“A writer has the duty to be good, not lousy; true, not false; lively, not dull; accurate, not full of error. He should tend to lift people up, not lower them down. Writers do not merely reflect and interpret life, they inform and shape life,” E.B. White once said to The Paris Review for their fall edition in 1969.
Thirty-seven years later in 2006, someone who at the time was an intern at an advertising agency, started an internal office project where she sent a weekly newsletter for seven of her coworkers. She did not send about what she had eaten or her daily routine as a college student, but the newsletter contained thought-provoking articles across time, disciplines, and culture that was aimed to inspire her coworkers and mainly herself. It was everything from neuroscience, photography, art, philosophy, design, and any other counterintuitive ideas outside of advertising world. At the time, she perhaps had not heard about what E.B. White had said to The Paris Review, but across the years since she started her project in 2006, she is truly the embodiment of E.B. White’s description of a good writer. She is good, not lousy; true, not false; lively, not dull; accurate, and not full of error.
I am talking about Maria Popova and her labor of love website called Brainpickings.org. She describes Brainpickings as “human-powered discovery engine for interestingness” or “an inventory of cross-disciplinary interestingness, spanning art, science, design, history, philosophy, and more.”
Popova had two strong impulses when she started BrainPickings. First, she wanted to inspire her seven coworkers. Second, she wanted to heal her profound dissatisfaction with her own college education. Having come from Bulgaria to the U.S. to study at the University of Pennsylvania, she was fascinated with liberal art education but soon she grew jaded and unfilled about it. Liberal art educations that was being promised to teach her how to live only prepared her to ace standardized exams. She firmly believed that the combination of large-sized lecture halls, standardized exams, and memorization was not an ideal way to learn. On the top of her course loads and four other jobs, she started Brainpickings by transforming the newsletter into a simple website on WordPress.
Now, ten years later, Brainpickings has transformed into a massive literary palace on the internet. It has more than six million readers a month and its twitter feed (@brainpicker) has 737,000 followers. Her site stands as inspiration to those who have grown fatigue of a website that only rewards mediocrity and standard public appetite. Despite millions of readers rejoice her thoughtful curation each month, she insists that she writes and will always write for herself. Sometime in July of 2015, she offered advice on The Tim Ferris Show for people who want to start a blog or any creative endeavors:
“Write for yourself. If you want to create something meaningful and fulfilling, something that lasts and speaks to people, the counterintuitive but really, really necessary thing is that you must not write for people. The second you begin to write for or to a so called “audience” and this applies equally to podcasting and filmmaking and photography and dance and any field of creative endeavors, the second you start doing it for an audience, you’ve lost the long game because creating something that is rewarding and sustainable over the long run, requires most of all keeping yourself excited about it, which in turn of course requires only doing the things that you yourself are interested in, that enthuse you.”
Then the question becomes: how do we make something more interesting? She answered:
“I think the key to being interesting is being interested and enthusiastic about those interests; that’s contagious. That’s what makes people read you and come back, which by the way should and can only ever be a byproduct of your own willingness to keep coming back to your work, to your creation because if you do it for other people, trying to predict what they’ll be interested in and kind of pretzeling yourself to fit those expectations, you soon begin to begrudge it and become embittered and it begins to show in the work. It always, always shows in the work when you resent it. And there’s really nothing less pleasurable to read than embittered writing (…)”
Offering advice on what it means to have a successful life in conversation with The Great Discontent, she said:
“Again, this is a cliché, but it’s been true for me. Don’t let other people’s ideas of success and good or meaningful work filter your perception of what you want to do. Listen to your heart and mind’s purpose; keep listening to that and even when the “should” get really loud, try to stay in touch with what you hear within yourself.”
Maria Popova is still in her early 30s but her mind stretches across time, culture, and era. Most of the articles found in BrainPickings are taken from old-forgotten books such as: Margaret Mead and James Baldwin’s A Rap on Race, Albert Camus’ Lyrical and Critical Essays, Henry David Thoreau’s Walden, and Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet. She repackages old-fashioned ideas in fresh digestible ways for our modern minds. The articles are addictive to the point of causing her readers asking bigger and meaningful questions at the end. One article leads to two and three leads to hours in front of the computer.
Unpredictability is the term that I would like to use to describe BrainPickings. On the site, one day we will learn about the daily routines of great writers and the next day we will read Adrianne Rich’s poem on Marie Curie or even what moss can teach us about life. The topics are perpetually changing but the general theme of the site will stay the same, which is how to live a meaningful life. She has warned public that Brainpickings is not a place where one can find an article about “22 signs that you have a spiritual animal” or “17 reasons your college roommate is your best friend.” She does not only curate the information that matters for us, but she also cross-pollinates ideas–between art and science, history and social justice, music and psychology, literature and psychology, and so on. Indivisibility is Popova’s style. Her work, as she said, is trying to “help people become interested in things they didn’t know they were interested in, until they are.” She pulls her readers into deep waters of her own immense and diverse curiosities.
