Susan Cain’s Career Transformer — Transcript
Susan Cain: Okay, so Terence, I think we’re ready.
Terence Mickey: Welcome to Self? Help! The podcast for anyone who thought, Who am I? What in God’s name am I doing? How did they get here of all places? And then to figure it all out, you turned to a book because you are that kind of person and thankfully so am I.
I’m Terence Mickey, your host, and I do not judge from where you seek your guidance.
It might be from Leo Tolstoy. It might be from Dr. Seuss. I only care how the book helped you, because I’m a firm believer that we cannot get enough help in this life and books are indeed magic.
This show is all about books that change people’s lives, and the story behind why that book was so important to them. And, dear listener, if you subscribe to this podcast, which I hope you will, you’ll be getting for free, with the option to cancel anytime: book recommendations, personal stories, a side of therapy, and maybe, just maybe, exactly what you need to help yourself.
My guest for the first episode is the New York Times bestselling author of Quiet: The Power of Introverts In a World That Cannot Stop Talking, which has sold over 2 million copies.
And God bless her, Susan Cain spoke to me on an empty stomach.
Susan: Okay, I have actually not had breakfast, I’m sorry to say. I’ve just had this glass of water sitting by my side
Terence: In order to support the premise of my show, that books can indeed change your life, Susan Cain shared one of her pivotal reads.
Susan: In life you have a few moments that are your gigantic epiphany moments, and this was one of mine.
Terence: You probably remember exactly how old you were, and whether you had ponytails, or a bob, a bowl or buzzcut, and exactly what clothes you were wearing, and probably where you were when you first learned how social status worked, when you discovered what was cool or uncool, what was acceptable and what was total social self-destruction.
For Susan, this moment happened at summer camp.
Susan: I’m not sure if this was my first day of summer camp, but I think it might have been. There was a girl named—well, I won’t say her name.
And I still remember what she looked like. She had kind of like a pageboy haircut and we had these little cots in our bunks that we slept on, and she was lying on her cot reading a book when we were supposed to be playing some sort of game and that one act somehow marked her as somebody who is going to be outside of the group.
And I remember feeling really sorry for her and kind of powerless to do anything about it, and understanding that you might have your own preference of how you want to spend your time, or marching to your own drummer, but there’s going to be a really gigantic price to pay for it.
The opinion that your peers have of you is everything, and you know, just observing that there was such a huge price to pay for this simple act of doing your own thing was very profound for me.
When I was younger these things weren’t as often an issue, because I went to a smaller very mellow school, and I felt very socially comfortable.
Terence: And then Susan moved to a larger middle school, where she discovered that she had more in common with that girl with the pageboy haircut from summer camp than she first realized.
Susan: I was suddenly in this class of hundreds of kids, trying to figure out who everybody was, and I remember realizing very early in that the adjective “outgoing” was the highest form of praise that you could give to somebody, even more than being pretty.
It meant even more to be outgoing. And I remember thinking oh, that’s interesting. Okay, that’s what it is. Well and I outgoing and then realizing, like with dismay, nope I’m not!
Terence: Oh, she can laugh about it now, but at the time with that self-knowledge. Susan did what any child would.
Susan: Spend time feeling bad about it.
Terence: And then she faked the opposite as best she could.
Susan: I would just try to act kind of more smiley or talk more or whatever than was actually natural to me.
Terence: But she couldn’t escape what the world was teaching her.
Susan: No matter how much you might want to be a kind of quieter person going your own way, that was not the recipe for a successful life somehow, and you know, that somehow I was going to need to adopt a more extroverted persona.
Terence: In the book that gave Susan her gigantic epiphany, there is a section that says: “Most of us make our most important career decisions when we are least prepared to do so. The decisions we make early in life set in motion a chain of events that will influence our entire lives. Yet when we’re young we have little or no experience making job choices and we tend to have an overabundance of idealistic enthusiasm plus a reckless lack or concern for future consequences.”
Susan was an English major in college. She had a dream of becoming a writer, even if the fiction she’d written in her creative writing class didn’t quite inspire her to follow her bliss.
But she had an overabundance of idealistic enthusiasm, which is exactly why her father sat down with her to discuss the future.
Susan: And I remember him saying “Well, you know, the Bohemian life is really nice when you’re younger, but when you can’t support yourself later, it’s not as charming as you might think and you really should do something practical.”
Those words really stayed with me at that time. I thought of it as: “Okay. I’m going to put away the things of youth and, you know, go do the practical thing.”
So I found myself enrolling in law school a couple of years later.
Terence: And of course, of course law school was a perfect fit…
Susan: You know, I was always interested in all things creative and literary. I was not, and still am not, a person who likes conflict very much. Very linear and practical—that was never who I was. I was like the least likely law student ever. So it just didn’t feel like I really belonged there.
