“It all happened so suddenly and cinematically that it might defy belief—I remembered that actually I had always wanted to be a writer. So I started writing that very evening.”

SUSAN CAIN is the co-founder of Quiet Revolution and the author of the bestsellers Quiet Power: The Secret Strengths of Introverted Kids, and Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, which has been translated into 40 languages and been on the New York Times bestseller list for more than four years. Quiet was named the best book of the year by Fast Company magazine, which also named Susan one of its “Most Creative People in Business.” Susan is the co-founder of the Quiet Schools Network and the Quiet Leadership Institute, and her writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Atlantic, The Wall Street Journal, and other publications. Her TED Talk has been viewed more than 17 million times and was named by Bill Gates as one of his all-time favorite talks.

How has a failure, or apparent failure, set you up for later success? Do you have a “favorite failure” of yours?
Many, many moons ago, I used to be a corporate lawyer. I was an ambivalent corporate lawyer at best, and anyone could have told you that I was in the wrong profession, but still: I’d dedicated tons of time (three years of law school, one year of clerking for a federal judge, and six and a half years at a Wall Street firm, to be exact) and had lots of deep and treasured relationships with fellow attorneys. But the day came, when I was well along on partnership track, that the senior partner in my firm came to my office and told me that I wouldn’t be put up for partner on schedule. To this day, I don’t know whether he meant that I would never be put up for partner or just delayed for a good long while. All I know is that I embarrassingly burst into tears right in front of him—and then asked for a leave of absence. I left work that very afternoon and bicycled round and round Central Park in NYC, having no idea what to do next. I thought I’d travel. I thought I’d stare at the walls for a while.

Instead—and it all happened so suddenly and cinematically that it might defy belief—I remembered that actually I had always wanted to be a writer. So I started writing that very evening. The next day I signed up for a class at NYU in creative nonfiction writing. And the next week, I attended the first session of class and knew that I was finally home. I had no expectation of ever making a living through writing, but it was crystal clear to me that from then on, writing would be my center, and that I would look for freelance work that would give me lots of free time to pursue it.

If I had “succeeded” at making partner, right on schedule, I might still be miserably negotiating corporate transactions 16 hours a day. It’s not that I’d never thought about what else I might like to do other than law, but until I had the time and space to think about life outside the hermetic culture of a law practice, I couldn’t figure out what I really wanted to do.

What is one of the best or most worthwhile investments you’ve ever made?
Seven years of time to write Quiet. I didn’t care how long it took and, though I wanted the book to succeed, I felt good about the investment of time regardless of the outcome—because I felt so certain that writing in general, and writing that book in particular, was the right thing to do.

I handed in a first draft after the first two years, which my editor (correctly) pronounced crappy. She put it only slightly more delicately. She said, “Take all the time you need, start from scratch, and get it right.” I left her office elated—because I agreed with her. I knew that I needed years to get it right (after all, I’d never published a thing before Quiet, so I was learning how to write a book from scratch), and I was thrilled that she was giving me the time. Most publishing houses rush books to market long before they’re fully baked. If she’d done that, there would be no quiet revolution.

What is an unusual habit or an absurd thing that you love?

I love sad/minor key music. I find it elevating and transcendent, and not really sad at all. I think that’s because this kind of music is really about the fragility, and therefore the preciousness, of life and love.

Leonard Cohen is my patron saint. Try “Dance Me to the End of Love” or “Famous Blue Raincoat,” or pretty much anything else he’s ever written, including, of course, “Hallelujah,” his best-known song but really only the tip of the Leonard iceberg! Also: “Hinach Yafah (You Are Beautiful)” by Idan Rai‐ chel. It’s a gorgeous song of longing for the beloved, but really it’s about longing in general.

My favorite word in any language is saudade—the Portuguese word that’s at the heart of Brazilian and Portuguese culture and music. It means, roughly, a sweet longing for a beloved thing or person that will likely never return. Try the music of Madredeus or Cesária Évora. My next book is (sort of) on this topic!

What advice would you give to a smart, driven college student about to enter the “real world”? What advice should they ignore? You will hear so many stories of people who risked everything in order to achieve this or that goal, especially creative goals. But I do not believe that your best creative work is done when you’re stressed out because you’re teetering on the edge of bankruptcy or other personal disasters. Just the opposite. You should set up your life so that it is as comfortable and happy as possible—and so that it accommodates your creative work.

I often ask myself whether all those years of Wall Street law were a waste, given that what I was really meant to do, the whole time, was to explore human psychology and to tell the truth (in writing) about what it’s like to be alive. And the answer is no, it wasn’t a waste, for many reasons. First, because I learned so much about the so-called “real world” that would have otherwise remained a permanent mystery; second, because a front-row seat at a Wall Street negotiation is as good a place as any to study the occasional ridiculousness of humans; but finally because it gave me a financial cushion, when I was ready, to try a creative life. It wasn’t a huge cushion, as I hadn’t saved that much. But it made a huge difference. Even once I started my writing life, I spent tons of time setting up a modest freelance business (teaching people negotiation skills) that I could use to support myself for as long as it took. I told myself that my writing goal was to get something published by the time I was 75 years old. I wanted writing to be a permanent source of pleasure, and never to be associated with financial stress or, more generally, the pressure to achieve.

Of course, I’m not saying that the smart, driven college student in your question should spend ten years in finance before striking out creatively! But they should be planning how they’re going to make ends meet. That way, the time that they do spend with their creative projects—whether it’s 30 minutes or ten hours a day—can be all about focus, flow, and occasional glimpses of joy.

When you feel overwhelmed or unfocused, what do you do?

I love espresso and would happily consume it all day. But I only allow myself one latte a day, and I save it for when I’m doing my creative work—partly because it jump-starts my mind almost magically, and partly because this has trained me, Pavlovian style, to associate writing with the pleasure of coffee.

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