Thursday, August 27, 2015

Maria Popova on Being Interesting

I've recently become a addicted to the site BrainPickings. It's a fascinating mixture of reflections from mostly older books, philosophical ponderings on the meaning of life, and ideas for 'being' rather than 'doing.' Note: not everything on the site is something I support or align with. That should become quickly evident if you read a few posts.
But much more interesting to me than the site itself is the person behind it, Maria Popova. What I most appreciate is her vigilance to keep the site design and function something she would personally find interesting and rewarding. And it sure has worked for her. She has around 5-7 million readers a month. The site has no advertisements and is totally supported by donations. These last two conventions are decidedly unconventional.

I've heard a few interviews with her and found a couple of statements from a recent podcast to be especially interesting. What follows are excerpts from her interview with Krista Tippet from the show "On Being." You can listen to this uncut version on Soundcloud. Warning: there are some seriously loaded statements here that will likely require significant reflection to mentally unpack. It's amazing to listen to her deliver them smoothly like they were rehearsed. But it's clear they flow from who she is. If you're short on time - take 1:23 (i timed it) to read the quotes in bold below.

NOTE: What follows are not exact quotes, but a 95% approximate. If you want word for word (i.e. including 'uhms' and 'ahs' and stops and starts) check out the audio.


12:09- "We have a fetish of disruption in media and Journalism. [But] culture needs stewardship, not disruption. [Yes] we have forsaken stewardship. But we need both. We need a backdrop of stewardship against which the new can be built."

14:44- "For many of us the work we do is a hedge against our own worst fears for ourselves.... as a culture we seem bored with thinking. We want to instantly know. And [yet] knowing is the cessation of thinking. But we have an epidemic of 'listicles" - [so] why think about what constitutes a great work of art when you can skim the 'twenty most expensive paintings in history?' And I'm guided by this desire to counter that in myself...."

16:00-  "The reason we are consistently intolerant of long articles and even short videos - we skip forward even on those - is we've been infected with a pathological impatience that makes us want to have knowledge but not to have to do the work of claiming it."

16:38- "People will say 'I haven't been asked to think about big hard ideas like that since college...' in this culture we do all of our thinking in formal educational settings and then move on to a world of work." [this quote is a combo from Maria and the interviewer]

18:13 "Knowledge lives in a relational understanding [i.e. the relationship between ideas and bits of information]. The reason we call disjointed bits of encyclopedic information trivia [is that] the true material of knowledge is meaning, and the meaningful is the opposite of the trivial. The only thing that we glean by skimming and skipping forward is trivia. The only way to gain knowledge is contemplation and the road to that is time. There's nothing else, it's just time. There is no shortcut to the conquest of meaning and ultimately it is meaning that we seek to give to our lives."
Holy cow that was a loaded quote

19:40 - "I use Thoreau's journals as a 'spiritual text' to help me re-center... There's this beautiful passage where he talks about hard work... that the person who works hard doesn't exert themselves all day but has this leisure around accomplishing the task.  [for example] The hen lays just one egg and the rest of the time she feeds on things that feed the next egg. Today we wear this badge of honor of hard work of productivity as this halmark of purpose but in many ways it is the opposite because Thoreau's point was that the more we busy ourselves with just the drudgery of work, the more we accomplish. Parker Palmer said 'the more efficient our task, the smaller things we can imagine accomplishing.'"

27:00- "I think identity for all of us is this perpetual process and it's somewhat like constantly clearing out and rearranging an attic. And it's as much about throwing out all the furniture and trinkets that no longer serve us as it is about bringing in new ones. The process of continuing to define who we are is the process of continually eliminating what we are not."

29:15- "I think a lot about this relationship between cynicism and hope. Critical thinking without hope is cynicism. But hope without critical thinking is naivet√©. And I try to live in this place between the two and build a life there. Because finding fault and feeling hopeless about improving our situation produces resignation of which cynicism is a symptom and against which it is a sort of futile self protection mechanism. [man that's a loaded sentence!] But on the other hand, believing blindly that everything will 'turn out just fine' also produces a kind of resignation because you have no motive to apply yourselves toward making things better. order to survive both as individuals and a civilization but especially in order to thrive, we need to bridge critical thinking with hope. A plant needs the right amount of water to thrive. too much it rots. too little, it dries up. So if there is any unifying philosophy to the work I do it is this constant act of getting the water just right."  

32:27- She discusses an essay she wrote discussing Vannevar Bush's article, "As We May Think" which deals with information overload. He says, “There is a new profession of trail blazers, those who find delight in the task of establishing useful trails through the enormous mass of the common record.” Her comments: "So much of what I do is an attempt to make sense of humanity's common record." 

35:45 "It's not about productivity or 'how much' a person get's done. For me it feels very purposeful. it's not a matter of how much to fill the day with 'doing' but to fill the day with 'being.' It just so happens that what I do is very aligned with the way I would like to be and the way I am being in the world. It's not done out of this compulsive productivity thing."

38:29 - The interviewer quoted an article where Maria said, "Be as religious and disciplined about your sleep as you are about anything else." Maria reflected further on the importance of this and building other pockets of rest into your life:
"I used to marvel at why my best ideas and insights on the human experience came to me at the gym or in the shower on the bike. And I used to have these elaborate theories about the movement of the body sparking a deeper consciousness... but I've really come to realize the kind of obvious thing which is that these are simply the most unburdened spaces in my life. The moments when I have the greatest uninterrupted intimacy with my own mind and my own experience. It's a kind of ordinary magic available to all of us if only we make that deliberate choice to invite it in."

38:58 - "Presence is far more intricate and rewarding and art than productivity.... and i've come to believe this the hard way [because] I too suffer from our civilizational malady of busying ourselves with the feeling of being productive so we don't have to deal with the psychic pressure of feeling purposeful or to mask the absence of that feeling. George Elliot said 'People may have in them some kind of vocation that's not quite clear to themselves. And they may seem idle and weak because they're really growing... we should be very patient with each other.' And I think we are so impatient with ourselves [as well] in our quest to find ourselves. Productivity becomes an expression of that impatience. Because to sit with that uncertainty is quite hard and we all have different strategies of avoiding that. " 

43ish- Interviewer: "You often talk about that one of the things you're looking for in content is Something that contains both timeliness and timelessness." Maria Comments on 'the problem of newsy-ness': "Journalism has concentric circles. We've come to conflate journalism with news. So much of that culture deals with the urgent and not the important. There's a sort of time bias that happens in part because of the way the internet is structured. The most recent always floats to the top. That is conditioning us to believe the most recent is most important. The older matters less and exists less to the point where we really come to believe that if it's not on google, then it didn't happen...."

"the beauty of the internet is that it's a self perfecting organism. But as long as it is an add supported medium, the motive will be to perfect commercial interest, to perfect the art of the 'listical,' the endless slide-show, the infinitely paginated article, and not to perfect the human spirit of the reader or the writer." . 

46:35 - E.B. White said, "The role of the writer is to lift people up not to lower them down. And so much of what passes for journalism today lowers."

I could have captured much more, as the interview goes on for another 30 minutes, but this enough for now....

1 comment:

John and Pam Majors said...

Whew! What a lot to chew on. I read Ecclesiastes 4 yesterday. Verse 6 in the ESV says, better a handful of quiet... I think this confirms that scripture.