“Among our most universal human longings is to affect the world with our actions somehow, to leave an imprint with our existence.” — Maria Popova
Maria Popova has read and written thousands of pieces of content over the last 12 years of BrainPickings.org. I’ve followed Maria for at least the last 3 years since my existential crisis and have easily read 100+ posts on her site.
I’m continually fascinated by people like Maria who have consumed, curated, and created countless things. They are the types of people you want to ask, “What are the 3 secrets to living a good life?” If anyone could know the magic formula, it would be someone like Maria. She’s spent so much time diving into historical content that she says, “Most of my friends are dead people.”
Popova came to America from Bulgaria to get a liberal arts education with the “promise of being taught how to live.” She admits the education didn’t live up to the hype; eventually she would take learning into her own hands as an autodidact. And, we are all glad she did.
How Maria Popova describes Brain Pickings
- “This little labor of love would come to be my greatest source of joy and fulfillment, my life and my living, my sense of purpose, my center. And so today, Brain Pickings is just that — it’s a record of my own becoming as a person — intellectually, creatively, spiritually.”
- “An inventory on the meaningful life.”
- “An attempt to make sense of humanity’s common record.”
- “In all of them I try to find some little piece that helps us answer, or helps me answer at least, directly or indirectly that grand question of how to live and what it means to live a meaningful life and to live well.”
How Maria Popova describes what she does:
- “I read. And I write. In that order. And in between I do some thinking. And I think about how to live a meaningful life basically.”
- “Reading, thinking, and writing about enduring ideas that glean some semblance of insight — however small, however esoteric — into what it means to live a meaningful life.”
- “We read for the same reasons we write — to think, to feel, to locate ourselves within ourselves and in relation to the world.”
My All-Time Top 3 Learnings from Maria Popova of Brain Pickings
Maria has recapped her top life lessons a few different times throughout the history of Brain Pickings beginning with 7 lessons on the 7-year anniversary. She added two more at the 9-year mark. Now, she has 10 Learnings from 10 Years of Brain Pickings which she describes as “fluid reflections on keeping a solid center.” As an avid reader of Brain Pickings, here’s my own list from everything I’ve learned from her and Brain Pickings:
2. Focus on Combinatorial Creativity in Work and Life
3. “Allow yourself the uncomfortable luxury of changing your mind.”
This is by far my #1 all-time life lesson from Maria Popova. When I think of Brain Pickings, this is what comes to mind for me. Choosing conscious awareness. It all starts with the first quote below:
- “I frequently worry that being productive is the surest way to lull ourselves into a trance of passivity and busyness the greatest distraction from living, as we coast through our lives day after day, showing up for our obligations but being absent from our selves, mistaking the doing for the being.”
- Maria says she’s interested in “perfecting the human spirit.”
- “I think the fullest people, the people most whole and most alive, are always those unafraid and unashamed of the soul.”
- One of her top learnings is to “build pockets of stillness into your life.” I think she would be a fan of downshifting, becoming unbusy, and slow living.
Maria is the epitome of combinatorial creativity. She searches for meaning “across literature, science, art, philosophy, and the various other tentacles of human thought.” The source content is timeless, but her insights are new, modern, and fresh. A perfect example of combinatorial creativity bridging disparate subjects and past/present. Even our lives can be considered combinatorial creativity:
- “We are a collage of our interests, our influences, our inspirations, all the fragmentary impressions we’ve collected by being alive and awake to the world. Who we are is simply a finely-curated catalogue of those.”
- “Mostly about how these ideas from different fields and sensibilities and eras relate to one another and enrich one another in that relational way that helps us extract meaning from mere information.”
- “In part a tool for that combinatorial creativity at work and in part a record of my own learning and personal growth.”
- “Literature is really the original internet.”
This final learning is pulled straight from Maria’s own list. At first glance, it may seem like one of the more forgettable lessons, but it is absolutely critical for living a meaningful and authentic life (in my opinion). Creating your own life purpose can be a daunting task. It’s even more overwhelming if you think that it’s something that must last forever. Give yourself the freedom to edit your life purpose.
- “I believe that our becoming, like the synthesis of meaning itself, is an ongoing and dynamic process.”
- “Develop an inner barometer for your own value.”
- “It’s infinitely more rewarding to understand than to be right — even if that means changing your mind about a topic, an ideology, or, above all, yourself.”
- “Never forget, there are jobs you can get and jobs you can invent.”
Maria Popova’s Podcasts & Speeches
In the spirit of Maria’s approach to Brain Pickings, I consumed a lot of content for this post—reading, listening, and watching. Of all the things I came across, Maria’s interview with Krista Tippett of On Being and the short speech below were my favorites:
A Preview of Maria Popova’s Upcoming Book Figuring
- “Figuring explores the complexities, varieties, and contradictions of love, and the human search for truth, meaning, and transcendence, through the interwoven lives of several historical figures across four centuries.”
- “Emanating from these lives are larger questions about the measure of a good life and what it means to leave a lasting mark of betterment on an imperfect world.”
- “How, in this blink of existence bookended by nothingness, do we attain completeness of being?”
- “There are infinitely many kinds of beautiful lives.”
- “So much of the beauty, so much of what propels our pursuit of truth, stems from the invisible connections — between ideas, between disciplines, between the denizens of a particular time and a particular place…”
I’ll leave you with one final thought from Maria:
If how I spend today is how I spend the rest of my days, would I be happy? Would I be fulfilled and proud? Would I feel a sense of purpose? And at the very end when my cosmic day is done and I look back, will it have been a good life? Will it have been a meaningful life?
Also published on Medium.