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Maria Popova: Staying Present and Grounded in the Age of Information Overload

Maria Popova: Staying Present and Grounded in the Age of Information Overload
Published July 21, 2014 by Jocelyn K. Glei
How do we answer the grand question of how to live—and more importantly—how to live well? This is the deeply philosophical (and yet eminently pragmatic) inquiry that lies at the core of Maria Popova’s remarkable blog, Brain Pickings. Since she launched Brain Pickings as a passion project back in 2006, it’s grown impressively, becoming an intellectual touchstone for inquiring minds that now draws several million readers a month.

In the age of information overload, Popova is the ultimate hunter-gatherer-curator, bringing her intensely curious mind to bear on everything from Susan Sontag’s journals to Maurice Sendak’s vintage illustrations to Albert Einstein’s letters. Rich with in-depth quotations and rarely seen imagery, Popova’s articles suss out overlooked wisdom on writing, Buddhism, daily routines, falling in love, storytelling, motherhood, mental illness, critical thinking, growing old, vulnerability, and a wild array of other topics. In the process, she exposes readers to books and concepts that they would likely never otherwise come across.

Not surprisingly, Popova’s work ethic is as relentless as her curiosity. Yet, after 10 years of providing a service that lights up creative minds around the world, she is feeling the strain. Over tea, we talked about her struggle to dial back the pace of her workflow, and the tension between “getting things done” and being present in your own emotional reality.

The “Information Age” seems to have ushered in this hectic, new pace of working that’s driving us all a bit crazy. And it feels unsustainable. How do you think we ended up here?

I think that word “should” in our internal narratives is very toxic—this notion of, “what should I be doing?” and it’s always pegged to some sort of expectation, whether it’s self-imposed or external or a combination of the two. It’s hard to balance those expectations of what you should be doing with what you want to be doing. I feel very fortunate in that to a large extent what I do is exactly what I want to be doing for myself, and I still write for an audience of one. I read things that stimulate me and inspire me and help me figure out how to live and then I write about them. The fact that there are other people who enjoy it is nice, but it’s just a byproduct. 

Susan Sontag's meditations on art illustrated by Wendy MacNaughton, commissioned by Maria Popova.

I think there is a high correlation between “type A” personalities and people that “do their own thing.” But we typically do that thing within a structure that’s borrowed from the world of working for the man—the only difference is you’re the man now. When you’re your own boss, the demands you place on yourself are probably higher and more intense than any demands anyone else would place on you if you were an employee. 

If we are so busy being successful that we don’t have time to be happy, then we need to seriously reconsider our definition of success.

I think that word “should” in our internal narratives is very toxic.

So what’s your definition of success?

I think people’s compulsion to constantly refine their definition of success and share it is an incredibly human quality. Because at the root of whatever we call success is really this affirmation that we long for that we’re “okay.” When someone tells you that you’re successful, essentially they’re telling you that you’re okay, everything is okay. I think we all fundamentally need that affirmation, and we grasp for that “should” to have something as tangible evidence of that.

I feel like most successful people tend not to dwell on the things that they’ve achieved. Instead they’re always looking forward. They’re extremely focused on “what’s next?” Do you find this to be true?

It’s like what Marie Curie wrote in a letter to her brother, “One never notices what has been done; one can only see what remains to be done…” She was always asking, “what’s next?” [laughs]  But as soon as we’re expecting the next moment to give us what this one is missing, life becomes this game of next, and what’s the final destination? It’s death.

And Curie died because of her research into radioactivity.

And the intensity with which she pursued that research. There was so much self-denial in service of the work. 

Do you think it’s a question of how much you balance that drive to achieve with being present and enjoying the moment?

You know, it’s funny because I frequently get emails from young people starting out and asking, “How do I make a successful website or start my own thing?” And, very often, it’s tied to some measure of success that’s audience-based or reach-based. “How do you build up to seven million readers a month or two million Facebook fans?” But the work is not how to get that size of an audience or those numbers. That’s just the byproduct of what Lewis Hyde calls “creative labor,” which is really our inner drive. The real work is how not to hang your self-worth, your sense of success and merits, the fullness of your heart, and the stability of your soul on those numbers—on that constant positive reinforcement and external validation. That’s the only real work, and the irony is that the more “successful” you get, by either your own standards or external standards, the harder it is to decouple all of those inner values from your work. I think we often confuse the doing for the being.

