I discovered Maria Popova (@BrainPicker) through numerous mentions by Tim Ferriss (@tferriss) but it was not until I listened to this Podcast that I discovered how profound her primary body of work, BrainPickings.org is. Ferriss begins by saying Popova describes “herself as a reader/writer; interestingness hunter/gatherer; and curious mind at large.” While she has written for publications like The Atlantic and The New York Times, the labor of love that is Brain Pickings is undeniably an inspired destination on the Internet.
In a world full of “cultural crack” that has reduced much of the Internet to listicles, click bait and endless slideshows, Popova’s BrainPickings.org is an oasis of literary wonderment. The volume of “annotated readings” she has published are an invaluable treasure for anyone seeking a fresh space on the Internet to relax and share in her love for reading and sharing literature.
Maria Popova on Being Interesting, Creating More Time in a Day, And How to Start A Successful Blog
Founded in 2006 as a weekly email to seven friends, once online, this oasis has grown into a website that attracts over 5 million readers per month. Supported 100% by donations and affiliate links to books available on Amazon the site is ad free and completely her own work. Popova is clear that she does not review books and refers to what she provides as “annotated readings” of books that she has personally found interesting.
“I read to make sense of life and the writing is just the record of the reading.”
Ferriss and Popova discuss their reading and note taking processes and other aspects of maintaining such a body of work. Popova has strived to keep the site and project a passion and not a business. Although conflicted about the choice, she did finally hire someone to assist with administrative duties as well as a copy editor to review her work.
Both Popova and Ferriss are heavy users of Evernote for keeping track of the notes they take when reading. When reading analog books they both utilize either the front or back blank pages to create their own indexes. These indexes allow them to discover themes and remember things like “Beautiful Language” which Popova notes as “BL” when reading.
Popova finds meditation and mindfulness important and uses the guided meditations of Tara Brach, testifying that Brach “has changed my life perhaps more profoundly then anybody in my life.” Ferriss discovers Brach through this introduction and interviews her in a subsequent podcast. Brach is a mindfulness practitioner trained as a psychologist who teaches mindfulness with a very secular lens.
Popova believes that public officials would be well served to add mindfulness meditation to their daily routines:
“It’s not a vaccine against greed and corruption but it does make it significantly harder to be selfish when you cultivate equanimity; when you come to dismantle the illusion of the separate self; when you begin to see the inherent interconnectedness of everything; of all people and of all beings. How our smallest daily actions add up to our collective destiny.”
“If you’re public official, the public good, which is just another word for the best possible collective destiny, should be your primary concern”
Mindfulness being the intersection of the outer and inner worlds of our own consciousness, Popova often returns to the diaries of Henry David Thoreau. “Nobody writes more beautifully about the immutable dialog between the two then he. There is so much universal timeless truth in his private refections on everything from the best definition of success to the perils of sitting” says Popova, “Which he wrote about 150 years before we started saying, ‘sitting is the new smoking’.”
Because much of what Popova reads is old, her and Ferriss are of course both fans of philosophy and suggest Seneca, On the Shortness of Life [BrainPickings] which she describes as the “best manifesto for our current struggle with [the] very notion of productivity versus presence.”
“It’s amazing that somebody wrote this millennia ago; before there was Internet before there was the things we called distractions today and yet he writes about the exact same things, just in a different form.”
Ferriss admits that he avoids use of the “P” word when introducing people to philosophy because it “smacks” of negative connotations. Popova completely disagrees saying “that’s all the more reason to use it heavily, and to use it intelligently, and to reclaim it, and to get people to understand that philosophy; whatever form it takes, is the only way to figure out how to live.”
No matter what the medium, Popova maintains that the key to creativity is to create for yourself recalling the words of Oscar Wilde, who wrote “A true artist takes no notice whatever of the public. The public are to him non-existent.” That you begin and must always be creating for yourself. “The key to being interesting is being interested and enthusiastic about those interests.” says Popova, “That’s contagious!”
“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 podcasts and filmmaking and photography and dance and any field of creative endeavor. The second you start doing it for an audience, you’ve lost the long game.”
To become great says Popova requires “Consistency. Showing up day in and day out, psyco-emotional rain or shine.” Popova notes that “if you look at the diary of any great artist of writer” one thing you see over and over, no matter what happens or what they’re experiencing; be it agonizing self doubt; or the intoxicating elation of being in love which makes you unable to think of anything else at all; “Whatever it is they’re feeling; they still show up. They still face the blank page, the empty canvas, the fresh roll of film, everyday. And they do their thing.”
Popova’s passion for her work is undeniable and her advice for keeping engaged and passionate about work expands from how we can be most creative.
“We’ve created a society that mistakes the notion of hard work to mean not just dedicated work but difficult work. As if difficulty and struggle and torture somehow confer seriousness upon your chosen work. Doing great work simply because you love it sounds in our culture, somehow flimsy. And that’s a failing of our culture not of the choice of work that artists make.”
Popova is careful in deciding how to use her time when not writing and reading to avoid being “time-jacked” by growing requests for her time. In deciding which requests to accepts she notes that “we often mistake interest for affirmation of our worth, especially if there is an element of prestige attacked to it” and “that the paradox is that accepting the requests you receive is at the expense of the quality of the very work that was the reason for those requests in the first place; and that’s what you always have to protect.”
