Brain Pickings: Inside the Curator's Mind

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The kinds of things people share the most are intended to show they have good taste and are well-read … and are very different from the kinds of things they actually engage with the most. - Maria Popova, Brain Pickings

Brain Pickings is a glimpse into the world of a cultural curator and the curious mind of Maria Popova. One of the voices that Tina Roth Eisenberg (aka Swissmiss) picked for the SAY 100 design channel, Maria masterfully curates interestingness — picking culture’s collective brain for tidbits of stuff that inspires, revolutionizes, or simply makes us think. Mostly, Brain Pickings is about ideas — revolutionary new ideas that no one has seen or thought of before, and old ideas that most have seen, but no one has thought of in this way before. Or as Maria puts it: "Brain Pickings is a human-powered discovery engine for interestingness, culling and curating cross-disciplinary curiosity-quenchers, and separating the signal from the noise to bring you things you didn’t know you were interested in until you are." Nice!

We checked in with Maria about the art of curation, what all this interestingness says about us collectively, how her job at TBWA/Chiat/Day feeds the curator mind – and what curators she admires.

You're an amazing curator – how would you describe your filter? My lens is one of getting people interested in things they didn't know they were interested in until they discovered them.

What are your all-time most popular posts with readers? Depends on how you quantify "popular" – there are the articles that make the rounds on the social web, like this 1895 list of don'ts for women on bicycles, the ones people bookmark and Instapaper and keep coming back to, like these 5 manifestos for the creative life, the books that people fall in love with, like Stefan G. Bucher's 344 Flowcharts, and the ones I get emails about, saying they changed people's worldview in some way, like these 5 books on the psychology of love.

As an arbiter of interestingness, what do you think those most popular posts say about us collectively? I think more than anything, they bespeak a real dichotomy between our private selves and our public personas. Because the kinds of things people share the most, which are intended to show they have good taste and are well-read, are very different from the kinds of things they actually engage with the most in their private experience of information – the articles they spend the most time on, the books they actually buy, the documentaries they actually watch.

Is it ever hard to switch from curator to creator? I think, at their best, the two are inextricably intertwined. As a human being, you're a product of what you allow into your life, intellectually and creatively. As a creator, the things you create are a product of the things you consume, the things you curate for yourself, so to speak.

You also now work at TBWA/Chiat/Day – has that changed or expanded your interests at all? The relationship is the reverse – the idea was to bring my lens to how the agency thinks about creative culture and culture in general. Curiosity Counts, the Tumblr I curate for TBWA, is just one expression of that.

We've read about your media diet (whoa!). Do you ever unplug? I try. Though I'm not sure the parameters of "unplugging" are the same for me as they are for most people. For instance, most consider reading a book a form of unplugging. I do read a lot, though I'm constantly thinking about how that book relates to a myriad things I've covered in the past, what I'm going to say about it when I write about it, how it fits with my larger editorial vision. This said, I do try to have between a half an hour and an hour every day where I either meditate or do yoga.

Who are some of your other favorite curators on the Web and why? Dan Colman at Open Culture does an extraordinary job of finding the web's best educational gems, in the broadest sense of the word "education" – from traditional items like free lectures to smart documentaries to pioneering animated films and so much more. My studiomate Tina Roth Eisenberg of Swiss Miss is an exquisite design tastemaker, again in a very broad sense of "design" – from beautiful object, yes, to thoughtful quotes to smart Kickstarter projects and more. Joe Hanson does the same with science and science literacy on It's Okay To Be Smart, and Christopher Jobson does it with art on Colossal. and Clearly, the pattern is that to me a great curator expands the boundaries of curiosity around his or her discipline or area of expertise.

What would your readers be surprised to learn about you? I've never seen Star Wars in its entirety, beginning to end. I also never finished, though started many times, Infinite Jest.

Brain Pickings takes 450+ hours a month to curate and edit. If you like what you see consider a donation. Follow Maria on Twitter @brainpicker