Remembering Aaron Swartz

It is with great sadness that I learned early this morning of Aaron Swartz’s suicide. I didn’t know Aaron personally, but I came to appreciate much of what Aaron wrote on personal development.

Cory Doctorow pens a worthwhile remembrance of Aaron Swartz at Boing Boing:

I don’t know if it’s productive to speculate about that, but here’s a thing that I do wonder about this morning, and that I hope you’ll think about, too. I don’t know for sure whether Aaron understood that any of us, any of his friends, would have taken a call from him at any hour of the day or night. I don’t know if he understood that wherever he was, there were people who cared about him, who admired him, who would get on a plane or a bus or on a video-call and talk to him.

Because whatever problems Aaron was facing, killing himself didn’t solve them. Whatever problems Aaron was facing, they will go unsolved forever. If he was lonely, he will never again be embraced by his friends. If he was despairing of the fight, he will never again rally his comrades with brilliant strategies and leadership. If he was sorrowing, he will never again be lifted from it.

This is a man that has suffered, at various points in his life, from a number of illnesses. Here are Aaron Swartz’s own words on depression:

You feel worthless. You wonder whether it’s worth going on. Everything you think about seems bleak — the things you’ve done, the things you hope to do, the people around you. You want to lie in bed and keep the lights off. Depressed mood is like that, only it doesn’t come for any reason and it doesn’t go for any either. Go outside and get some fresh air or cuddle with a loved one and you don’t feel any better, only more upset at being unable to feel the joy that everyone else seems to feel. Everything gets colored by the sadness.

I don’t want to speculate on the suicide. But I think one of the best way to remember Aaron Swartz’s life is through the wisdom of his writings. So start by reading his “How To Get a Job Like Mine,” a no-bullshit examination of how he got to where he got. Follow with Aaron’s seven part series titled “Raw Nerve.” (Set aside an hour or two to read the whole series).

My favorite section was “Look at Yourself Objectively,” in which Aaron summarized:

Look up, not down. It’s always easy to make yourself look good by finding people even worse than you. Yes, we agree, you’re not the worst person in the world. That’s not the question. The question is whether you can get better — and to do that you need to look at the people who are even better than you.

Criticize yourself. The main reason people don’t tell you what they really think of you is they’re afraid of your reaction. (If they’re right to be afraid, then you need to start by working on that.) But people will feel more comfortable telling you the truth if you start by criticizing yourself, showing them that it’s OK.

Find honest friends. There are some people who are just congenitally honest. For others, it’s possible to build a relationship of honesty over time. Either way, it’s important to find friends who you can trust to tell to tell you the harsh truths about yourself. This is really hard — most people don’t like telling harsh truths. Some people have had success providing an anonymous feedback form for people to submit their candid reactions.

Listen to the criticism. Since it’s so rare to find friends who will honestly criticize you, you need to listen extra-carefully when they do. It’s tempting to check what they say against your other friends. For example, if one friend says the short story you wrote isn’t very good, you might show it to some other friends and ask them what they think. Wow, they all think it’s great! Guess that one friend was just an outlier. But the fact is that most of your friends are going to say it’s great because they’re your friend; by just taking their word for it, you end up ignoring the one person who’s actually being honest with you.

Thank you Aaron Swartz for your brilliance. For your honesty. For your daring.

RIP.

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