Maria Popova on Evergreen Ideas and Rethinking the Meaning of Content
To create work that touches people’s lives in ten, a hundred, or a thousand years from now is both a humbling and unexpected reward of one’s effort. But we do not determine whether something is timeless or not; we simply create from the heart, telling the truth about what we see and why it matters, and we ship. You might not be around for the praise, but the choice to be present while enjoying the process is available daily.
We spoke to Maria Popova, founder of Brain Pickings—a cross-pollination of ideas from a diversity of domains in the pursuit of understanding why we’re here and how we can live well.
She shares her insights on what she has learned studying timeless ideas, producing an evergreen body of work, the origin of ‘content’ and why we need to reframe how we think about it.
Your insatiable curiosity and love for learning has encouraged you to explore history and its ideas through books. What patterns or elements have you noticed in ideas that stand the test of time?
Maria: I am drawn to ideas that remain resonant across time and space, across cultures and civilizations. But I find that a writer can aim for this directly; I find that, paradoxically, the most abiding wisdom originates from a particular person’s lived experience at a particular point in time, coming from a deeply personal place yet speaking — by consequence, not by intention — to the universal.
Anaïs Nin articulated this in a lovely way: “Any experience carried out deeply to its ultimate leads you beyond yourself into a larger relation to the experience of others.”
Your ability to dance with old and new ideas allows readers to navigate the thinking of the past and how it relates to the present and future. Do you think adding layers of history into one’s work helps with creating evergreen content?
Maria: I loathe the term “content” as applied to cultural material — it was foisted upon us by a commercially driven media industry that treats human beings as mindless eyeballs counted in statistics like views and likes, as currency to be traded against advertising revenue. Somehow people have been sold on the idea that the relationship between ads and “content” is a symbiotic one, but it is a parasitic one.
We are flooded with mediocre “content” produced for the sole purpose of transmits the ads — this type of “content,” which is now predominant online, is the reason for the epidemic of clickbait, the carrier for the highly contagious impoverishment of thought and feeling we are undergoing as a civilization. More than half a century ago, long before the web, Susan Sontag wrote beautifully about the trouble with treating art and cultural material as content: “Our task is not to find the maximum amount of content in a work of art… Our task is to cut back content so that we can see the thing at all.”
Brain Pickings is the record of my looking, my trying to see. What I write about is simply what I think about as I read what I read, what I feel as one human being moving through this world — a kind of elaborate marginalia, my private discourse with the literature and art and ideas with which I engage. It may be the contents of my heart and mind, but it is not “content” in the sense this term has come to take on.
The most abiding wisdom originates from a particular person’s lived experience at a particular point in time, coming from a deeply personal place yet speaking — by consequence, not by intention — to the universal.
In this sense, then, it naturally inclines toward what you call “evergreen” — which I take to mean enduring ideas that hold up across the years, decades, and centuries, and continue to solace and give meaning undiminished by time. It can only be this way, because as we move through life, we all invariably brush up against the same handful of elemental experiences — experiences like love, loss, the hunger for purpose, the pursuit of happiness, the struggle to reconcile the contradictory factions of our own being.
Reading about someone — a great writer, artist, or scientist — who was tussling with the selfsame things a generation ago, a century ago, a civilizational epoch ago, is a tremendous clarifying force for one’s own struggles, a kind of assurance that they are survivable and transcendable, assurance only the lived record of time can give.
What is your definition of owning your content?
Maria: In the context of my aversion to how the term “content” is used, the question of ownership becomes completely moot. One can’t “own” any fragment of this complex interlacing of ideas and influences we call culture. The only kind of “ownership” I am interested in is owning one’s experience, in the sense of inhabiting it with integrity and dignity, while making space for the owned experiences of others.
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