started with this deeply personal question I was trying to figure out, but the interesting thing is that the response that I have gotten to both books is almost identical in the sense that the word that is most, there are two words that are most frequently used, permission and validation. So many people will say, "Oh, my gosh! I've been having this feeling all my life, and it was embarrassing to feel melancholic, but, oh, it's validation for what I've always intuited was true, but I've never been able to say it out loud," and that's what I heard with Quiet, too.
Chase: Yeah. It's very hard for me to articulate how profound it was. I had always seen my life partner, my wife Kate, I've always seen her genius. I had also watched her. I think she would feel very comfortable with me saying this to a hundred thousand people, by the way, that-
Susan: You must know her really well.
Chase: Right, I do. Yeah. We've been together for a long time that I saw her genius and I think she was aware of her genius, and I say genius in the fuzzy way because we all have genius in so many different capacities. We all see the world a special way and yet, it was very difficult for her culturally to put a finger on it, to champion it. I was always a little bit, I guess, confused by how to embrace that. I didn't have the right words and, culturally, the lexicon and the framing wasn't there.
Chase: So when I read Quiet, it basically put a framework on this thing that I was thinking but not able to say, and I would say for her, too. You talked about validation. That was one of the first things that she shared with me when she was ... She wasn't even done with the book. She was 25 pages in,. She's like, "This, this is what happened."
Chase: One of the reasons I want to linger on this for a second, I'm using my wife Kate like you in the particularized universal because right now, of everyone who's listening, most people, it turns out, are nodding saying, "Yes, that it's me. I hadn't been seeing it. It didn't fit into the paradigm."
Chase: First of all, that is the work of an artist, to uncover these things. So you have done that beautifully, but more so, there's now a framework for understanding and for talking about it. The relationship between Quiet, your first book, and Bittersweet is not lost on anyone, and especially not me having thought a lot about what I wanted to talk to you about.
Chase: So let's pull on this thread a little bit. Does the idea of being introverted now feel different to you that this is out there in the world, that this thing, I don't know. It was on the New York Times bestseller list for eight years, if I'm not mistaken, and your Ted talk is one of the top of all time, Bill Gates, if I'm not mistaken, also said it was on his favorite.
Chase: So is it different now? Do you feel like you're more bold, and by extension, should those folks listening who aren't aware of your work or who maybe haven't thought about this as hard as you have, is this a new beginning? Is there a power in leaning into this work, the work of being an introvert or, sorry, the work that is bolstered by being an introvert or by feeling okay now that these feelings that we have, these bittersweet feelings we should lean into those and double down? Is the world fundamentally different now?
Susan: Yeah. Gosh, it's such a big question so I'm trying to think.
Chase: I like to ask small questions, right? What's your birthday? No.
Susan: So when it comes to introversion, yeah, I do believe it's a lot easier to be an introvert now because there's a language for it, and because, to come back to that word, there's a validation for it. I'll just give you one example of that. There's so many, but a friend of mine taught leadership at Harvard Business School. She used to begin her classes by having everybody take one of those personality tests. She said in the old days it used to be, and the personality test among other things would measure introversion, extroversion, they all do because it's the one psychologist calls the north and south of human temperament. So of course, they're going to measure that. She said it used to be that they would fill out the test and she would be presented by a class of apparently 100% extroverts, and that's because people are basically lying on the test because we all know how to answer the question to make ourselves seem whatever we think is socially appropriate.
Susan: She said in the last few years that changed, and now she has a class of half introverts and half extroverts. That's because the introverts are no longer disinclined to claim their true way of being because they know it's not only okay, but it's incredibly contributive, and it's got powers of its own. It's just different types of powers from the ones that we had noticed before.
Susan: Yeah. So my hope is that the same thing is going to happen with Bittersweetness, and I believe the very act of naming something and then showing people what the powers are of that thing that you've named, that's really transformative. I know just from the experience of doing both. With both books, I had to struggle so much with what the heck to call this thing I was talking about.
