Brain Pickings is the brain child of Maria Popova, a cultural curator and curious mind at large, who also writes for Wired UK, The Atlantic and Design Observer, among others. She gets occasional help from a handful of talented contributors. Brain Pickings is your LEGO treasure chest, full of pieces across art, design, science, technology, philosophy, history, politics, psychology, sociology, ecology, anthropology, you-name-itology. Pieces that enrich your mental pool of resources and empower you to combine them into original concepts that are stronger, smarter, richer, deeper and more impactful — a modest, curiosity-driven exercise in vision- and mind-expansion.
FROM YOUR DESKS: How do you work?
MARIA POPOVA: Perpetually and on less sleep than I’d like, running on green tea and curiosity.
FYD: You sift through so much information. What are the ingredients to a successfully curated site?
MP: With every piece of content I choose for Brain Pickings (as opposed to for Twitter or Google+), I ask myself three things: Is it interesting enough to leave the reader with something – a thought, an idea, a question – after the immediate fulfillment of the self-contained reading or viewing experience; is it evergreen in a way that makes it just as interesting in a month or a year; and, perhaps most importantly, am I able to provide enough additional context – historical background, related past articles, complementary reading or viewing material – or build a pattern around it to make it worth for the reader to share, link to and engage with the Brain Pickings article rather than the thing – book, TED talk, site – being featured directly. If I can’t do the latter, then it might be a good tweet, but I’m not a believer in context-free reposting or about-page copy-pasting, so unless I can deliver on that, it’s not article material.
Running on green tea and curiosity.
FYD: You are a grand master flash of Twitter in that you hold knowledge in every facet, and post uplifting pieces. How do you ignite the spark and keep the fire going?
MP: That’s very kind and generous, but I’m afraid not entirely accurate – I don’t hold knowledge in all the domains and disciplines I tweet about, I hold curiosity about them. In the end, it’s curiosity that fuels both Brain Pickings and my Twitter activity – it’s all a learning experience for me as much as it is for my readers. When I do an article on, say, obscure children’s books by famous authors of “adult” literature, it usually happens because I somehow stumbled across one such book through the serendipity of my reading habits, then wondered whether there were more, then spent a day or two sifting through various online archives learning about them, then found the ones that seemed most interesting, then made a trip to the local library, then read them and photographed a few, then wrote about it all. I started with zero knowledge about any of them, a lot of curiosity about one, and ended up with some knowledge about all of them and a desire to inspire others’ curiosity about them in the same way. I enjoy this process so much, it’s my own endlessly continued education, and that’s what fuels me.
I’m not a conversational tweeter… for me it’s purely an information discovery platform...
FYD: When do you go off the grid?
MP: I don’t go “off the grid” nearly as much as I’d like to, but I do take time for yoga and meditation every other day, in addition to my daily morning workouts. (Granted, those are anything but unplugged, since I do most of my long-form reading on the iPad while doing cardio and catch up on all my science podcasts while doing weights.) I sleep far, far too little, though I’ve gotten better about it this year, after making a new year’s resolution to sleep at least 6.5 hours a night. Do you own a pair of glasses? I do wear glasses – I have a mild astigmatism, but the more tired I am, the blurrier my vision gets, so I end up wearing them most of the time when in front of the computer.
FYD: In the Twitter realm; I’m constantly perplexed by people talking too much about themselves. What is your litmus test?
MP: I only really follow “linkers” – people who share links to interesting content in at least 90% of their tweets. I’m not a conversational tweeter, nor do I follow conversational tweeters – everyone uses Twitter differently, but for me it’s purely an information discovery platform, so my choices about whom to follow stem from the maximum workflow efficiency keeping that purpose in mind. And even within linkers, I prefer people who don’t just share links to their own site, however fantastic it might be – otherwise, I’d just subscribe via RSS in Google Reader, which I live and die by anyway. (For myself, I tweet three external links for every link to a Brain Pickings article.)
The images above are selections via Brain Pickings “Favorites”
FYD: What do you love about curiosity?