Popova's home office in Brooklyn, NY, where stacks of books rule the roost.
Popova's home office in Brooklyn, NY, where stacks of books rule the roost.

So if you’re trying to recalibrate, are you doing anything to actively alter your output or work schedule?

I normally write three articles a day, Monday through Friday, and I have been doing this for a number of years. But what’s happened over the years is that—even though the pace has remained the same, three articles every weekday—the length and depth of the pieces has increased enormously. My personal investment in every article has increased hugely but without adjusting for that in the schedule, and that’s been hard.

So, the past few months, I’ve been trying to cut down to two articles a day at least one day a week. A lot of weeks I fail… you know, it’s midnight and I’m wrapping up my second article and then suddenly I get this idea and I think, “Oh that’s what I’m gonna write! And it will only take me a half hour to write it up because it’s all in my head” and… the next thing you know it’s 3 a.m. So I’m trying not to do that, and to prioritize sleep more.  

The real work is how not to hang your self-worth, your sense of success and merits, the fullness of your heart, and the stability of your soul on those numbers.

There are so many articles about the importance of sleep these days, I find it a bit funny. I mean, do we really need to be reminded that this basic function is important?

I’ve been thinking a lot about how we push ourselves lately. When Brain Pickings turned seven last year, I wrote about the seven things that I think are my most important learnings so far, and one of them was about precisely this notion of work ethic. Basically that we live in a culture where how little sleep we get is like a badge of honor that somehow shows our work ethic and dedication. But what it really shows is just a profound failure of self-respect. Because sleep affects every waking moment of our lives—our moods, our receptivity, our pleasantness, and our ability to make associative connections. 


In an interview that you did with “The Great Discontent” in 2012, you said that you thought that, “You needed to be in love with the reality of your own life in order to produce beautiful, meaningful, and intelligent things creatively.” What did you mean by that? 

Basically, it’s this notion that if you are not grounded in who you are—which includes what you love, what makes your heart sing, what makes you get up in the morning and be excited, and what makes you go to bed at night and be satisfied and fulfilled—if you are not rooted in the things that move you, then you’re not really going to be able to produce things that are meaningful. You’re just simulating what it is like to be a person who feels those things, right?

A friend of mine and I have an ongoing debate about whether great creative work comes out of happiness or sadness. She believes it generally comes out of misery or depression. I don’t think that’s necessarily true. What about you?

I think the only person who was right on this was Anais Nin, who wrote in her diary in 1945 that it is emotional excess that is the root of good writing and good creative work—and that could be in either direction, joyous or miserable.

The New York Times has this column called “The Lives They Lived” which they do at the end of every year, remembering all the people that died that year and what makes their lives worth contemplating, and they asked me to do one. I had a hard time deciding between two people but I ended up going with Ray Bradbury. I chose him precisely because I think his work ethic was such a beautiful and heartening antidote to that myth that genius requires some sort of malady of the soul.

Bradbury was always talking about how he never did a day of work in his life. He always wrote with love and with joy and that was the only way to really be for him. I think that sort of romantic idea of the despondent writer somewhere secluded, drinking and cutting her veins or whatever, is just horrible! And, I think a lot creators today think that that is the way to have good ideas, but I think just being in touch with your emotional reality is what it takes to make meaningful work.

More about Jocelyn K. Glei

A writer and the founding editor of 99U, Jocelyn K. Glei is obsessed with how to make great creative work in the Age of Distraction. Her latest book is Unsubscribe: How to Kill Email Anxiety, Avoid Distraction, and Get Real Work Done. Her previous works include the 99U’s own bestselling book series: Manage Your Day-to-Day, Maximize Your Potential, and Make Your Mark. Follow her @jkglei.

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