Susan: With Quiet, I wasn't even sure I was going to use the word introvert because it was such a stigmatized word, and I wasn't sure if I should try to reclaim it or meant a whole new word. With Bittersweetness, I was trying to identify such an inevitable concept. It's almost like the biography of a feeling that we all have, but we don't really know what it is. I eventually realized that bittersweetness was the best word to describe it, but that took years to figure out.
Chase: Wow. The patience that you've had with both of these works is inspirational in and of itself. I want to mention, I put a pin in the quiz a few minutes ago and I want to go back to it before we get into the thing that I want to really lean into, which is this connection between bittersweetness and creativity. You've already paved the path there, but before, I want to-
Susan: Are you going to tell us how you scored on the quiz? Where does that come in?
Chase: Yeah, sure. I will reveal, but some of the questions is what I will share with the listeners today.
Susan: Sure. Sure.
Chase: Do you tear up easy at touching TV commercials? Are you moved by old photographs. Do you intensely, sorry, react intensely to music, art or nature? Have others described you as an old soul? Do you find comfort or inspiration in a rainy day? Do you know what C. S. Lewis meant when he described joy as a sharp, wonderful stab of longing? Are you moved to goosebumps times a day? Do you seek out beauty in your life? These are just a handful and there are more.
Chase: So I'm wondering if, there's a new phrase that my wife and I are talking a lot about in part because of research that was certainly fueled by your work, this idea that, let's see, how would I couch this? The phrase is emotionally sensitive people, I think.
Susan: Highly sensitive people?
Chase: Sorry. HSP, highly sensitive people.
Chase: So is there a connection there between that work and your work, this idea that we're just generally more movable, the HSPs are ... I'll use my wife Kate as an example. Bright lights drive her crazy, for example. Loud noises drive her crazy. There are times for me, I consider myself historically wildly extroverted, but again, I think I was playing into the cultural norms like many of the Harvard quiz takers. Now, I think of myself as an ambivert because if I'm going to go on stage and do a speaking thing for the 20 minutes before I go on stage, I have to have noise canceling headphones on. I can't be backstage or even in my green room and hear the director saying, "Okay. Chase, I need you on in three minutes." I can't have all that chaos. So-
Susan: You might be an extroverted HSP. Sorry to interrupt you.
Chase: No, no. See, here we go. Well, there's a reason I want you in this show. I want you to help me, too. This isn't just for everybody else. This is partly selfish, but is there a relationship do you think between the work of bittersweetness and just highly sensitive people? What's the Venn diagram there maybe is a good question.
Susan: Yeah. So we developed the bittersweet quiz for this book. I say we. I did it with Scott Berry Kaufman and David Yeadon, who are two amazing psychologists. It's just at the very preliminary stages of development, but we found that there was a high correlation between bittersweetness and high sensitivity. So you're going straight to the heart of it.
Susan: The interesting thing is there was no correlation between bittersweetness and introversion.
Susan: The correlation is with high sensitivity. As I said, you could be highly sensitive and be an introvert or an extrovert. About 70% of highly sensitives are introverts, but 30% are extroverts.
Chase: Now, I feel seen. Thank you.
Susan: You're so welcome. Absolutely. So I'm guessing you're an extroverted HSP. I don't know to what degree. It sounds like you don't share Kate's aversion to bright lights and loud noises and stuff, but you probably have your other manifestations of it, I'm guessing.
Chase: I do. I do. Yeah. They're very particular. The noise while I'm trying to relax or prepare, that's definitely one. Yet, my idea of music playing in the background, whether it's our house or our studio, and Kate, we worked together for a long time, used to drive her crazy. My goal with having music was to make it feel more comfortable for more people. So we ended up, there's all kinds of family discussions, and even all of the employees and whatnot at Creative Live, at my photo studio before then like, "Do we want music playing in the background?"
