Brain Pickings blogger Maria Popova: 'I'm not a big believer in saving'
Location: Los Angeles, Calif.
Why we care: As a "cultural curator" for an L.A. ad agency, a writer and the founder of culture-and-innovation blog Brain Pickings, Maria Popova may have the very coolest job(s) in the entire world. Why hunt the interesting and cool? Because despite what she calls "the pageantry fluff of it," she's trying to make the world a better place, and she thinks exposure to new ideas is one way to do it.
What is Brain Pickings?
Basically, Brain Pickings is a destination for guided curiosity. It comes from the idea that creativity is merely our ability to combine all of the details of what we have in our heads: knowledge, inspiration, memories, etc., and curiosity is the tool that fills that up.
You cite "making the world a better place" as part of your mission. What's your ultimate goal?
It's twofold — giving a voice and a platform for ideas that are in some way meaningful to the world, and enriching people's creative and intellectual reservoirs by exposing them to a broad spectrum of such ideas. At least a third of the content falls into the loosely defined "social good" category, and then there are the things that are socially meaningful in less traditional or direct ways, for instance by enhancing creativity or quality of life through art or design or music or philosophy.
How do you keep the site going?
Donations, mostly. We're not-for-profit. The vast majority of our advertising, about 95 percent, is pro-bono. The ads on the site are hand-curated by me. They're projects and causes that I've reached out to and said, I like what you do and want to help. They serve the editorial vision of giving a platform to causes. Advertising is another piece of content that people engage with.
What about your day job? What does a "cultural curator" do for an ad agency?
Basically, I help keep the agency stay culturally relevant to all the new things that are happening right now. The agency was a fan of me on Twitter and reached out to see if I was interested in the position.
What was your first job?
I was about 8. In Bulgaria, there's a March 1 ritual where we weave white and red thread together into martenitsas to symbolize peace and health. You wear them for the month of March or until you see the first stork, and when you're done wearing them, you tie them to a blooming tree. I started making them myself and selling them on the street, like a lemonade stand. That was my first income. As far as real jobs, I paid my way through UPenn by working four jobs: ad sales for The Daily Pennsylvanian (the school paper), intern for a local writer, part-time at a start-up ad agency in Philly, and a work study job at the Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts on-campus. I did all that plus a full courseload. It was tough, but exciting. It taught me something about what money means.
I went to a "rich kid Ivy League school," so it taught me to understand money in a healthy way, and not be so preoccupied to measuring up to other people. You just have to make a comfortable living for yourself.
I guess it made you pretty good at budgeting.
Yeah, of course, but I'm not a big believer in saving for the sake of saving. I save for specific things, like a server upgrade or an iPad, which I just got a few days ago. I don't believe generally in the notion of saving. To me, it's investing in a future for which you have no specific vision. I feel the same way about retirement. One of my favorite designers, Stefan Sagmeister, has this philosophy of mini-retirements: Instead of working for 25-30 years, then retiring and getting bored in the first week, you should take sabbaticals periodically and enjoy your life when you're vital and energetic. He takes one every seven years. It helps you make sure you invest in the present, rather than in a moment that may not come in the way you envision.
Wow. So based on that, what do you spend your money on?
I'm a gadget freak. That's the number one thing for me, partly because they enable what I do. I can drive myself crazy more efficiently. And I'm a tea snob. I don't drink any coffee, juice or soda. Just water and tea, so I'm super anal about my tea, but I don't go out of my way to spend a lot of money on it.
What do you think is the best thing to come out of Brain Pickings?
I get a lot of feedback on its impact on people. An artist wrote to me last month and said he hadn't painted in seven years, but felt so stimulated on the site by things that he never thought he would that he went back to his studio to paint. That's what Brain Pickings does: allows people to be interested in things that they might not have thought would be interesting to them.
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