Class of ’07 | During the Q&A portion of a Kelly Writers House panel on “Careers in Journalism and New Media” last year, a student asked how to go about getting the right clips to land a job at a prestigious media organization. One of the panelists, Maria Popova C’07, responded by questioning the question.
“Getting a job is 50 percent of the way to have a job,” she recalls saying. “The other 50 percent is making a job.” She urged students to “try to make something from scratch that’s your own—that’s more aligned with who you are and your values and what you want to put out into the world.”
Which is just what she has done. Brain Pickings (brainpickings.org), Popova’s “one-woman labor of love” and home to thousands of fascinating, wildly eclectic articles, is the product of hundreds of hours spent each month with books and ideas. Her remarkable output—three articles a day, all rigorously researched—requires that she read upwards of 15 books a week.
Yet despite creating and running a highly respected website that attracts millions of readers a month, she spends almost no time on the Internet.
“To my own detriment, I’m totally out of the news,” she confesses.
Last fall, Popova ruminated on the evolution of her site, which quietly launched on October 23, 2006 with a “short email to a few friends at work.”
In her retrospective essay, titled “Happy Birthday Brain Pickings: 7 Things I Learned in 7 Years of Reading, Writing, and Living,” she said that she had neither “planned nor anticipated that this tiny experiment would one day be included in the Library of Congress digital archive of ‘materials of historical importance’ and the few friends would become millions of monthly readers all over the world, ranging from the Dutch high-school student who wrote to me this morning, to my 77-year-old grandmother in Bulgaria, to the person in Wisconsin who mailed me strudel last week.”
Unlike the vast majority of media organizations, Brain Pickings is sustained by reader donations, employing a model similar to that of public radio. Since the site’s debut, Popova has felt quite strongly about her enduring no-ad policy.
“I’m very much of the mindset: Put the thing out in the world that you want to exist,” she says. “And I don’t want ad-supported journalism to exist.” Remarkably, thousands of dollars pour in each month from devoted readers.
“Maria’s one of the best entrepreneurs today, and her product is largely herself and her brain,” says Melody Kramer C’06, a digital strategist and editor at NPR who first met Popova at a Penn bodybuilding event in which Popova was competing. “Her ability to experiment, to focus on what she’s good at, and continually revisit her archives—she has an amazing internal calendar of events—should be analyzed by every media company.”
Almost as novel as her reluctance to turn Brain Pickings into an ad-driven business is the richness and depth of her content. With essays like “What Is Love? Famous Definitions from 400 Years of Literary History,” and “The Benjamin Franklin Effect: The Surprising Psychology of How to Handle Haters,” Popova follows a mission to explore what it means to live well, drawing from some of humanity’s greatest intellectual achievements. Brain Pickings, fueled by curious texts and art from three years ago or three hundred, presents an alternative to search culture. Here, serendipity and discovery are the organizing principals, in blatant defiance of today’s dominant model: the feed.
“When you think about Facebook or Twitter feeds, the latest is at the top, and everything else gets buried,” says Popova. “Something that is not in view feels unimportant, and the more it sinks away from view, the less important it feels. Just because there is no Aristotle on the CNN home page doesn’t mean he hasn’t shaped every single aspect of our lives.”
Popova was born and raised in Sofia, Bulgaria, though at 30, she has lost most traces of an accent. While her Bulgarian vocabulary has dwindled slightly after years of reading, writing, and dreaming in English, she exercises her native tongue through routine Skype dates with her grandmother, an avid reader of Brain Pickings via Google Translate.
In 2003 she moved to America to attend Penn, where she double-majored in communications and English, competed in bodybuilding competitions, and paid her way through school by working a number of jobs.
Her concerted overextension, she admits, stemmed partly from a general discomfort with life at an elite American university campus, which she found to be something of a culture shock. Academically, she was unengaged by lectures in large halls, preferring smaller, more intimate seminars. Her increasing involvement with Kelly Writers House over her four undergraduate years inspired her to minor in creative nonfiction.
Popova credits a creative-nonfiction seminar taught by longtime journalist (and occasional Gazette contributor) Robert Strauss as the moment when she fell in love with writing and the possibility of putting thoughts on paper. (When he praised an essay she had written on Frank Sinatra, she was hooked. “He really liked this one line that I had in there, which went something like: ‘Champagne and roses for nobody in particular,’ in talking about Sinatra and his lifestyle.”)
A standout writer in the classroom, she was also unusually adept in new media. When a journalist friend approached Strauss with questions about this new thing called Facebook, Popova set him up with an account, long before anyone was really on it.
“She was hip to all that crap early on,” recalls Strauss. “I guess that’s part of what she was interested in—figuring out ways to write that were a little bit different. She had panache and intellectual brashness.”
It was during her senior year that Popova started her proto-Brain Pickings project. One day colleagues at the ad agency where she was working received an email from Popova featuring five stimulating tidbits on the subject of creativity—and a promise that the email would take no more than four minutes to read. (These days most of her essays take a little longer than that.) Each week she would email another mini-newsletter, and soon her co-workers were forwarding those emails to friends, who then forwarded the emails to more friends. Before long Brain Pickings had morphed into a site—which now occupies all of her time.
Popova not only thrives on hard work; she needs it. When we spoke in August, she had just returned from her first legitimate vacation (to Big Sur) that didn’t involve simply transplanting her workplace.
“It’s really rattling to see yourself suddenly drop into this un-stimulating, purposely relaxing environment,” she says. “The first day and a half, I literally thought I was going to lose my mind. I had to apply my 10 years of meditation—recognize, and allow, and all of those sorts of practices.”
In her essay on the anniversary of Brain Pickings, Popova offered some advice to aspiring young writers: “Do nothing for prestige or status or money or approval alone.”
“I have Brain Pickings to keep a record of what I learn and things I’ve incorporated into my own belief system,” she says. “I still get great joy out of the things that I read, and the writing is just a byproduct of that joy.”