Chase: What we found was that we were able to separate the spaces so that those who had one indication could go to one place and others could go to another, but the very fact that this was 10 years ago not a conversation and now is a conversation that I'm having within my family, that I'm having in all my workplaces is, A, a testament to your work, but also, B, as you'd say in the research, this has been happening for millennia, right? This has a long tradition in our culture.
Chase: So I would love for you to walk us through some of the findings that you had where this was actually a thing prior to modern times where we thought that only loud, the word was full of loud extroverts and only happy thoughts were allowed. Take us back. What did you find in the research about how this has actually been happening for forever?
Susan: Yeah. I mean, literally forever, and in every culture, every society that you look at, but I'll give you an ancient one and a well-known one from our culture, and then I'll take you up to the modern times, but okay. So Homer's Odyssey, which is something we all know, and we think of it as the grand story of an epic adventure of a swash buckling cunning protagonist Odysseus. That's how we think of it, okay, but that story, it begins with Odysseus weeping on a beach with homesickness for his native home, his native island of Ithaca.
Susan: In the poem, he is said to be seized by pothos, which I may be mispronouncing, but it's the ancient Greek word, P-O-T-H-O-S, it's the ancient Greek word to express a longing for everything good and beautiful that is unattainable, and it was understood in ancient Greece that pothos was a catalyzing force. It was not the way we think of it. It was not a passive force that makes you wallow unhappily and ineffectually. No. It was the opposite like Alexander the great was said to be seized by pothos when he looked at the lands he wanted to conquer, which not my favorite example, but that's the idea.
Susan: Then okay. So many of our best loved children's stories, whether it's Harry Potter or Batman or Pippy Longstocking, how many times is the protagonist an orphan before the story even starts? That is not a coincidence. That is because our artists have understood this for centuries that there is a fundamental brokenness in all of us. We're all vulnerable. We're all subject to plagues and wars and illness and bereavement and all the rest of it.
Susan: These stories are telling us, that brokenness, it's in us from the start, and then it's also the catalyst to the adventures that we take to that which we create in this life. That's the message of all of these stories.
Susan: Then you can look at this from modern day psychology, too. I'll give you one example. There was this amazing study that ... How did it work? It took a group of subjects. It divided them into two groups. One of the groups had to give a speech to an audience where the audience were plants and they clapped a lot and were very smiley and approving. Then the other group gave a speech to an audience that appeared to be extremely annoyed and barely clapped at all.
Susan: As you would imagine afterwards, the people in the first group who gave the well-received speech, they were in a good mood. The people in the second group were feeling pretty crushed and despondent, but then the researchers also had these people create a collage after giving the speeches, and they had a group of artists rate the collage for creativity.
Susan: They found that the people who had given the speech to the disapproving audiences, so they were feeling sorrowful when they created the collage, those collages were rated as much more creative than the others. This was especially true for the people who had a biological predisposition to feelings of emotional vulnerability. Those people had the most creative collages of all.
Susan: So this a validation of an instinct I think we've had for a long time. I hasten to say that the takeaway is not that pain equals creativity. It's that creativity has the power to take that pain and turn it into something else, and when we get into that state of longing, we're more likely to reach for that creative power and turn the pain into something else, and when we're actually clinically depressed, we can't do that. We know depressed people are actually less creative, but when we're in the state of feeling keenly the gap between the world we long for and the one we're in, that's a creative superpower.
Chase: You also apparently have ESP because that's exactly where my next note was taking us.
Susan: Oh, my gosh!
Chase: Sorrow does not equal creativity. I think that that is a fundamental misreading it sounds like of your work. I think that is on the outset I'm going to project for a second. If I'm a highly extroverted person and I was listening to the first five minutes and I'm going to say, "That's not me," and I didn't know that I needed to be melancholic to be creative, that's not at all what you're saying. So now that we've established that, you do part one of the book, it goes right into how can we transform pain into creativity, transcendence, and love. Notice it's not equal. It requires an act of us, the agent, transforming this material, if you will, into something so vital for us.
