The Legacy of Aaron Swartz (and Inspiration)

I watched The Internet’s Own Boy, about two months ago. It’s a documentary based on the life of Aaron Swartz – a programming prodigy, activist, and one of the three founders of Reddit.

What’s apparent from the movie is that Aaron Swartz was an outlier who devoted his abilities with an honest intention for public welfare.  

But being the idealist that he was, unfortunately, he couldn’t face the resistance and the bashing of the system and finally gave in – he committed suicide.

But Swartz lives on

Swartz wrote a blog for most of his life. He was more of a writer than a programmer, as he admitted in a post. Hopefully, his words are still alive on the internet – and that’s sort of like discovering the legacy that he left behind.

I’ve quoted below the excerpts from Aaron’s blog, Raw Thought. Feel free to explore the articles that inspire you.

Lean into the pain

… the trick is to make that mental shift. To realize that the pain isn’t something awful to be postponed and avoided, but a signal that you’re getting stronger — something to savor and enjoy. It’s what makes you better.

Look at yourself objectively

Embrace your failings. Be willing to believe the worst about yourself. Remember: it’s much better to accept that you’re a selfish, racist moron and try to improve, than to continue sleepwalking through life that way as the only one who doesn’t know it.

Confront Reality

Go out and test yourself today: pick a task just hard enough that you might fail, and try to succeed at it. Reality is painful — it’s so much easier to keep doing stuff you know you’re good at or else to pick something so hard there’s no point at which it’s obvious you’re failing — but it’s impossible to get better without confronting it.

I Hate the News

Most people’s major life changes don’t come from reading an article in the newspaper; they come from reading longer-form essays or thoughtful books, which are much more convincing and detailed.

Take a step back

… I’ve started appreciating the virtues of stepping back and trying to see the bigger picture. Instead of just picking the best option, I try to invent new ones. Instead of just avoiding the stuff that bugs me, should I start making plans to fix them.

What it means to be an intellectual

And indeed, all the intellectuals that come to mind write, not because they have to or get paid to, but simply for its own sake. What good is thinking if you can’t share?

Take the easy way out

Your body’s resistance to an activity isn’t an obstacle to be overcome, it’s a message that you’re being an idiot, just like when your hand hurts after you punch a wall. The right solution isn’t to start punching the wall harder, it’s to look around for a tool to help you do the job.

The Smalltalk Question

I propose instead that one ask “What have you been thinking about lately?” First, the question is extremely open-ended. The answer could be a book, a movie, a relationship, a class, a job, a hobby, etc. Even better, it will be whichever of these is most interesting at the moment.

If Swartz were alive, we’d have another person to help us break out of the bubbles and delusions that we live in. As for now, reading his blog reminds me that we need more people who think and share selflessly.