The real work is how not to hang your self-worth, your sense of success and merits, the fullness of your heart, and the stability of your soul on those numbers—on that constant positive reinforcement and external validation. That’s the only real work, and the irony is that the more “successful” you get, by either your own standards or external standards, the harder it is to decouple all of those inner values from your work. I think we often confuse the doing for the being.
I find it hard to praise Maria Popova too highly. Essentially her website—always visually striking and rich with compelling content—explores creativity, and, in so doing, helps both justify and explain the unexplainable.
The following are some extracts from the interview with 99u.com (itself a fascinating site which rarely fails to intrigue me).
How do we answer the grand question of how to live—and more importantly—how to live well? This is the deeply philosophical (and yet eminently pragmatic) inquiry that lies at the core of Maria Popova’s remarkable blog, Brain Pickings. Since she launched Brain Pickings as a passion project back in 2006, it’s grown impressively, becoming an intellectual touchstone for inquiring minds that now draws several million readers a month.
In the age of information overload, Popova is the ultimate hunter-gatherer-curator, bringing her intensely curious mind to bear on everything from Susan Sontag’s journals to Maurice Sendak’s vintage illustrations to Albert Einstein’s letters. Rich with in-depth quotations and rarely seen imagery, Popova’s articles suss out overlooked wisdom on writing, Buddhism, daily routines, falling in love, storytelling, motherhood, mental illness, critical thinking, growing old, vulnerability, and a wild array of other topics. In the process, she exposes readers to books and concepts that they would likely never otherwise come across.
Not surprisingly, Popova’s work ethic is as relentless as her curiosity. Yet, after eight years of providing a service that lights up creative minds around the world, she is feeling the strain. Over tea, we talked about her struggle to dial back the pace of her workflow, and the tension between “getting things done” and being present in your own emotional reality.
The “Information Age” seems to have ushered in this hectic, new pace of working that’s driving us all a bit crazy. And it feels unsustainable. How do you think we ended up here?
I think that word “should” in our internal narratives is very toxic—this notion of, “what should I be doing?” and it’s always pegged to some sort of expectation, whether it’s self-imposed or external or a combination of the two. It’s hard to balance those expectations of what you should be doing with what you want to be doing. I feel very fortunate in that to a large extent what I do is exactly what I want to be doing for myself, and I still write for an audience of one. I read things that stimulate me and inspire me and help me figure out how to live and then I write about them. The fact that there are other people who enjoy it is nice, but it’s just a byproduct.
I think there is a high correlation between “type A” personalities and people that “do their own thing.” But we typically do that thing within a structure that’s borrowed from the world of working for the man—the only difference is you’re the man now. When you’re your own boss, the demands you place on yourself are probably higher and more intense than any demands anyone else would place on you if you were an employee.
If we are so busy being successful that we don’t have time to be happy, then we need to seriously reconsider our definition of success.
A friend of mine and I have an ongoing debate about whether great creative work comes out of happiness or sadness. She believes it generally comes out of misery or depression. I don’t think that’s necessarily true. What about you?
I think the only person who was right on this was Anais Nin, who wrote in her diary in 1945 that it is emotional excess that is the root of good writing and good creative work—and that could be in either direction, joyous or miserable.
The New York Times has this column called “The Lives They Lived” which they do at the end of every year, remembering all the people that died that year and what makes their lives worth contemplating, and they asked me to do one. I had a hard time deciding between two people but I ended up going with Ray Bradbury. I chose him precisely because I think his work ethic was such a beautiful and heartening antidote to that myth that genius requires some sort of malady of the soul.
Bradbury was always talking about how he never did a day of work in his life. He always wrote with love and with joy and that was the only way to really be for him. I think that sort of romantic idea of the despondent writer somewhere secluded, drinking and cutting her veins or whatever, is just horrible! And, I think a lot creators today think that that is the way to have good ideas, but I think just being in touch with your emotional reality is what it takes to make meaningful work.
Go read the full thing at 99u.com There is a video of Popova there also.