Chase: So let's walk down that path together now if we can. Is it access? Give us some more words to understand this concept of how we transform pain into creativity. A, we all have pain. B, everyone's creative. So again, what's the work that we ought to do to be transforming some of this pain into creativity?
Susan: Yeah, and it's not only creativity I should say that we can transform pain into. I would look at it more as transforming pain into something beautiful. So it could be a stereotypically creative act, but it could also be an act of healing of ourselves or of other people. It could be many different things, but it's really the question of, "Okay. We all face pain at some point, and now you're at a crossroads."
Chase: What are you going to do with it?
Susan: "Are you going to repress the pain and not acknowledge it and then end up taking it out on yourself or somebody else or are you going to go through this alchemical act of turning it into something else, and how do you do that?"
Susan: I mean, one of the best ways I know to do that is to affirmatively seek beauty everywhere you can, and to understand beauty as not just being like, "Oh, well, that me happy to look at something beautiful." It's not only that. It's like beauty is a representation of that other state. So the act of seeking it out is in and of itself transformative.
Susan: I actually ended up doing this almost instinctively during the pandemic when I was also deep at work in this book. I found myself, at first, doom scrolling Twitter every morning, and I would wake up in this state of anxiety. I ended up asking people to share with me their favorite art accounts on Twitter, and I started following them. Pretty soon, my whole feed was full of art.
Susan: Then I started as a daily practice, and this wasn't a conscious thing. It just happened. I started as a daily practice almost every day sharing on my socials a favorite work of art, usually a painting because that works well on social, so a favorite painting along with a quote or a poem or an idea that I was having. It would take me an hour every morning to do it, pairing the right painting with the right idea, and I loved it, though. It was like a daily meditative practice, and it set the stage for my writing for the rest of that day, and it didn't really serve any purpose other than what, I don't know, other than getting into the right state of mind. An act of sharing beauty with other people is transformative in and of itself. So I believe we should be taking daily act of beauty into our workplaces and starting the workday with them. That's one way to do this.
Chase: This search for beauty to me was part of a big transformation for me personally. I'm wondering if you can articulate the ways that you have through interviews, through research, through historical examples, your own experiences, which is largely what the book is, right? You've done such a nice job of weaving the stories of it's almost it's part memoir, part research, part history, but this seeking beauty. When I first understood that, I went to college to be a doctor ostensibly. Actually, it was mostly a vehicle. It was mostly a vehicle to play division one soccer, and then when I was there I was like, "Okay. I better have a backup plan according to mom and dad," and then halfway through I'm like, "I am so doomed," because I'm not all that psyched about continuing my soccer career. This whole idea of becoming a doctor is for sure a charade.
Chase: So I pursued philosophy as a vector for, "Oh, my God! I can get a degree for reading the books that I want to read? This is incredible. I want to go do this." The area that captured my heart the most was aesthetics and trying to understand beauty and the seeking of the beautiful. So I'm sharing a little bit about my personal journey, but-
Susan: Yeah. No, I love it.
Chase: ... why does the, what I would call the intention of seeking beauty, why is that different than stumbling on beauty or is it?
Susan: It's because the beautiful is just one manifestation of this ultimate state that we are all seeking, and whether you call that state divinity, I mean, for some people they'd be like, "Okay. You guys are dancing all around this. What you're really talking about is God and divinity, and that's what really the religious impulse is." For somebody else, you might be a total atheist and that doesn't speak to you at all, but it doesn't matter because either way, whether we're talking about truth or beauty or love, these are all different manifest. In my mind, these are all different manifestations of the same state of the place we long to be, that more perfect, more beautiful world.
Susan: So the very act of searching for it puts us in the state of mind where we're more aligned with the better world. We're never going to approach it. It's like an asymptote, but we're headed more in that direction. I can tell you during COVID, I lost my father and my brother to COVID, and it was obviously a really difficult time. My father had been a big music lover, too. He was the one who first introduced me to music and the love of it. Well, he loved a lot of music, but he loved Jacques Brel.
