Aaron Swartz (1986 – 2013) was a thinker, writer, programmer, entrepreneur, and hacktivist who helped shape the internet. Check out his accomplishments in Wikipedia. Aaron embodied the hacker mentality—fix everything.
A month ago, Aaron’s mother made this tweet remembering him. Someone replied with one of Aaron’s blog posts called: HOWTO: Be more productive. I was curious, so I read it. It was deep and insightful. I started to learn more, and then I went deep into the rabbit hole.
Since then, I have read over 40 of his blog posts, watched some of his YouTube videos, discovered new books, ideas, and developed new habits.
Next, I will talk about my favorite posts:
Aaron explains the reason of being of his blog. For him, writing is a tool to shape yourself as an intellectual craftsman and develop your communication skills. His blog is about capturing experience and using them for reflection. It is also an opportunity of developing unconventional thoughts.
“…becoming a scientific thinker requires practice and writing is a powerful aid to reflection. So that’s what this blog is. I write here about thoughts I have, things I’m working on, stuff I’ve read, the experiences I’ve had, and so on…I don’t consider this writing, I consider this thinking… fundamentally, this blog is not for you, it’s for me. I hope that you enjoy it anyway.”
He goes into the philosophy of A Mathematician’s Apology, where the basic premise is to do what you are good at. Aaron finds himself in a paradox because he is a great programmer, but he prefers to be a ‘mediocre’ writer.
“And writing code, although it can be enjoyable, is hardly something I want to spend my life doing.
Perhaps, I fear, this decision deprives society of one great programmer in favor of one mediocre writer. And let’s not hide behind the cloak of uncertainty, let’s say we know that it does. Even so, I would make it. The writing is too important, the programming too unenjoyable.”
What It Means To Be An Intellectual
These are my favorite quotes:
“…not simply accept things as they are but to want to think about them, to understand them. To not be content to simply feel sad but to ask what sadness means. To not just get a bus pass but to think about the economic reasons getting a bus pass makes sense. I call this tendency the intellectual.”
“Language is the medium of thought, and so it’s no surprise that someone who spends a lot of time thinking spends a lot of time thinking about how to communicate their thoughts as well. 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?”
I love to understand how stuff works and share it with people. My internet experiments make it evident I am always trying to communicate better.
A couple of weeks ago, a friend of mine was trying to describe me. He said I was a “cool geek”; because I studied a lot and was good with people. I understood what he was trying to say, and I felt proud. Now, because of this blog post, I can suggest a better description, an intellectual. The funny thing is that word ‘intelectual’ is not used in Spanish. We should dust off that word and make it aspirational.
Some of his tips:
- Works on important problems.
- Create lists.
- Make more high-quality time by not going to school or work.
- Carry a pocket notebook.
- Avoid interruptions.
- Listen to your body.
- Talk to cheerful people.
- Simplify problems.
- Convince yourself your work is fun.
He was friends with Paul Graham. Imagine having PG as a friend; that is a high-leverage friendship.
He explains Carol Dweck’s study about children with fixed mindset vs. growth mindset and how it can be transformed. This transformation is the essence of his series Raw Nerve. A good habit is to see ourselves objectively and find new areas where we have a fixed mindset so we can transform it.
“I’ve read a hundred books a year for the past couple years. Last time I mentioned this, a couple of people asked how I could read so many books. Do I read unusually quickly? Do I spend an unusual amount of time reading? I did a simple calculation: The average person spends 1704 hours a year watching TV. If the average reading rate is 250 words per minute and the average book is 180,000 words, then that’s 142 books a year. To my surprise, I wasn’t reading nearly enough books. So I’ve taken some steps to read more:”
You can find his top recommendations in his Book Reviews. Unfortunately, the reviews are full of broken links. An example of what you will find in his compilation of yearly book reviews:
44. The Inner Game of Tennis by Timothy Gallwey
This book touched me deeply and made me rethink the entire way I approached life; it’s about vastly more than just tennis. I can’t really describe it, but I can recommend this video with Alan Kay and the author that will blow your mind.
It is about hacking the process of learning. Please, do yourself a favor and watch the video in the link above (repeated here). It blew my mind.
I will try to read the books he loved the most so I can Stand on the Shoulder of Giants.
Something I learned from his reviews was to pay attention to the writing skills of the author. I must write more to fine-tune my calibration.
I share many interests with Aaron. But, one that surprised me was his interest in urbanism. He read many books on it. Robert Caro wrote one of his favorite nonfiction book, The Power Broker. It is the biography of Robert Moses, a public official who promoted car-dependent growth in New York.
Aaron liked walkable urbanism. He said so throughout many essays. One example:
“All the apartments seemed to be on the floor above the normal street life; the two deeply intertwingled; just the way I like it. (See The Death and Life of Great American Cities for more reasons.)”
He is referring to the book of Jane Jacobs. She was one of the most influential people in favor of walkable, mixed-use urbanism in New York.
I also saw his documentary: The Internet’s Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz, which you can find free on YouTube. In it, they interview Aaron’s family, his girlfriends, his lawyer, and they show snippets of Aaron’s videos. Late in the documentary, they talk about his “crime” of downloading millions of scientific journals. Jail time was inevitable—the pressure was overwhelming—so he committed suicide. When this subject came on the documentary, the creator of the World Wide Web said:
Aaron is dead.
Wanderers in this crazy world,
we have lost a mentor, a wise elder.
Hackers for right, we are one down,
we have lost one of our own.
Nurturers, carers, listeners,
feeders, parents all,
we have lost a child.
Let us all weep.
– Tim Berners-Lee
When Tim was three sentences in, I shed tears. I got up, went into the bathroom, looked at myself in the mirror, and sobbed for a while. I pulled myself together and went back to the couch. I continued. Two seconds in, Tim finished with let us all weep, I started crying convulsively.
I met Aaron Swartz 7 years after his death, and I feel like I lost a close friend. I am in shock at how I could develop such an emotional connection. That is the power of good, authentic writing.
He makes me want to be a better person. After learning about him I am hopeful and sad. Hopeful because there must be many people like him around. Sad because I have a few relationships with people like him.
His blog and style struck a chord. They are nonfiction, clearly written, few paragraphs, and focused on insights he has learned about life. It is an inspiration for my blog.
How can someone be so wise from such a young age? How can we create more people like that? What else would he have done?
Lawrence Lessing, his friend, and mentor tells us what he valued professionally: a corrupt-free government. The following is a quote from this interview:
Aaron trapped me into giving up my work on internet law and copyright policy to take up work on political corruption. He came to me and said, “I don’t think you’re going to make any real progress on what you’re doing while there is still deep corruption in the way the government works.” At first, I tried to push him off. I said, “Aaron, it’s not my field as an academic.” Then he said, “Is it your field as a citizen?”
Let us follow his legacy and make the world a better place.
If you are interested in reading more, I recommend reading his blog. Start with The Archives.
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