From “Quiet” to “Bittersweet”: Conversations With Susan Cain

Ever had a sadness cookie?

In June 2019 I was in the audience at the Edinburgh conference center when Susan Cain gave her second TED talk. Two weeks ago the talk was released in tandem with her new book, Bittersweet. The new talk and book follow her 2012 breakthrough debut Quiet and first TED talk, which has garnered more than 30 million views to date and is one of the most popular TED Talks of all time.

Exploring bittersweet emotions—the minor chords, the sad songs, the rainy days, “the longing for everything,” and why it all matters—is a logical choice for Cain. The common thread of her work is to amplify the more nuanced, more subtle voices and sentiments that are often unheard or marginalized in our societies, especially in a culture of binary truths and toxic positivity that still dominates most workplaces.

With Quiet, she made the world realize the “power of introverts in a world that can’t stop talking,” and to say that her “Quiet Revolution” was exactly what it claimed is an understatement. It touched millions of lives, and proved that you can change society, big time, in the softest, quietest ways.

Bittersweet will surely do the same. Just as we have denied the power of introverts, we have excluded complicated emotions—often labeled as “negative”—from the workplace. Sadness, in particular, is the ultimate taboo. I wrote about it a few years ago for Inc., inspired by the work of Cain’s friend, Harvard social psychologist Susan David, who coined the term “emotional agility” to make the case for fostering our ability to embrace the full range of emotions in order to lead more fulfilled lives at work and beyond. Emotional agility is indeed a fundamental tenet of the House of Beautiful Business:

a truly human workplace, a beautiful business, is not one that makes us happy all the time, but one that allows us to be sad.

The two Susans were part of our annual gathering in 2018 in Lisbon. Susan David ran a workshop and took part in a panel on melancholy in business, while Susan Cain attended incognito. Cain’s experience at the House is featured in a chapter of Bittersweet, from musings on Fernando Pessoa, the Portuguese master of melancholy, to the “funeral march for unfulfilled ideas” we choreographed, and the “sadness cookies” we handed out.

The morning after her TED Talk in Edinburgh in 2019 I sat down with Susan Cain to record a conversation. Last year, at our Concrete Love festival, I interviewed her live via Zoom. It is with great delight (and not an ounce of sadness or regret) that we can share both recordings now.

Our 2019 conversation: listen or read
Our 2021 conversation: watch

Order your copy of Bittersweet
Watch Susan’s new TED Talk

PS. À propos emotions at work, the House was in Tel Aviv last week to contribute to the Microsoft Israel Manager Summit, which was devoted to “fulfeelment.” Supported by our musical director Mark Aanderud on stage, I gave the opening and closing keynote and led a discussion with senior managers. We will continue to deepen the topic of emotions at work in our upcoming Beautiful Business Trip, an online experiential learning journey, on April 28 and 29. Register here to secure your spot!

Tim Leberecht, co-founder, House of Beautiful Business


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