Brain Pickings: Where Curiosity and Wisdom Converge

February 24, 2015

She calls it her "one-woman labor of love." Part website, part cultural compendium, and part vast encyclopedic archive of thought, wisdom, creative insight, and ideas, BrainPickings.org is a web destination that is infinitely greater than the sum of its parts. It will inspire you to dig deeper, read further, learn more, and perhaps most importantly, keep exploring.

A Weekly Email That Became An Idea Factory
It started as an email to a small group of friends, people Maria Popova worked with at a small ad agency while she was still in college.

"I noticed that what the guys were circulating around the office for inspiration was stuff from within the ad industry and I didn’t believe that was how creativity worked," Popova tells Tina Essmaker during an interview for The Great Discontent, "I started sending out an email every Friday including five things that had nothing to do with advertising, but that I thought were meaningful, interesting, or important — and not just cool. I noticed that the guys were forwarding those emails to other people and I thought that maybe there was an intellectual hunger for that sort of cross-disciplinary curiosity and self-directed learning."

I started sending out an email every Friday including five things that...I thought were meaningful, interesting, or important — and not just cool...I thought that maybe there was an intellectual hunger for that sort of cross-disciplinary curiosity and self-directed learning.

Hunting (and Gathering) Wisdom
What Brain Pickings has evolved into — close to ten years later — is a cultural touchstone. Each post — whether it's about Maya Angelou's thoughts on facing evil, Mozart's take on originality and cultivating creativity, or "How to Find Your Purpose and Do What You Love" — is designed to answer, or at least offer insight into, one central question: How to live well?

"I write about a very wide array of areas and disciplines and sensibilities because that's what I think about," Popova tells Tim Ferriss during a podcast interview. "So anything from art and science to philosophy, psychology, history, design, poetry, you name it. The common denominator for me is just this very simple question: does this illuminate some aspect, big or small, of that grand question that I think we all tussle with every day, which is, how [can we] live a good, meaningful, and fulfilling life?"

The common denominator for me is just this very simple question: does this illuminate some aspect, big or small, of that grand question that I think we all tussle with every day, which is, how to live well?

Through each post, Popova serves as guide, delving into books, articles, and videos, great and obscure alike, to draw out and distill their essence on the page. As she's told interviewers, she doesn't review books, articles, or other works; instead, she offers annotated readings of them, with the goal of highlighting moments of wisdom and clarity and sharing them with the world.

A Journey of Discovery
"I’m often asked to offer advice to young people who are just beginning their own voyages of self-discovery," Maria Popova writes, "or those reorienting their calling at any stage of life, and though I feel utterly unqualified to give 'advice' in that omniscient, universally wise sense the word implies, here are seven things I’ve learned in seven years of making those choices, of integrating 'work' and life in such inextricable fusion, and in chronicling this journey of heart, mind and spirit..."

Those who find themselves perusing Brain Pickings' pages might arrive out of a love of literature (or a love of love and literature) — such as John Steinbeck's moving letter about love written to his eldest son Thom — or due to a search for answers — such as Alan Watts' thoughts on happiness and living with mindfulness in the midst of anxiety. But as it happens, many keep returning, because in a world where information bombards you from all angles, at all hours of the day or night, spending a moment (or 20) immersed in nuanced discernments provides a way to expand your knowledge base and even reframe your thinking. It is, as such, a tool to help ponder life's greater questions (and maybe even come to know yourself a little better as a result). As Popova says during a Creative Mornings talk:

Maya Angelou famously said, 'When people show you who they are, believe them.' I like to rephrase that to, when people try to show you who you are, do not believe them. You are the only custodian of your own integrity...

"Maya Angelou famously said, 'When people show you who they are, believe them.' I like to rephrase that to, when people try to show you who you are, do not believe them. You are the only custodian of your own integrity, and the assumptions made by those who don't take the time to understand who you are, what makes you tick, and what you stand for in the world, those reveal so much more about them and absolutely nothing about you."

Or, as Popova says in her interview for The Great Discontent, "Don’t let other people’s ideas of success and good or meaningful work filter your perception of what you want to do. Listen to your heart and mind’s purpose; keep listening to that and even when the 'shoulds' get really loud, try to stay in touch with what you hear within yourself."


By Lisa Merlini

Tag: Exploring Education

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