6 Life Tips from the Smartest Woman on the Internet

6 Life Tips from the Smartest Woman on the Internet November 9, 2022

life tips
Maria Popova via Wikimedia Commons

One of the smartest, most insightful writers I know is Maria Popova. For 16 years, she has been writing the thought-provoking and life-affirming blog now called The Marginalian, but for years known as Brain Pickings. Each week, she dissects the work and ideas of a range of creative thinkers, from Charles Darwin and Stephen Hawking to obscure illustrators of children’s books to literary figures like Whitman, Steinbeck and Sontag.

Popova recently posted a column titled 16 Life-Learnings from 16 Years of The Marginalian, Reflections on keeping the soul intact and alive and worthy of itself. Each year, since her blog began, Popova has added a fresh insight to her list. It started in 2013 with seven insights and has grown annually since. Popova explains:

Starting at year 7, I began a sort of public diary of learnings — never revising those of the previous years, only adding some newly gleaned understanding with each completed orbit, the way our present selves are always a Russian nesting doll containing and growing out of the irreversible selves we have been. 

As you may know, I’m fascinated by these lists, (see here and here for 2 other examples), because they often represent the writer’s attempt to quantify what really matters in life. Popova’s complete list of 16 life-learnings is worth a read and can be found here. But for our purposes today, I have focused on my 6 favorite insights, each with the ability to make us a better person. The words below are Popova’s though I’ve done some light editing.

6 Life Tips from the Smartest Woman on the Internet

  1. Be generous. Be generous with your time and your resources and with giving credit and, especially, with your words. It’s so much easier to be a critic than a celebrator. Always remember there is a human being on the other end of every exchange and behind every critique. To understand and be understood are among life’s greatest gifts, and every interaction is a new opportunity to do both.
  1. Build pockets of stillness into your lifeMeditate. Go for walks. Ride your bike going nowhere in particular. The best ideas come to us when we let the fragments of experience float around our unconscious mind to click into new combinations. Most importantly, sleep. Besides being a creative aphrodisiac, sleep even helps moderate our negative moods. We tend to wear our ability to get by on little sleep as some sort of badge of honor that validates our work ethic. But really, it’s a profound failure of self-respect and of priorities. What could possibly be more important than your health and your sanity?
  1. Seek out what magnifies your spirit.The singer and author Patti Smith talks about writers and artists who magnified her spirit — it’s a beautiful phrase and a beautiful notion. Who are the people, ideas, and books that magnify your spirit? Find them, hold on to them, and visit them often. Use them not only as a remedy once spiritual malaise has infected your vitality, but as a vaccine administered while you are healthy to protect your radiance.
  1. Choose joy. Choose it like a child chooses the shoe to put on the right foot, the crayon to paint a sky. Choose it at first consciously, effortfully, pressing against the weight of a world heavy with reasons for sorrow, restless with need for action. Feel the sorrow, take the action, but keep pressing the weight of joy against it all, until it becomes mindless, automated, like gravity pulling the stream down its course. Joy is not a function of a life free of friction and frustration, but a function of focus — an inner elevation. So often, it is a matter of attending to what Hermann Hesse called “the little joys.” Often, these slender threads weave the lifeline that saves us.
  1. Unself. Nothing is more tedious than self-concern. As an experiment, for one continuous month, make the focus of one in every three things you share on social media something other than yourself: a friend’s art project, a stranger’s poem, a record by a musician you love, the tree shimmering with majesty and mystery in the low morning light, someone in your community you admire, a bygone pioneer of something you value, a book that spun you on your axis, the lost cat sign crayoned by a neighbor’s child, the new community garden a few blocks over, news of the dazzling galaxy discovered by the dazzling new space telescope a few million light years away.
  1. In any bond of depth and significance, forgive, forgive, forgive. The richest relationships are lifeboats, but they are also submarines that descend to the darkest and most disquieting places, to the unfathomed trenches of the soul where our deepest shames and vulnerabilities live, where we are less than we would like to be. Forgiveness is the alchemy by which the shame transforms into the honor and privilege of being invited into another’s darkness and having them witness your own with the undimmed light of love, of sympathy, of nonjudgmental understanding. Forgiveness is the engine of buoyancy that keeps the submarine rising again and again toward the light, so that it may become a lifeboat once more.

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