Brain Pickings

Maira Kalman on Curiosity, Courage, Happiness, and the Two Keys to a Full Life


“What protects you in this world from sadness and from the loss of an ability to do something? … Work and love.”

Maira Kalman is one of the most beloved illustrators working today and one of my greatest heroes, a singular spirit living at the intersection of art and philosophy. In this fantastic talk from India’s INK Conference, Kalman takes us on a journey into her wonderfully idiosyncratic mind and expansive soul, revealing along the way the poetic and profound universalities of our human triumphs and tribulations. Highlights below — please enjoy:

On the outlook her mother bequeathed her, a beautiful affirmation of why the capacity to wonder drives culture:

You don’t really have to have knowledge — what you have to have is curiosity.

On the psychoemotional cycles of life, something Kalman explores with magnificent dimension in The Principles of Uncertainty:

You’re constantly battling with the idea of loss and grief in this lifetime, and then continuing with optimism and courage to continue your work.

Kalman adds to modern history’s notable meditations on the meaning of existence — including ones by Carl Sagan, David Foster Wallace, Anaïs Nin, Henry Miller, Richard Feynman, Charles Bukowski, Arthur C. Clarke, Annie Dillard, John Cage, and others — by considering the fundamental necessities for a full life, which she explores further in And the Pursuit of Happiness:

The question that we ask ourselves is, what protects you? What protects you in this world from sadness and from the loss of an ability to do something? For me, what protects me … is work and love. And I think that those two things cover pretty much every single thing. Because what you do, who you love, what you love, and what you do with your time is really the only question that you have to answer.

For more of Kalman’s wisdom and creative brilliance, treat yourself to some of her magnificent books, including her illustrated editions of classics like Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style and Michael Pollan’s Food Rules, then see her reflections on happiness and existence and art and the power of not thinking.

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