I feel winded by the force of the venom (see below for links) directed at a 28-year-old Brooklyn-living Bulgarian who could or should be held up as a role model and pioneer. A woman leading a simple life, working damned hard at something she dearly loves. A woman who gives away the refreshingly-positive and deeply-detailed result freely, but yet dares to ask for donations, and who has made a few crucial mistakes for which she will apparently never be forgiven. (Chief of which, of course, is being successful.) Of course, that woman is Maria Popova — she of the yellow-and-black, Milton Glaser-inspired, love-infused Brain Pickings.
Sent out every Sunday, the newsletter of the blog’s weekly highlights is a tome, a rabbit hole. Press on that link, and I’m lost in Wonderland for hours. I don’t have the time to read more than a fraction of the heavily-linked content, and so always wondered where the author found the time to create it. And there’s the rub: Maria Popova claims to have no other life, but her tally of hours for the creation of this product are certainly a tad exaggerated. And she’s supposedly vehemently anti-advertising (or at least highlights the ‘ad-free’ nature of her product), though had neglected to mention the Amazon Affiliate program she benefits from until her detractors made a song and dance about it. Rightly so, certainly, but such an emotional reaction!
The snarkiness. The irritation with her success. The sheer crabs-in-a-bucket nature of it all. At a time when we desperately need fresh media business models, why are we so quick to pull down the success stories? (I’ve written with frustration about this before, and the sordid outcome of that event didn’t change my mind about the principles I was flailing to articulate.) Dan Pallotta’s TED Talk, ‘The Way We Think About Charity is Dead Wrong’, highlights many of those same double standards and hypocrisies. Our confused equation of frugality with morality… Our irrational thoughts on who should be hailed for profiting and who should be slandered… On when we should talk about money and when we shouldn’t…
Yes, crabs. In a bucket. Tall Poppy Syndrome all over again: we can’t get out of this, but we sure as hell won’t let her.
Crabs. Lice. It was all so sexy to begin with. Then they feed on your blood. They cause you to itch. They’re contagious…
It doesn’t have to be like that: passion-based knee-jerk responses reeking of sloth, avarice and envy. Surely we can find a more nuanced point of view in which we acknowledge that our heroes make mistakes. That a saint is also a sinner? That role models should be lauded while yet noting where they could do better? That pointing out their failings does not make us any more successful?
I believe criticism is very important. But it should be done with the aim of taking the discussion forward; it should reveal the critic’s interest in the subject, and should suggest further application of the knowledge. To use two very over-traded analogies: this is not about pulling a fellow crab down, but being the giant who lends their shoulder for others to stand on. Two writers have impressed me with their abilities to do so on this story. Felix Salmon of Reuters, and Tom Bleymaier of On Advertising. Salmon outlines the entire story and its issues from a fact-based and rational point of view while yet divulging his personal thoughts. His journalistic integrity, despite this being clearly branded an opinion piece, stands strong. Tom Bleymaier, whose tone still undermines his argument slightly, makes a detailed and transparent commentary that achieves the dual task of stopping me hitting Popov’s ‘donate’ button, and inspires me to analyze the nuts and bolts more carefully.
Now I’d like to see both Salmon and Bleymaier’s heroes. To be inspired by those they hold in high regard. To find those giants on whose shoulders they stand. And I look forward to seeing those who will come after, and the heights they will reach.
Dominique’s Reminders to Self:
- Don’t tear down the role models; learn from them.
- Criticism is important and exciting, but channel the energy towards creativity rather than destruction and disease.
- Fight the haters by focussing on what can be, rather than on what should have been.
LINKS TO ARTICLES ON POPOVA
My trail: Google, Wikipedia, then follow the ‘criticism’ citation. That’s how I quickly found this post by a person who’d put effort and negativity in criticism. Who chooses to focus on what they dislike. Who does it all without the courage to reveal their own name. Sad, don’t you think? Sad to me because I think the anonymous writer makes some important points, especially with regards to highlighting the Federal Trade Commission’s ‘truth in advertising’ principles. (“If there’s a connection between the endorser and the marketer of the product that would affect how people evaluate the endorsement, it should be disclosed.”)
A simple, fairly superficial Q&A with Popova in The Observer which lead to an outpouring of negative responses.
An article in The New York Times on Popova.
Popova’s talk at Tools of Change in Feb 2013.