This is a conversation from the Employee of the Month podcast. Catie Lazarus and Maria Popova talk through life and learning. Popova curates an amazing blog called Brain Pickings and runs a discovery engine called Explore. It’s impossible not to find inspiration in her work and this talk. Listen to the full 45 minute conversation here and check out excerpts below.
How did Brain Pickings Start?
What I do always has two components. And they are always sequential like that. Learning. And then teaching. Or learning and sharing the process of that learning.
So it is always about perpetual learning. It actually all began in the confines of the liberal arts institution that I went to and felt let down by academically and intellectually.
And it just became the record of what I wanted to learn about. It has commonality with the liberal arts. I guess it has the freedom of subjectivity.
Are you worried you won’t own what you create?
At the end of the day, what I do is still for an audience of one. It’s still for me. And what I retain is in my head is enough for me.
It’s lovely that all of these people have sort of tagged along. It’s heartening to hear from someone that they never were into science, but now they’re reading Carl Sagan. That’s great.
But what stays with me is what I’ve absorbed and the dots that I’ve connected. And my understanding, as cheesy as it sounds, that’s what it all comes down to - the meaning of life.
Why are we here? What matters? And why?
And that no one can take away. Of course in very petty and practical terms, Brain Pickings was included in the library of Congress archive of culturally meaningful material - whatever that means. So they’re recording something, I have no idea, on what and how it lives. But it’s somehow being archived.
Our biggest fear, as humans, is that we don’t matter.
Everything that people do from creating a magnificent piece of art to having a child to even in some very warped and distorted way, a terrorist performing an act of terrorism - all of these things are some form of grasping to wanting to matter or change the world to your liking or to a way in which your existence impacts it.
And having those touchstones, as you call it, are little reminders that we exist. And that we matter. We’re not just the frivolous stroke of some creator or a bunch of atoms that dissolve one day and go away.
How did you build Brain Pickings into a business?
The business part has always been a by-product. I’ve been doing this for 7 years. The first 5 years I was flat-broke.
When I moved to New York in 2010, I could not afford the security deposit to my apartment. I was $80 short after I took all of my savings out of my savings account. I went to an ATM took $80 out and put it back in my checking account to give to my landlord.
That’s how broke I was. And on top of that, I have a student loan, credit card debt - the usual.
I didn’t at that point think of Brain Pickings as a business at all. I never did. And I still don’t.
There were some decisions I made in the beginning - like not to have advertising. I never wanted to have that. I think there is a lot of distortion between public knowledge and information when there is a 3rd party organization involved.
I think a lot of reason why Brain Pickings can be what it is and have financial stability now, is it’s all relationships. And I don’t mean networking.
It’s people that years ago that I reached out and said I love what you do and I want to support it. I can’t do it financially now, but maybe we can have something that cross-pollinates audiences. Similar people reached out to me in the same way.
It’s just sort of mind-melding. You find your people. You find your tribe. And you find sort of this implicit guild of sensibility and idealism, whatever you want to call it. And that’s powerful stuff.
I think it’s so off-putting when we refer to writing as content. What are we filling with this content. It’s garbage bins - fill it with the content.
It’s really about shaping the container in the mind that contains it. That’s what it should be about.
The content is the commodification of knowledge and information and point of view that is just disgusting to me.
As far as curation goes, we’ve deviated so far from the original concept of it. From an artistic museum standpoint, a curator used to be someone that puts together a show that has a point of view that consists of these different pieces that are strung together by a narrative. And by a framework of sense making.
And now everybody with an Instagram feed is a curator of life. And granted there are some fantastic Instagram feeds that are curatorial in nature. That there is a consistent narrative and sensibility.
By in large, we apply to aggregation and all of these ways of handling content. That to me, is so frustrating.
Why Content is Off-Putting?
The fundamental reason it’s like this is because advertising is still the currency in which media is funded. So a lot of what people call content is really that. A vehicle to advertising. It doesn’t really matter what the substance is.
It’s monetizable because it’s filling pages or drawing click throughs. It’s the same with air time, you have to have something to sell advertising against.
Ultimately, I think that is not in the public interest. Commercial media today are not in the public interest. They’re in the commercial interest.
With the exception of things like public radio, for as long as it’s existed, have been funded through patrons.
Brain Pickings is similar to a library, it’s funded by people who find value in it. And it’s optionally so. So it’s not every time the page loads they are forced to pay.
Because that is essentially what is happening with traditional ad-supported media. Every time you load a page, you pay. You pay with you being there.
And that’s what’s being sold. No matter what is on that page - you’re paying for it.
Thanks for making Brain Pickings different.