She is a rational optimist and very vocal about it. Whenever she talks about optimism, she does not mean blind optimism as it does not necessarily help us to move forward in the world. Her notion of optimism is a mixture of critical thinking and hope. In conversation with Krista Tippett on her podcast On Being ,she explained:
“Critical thinking without hope is cynicism. But hope without critical thinking is naivete. And I try to live in this place between the two to try to build a life there because finding fault and feeling hopeless about improving our situation produces resignation of which cynicism is a symptom and against which it is the sort of futile self-protection mechanism.”
Then she went on:
“Believing blindly that everything will work out just fine also produces a kind of resignation because we have no motive to apply ourselves towards making things better. In order to survive, both as individuals and as a civilization, but especially in order to thrive, we need to bridge critical thinking and hope.”
In a commencement address that she delivered at her alma mater, she said poignantly:
“Cynicism is a poverty of curiosity and imagination and ambition.”
Aside from being vocal about her identity as a rational optimist, she is a defender of creativity as a combinatorial concept. To her, being creative is about soaking up learnings from multiple disciplines and then insert them into our already existing ideas. It is not being the expert but it is more about being the great generalist. Popova is not the only firm believer of this concept. Einstein extolled the same concept years ago when he said, “Combinatory play seems to be the essential feature in productive thought.” In 1975, Buckminster wrote an essay decried specialization and voiced his strong opinions on the value of generalist knowledge. Steve Jobs also said that “Creativity is just connecting things”.
In a lecture given at Creative Mornings, she spoke about Networked Knowledge and Combinatorial Creativity, Popova said:
“Creativity is combinatorial, that nothing is entirely original, that everything builds on what came before, and that we create by taking existing pieces of inspiration, knowledge, skill and insight that we gather over the course of our lives and recombining them into incredible new creations.
What makes me and other millions of people keep returning to her site is because she eschews ads on her website. Brainpickings’s visual is clean and refreshing. Openly, she takes donations from her devoted readers and earns a percentage through Amazon from books purchased based on her wide and diverse recommendations. She has a keen ethos behind removing ads on her website. She explained:
“As long as it’s an ad-supported medium, the motive will be to perfect commercial interest, to perfect the art of the listicle, the endless slideshow, the infinitely paginated article, and not to perfect the human spirit of the reader or the writer. And I think that journalism is moving further and further away from — you take something like E.B. White’s ideal, which he said that the role of the writer is to lift people up, not to lower them down. And so much of what passes for journalism today lowers.”
On the reasons behind our appetite for listicles and laziness reading long articles, Popova explained that we are failing to recognize the difference between claiming knowledge and having knowledge; a concept in which she drew largely from Adrianne Rich’s powerful commencement address:
“I remember there’s a really beautiful commencement address that Adrienne Rich gave in 1977 in which she said that an education is not something that you get but something that you claim. And I think that’s very much true of knowledge itself.”
Then she went on explaining the intersection between time and knowledge:
“The reason we’re so increasingly intolerant of long articles and why we skim them, why we skip forward even in a short video that reduces a 300-page book into a three-minute animation — even in that we skip forward — is that we’ve been infected with this kind of pathological impatience that makes us want to have the knowledge but not do the work of claiming it. I mean, the true material of knowledge is meaning. And the meaningful is the opposite of the trivial. And the only thing that we should have gleaned by skimming and skipping forward is really trivia. And the only way to glean knowledge is contemplation. And the road to that is time. There’s nothing else. It’s just time. There is no shortcut for the conquest of meaning. And ultimately, it is meaning that we seek to give to our lives. “
Brainpickings is indeed an antidote of the culture of listicles. The utility of the site, along with the insertion of Popova’s skills as an information curator, reader, and writer are overwhelmingly impressive.
Someone wise one time said that there are two kinds of people in our culture: first, people who advance themselves by excluding other people because they are wary of other people’s motives and their definition of success is very individualistic. Second, people who advance themselves by celebrating other people’s work and generously invite them to be architects of meaning and value. Maria Popova indeed falls into the latter category. She is the talent, the celebrator, and the wisdom curator; I just reaffirmed it in words.
For more insights behind BrainPickings and Popova’s intellectual life, treat yourself with her unedited conversation with Krista Tippett of On Being below: