For years, Maria Popova's septuagenarian grandmother in Bulgaria wished her granddaughter would just do the sensible thing and get an MBA. Instead, the 27-year-old Brooklynite has spent the past six years developing BrainPickings.org—her wildly popular culture blog where one might find cheeky maps of European stereotypes, a visual history of bicycle design, even a Finnish choir that sets people's complaints to song. Sometimes, she ties her morsels of "interestingness" to the current of the times—as with a recent series of Occupy-themed posts or her posthumous tribute to Steve Jobs. But often her pickings aim to transcend the times, rather than harping on them, pushing us beyond the thought parameters of our daily routines.
A transplant from Bulgaria, Popova moved to the states to study at the University of Pennsylvania. She graduated with a communications degree, but her current reading proclivities—she consumes 12 to 15 books a week—and her prolific Twitter word-smithing—she tweets, without fail, every 15 minutes—are a dead giveaway to the one-time English major that lies within. (Never one to make curiosity compromises, Popova ditched the major. Read on to learn why.) Since Brain Pickings' launch in 2006, the site has earned millions of page views, as well as side gigs for Popova as a culture writer for The Atlantic, Wired UK, GOOD, and Nieman Lab. So while there's no MBA in sight, grandma is jiving with Popova's unconventional brand of business savvy. I caught up with the one-woman discovery engine to learn about the internet's hidden treasures, curation as authorship, and her occasional run-ins with immigration services.
Mother Jones: So on top of your prodigious Twitter presence, you blog three times a day. And each item you blog about is a stunning hidden gem that would take the average netizen hours to track down. How do you do it? Can you run me through your typical day?
Maria Popova: The Atlantic actually asked me that for their media diet thing. The writer basically told me he was terrified of me! So, besides Brain Pickings I also have a day job, which enables me to be here, you know, to have a paycheck. Half of the time, I work out of Studiomates, which is a wonderful coworking space that my friend Tina runs. Then the other half of the time I'm at TBWA [an advertising company]. So depending on the day, my schedule is different. But, generally speaking, I get up in the morning, I do a 30 to 45 minute prescheduling of tweets and just seeing if there's anything urgent—do-or-die emails or server outages, stuff like that. Then after that I go to the gym, where I do all my long-form reading—so Instapaper, and all the Kindle books. I go through an embarrassing amount of books per week.
MJ: How many?
MP: To be fair some of them are art, design, or photography books that you don't really read so much as look at. But most weeks I've gone through 12 books, maybe even 15 some weeks, depending on the length. So I go through my long form, and then my day begins. I usually try to do most of my writing earlier in the day because I sort of lump out later on. So everyday I publish three pieces on Brain Pickings, so I try to write two of them before the early afternoon. And then I do all the prescheduling of tweets for the rest of the day. And then, I do yoga in the evening—or if I have to go to some event. Then when I get home I write the third piece on Brain Pickings, I do some reading of news sources, and I preschedule the tweets for the first half of the following day. And then I do some more book reading before I go to bed.
MJ: You're so embedded in multiple technologies. What would you say is a technological void that needs filling?
MP: Universal WiFi. Without a doubt. I am done with being on the train, not having internet. Or having spotty coverage. It's a fundamental need at this point. It's the frickin' information age! It should be like air! And it doesn't have to be free. I'm a believer in paying for value. Just having it as an option.
MJ: Have you always been so committed to information consumption?
MP: Well, it's an interesting thing. I didn't really—at least intellectually and creatively—have a particularly compelling experience in college. But during my junior year, they made the TED talks public. So I started listening to them. They were producing one per day, and I was listening to one per day, every day, at the gym. And then I discovered PopTech and other kind of intellectualish, online portals for curiosity. Very quickly, I just got so much more out of those than from so-called "Ivy League" education that I knew it was on me to keep myself stimulated, and to keep learning, more than anything. And, because I paid my way through college, I was working at Penn, two to four jobs at a time to pay for school.
MJ: And in the middle of all this, you also found time to start Brain Pickings?!
MP: [Laughs.] It was crazy, crazy times. Well, one of my jobs was at a start-up ad agency. They were trying to do things differently, work with socially conscious clients, and to really be a more creative take on advertising than the industry itself. But I noticed that what the guys at the office were circulating for inspiration still came from within the ad industry. I thought that was really counterintuitive—to only borrow inspiration from within your own industry. So I started Brain Pickings as just a Friday email newsletter going out to my colleagues there, with five links to five really different things that had nothing to do with advertising—from a vintage train map of Europe to a Japanese short film from 1920 to the latest technology. Eventually I saw that these guys were forwarding these emails to friends of theirs that were in really different disciplines, not just creative ones—but writers, lawyers, students, whatever. So, I decided on top of all the jobs and school, to take a night class and teach myself web design and coding, just enough to get by. That's how it started. And in the process, I was still digging into the things I was featuring, and in that process, you learn so much more than you do in a lecture. The whole lifelong-learner thing—this just became my way of doing that.
"I thought that was really counterintuitive—to only borrow inspiration from within your own industry."
MJ: So when you're wading through the interwebs looking for content, what's the thing you sense that tells you "Done. This works for Brain Pickings?"
MP: What I pick for my blog and what I pick for Twitter are different things. One thing that is true for both, by and large, is that it has to feel like something that leaves you with more than just a moment of gawking. There are really cool or funny videos, or visually stunning photos, and that's fine, but none of them really give you more when you close that tab, you know? I try to find stuff that a little bit, in a tiny way changes how you see something about the world. With Brain Pickings, especially, whenever I look at a piece of content. I think "Can I add something to it? Can I add some depth and context and background to really make it worth featuring?" Or do I just do what Jeff Jarvis calls "do-what-you-do-best-and-link-to-the-rest," and just tweet it instead? That's always the litmus test. Is there something that I can say. If I can pull in pieces of older content or something else that connects different disciplines or different ideologies, then I will write an article about it.
MJ: How does your family feel about what you're doing?
MP: I was actually just talking to my 75-year-old grandmother in Bulgaria on Skype yesterday. I just taught a class at Columbia, at their MBA school—they asked me to be a guest speaker. My grandmother has always had a real problem with the fact that I never went and got an MBA, and I've been trying all this time to explain to her that I have learned so much more in the past six years doing this. So finally, the other day, when I was telling her about Columbia, it really dawned on her that because of how I've structured my intellectual curiosity, they're asking me to go and talk to MBAs. I think she really began to understand alternative ways of learning and growing.