Susan: So during the weeks when he was in the hospital and I was waiting to hear news of him, I found myself listening to Jacques Brel for the first time. It may have been decades. I hadn't heard it in a long time. The night that he died, I was listening all the time to that music. I was partly trying to find him in the music and I didn't find him in the music, but I found something else.
Susan: It was like the music is just a manifestation of the same thing that makes us love a parent so much or makes us love anyone so much. They're all manifestations of the same thing. That's why it's so crucial to try to live in that place as much as possible because of what it helps us create, and also because of what it helps us withstand, the griefs. There is a way in which you lose a particular love, but you can realize that love itself exists beyond the particularity of the person who you're grieving. I know that sounds really abstract at the time that you're in the full-throatedness of grief, but it still helps. It still buoys you up.
Chase: So I mentioned Brené earlier, dear friend, and has done similar work in our culture as you have with the idea of being quiet and this idea of bittersweet both historically like, "I'm not so sure I want to talk about that, those feelings," and what Brené has done with vulnerability, right? Vulnerability like, "Hmm. Who wants to sign up for that?"
Chase: She tells a funny story about she doesn't want to talk on a plane. When someone says, "What do you do?"
Chase: She said, "I'm a shame and vulnerability researcher," and then just usually stops the conversation right there, but I'm wondering because in part, she's done a great job of bringing this idea into our culture, and I know you know she's blurbed your book for you and there's deep connection there between the work, but what would your thoughts on, I'm curious your thoughts on vulnerability and the role that vulnerability plays in this journey to something more perfect because I do believe that that work has now penetrated our culture similar to yours, and people are like, "Okay. Cool," and even Adam Grant talks about this in leadership, right?
Chase: Being vulnerable as a leader is now we have the capacity to see that as a strength and a connection, and it builds bridges rather than walls and all kinds of metaphors there. I'm wondering, I'm just dying to hear, what role does vulnerability play for ... I'll just use the framework for we who identify as creators or creatives. What role does that play in your world and our journey toward this more perfect state of being, for example?
Susan: Yeah. I mean, I don't know that you could be truly creative without being willing to be vulnerable. Maybe you can because I do tend to think there's different ways of doing a million different things, right?
Chase: Yeah, of course. There's no one path, right?
Susan: Yeah. There's no one path. I think the kind of stuff that I talk about is basically one path, a big path that's been overlooked, but it's not the only one. You know what I mean? Usually, if you look at the artists, the creative work that most moves you, usually what it's doing is it's usually expressing a truth that is in some way difficult or embarrassing to express, and then not only is it expressing it, but it's expressing it beautifully or impressively or whatever.
Susan: My kids are going through an M and M phase, and I really love M and M, too. We were driving around and listening to his songs, and I was pointing it out to them all his best songs. He's basically talking about stuff that most people don't really want to say out loud, and then does it in this incredibly dazzling way. That's what creativity is. In some large part, it's telling the truth of what it's like to be alive, and if it were easy to tell that truth, then we wouldn't prize it the way we do, but it's not that easy, and if it were easy to tell it, not only to tell it, but to tell it in some way that's compelling or beautiful or rhythmical or whatever, if it were so easy, we would all just do it like that, but it's not. That's why it's the holy grail that we're all looking to do.
Chase: It's so true. It's obvious when you say it out loud, but why has it taken us so long to figure this out? This is a serious question. Why was your work groundbreaking? It shouldn't have been. We experience this all the time, and we're feeling it, not saying it. This is a little bit. "Who's to blame" given this has been happening for millennia? You talked about the ancient Greeks. Greeks had no problem with it. Why did it become hard in our world?