Terence: And then after law school she landed her first job in a Wall Street law firm.
Susan: I didn’t know anything about finance when I started. I didn’t know the difference between a stock and a bond. I knew nothing, and I remember I had this dictionary called Wall Street Words, and I used to take it home. I’d take it home on the weekends and study it.
It was a pretty sort of high-powered Wall Street firm. I did always feel like I was a little bit of like either ex-pat, or in exile in a foreign country. You know, the expat days were my great days where I was like, “Oh my gosh look at this, I’m speaking this foreign language and look at this beautiful other country in which I find myself.” You know?
Then the exile days were like, what am I doing here? And how can I go home?
Terence: Even though she didn’t feel at home, Susan did her best to fit in, to play the part.
Susan: It was such an all-consuming environment, socially and work-wise, you know. I would get in in the morning and often not come home until midnight.
Like I love learning things by nature, so I got really into it for a while, you know, just the challenge of having to learn anything is really interesting to me, but there still came this point after doing that for a few years where I was like “Okay, you know, this was interesting as far as it went for me, but this isn’t really where I want to be spending all my brain-time.”
There were these Friday wine and cheeses, and you could see that some people were truly lit up by working on whatever transaction was currently on the front page of the Wall Street Journal, you know, and I really didn’t care about that. It didn’t light me up and that’s a hard feeling.
At that time, I lived across the street from this gigantic Barnes and Noble, and it was my total refuge. Like I would come home, you know, and sometimes I would get home from work at 8:00 PM, which was an early night for me, and I would go across the street to the Barnes and Noble and just feel like I was sinking into a warm, amazing bath.
Terence: And it was in this bookstore that Susan made a discovery. In the stacks one title caught her eye: Do What You Are: Discover the Perfect Career for You Through the Secrets of Personality Type.
Susan: I had never heard of personality-typing or Myers-Briggs or anything like that before. I found this book and I remember bringing it to my office the next day and just sort of devouring it.
Terence: If you’re not familiar with personality types, there are 16 of them, and in 1921, the psychologist Carl Jung introduced his theory of personality in a book titled Psychology Types. He observed that behavior that seemed unpredictable could in fact be anticipated, if one understood the underlying mental functions and attitudes people preferred.
Around the same time, an American woman, Katherine Briggs while observing similarities and differences between human personalities developed her own system for typing people. Then she read the English translations of Jung’s book, and she adopted his model and began a serious study of his work.
It became a family business when her daughter Isabel Briggs Myers joined her and together they created the Briggs Myers personality test, which Do What You Are leads you through.
Here’s what Susan Cain discovered about herself through the book:
Susan: What I discovered is that I am a type called an INFP.
Terence: I stands for introverted.
Susan: Oh, that was really a no-brainer. I’ve never found much joy in group life. Always my entire life preferred to socialize one-on-one and to have sort of deep and searching conversations.
Terence: N stands for intuitive.
Susan: I’m such an extreme intuitive. We can start by talking about the opposite of intuitive is sensing, right. And I’m like, I’m so bad at knowing what is happening in the material world around me. You could drive up in your car to my house every day and you could ask me a year later and I won’t know what kind of car you’re driving. I might not know what color it is.
Oh, my whole orientation is about thinking about life. And what’s the meaning of everything, and you know understanding instantly and instinctively what people really meant as the subtext underneath what they actually said. That’s just kind of where I live.
Terence: F stands for feeling.
Susan: So that too, I’m actually really extreme on that one. I can’t explain it. But there’s very little space between my emotions and my cognition
Terence: and P stands for perceiving.
Susan: You know, I’m an extreme introvert, intuitive, and feeler, but on the perceiving side that’s actually, I’m pretty close to the cusp. I have a much more go-with-the-flow approach to life. But, partly, I think because of all the years I spent in the law. I’ve come to really like things to be reasonably organized also.
Terence: After you determine your personality type and temperament, the book helps you understand which professions would be a good fit for you.
Susan: And I went and I looked at all the careers that this book suggested for people of an INFP personality type and they were all like Writer, Psychologist, Social Worker, Clergyperson, Therapist.
I knew instantly that, “Oh, wow that actually really is exactly who I am and it’s so far from where I find myself.”
Terence: Now a little self-knowledge is fine. But when you start going down the rabbit hole of “know thyself,” you can discover some pretty dark truths.
Susan: And you know, and then I kept diving deeper, and I went online later that night and found this little career chart for all the different types, and it showed the relative earning power of each of the 16 different types. And the INFP was literally like the 16th, who was all the way at the bottom of the list.
You know, I’ve never been like an especially materialistic person, but I was at that moment living in, you know, in the middle of a Wall Street law firm. And I was able to pay for anything I needed without having to think about it and, you know, that’s an easy and comforting way to live your life.
