Over the past few decades, Google and similar search engines have virtually eliminated the practice of perusing the library for knowledge in the serendipitous ways of old. At a glance, this system of information-gathering seems not just harmless but ideal in our society of forever-dwindling windows of time—after all, when we want information (as with everything else), we want it now. But with this immediacy comes a cost. Now, rather than being a group of humans displaying an expansive and diverse intellect (one that would mirror our supposed access to such volumes of knowledge), our fascinations, ideologies, and schemas have become insidiously homogenized. Why? Because if the information we seek does not make it to the first “O” of the many “O”d Goooooooooogle, it might as well not exist. Granted, this sort of investigation might be the prime route to re-learn how to sew that button back onto your suit jacket properly, but it is a staggeringly inadequate platform for asking deeper questions about love, life, and the pursuit of meaning. All this to say—do not despair! For it is with profound pleasure that I present this humble summary of one woman’s journey to remedy the modern-day pursuit of knowledge, which I, along with the extent of her vast readership, propose she more than accomplishes with a combination of wit, whimsy, and elegance. Please enjoy Nerd Profile #2—’Maria Popova: The Brain Behind Brain Pickings’!
WHO: MARIA POPOVA
(July 28, 1984–PRESENT)
WHAT: Maria Popova is best known for her blog, Brain Pickings, which she has judiciously worked to keep free of both advertisements and any variety of exclusionary payment structure. Brain Pickings features over a decade of her collected musings and analyses fueled by a voracious, all-inclusive reading habit. This being the case, her writing is incredibly diverse, spanning from philosophy to art to literature to science and beyond. Essentially, if she’s read about it, she’s written about it (which is saying something). Popova recently published a book titled Figuring, published February 5, 2019, furthering her deep-dive into the enigma of love, truth, and humankind’s unending search for meaning.
WHEN: Popova was born in Bulgaria and admitted in this NYT interview that she wasn’t necessarily a born-reader. “My paternal grandmother made me one,” Popova explains, going on to describe how her grandmother used to read classic fairy tales—Hans Christian Anderson and the Brothers Grimm in particular— aloud, and how she introduced Popova to the world of the olden-day family encyclopedia. About modern-day, Popova laments, “it is an experience we rarely have anymore in a culture where pointed search has eclipsed serendipitous discovery.” After attending the University of Pennsylvania and earning her degree in communications (and feeling decidedly disillusioned about her experience with higher education), she worked a diverse array of part-time jobs and internships, ultimately landing in an advertising agency in 2005. While working at the agency, a colleague of Popova’s would regularly send out a motivational email filled with lackluster material that was intended to reignite the team’s flame. In Popova, this weekly newsletter started a blaze that motivated her in a different direction—it inspired her to start sending around inspiring ideas of her own. Brain Pickings, having started as a list of just 7 friends, caught fire quickly as her friends started forwarding her writing to their friends, and friends of friends, and so on—today, her monthly viewership stands at well beyond 7 million.
WHERE: At the time of this interview, Popova reports that she utilizes a “MacBook Air for writing, iPad mini for reading whatever is available as an e-text, and lots of Post-Its for my copious marginalia in paper books.” She also uses Evernote, both a home for her typographical note-taking and a means of capturing photographs of some of her Post-Its (Evernote has optical character recognition functionality). As for additional sources of e-material for reading, she states, “I read almost everything online in Pocket.”
HOW: A 2012 NYT profile describes Popova as “a creature of habit,” referring in large part to her daily physical training regimen: 20 chin-ups, 50 push-ups, planks, stretches, and finally a stint on the elliptical where she reads or scrolls through her RSS feed. Though her daily workout routine appears to be quite involved, when asked if she has any practices to get herself into her daily writing routine, she replies, “Given I write several thousand words each day, there’s no room for ‘pre-gaming.’ The ‘game’ IS the ritual.” And when Popova finally proceeds to her writing desk after a thorough stint of mixed-methods research, she can be seen pouring out her unique insights into beautiful pieces of short literature (the term “blog post” just doesn’t cut it), all while maintaining a continuous mindful balance on a wobble board. “Mark Twain paced while he dictated,” she explained. “Beethoven walked along the river. Maybe there’s a psycho-biological element.”
“Be curious. Be constantly, consistently, indiscriminately curious.”
“To understand and be understood, those are among life’s greatest gifts. And every interaction is an opportunity to exchange them.”
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