Susan: Well, that was one of the questions I wanted to answer. So I actually talk about this in the Bittersweet book that to try to answer exactly that question, if you trace our cultural history, especially in the 19th century, we became increasingly this country of business, right. During the 19th century, we went through a series of booms and busts. So you had all these people who were making fabulous sums of money and then losing them and then making them and then losing them, and you had other people who were trying desperately to become successful businessmen and they couldn't, and then some could.
Susan: There became this question of, "Well, what is it that makes some people succeed and some people not?" That became a huge question. People started asking the corollary question, "When someone succeeds or fails, is it because of something inside that person?" They called it in the man. "Is it because of some characteristic inside them or is it because of just outer fortunes that do or don't smile upon them?"
Susan: The answer increasingly became that it had something to do with who you were inside to the point that the word loser became a more and more widely used word. Loser used to mean just literally someone who has lost something like I lost my phone, I'm a loser. That's all it match, but then it became like this terrible distasteful thing, like the last thing you'd want to be, but to the point where even in the great depression when there were all these economic forces that were making people lose their shirts, there would be headlines run that would say things like, "Loser commits suicide in streets."
Susan: So it was this idea, the last thing you wanted to be, and we're still living with this framework of winners and losers, and what ended up happening is if you wanted to show that you were a winner at all costs, you had to act like a winner. If you wanted to show you were inside a winner, you had to be smiling, you had to be confident, you had to be striding happily through the world. Melancholy, are you kidding me? Why would I ever want to show that? That's putting me closer to the domain of being a loser, of being someone who's apt to lose their shirt when the next economic panic comes.
Susan: So you still see this today, even though with Brené's amazing work on vulnerability as you're talking about, and we've all started to accept that. At the same time, I went back to my college campus 30 years later. I started interviewing the students about what they were really feeling. The first thing they start telling me about is this phenomenon that they call effortless perfection, which basically means the pressure that they all feel to be thin and attractive and socially adept and get amazing grades and to do all of this without any apparent effort.
Susan: So we're not so comfortable yet with our vulnerability. We've gotten half of the way there and we still have a lot farther to go, but I think we really have to uproot this idea of dividing humanity into winners and losers as opposed to a more bittersweet view, which is in a course of a given life, you will win, you will lose for sure. Both those things will happen.
Chase: I love it. When I was reading that part of the book, obviously, you just immediately go to social media, right? What you're projecting out into the world versus your own experience versus you're comparing your own real life experiences to somebody else's highlight reel, which causes this increasing separation and distance from our true selves, from isolation from the rest of the community because we're social animals, which has all sorts of toxic. We are now learning that that is a very toxic cycle. What would you comment on social media for a moment?
Susan: Yeah. So what you just said is a huge problem. Then of course, there's the whole problem of our algorithms, which drive us towards increasing outrage at each other and disapproval of each other. I don't know the answer. I'm not a computer engineer in any way, but I am guessing there would be a way of designing our algorithms so that people would be rewarded for telling the truth of their experiences and not considering what the policy outcome should be of those experiences or anything like that, but just telling the truth for a while. There must be some way of redesigning the algorithms to do that. I don't know. That's probably a hopelessly naive thing to say, but there's no real reason that outrage should be more rewarded than anything else. So yeah.
Chase: I love it. Right now, someone's listening and they're like, "All right. That's is a worthy goal for my life." So if you're a computer engineer, please let's get on this. We need your help. Obviously, that would be a huge change. You mentioned, is that a naive thing? What's the Schopenhauer states of truth, something is never going to happen, could happen, and now is self-evident. So I hope you're pressured in saying that it's on its way. Someone is coming to the rescue.
Susan: I love that. Your philosophy degree is paying off for us.
Chase: There you go. One of my graduate professors, this is truth, called me an armchair philosopher. I was in a PhD program in philosophies. He's like, "You're just really an armchair philosopher," because I didn't want to write about logic-based philosophy, and I was more continental in a department that was very logic-based, not to say that my arguments weren't logical, but I've been called a lot of bad things for bringing my philosophy into conversations.