She recalls from the Oliver Sacks memoir “On the Move” that he had a sign that read “NO!” on the wall to remind him to turn down requests that tipped away from his writing time.
While she rarely accepts requests to speak at professional conferences, Popova will “almost always do stuff for students even if it takes up my reading and writing time.”
“If I can help one young person even consider a life path other than the corporate gristmill; if I can persuade one aspiring journalist to consider not working for Buzzfeed and refuse to feed the public’s appetite for mindlessness and mediocrity and to assure this young person to have faith in the possibility of building a life and a career based on E.B. White’s journalistic ideal of lifting people up rather than lowering them down, then it’s worth my time.”
In mentoring and sharing with students, friends, and kindred spirits, Popova enthusiastically believes “that creative culture is woven of these invisible threads of good will between people who believe in one another and art is carried on the wings of this kinship.”
With over 5 million monthly readers Popova still writes for herself. She reminds us that BrainPickings “started very much as a private record of my own curiosity” and that the wide array of disciplines and topics she writes about mirrors her own thoughts:
“It’s just the record of my thought process… trying to navigate my way through the world and understand my place in it and understand how we relate to one another. How different pieces of the world relate to eachother and sort of create a pattern of meaning out of seemingly unrelated meaningless information.”
It is her transmutation of information into wisdom which see believes “is what learning to live is. It’s about wisdom.”
On the practice of writing itself Popova is adamant that you must be passionate about the work and to never refer to your writing as content. She believes there is “nothing more toxic to the creation of meaningful cultural material” than term “content” — which implies an “icky, external motive” — something you “produce and purvey” that becomes currency for advertising. “Nobody does ‘content’ for the joy of their soul” says Popova, “the second you start thinking of your writing as content, you’ve altered the motive, you’re no longer writing for yourself.”
Popova believes that if Kurt Vonigan, who said “write to please one person,” were alive today he would approach writing the same way he had before, regardless of platform, never referring to or thinking about his writing as content.
“So to distill. Write for yourself. Stay interested. Don’t ever let yourself think of what you do as content – or be bullied into viewing it, much less treating it, as such.”
Popova offers what she believes is perhaps the best advice on writing (or blogging) ever given, courtesy of Susan Sontag; “Love words agonize over sentences and pay attention to the world”
Popova believes that “life is a continual process of arrival into who we are” and strives to be present each day and aware that she is not yet the person she will become. She is a fan of Harvard Psychologist, Dan Gilbert, who in Stumbling on Happiness writes that “Human beings are works in progress that mistakenly think they are finished.”
When asked what the most significant thing she believes distinguishes those who have accomplished greatness in any given field? Popova’s closest formula for greatness is “Consistency driven by a deep love of the work.”
On the seventh anniversary or Brain Pickings Popova wrote the reflection, Happy Birthday, Brain Pickings: 7 Things I Learned in 7 Years of Reading, Writing, and Living – Reflections on how to keep the center solid as you continue to evolve. The creative team at Dissolve offered a new take in a gorgeous cinematic adaptation:
Lesson #2 from the piece speaks to the idea of success:
“Do nothing for prestige or status or money or approval alone. As Paul Graham observed, ‘prestige is like a powerful magnet that warps even your beliefs about what you enjoy. It causes you to work not on what you like, but what you’d like to like.’ Those extrinsic motivators are fine and can feel life-affirming in the moment, but they ultimately don’t make it thrilling to get up in the morning and gratifying to go to sleep at night — and, in fact, they can often distract and detract from the things that do offer those deeper rewards.”
This podcast conversation including follow up questions with Popova is over two hours long and well worth the time invested in absorbing her insights. She is a profound reader and inspiring writer who Ferriss rightly states “is good at finding the hidden gems to share” in everything she consumes.
Popova’s love of literature and use of technology to share that love is a gift to anyone who visits her site.
“Literature is the original Internet, every footnote in a book, every citation, every reference is essentially a hyperlink to another book. Most of the great books I’ve come across, and this applies especially to really wonderful forgotten books, most of those I’ve discovered through a mention by an author that I already enjoyed. It’s kind of the ultimate recommendation algorithm that leads you to new very surprising manifestations of the same shared sensibility, sure to please you.”
Popova loves her work and understands that the doggedness of all artists to keep working is driven by a deep love and need to do the work in order to feel alive. That “making a living a merely a byproduct of that and for some of them that doesn’t even come in their lifetime.”
Popova highights the tormented life of Van Gogh to ask how many people in history have perished by their own madness not having the opportunity to pain The Starry Night, concluding that “Van Gogh’s art didn’t take his life, it redeemed it.”
“Of course van Gogh is an extreme case, both in his talent and in his misery; but his life illustrates why every great artist; and I mean artist in the broadest sense of a human being creating work that makes other human beings feel something meaningful. Why every great artist does what they do. That’s the key to both their consistency and their greatness.
Maria Popova on Being Interesting, Creating More Time in a Day, And How to Start A Successful Blog
Earfare is a curated collection of podcasts serving valuable wisdom from people not often accessible. I am sharing these discussions to spread their delicious ideas, philosophies, and practices.