MP: It’s funny to think about loving or not loving curiosity since I see it as such a fundamental element of our human wiring, it’s a bit like wondering whether to love or not love air. My brand of curiosity is cross-disciplinary curiosity, the kind that fills your mental pool of resources with varied, diverse bits of information, knowledge and insight that you can then put together into all the more compelling and rich original ideas. I think of it as networked knowledge and combinatorial creativity. Paola Antonelli, a hero and a friend, has this wonderful metaphor of the curious octopus, which I love.
Is it interesting enough to leave the reader with something – a thought, an idea, a question –
Are you more prone to ask a live person or computer for research? Research-wise, it depends entirely on the nature of the inquiry. I’ve honed down my research process quite well, I know how to maximize Google’s advanced search tools, I know which archives to tap for what kind of content, I know what types of queries are best crowdsourced from my Twitter community. But when it comes to a particularly niche topic, one that falls within the passion scope of someone I know and trust, of course I’m going to ask him or her first. And, this is has become such a librarian cliché, but it’s so true: Wikipedia is a fantastic starting point for further research.
FYD: You attended Penn yet mention receiving more education via the TED Conferences. Why?
MP: A lot of it has to do not with the nature of the information delivered, but the mode of delivery itself. Even the best of the academy has a chronic engagement problem, it’s just the nature of the liberal arts lecture – it’s long, linear and often structured in a way that buries the best part, the intellectual or creative “hook” that makes you care about the subject in the first place, in the middle of long-winded pontification.
FYD: What about TED translates learning?
MD: TED is in the package design business. They take existing information – most speakers have had their books or research or designs or whatever out in the open for a while before presenting them from the TED stage – and package it beautifully, opening with a hook and putting in the kind of production value, the kind of speaker coaching, the kind of slide design that really make you stay with the idea until the end, an end that comes after 18 condensed, carefully thought out minutes.
Most college students would do anything to find a shortcut around the required reading for a class; most TEDsters would do anything to voraciously read the speaker’s book after a compelling talk. Right now, a college education is delivered in a brown cardboard box. (One that can cost upwards of $200,000.) A TED talk is delivered in a wonderfully designed and alluring magic box. In both cases, what you get out of the box is really up to you. But which one would you be more excited to open and engage with?
FYD: I’ve long been curious about your tip jar. So many bloggers in so many different world corridors spending hours upon hours fueling minds for free. Do donations filter in?
MP: It’s actually been rather remarkable and humbling. Readers have been incredibly generous. Right now, Brain Pickings is funded largely through donations, both monetary and in kind, which have enabled everything from a beautiful redesign (hey, Josh Boston!) to a crash-proof new servers (hey, mediatemple!) to a wonderful and reliable email newsletter provider (hey, MailChimp!). I’ve gotten donations ranging from single digits to four digits, coming from people as different as Indian college students, 77-year-old grandmothers, Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, and Hollywood actors. But the loveliest part are often the short messages people leave me in the PayPal comment box – really moving messages of appreciation and validation, such a refreshing reminder that I don’t work in a vacuum, which is what it can begin to feel like a lot of the time. I try to send out at least 3 thank-you notes a day to people who have donated, and respond to every single such comment-box treat.
I don’t hold knowledge in all the domains and disciplines I tweet about, I hold curiosity about them.
FYD: You cover the full intellectual spectrum. What do you continue to be most curious and excited about?
MP: I’m curious about most things, really. But a few areas I’m particularly interested in or fond of: The future of publishing and journalism; data visualization; remix culture; children’s books; attribution of discovery; education; bike culture. And I’d say design, but to me design is a bit like curiosity – it, at least the best of it, can be this powerful undercurrent that runs beneath a multitude of disciplines and subjects, so it would be a bit simplistic to isolate it as one.
FYD: I’ve always considered the word “genius” overused. What word or theme is overplayed in your world?
MP: Well, I actually quite hate the word “curation” in the thoughtlessly overused sense that’s being thrown around. (I’ve previously spoken about it here, where I noted that despite the tragic overuse that’s resulted in near-vacancy of meaning, it’s still the most viable placeholder we have for what it connotes, until we invent new language for the kind of informational signpost and curiosity sherpa that a good “curator” is.)