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Maria Popova's Beautiful Mind

The creator of Brain Pickings on how to think outside the corporate box.

MJ: If your 75-year-old grandma is into it, you're doing something right!

MP: Well, also—she discovered the internet a year and a half ago. And she's obsessed! Now she keeps track of things I don't keep track of! Like the Brain Pickings Facebook fan page; she keeps score of fans. And my followers on Twitter; every time she's like, "Oh, you're up to so-and-so now!" And then she has all these Google Alerts that I helped her set up with Google Translate to see what people are saying about Brain Pickings and me, in the major media or whatever. She is so cute. She knows more about what I do than my parents.

MJ: Are your parents more understanding on the career front?

MP: They're supportive. To this day, I'm not quite sure how understanding they are. I know they try. My dad, definitely, from a technical perspective, understands everything about the social web, and all of that. From a conceptual standpoint, I wonder if he still thinks what I do isn't quite real, in the way that getting a job as a bioengineer might be, you know? And my mom, I know she tries to understand. She can sense that I'm happy with what I do, really fulfilled and scintillated, and I think that's enough for her.

MJ: So, did you officially immigrate?

MP: Well, actually, funny you should ask. I didn't immigrate. I'm here on a visa, and I'm not an American citizen. I don't know if you followed the whole Visagate situation in 2007 and 2008?

MJ: I didn't. What happened?

MP: Every year, the government has a visa quota—they will give, say, 65,000 H1-B work visas for foreigners who are going to work in the country for an American company. And so, normally, they would open up the application process, and the quota would run out in the first three weeks or so, and then people would not get them. So, after graduation, I had a job, and we applied for that visa, but that was the year "Visagate" happened: The first day of applications, for the first time in history, the government got three times their quota on the very first day. So, they panicked and thought the only thing to do was to make it a raffle for everyone that applied on the first day, and then automatically reject everyone after that. So, we'd filed for the first day, but I was in the two-thirds that didn't get it, so the whole envelope got returned unopened. So then I got the OPT—which entitles you to a year's worth of work with a company within the scope of your major. We tried again in 2008, and same thing—the whole envelope got returned unopened. So, I had to leave the country! I went back to Bulgaria for a year. When the application process lightened up, I came back. I moved to LA—which I really resented more than anyone's ever resented a city in the history of resenting cities. And now I'm finally in New York, and I'm here to stay.

MJ: How did you develop your writing style?

MP: I was, like I believe everyone under the sun, an English major for a while. I had a creative nonfiction concentration. Then, my senior year, there was one class that was required to get the major, and it was something like "Italian Literature 1546-1646." Something superspecific. I got so annoyed, and I was like "Screw it! I don't care for the title—I'm just gonna turn it into a minor." So I never took that damn class! But my major was communications, with a focus on communication and commerce. But I don't see a correlation between my formal academic background and the way I have built my own curiosity and intellectual interests. It's just something on paper.

"These Lego bricks that end up in their heads eventually build this enormous, incredible castle."

MJ: So if not your academic background, what did inspire Brain Pickings?

MP: Now, I have a term for it, and it's not even my own—the idea of "combinatorial creativity." But even before I knew what that was, I always believed that creativity is just, sort of, our ability to take these interesting pieces of stuff that we carry and accumulate over the course of our lives—knowledge and insight and inspiration and other work and other skills—and then recombine them into new things. That's how innovation happens, and that's how ideas are born. So, when I started Brain Pickings, the idea of five diverse, multidisciplinary items in one email, that was the fundamental vision for it: that you enrich people with creative resources, and over time, these Lego bricks that end up in their heads eventually build this enormous, incredible castle.* And I don't think that's an original idea at all—it's something a lot of people intuitively understand, and a lot of curatorial projects are born out that vision.

MJ: But if it's not an original idea…why do you think Brain Pickings has received so much acclaim?

MP: I honestly have no idea! [Laughs.] I really don’t. I never had a business strategy or a growth plan behind it. And to this day, a lot of days I wake up and I still think I'm writing for the eight people that were on my email newsletter in 2005. Part of what is interesting to me about journalism online and content curation, is the intersection of the editorial and the curatorial. I think often that's what makes the difference and sets certain voices apart. For me, I have the purely curatorial presence on Twitter, but there's also the editorial part which a lot of Brain Pickings is, but also other places that I write that cover different fringes of culture—Wired UK, Design Observer, Nieman Lab. I think this cross-pollination pulls people in. Opinion is one platform of expression, but opinion channeled through curation is another. The intersection of the two has more traction, in a way, than simply coining.

MJ: Do you get tired? How do you push yourself to sustain your routine on a bad day?

MP: Hah! Beats me! I just do it. That's how I am. I have bad days. Sometimes I have a lot of bad days. By and large, I think most people fall into a bad mood because they're able to ruminate on whatever the problem at hand is, and that makes it worse. But when you intercept the rumination process with something that requires your full attention—that's stimulating and absorbing, that places a demand on your intellectual focus—you don't get to ruminate. In a way, it’s a mental health aid to be able to do that so much. My routine, what I do, it just feels like home. It's my comfort food.


Correction: An earlier version of this article misquoted Popova as saying capsule instead of castle.

Below, check out 10 sample tweets from @brainpicker:

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