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In a planet occupied now by seven billion inhabitants, I am amazed by the difference that one human being can make.

— Professor Howard Gardner
Harvard University Graduate School of Education

I am exercising my editorial prerogative to start the new year with a visit to my favorite online haunt, Brain Pickings.

Maria Popova, its creator, chief author, compiler, and discoverer, calls it “a human-powered discovery engine for interestingness.” At that it does not disappoint. Literate, inspiring and fun, it is a terrific regular read about practicing, aspiring and secret creative minds, for those who are moved by them.

Every Sunday Maria publishes a digest of the week’s choice pieces in a free email newsletter. My two favorites finds by her: 20-Year-Old Hunter S. Thompson’s Superb Advice on How to Find Your Purpose and Live a Meaningful Life and the lovely John Steinbeck on Falling in Love: A 1958 Letter

The excerpt below from John Brockman’s This Explains Everything is contained in her 13 Best Books of 2013. I can think of no better way for EarthDesk to launch 2014 than with its observation by Professor Howard Gardner of Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education. More on Maria and Brain Pickings at the conclusion.

Developmental psychologist Howard Gardner, who famously coined the seminal theory of multiple intelligences, echoes Anaïs Nin in advocating for the role of the individual and Susan Sontag in stressing the impact of individual acts on collective fate. His answer, arguing for the importance of human beings, comes as a welcome antidote to a question that suffers the danger of being inherently reductionist:

In a planet occupied now by seven billion inhabitants, I am amazed by the difference that one human being can make. Think of classical music without Mozart or Stravinsky; of painting without Caravaggio, Picasso or Pollock; of drama without Shakespeare or Beckett. Think of the incredible contributions of Michelangelo or Leonardo, or, in recent times, the outpouring of deep feeling at the death of Steve Jobs (or, for that matter, Michael Jackson or Princess Diana). Think of human values in the absence of Moses or Christ.


Despite the laudatory efforts of scientists to ferret out patterns in human behavior, I continue to be struck by the impact of single individuals, or of small groups, working against the odds. As scholars, we cannot and should not sweep these instances under the investigative rug. We should bear in mind anthropologist Margaret Mead’s famous injunction: ‘Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful committed citizens can change the world. It is the only thing that ever has.’

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Maria Popova. Elizabeth Lippman for The New York Times. Via Maria Popova.

From Brain Pickings: The core ethos behind Brain Pickings is that creativity is a combinatorial force: It’s our ability to tap into the mental pool of resources — ideas, insights, knowledge, inspiration — that we’ve accumulated over the years just by being present and alive and awake to the world, and to combine them in extraordinary new ways. In order for us to truly create and contribute to culture, we have to be able to connect countless dots, to cross-pollinate ideas from a wealth of disciplines, to combine and recombine these ideas and build new ideas — like LEGOs. The more of these building blocks we have, and the more diverse their shapes and colors, the more interesting our creations will be.

Brain Pickings — which remains ad-free and supported by readers — is a cross-disciplinary LEGO treasure chest, full of pieces spanning art, design, science, technology, philosophy, history, politics, psychology, sociology, ecology, anthropology, and more; pieces that enrich your mental pool of resources and empower combinatorial ideas that are stronger, smarter, richer, deeper and more impactful. Please enjoy.

Maria Popova is an interestingness hunter-gatherer and curious mind at large, who has also written for Wired UK, The New York Times, Harvard’s Nieman Journalism Lab, and The Atlantic, among others, and is an MIT Futures of Entertainment Fellow.

Maria Popova on Twitter here.

Brain Pickings on Facebook here.