Maria Popova on Evergreen Ideas and Rethinking the Meaning of Content

Maria Popova, founder of Brain Pickings, shares what she learned studying evergreen ideas and why we need to rethink the usage of the word content.

To create work that touches people’s lives in ten, a hundred, or a thousand years from now is both a humbling and unexpected reward of one’s effort. But we do not determine whether something is timeless or not; we simply create from the heart, telling the truth about what we see and why it matters, and we ship. You might not be around for the praise, but the choice to be present while enjoying the process is available daily.

We spoke to Maria Popova, founder of Brain Pickings—a cross-pollination of ideas from a diversity of domains in the pursuit of understanding why we’re here and how we can live well.

She shares her insights on what she has learned studying timeless ideas, producing an evergreen body of work, the origin of ‘content’ and why we need to reframe how we think about it.

Your insatiable curiosity and love for learning has encouraged you to explore history and its ideas through books. What patterns or elements have you noticed in ideas that stand the test of time?

Maria: I am drawn to ideas that remain resonant across time and space, across cultures and civilizations. But I find that a writer can aim for this directly; I find that, paradoxically, the most abiding wisdom originates from a particular person’s lived experience at a particular point in time, coming from a deeply personal place yet speaking — by consequence, not by intention — to the universal.

Anaïs Nin articulated this in a lovely way: “Any experience carried out deeply to its ultimate leads you beyond yourself into a larger relation to the experience of others.”

Your ability to dance with old and new ideas allows readers to navigate the thinking of the past and how it relates to the present and future. Do you think adding layers of history into one’s work helps with creating evergreen content?

Maria: I loathe the term “content” as applied to cultural material — it was foisted upon us by a commercially driven media industry that treats human beings as mindless eyeballs counted in statistics like views and likes, as currency to be traded against advertising revenue. Somehow people have been sold on the idea that the relationship between ads and “content” is a symbiotic one, but it is a parasitic one.

We are flooded with mediocre “content” produced for the sole purpose of transmits the ads — this type of “content,” which is now predominant online, is the reason for the epidemic of clickbait, the carrier for the highly contagious impoverishment of thought and feeling we are undergoing as a civilization. More than half a century ago, long before the web, Susan Sontag wrote beautifully about the trouble with treating art and cultural material as content: “Our task is not to find the maximum amount of content in a work of art… Our task is to cut back content so that we can see the thing at all.”

Brain Pickings is the record of my looking, my trying to see. What I write about is simply what I think about as I read what I read, what I feel as one human being moving through this world — a kind of elaborate marginalia, my private discourse with the literature and art and ideas with which I engage. It may be the contents of my heart and mind, but it is not “content” in the sense this term has come to take on.

…The most abiding wisdom originates from a particular person’s lived experience at a particular point in time, coming from a deeply personal place yet speaking — by consequence, not by intention — to the universal.

In this sense, then, it naturally inclines toward what you call “evergreen” — which I take to mean enduring ideas that hold up across the years, decades, and centuries, and continue to solace and give meaning undiminished by time. It can only be this way, because as we move through life, we all invariably brush up against the same handful of elemental experiences — experiences like love, loss, the hunger for purpose, the pursuit of happiness, the struggle to reconcile the contradictory factions of our own being.

Reading about someone — a great writer, artist, or scientist — who was tussling with the selfsame things a generation ago, a century ago, a civilizational epoch ago, is a tremendous clarifying force for one’s own struggles, a kind of assurance that they are survivable and transcendable, assurance only the lived record of time can give.

What is your definition of owning your content?

Maria: In the context of my aversion to how the term “content” is used, the question of ownership becomes completely moot. One can’t “own” any fragment of this complex interlacing of ideas and influences we call culture. The only kind of “ownership” I am interested in is owning one’s experience, in the sense of inhabiting it with integrity and dignity, while making space for the owned experiences of others.

This interview was produced in partnership with & CreativeMornings.

Morning people get 15% off their site at

Interview by Paul Jun. Illustrations by Jeffrey Phillips. ‘Own Your Content’ illustration by Annica Lydenberg. Photograph by Elizabeth Lippman.


67 thoughts on “Maria Popova on Evergreen Ideas and Rethinking the Meaning of Content”

  1. Fantastic thoughts Maria. Brainpicking continues to be a wellspring of culture and wisdom. Thank you so much for what you share. A regular inspiration in my life, you continue to push the development of my thoughts!!

    Liked by 10 people

  2. I applaud Maria’s comments. ‘Content’ that connects the essence of what it means to be human across time and place is what I find most interesting and valuable for my own writing. Thanks for sharing this.

    Liked by 8 people

  3. I’m still trying to figure out how I got here. I have deep thoughts and I write . Paint sing Please l let me know. I am intrigued . Ray


  4. As a Minimalist, I love this quote “Our task is not to find the maximum amount of content in a work of art… Our task is to cut back content so that we can see the thing at all.” 😉

    Liked by 8 people

  5. Thank you so much. The striving for the personal and thus, as a (n unintended?) consequence attaining the universal is something that I first realized when reading Tolstoy… that’s why I loved him so much! Let’s see if I can do it too… 😉


  6. Truly inspirational. Ive been thinking of ways to drive more traffic to my blog and been getting frustrated. After reading this ive realized im just going to keep writing about my life (anxiety and depression) and if something else inspires me to write then awesome. This has really helped in focusing my thoughts to what really matters.


  7. I really love this interview. I’ve been thinking of my blog as a space where I just write whatever I’m feeling once weekly, and I’ve often worried that I’m doing it all wrong. This article reminded me that no matter what direction I’m drawn to with my blog, it is the right way.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. The universal as consequence of the individual… a beautiful reminder we are all unique and special, yet at the same time more similar than we are different. Thank you Maria!

    Liked by 2 people

  9. Consider me a traditionalist, a purist, or just a linguistic misanthrope, but terms and phrases that include “Content” and ‘Social Media’ strike me as deliberately contradictory to their intention, and only serve to deprive the Writer and the Reader of meaning, worth, and function, as well disrespecting language. Nice to meet you. – Jim Hess


  10. When words are assigned with new meanings, they render imagination bring evergreen ideas to life.

    When finding the perspective truths of things, one would find an ideal that could become something new.

    Content expresses moments in time as the universe displaces more of it!

    Liked by 1 person

  11. So what this post is saying is, if I stole it from Maria and passed it off as my own, it wouldn’t matter because there is no concept of ownership of art and ideas? Maybe I missing something but it seems like the corporate monetization of content may require MORE rights for individual content creators – not fewer.

    Liked by 1 person

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