Susan: Oh, well, I obviously love it. Have you ever gone back to that philosophy professor to show him the way you're using your philosophy nowadays?
Chase: I have not given him the time of day.
Susan: Yeah. Okay.
Chase: I do walk around campus occasionally to take in beauty as an example. There's one section of the University of Washington where I went to graduate school. I haven't really gone back to San Diego State where I did my undergraduate. That was mostly focused on soccer and partying, but I do go-
Susan: Both of my sons are soccer players, too, by the way.
Chase: Oh, we could talk a lot. It's a big part of my early identity, I would call it. I think it's reasonable for better or worse to say that, but walking around a college campus to take in the beauty. University of Washington is incredibly beautiful. Actually, was just there last week. The cherry blossoms are in right now because it's March in Seattle, and it was truly stunning beauty, and I felt all of the feeling. In preparation for our conversation today, I was reading the book and it was just, overwhelmingly, you just see an entire football field full of cherry blossoms.
Chase: It was like a fairy tale. The wind was blowing and they were floating. The ones were coming off floating in the air was like it was snowing. It was a one-to-one connection with your work, with picturing this idea of experiencing beauty, and it was such an emotional experience for me.
Susan: You know that cherry blossoms are the ultimate bittersweet flower. The reason the Japanese love them and honor them the way they do is because they are so fleeting. They die so quickly. So for the Japanese, there's a word which I may be mispronouncing, but it's something like mono no aware, and it means the gentle sadness at the passing of beautiful things. So it's a way of honoring impermanence and beauty simultaneously.
Chase: So I could talk to you for the next five hours because I'm fascinated by doing work that is new and groundbreaking as an artist, but I've promised to keep our conversation to an hour. I got a long history of the podcast being about this, but I'm hoping that this next question can be big enough that it allows you to moonwalk out of our conversation with a bunch of inspiration for those and a desire.
Chase: Again, I have to take one moment before I ask this question about just to give an overt recommendation. You have to read Bittersweet: How Sorrow and Longing Make Us Whole. We are very good. This community is very good at buying books. I believe that this episode will go down as a great one because you've captured the human spirit in a very special way, but leave us with an idea of a recommendation for how to be in the world such that if we took your recommendation, that we would be more in line with the work and be, you've talked about this pattern, being closer to that more perfect experience.
Chase: Your work is about the human condition. I think that's what's so powerful about it is if you're 100 times reading the book you're like, "Yes. That, that." That's why my wife said 20 pages into Quiet, "You have to read this. This is me." So give us some lightweight instructions, if you will. Of course, people know where they can get more. Just go buy the book, but give us some light. Wrap us up here. Give us some lightweight instructions on how to do this.
Susan: Yeah. Okay. I will, and do you have time for a story with one of those instructions or should we wrap up?
Chase: Please. Yeah, no, I'm just trying to be respectful of the time that we've carved out for our show today, and I will stay here way longer than you will want to. So please give us the story. This is not TV. We do not need sound bites. We need the full uninterrupted you.
Susan: Okay. So I'm going to give you two, I don't know what the word was, what you asked for, but three things you can follow, and then I'm going to tell you a story. Okay. So one of them is what we've been talking about the whole time in a way, but to sump it up, it's whatever pain you can't get rid of, make it your creative offering. So that's one.
Susan: A second thing of just something really helpful you can do is what's called expressive writing, and this comes from the work of James Pennebaker, who did these crazy, crazy in their astonishing results, studies. He's a psychologist at UT, where he found that the simple act of writing down your troubles and your difficult experiences, it improves your blood pressure, it improves your work performance, it lightens your load. He did this one study of 50-year-old engineers who had been laid off and were quite depressed about it. He had half of them just write down what they were wearing every morning, and the other half quickly wrote down their troubles.
Susan: The ones who wrote down their troubles were much more likely to have found a job a few months later, and also, their spirits were lifted, too. So that's one thing, just daily expressive writing. You can throw it away when you're done. Doesn't have to be perfect or even good.
