How Maria Popova Resists Narrative

Against the solutionist storyline of the digital age

“…we’ve been infected with this kind of pathological impatience that makes us want to have the knowledge but not do the work of claiming it.” — Popova, On Being

She is the most common-sense person I only know from the internet. Out of her mind springs the kind of reason and nuance you didn’t think was possible on this modern web.

In this era of output-blindness, her call for doing the work, the gradual process of mastery and claiming your education is rare and timely.

Popova’s approach resists the “if you just do 10 pull-ups, make your bed, synchronize your watch, and drink your food, you’ll be a genius with a million-dollar company” mindset.

Since she’s unquestionably successful, journalists often ask her to share her expertise…by which they really mean “What can I copy and immediately apply to be exactly like you?”

The interviewers want to make her narrative about output as opposed to a developing, reflective process. Actually doing the painful work of learning. And she stops them in their tracks.

When Tim Ferriss asked her about her daily routine, she very gracefully reversed the course of the question…

“Well I’ll answer this with a caveat…the one thing I have struggled with, or tried to solve for myself in the last few years is this delicate balance between productivity and presence. Especially in a culture that seems to measure our worth, or merit, or value through our efficiency or our earnings or our ability to perform certain tasks as opposed to just the fulfillment we feel in our own lives, the presence that we take in the day-to-day, so that’s something that is more and more apparent to me…so I’m a little bit reluctant to discuss a routine as some sort of Holy Grail of creative process because, really, it’s a crutch…”

(Interestingly, this is *not* one of the quotes Ferriss highlights in his recap of the show…)

In my reading of Popova’s ideas, she resists a narrative of solutionism, which I’ll loosely outline as:

  • if you have this pain (for instance, lack of direction)
  • do this essential thing (checklist of arbitrary activities)
  • become a star to emulate and 10x your crushing it

Ian Bogost frames solutionism as a mashup of technology and capitalist drive. Capitalism is always trying to create a problem space so it can market a solution…indeed capitalism has a rooted interest in novelty, making it a good pal for technology.

And solutionism is deeply ingrained in the language and thought patterns of of the internet. As I’ve written about before, the dominant narrative of marketing on the internet peddles in how-tos, in fixing, in supposedly clear paths from A to B.

When knowledge is gradual, recursive, involves revisiting and reflection and as Popova says, we have all to do the work of claiming it.