So I remember like staring at this screen and being like, huh? “Okay. What does this mean?”
I actually found it to be a gigantic relief. Even though I was now confronted with this problem of maybe not being in the right place, it was still a relief because it explained all the moments that were so difficult for me in my legal life. I now felt I had more permission and freedom to be who I really was. For me, the difficulty was not so much in knowing who I really was. For me the difficulty was in feeling good about who I really was.
I read this book and had this realization, and it was kind of swirling around in my mind for some years because it wasn’t like I immediately took action or anything. Over those next two or three years, because I was getting less and less happy with law. And by the way, you know on top of whatever personality mismatches there were, it’s also just an incredibly grueling lifestyle. If I left work at five or six that felt like a half day to me.
But I was on this partnership track and you know, it was this all-consuming world. And I wanted to make partner.
But then came a day when one of the partners in the firm knocked down my office door and he came in and he sat down and he said well, we’re not putting you up for partner. I sort of embarrassingly burst into tears right in front of him.
It then was like being set free, because I asked for a leave of absence that very morning and so three hours later I had left work and didn’t realize it at the time, but I had left law for good.
And I thought that I was going to travel, you know. Suddenly I had this free vista of time opened up before me for the first time in a decade. I remember thinking I might go to India. I might go this place, this place, but what I ended up doing instead was signing up for a class in creative nonfiction writing at NYU.
A week later, I found myself sitting in this classroom at NYU one evening. And this was my next epiphany moment because I remember sitting in that classroom and feeling like “I am finally home and this is what I need to be doing for the rest of my life,” and it was like clear as day this feeling.
What was not clear was never in my wildest dreams did I think that I could actually make a living from writing. I didn’t even think I could get published. I really didn’t. I just thought this is what I want to be doing with my life. And so I switched everything around at that point.
But as I say I didn’t think I could actually make a success out of it because you hear so many stories—and they’re real—about how difficult writing is as a career.
So I told myself. Okay, the goal is to get something published by the time you’re 75. And in the meantime, you know, here’s this glorious hobby, and I’m just like organizing my life around this hobby.
Terence: Over the next few months and years, Susan cobbled together a freelance life where she could carve writing time out of her days.
Susan: And that’s what I did.
The first thing I did was I wrote a memoir, and then I wrote one version in prose. And I also started writing a version in poetry form—some of it was in sonnet form. I was doing all kinds of stuff because remember I was in this mode of thinking this was my hobby. It wasn’t like I felt any grand pressure to pay the rent by publishing something.
I don’t know, in few years I somehow started working on this Quiet project, but it wasn’t like—at first I didn’t know that was the thing. I saw it as this idiosyncratic project that I was working on, and it felt honestly vaguely embarrassing because at that time the idea of introversion—I think it still has a stigma, but the stigma was stronger back then. So it just it felt like a sort of yeah, like an idiosyncratic and vaguely embarrassing project, but I started doing it and somehow along the way of working on that book proposal, I had a feeling that this was going to be the one.
Terence: The authors of Do What You Are insist that type does not determine intelligence or predict success, nor does it indicate how well adjusted anyone will be. However, it does they say help us discover what best motivates and energizes each of us as individuals, and this, in turn, empowers us to seek these elements in the work we choose to do.
Susan: I made this change of career when I was in my 30s, and I think you could make this change when you’re in your 40s or 50s or 60s too. And I don’t mean to poopoo life obligations and mortgages and supporting kids and all that. Granted I didn’t have those things back then when I made this change. I didn’t have kids. I didn’t have a mortgage.
But I do think more and more, you know, hopefully many of us will live quite long lives with long health spans as well and often these changes are possible to make and we tend still, even in this new era, we still tend to have that kind of 1950s IBM prototype in our minds of like, you know, this is your career and you stick with it until you get the gold watch at the end of it. We feel it on some level and it’s wrong and and overly constraining.
The joy of working in a sector that actually fits you cannot be overstated. I mean, I will tell you, I made this change like 17 years ago, and there is still not a single day that I don’t wake up with a sense of gratitude and relief that I’m doing what I do now instead of what I used to do back then.
It’s a huge, big deal.
Terence: Self? Help! was created and produced by yours truly, with audio engineering help from Dominick Egley, and production assistance from Nat Darozhikina. A special thank you to the hosts of Simplify, Caitlin and Ben, who helped promote the show.
Since Self? Help! is a celebration of reading as well as cheap therapy, for Season One I collected stories from New York Times bestselling authors: Susan Cain—who you just heard from—Eli Finkel, Sarah Knight, Paula MacLain and Johann Hari. I wanted to hear stories from people who followed the calling of written word.
And Season 1 covers a broad range of topics, from addiction to personality types and just for the hell of it, a dash of existentialism. But future seasons will be based on themes, parenting, relationships, finance, and any area you, dear listener, think you need help in.