Susan: Then the third thing, and then I guess I'll end with this story, but the third thing is to follow your longing where it's telling you to go. I will tell you my story of having done this, which is unlike you, you were saying that you very wisely figured out that you didn't want to be a doctor five minutes after you got to college, and that was really smart, but I ended up going to law school in my bid to be practical and be able to support myself, and I became a Wall Street lawyer for seven years, and I just got really into it, and I wanted to make partner. Except one day, this senior partner knocked on my door and said that I wasn't making partner after all.
Susan: I had this sense of the world coming crashing down around me when this happened, but I left the law firm that afternoon. I wasted no time. I got out. A few weeks after that, I ended a seven-year relationship that had always felt wrong. So now, I was in the state. I was in my early 30s and I had no career and no love and no place to live because I moved out of the apartment.
Susan: So I was just floating around, and I fell into a relationship with a guy who was a lyricist and a musician and had a lit up way about him, and it quickly turned into an obsession, an obsessional relationship that I never experienced before since. This was, I guess, the early '90s. So we didn't have smartphones at the time. So I would spend my days dodging into internet cafes in New York City looking to see had there been an email from him. I had a friend whom I surely board ad nauseum with stories of this guy who I was obsessed with until one day she said to me, "If you are this obsessed, it's because he represents something you're longing for. So what are you longing for?" and the answer came to me right away. It really was one of those epiphany type moments.
Susan: It was I had wanted to be a writer since I was four. I was longing for that world, and he represented to me this world of art and creativity and writing that I had been divorced from all those years that I was a lawyer. All of a sudden when she said that, the obsession fell away. It was gone. I still loved him as a person, but the obsession was gone, and I started writing for real.
Susan: It was by the simple act of thinking, "Okay. This thing that's driving me crazy, what does it represent? What's the real underlying longing beneath it?" That's the question to ask ourselves because there's almost always something that we're longing for, and even if it feels unhealthy on the surface, it can be taking us in the right direction if we follow it's true meaning.
Chase: Our ability to be honest with ourself, that is maybe the genesis of your next work. How can we be true to ourselves?
Susan: How to be honest with ourselves?
Chase: Yeah. Exactly. Absolutely heartwarming, insightful, connecting. Thank you so much for not just that last pearl of wisdom there, but for your work, for both works. Again, I'm I'm a huge advocate, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking and your newest work, Bittersweet: How Sorrow and Longing Make Us Whole.
Chase: Susan, thank you so much much for being on the show, however many years in the making we decided it was at the beginning. Infinity. Now we're at infinity years, but is there anything else anywhere you'd want to point our watchers and listeners out there in the internet to support you, just to learn more, anywhere you'd direct us?
Susan: Oh, thank you. I mean, excuse me, I guess to follow me on my socials. I'm on Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, Instagram sharing my art and so on, my favorite art, not my art. Oh, and there's also a new Ted talk on Bittersweetness that you can find. It's called The Hidden Power of Sad Songs and Rainy Days that I did. Most of all, I just want to thank you so much for having me. I love the fact that you have been following your longing and your path. It seems quite effortlessly. I'm sure there's more to the story than we got in in this hour, and also a big hug to Kate as well.
Chase: Thank you. She is going to be so happy because I'm going to immediately get off the phone and give her a call and let her know how our conversation went. Again, so grateful for you, for your work. We're fans. We'll have you back on the show anytime. Hopefully, it's not such a big gap between when we started our endeavor and the next one, but if so, I will respect it because I will know that you are protecting your time and yourself in a healthy way and continue to put out awesome work. Thank you so much, Susan, for being on show. From myself and our listeners and watchers out there, we bid everybody out there adieu.
Susan: You, too. Thank you so much, Chase, and everyone listening.
Chase: Until next time. Signing off, everybody. Thanks for paying attention.
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