Reflection on seeing Maria Popova, the woman behind Brain Pickings.

My father is a radio ham. He uses Morse code, mainly, and designs and constructs various instruments for the generating and processing of radio signals. His shed is a classic “Men’s’ shed”, complete with a shadow board, with each tool in its place, soldering iron, work bench, and rows and rows of jars filled with resistors, capacitors, and the equipment of his hobby. It smells of old steel, oil, solder flux, and wood dust. As far as I can tell, one of the centrepieces of a radio ham’s life is an instrument called a transmitter-receiver. The best transmitter-receivers eliminate noise and boost the signal, making sure that whatever is being communicated can cross the globe, dancing on the rhythm of those dots and dashes.

A 1970s classic transmitter-receiver. Image credit: Henke Tobbe.
A 1970s classic transmitter-receiver.
Image credit: Henke Tobbe. 

For a long time now, I have pondered the significance of that transmitter-receiver. In my father’s world, passing on a signal with the minimum of interference is the goal. But for me it is suggestive as a metaphor of the kind of subjectivity our culture and economy seems to prefer – – each of us just nodes on a grid, seamlessly passing on money, goods, services, messages, and received ideas in a well-oiled way with the minimum of interference, or input, from the individual. Meanings and money are fixed, known quantities. Learning and education is geared towards fitting each student with the skills to slide into this network, another node for the better functioning and flow of messages and money and productivity. Interpretation, questioning, or dissent are treated as ‘noise’ – interference that slows down the smooth transmission of the signal.

There are, of course, other, alternative models out there that see each of us as participants, co-creators of a world. This model welcomes ‘noise’ as creative dissent, interpretation, or individual and collaborative meaning-making. One of the proponents of these ideas is blogger Maria Popova, who spoke at the Melbourne Writers’ Festival on Thursday.

Popova’s blog, Brain Pickings, is a friend in your in-box – a weekly compendium of readings about thinking, reading, creating, and the process of making a meaningful life. Popova’s blog has more than 7 million readers, an indicator of the value people find in the weekly musings that she says are primarily a document of the evolution of her thinking. In our current secular age, the thirst for meaning and purpose has not gone away; instead, we look for other methods by which to explore and arrive at a core ethical stance on our experience and a language for constructing a story of what we are trying to do with our lives. Popova’s work points up an interesting paradox – by writing about her own personal journey of sense-making, she has addressed a felt need in millions of readers.

In this way, Brain Pickings can be seen as part of a cluster of developments. There is The School of Life, with its newsletter The Philosopher’s Mail. The work of Alain De Botton and John Armstrong similarly tries to ground philosophy in considerations of everyday life and its predicaments. De Botton’s writings and television series are well known and loved, while his collaborator, Armstrong, has transferred his work from a philosophy department to schools of business and civil society. Both Armstrong and De Botton also contribute to The School of Life. In a lighter way, the work of Gretchen Rubin also highlights the search for meaning in a late-capitalist world, what the psychologist Abraham Maslow called ‘self-actualisation’ that had a great deal to do with social contribution and higher purpose. Meanwhile, the biting work of Oliver James grapples with the darker sides of late capitalist meaninglessness and aimlessness. All of this and more indicates how the web is offering a home to many people’s attempts to bridge the gap between the recherché areas of academic philosophy and psychology and the ‘common reader’ – that person who is not necessarily working in an academic department, but who thirsts for reading and discussion and reflection about life in a way denied by much workplace culture and the culture of consumption. (Feeling depressed? Here, buy this car. Now work to pay it off.)


In her talk Popova explained how her blog got started: she was working in a design firm and noticed that her co-workers tended to get ideas only from other designers. She was dissatisfied with this and wanted to source ideas from beyond the boundaries of design. This laid the groundwork for her syncretic approach whereby writings about science, illustration, design, architecture, fine art, travel, and poetry sit side by side, often setting up conversations between the different disciplines and their ways of knowing. Apparently, once a week, she would send a little email out to a circle of friends with links to interesting and inspiring things to read. Little by little, this newsletter gained a second-hand following, as her friends forwarded it to more and more people. With the development of blogging, Popova had a platform to write and share her musings to whomever wanted to subscribe. Now she has a full-time job managing it and doing off-line work that emerges from it, such as judging at literary festivals and, of course, presenting at book and writers’ festivals.

So what were the main insights that Popova wanted to share with us that night? Many of them were close to my heart, as she emphasised, in various ways, the necessity for all of us to undertake the work of developing our knowledge and using that knowledge to develop an ethic and wisdom that is individual to us. As an educator, too, a lot of what she said chimed in to a constructivist approach to learning; even though she did not mention this philosophy by name, a great deal of her project relates to the learning theories of Jean Piaget and George Kelly that have heavily influenced contemporary education practice, but which, in their world view, are resistant to the ‘transmitter-receiver’ subject presumed by much reductive political discourse about the role of schools and universities.

Here are some of her insights that resonated with me:

  1. Information is not knowledge. Knowledge is not wisdom.

Popova spoke to our current tendency to think that we know more simply by virtue of having access to huge amounts of information. However, as anyone with a grandparent can tell you, there are types of knowledge and ways of knowing that are actually being lost. What’s more, just having access to information does not mean you know how to use it.

Using the analogy of Lego bricks, Popova argued that if we know very little, we have few Lego bricks with which to build our understanding of our life and the world. You can build something, but without a range of colours and shapes, and without very many bricks, you are very limited in what you can build. What’s more, you also need to develop a sense for yourself about what you are trying to build, how to select information and how to apply knowledge to the various situations and dilemmas of life. This accumulation, sifting, and application of knowledge, with reflection, develops wisdom.

This links to my ongoing thinking about why we teach imaginative and long-form literature to students, despite their increasing facility with accessing information on the web. Literature is ‘information’ but in a very specialised sense, and not in the same sense as a manual about how to operate some software, or a map of a city. Literature is information that must be interpreted by the reader by bringing with them all that they already know and their imagination. And, that active practice of interpretation, or making meaning from the text, is collaborative and reflective, adding a few more ‘Lego Bricks’ to the student’s collection. What’s more, the elaboration of ideas and versions of life that comes from studying literature provides the thoughtful individual with a wider range of reference and meaning with which to approach their own life. We have greater choice over the narratives we tell ourselves and each other and hence are less susceptible to uniform, standardised, limiting versions of who we are and who we should try to be.

This is why, in short, the current idea that we do not need to teach content, but just teach students how to find information does not quite add up. The greater the scope of our knowledge and the wider our horizons, the better able we are to assimilate and make use of new information. Content and information savvy go together. I can access a Chinese manuscript – but I cannot read and make sense of it. That is because I do not know Chinese. We need both knowledge and wisdom to make use of information deeply, ethically, and imaginatively.

  1. We need to be open to ideas beyond our specialisation, but also selective and discerning users of new ideas.

This was a less emphasised idea in Popova’s talk, that really only came through during the Q & A session. What she seemed to be getting at is, in a world of information deluge, we do need to be open and not close ourselves off into a disciplinary cul-de-sac. However, we are also charged with developing our own sense of what is meaningful to us, and attend to our own cultivation and ethic that helps us select and make sense of the new ideas we encounter. What Popova is talking about here is a kind of Web 2.0 version of the psychological concept of individuation – in order for us not to become mass-produced, standardised beings, we need to create our own unique constellation of meanings and reference points. These will still converse with those shared by the community and wider world, but they are our unique ‘playlist’.

  1. Writing is not ‘content’.

This was another issue that emerged only fully during the Q & A session. A question was posed about how Popova went about generating the ‘content’ for her site. She critiqued the idea of ‘content’, saying writing for the web is like writing for the page – – to think of the words you write as ‘content’ is to think of your work as just some inert stuff that fills up an empty or blank space. Thinking of writing as ‘content’ also does not pay respect to the reader, who is not just there to have inane, worthless verbal garbage dumped into their in-box, the habits of many media outlets notwithstanding. Popova pointed out that her research found that over time, some of the writers who have received the most high-prestige awards for their work were not necessarily the most productive, in terms of just churning out a lot of written verbiage. It was those who resisted the cult of productivity for its own sake that tended to their work with the most care and art.

  1. Most things that are worthwhile take a long time.

This was one of the main ‘learnings’ that Popova has taken away from seven years of working on Brain Pickings. She said that in our endless rush to be productive, we can forget the value of giving space and time to our thoughts – and “thoughts need space.” This is yet another voice in resistance to the cult of mindless busyness that seems to have taken root in almost every nook and cranny of our culture. Take time to reflect, wander, read purely for pleasure, read slowly, and go off the well-planned and programmed track.

Apart from a bit of TED-talk style walking to and fro, which had me watching the Auslan interpreter to prevent myself from becoming dizzy, I enjoyed Popova’s talk. She is not an literary artist in the traditional sense of the word, and, indeed, a great deal of what she does is summarising and curating (a word she bristled at when someone used it of her work). However, Popova’s project is nourishing and enabling in the style of a good teacher – – I walked out of her talk feeling more than ever energised to pursue my own work.

Image Credit: IDS Photos
Image Credit: IDS Photos












The Philosophers’ Mail:

Brain Pickings:

The School of Life:

The School of Life Melbourne Campus:

John Armstrong:

John Armstrong at the University of Tasmania:

Alain De Botton:

Melbourne Writers’ Festival 2014:

Interview with Maria Popova for Dumbo Feather:

Gretchen Rubin and The Happiness Project:

Oliver James:

Abraham Maslow:

Piaget and schema theory:

George Kelly and Constructivist Psychology:

Constructivism in education:








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