Aaron Swartz on Staying Curious

Ronaldo Lemos interviewed Aaron Swartz in 2009. Here is what the late Aaron Swartz had to say about curiosity:

Q: You did a lot of important things at a very young age, could you describe a few of them? And how do you see and would explain that? Talent, inspiration, curiosity, hard work? Is there something that you would think that other kids who would like to follow your steps should know?

A: When I was a kid, I thought a lot about what made me different from the other kids. I don’t think I was smarter than them and I certainly wasn’t more talented. And I definitely can’t claim I was a harder worker — I’ve never worked particularly hard, I’ve always just tried doing things I find fun. Instead, what I concluded was that I was more curious — but not because I had been born that way. If you watch little kids, they are intensely curious, always exploring and trying to figure out how things work. The problem is that school drives all that curiosity out. Instead of letting you explore things for yourself, it tells you that you have to read these particular books and answer these particular questions. And if you try to do something else instead, you’ll get in trouble. Very few people’s curiosity can survive that. But, due to some accident, mine did. I kept being curious and just followed my curiosity. First I got interested in computers, which led me to get interested in the Internet, which led me to get interested in building online news sites, which led me to get interested in standards (like RSS), which led me to get interested in copyright reform (since Creative Commons wanted to use similar standards). And on and on. Curiosity builds on itself — each new thing you learn about has all sorts of different parts and connections, which you then want to learn more about. Pretty soon you’re interested in more and more and more, until almost everything seems interesting. And when that’s the case, learning becomes really easy — you want to learn about almost everything, since it all seems really interesting. I’m convinced that the people we call smart are just people who somehow got a head start on this process. I fell like the only thing I’ve really done is followed my curiosity wherever it led, even if that meant crazy things like leaving school or not taking a “real” job. 

Amen to this. Stay curious, friends.


(hat tip: Dave Winer)

4 thoughts on “Aaron Swartz on Staying Curious

  1. Amidst everything else that’s happening it is refreshing to have someone mention him outside of the tragic context and something to do with his actual life.

    • I agree, Ryan.

      I’ve been reading other links and blogs profiling Aaron’s life and am trying to slowly distill all this information in my head. I’ve also been going through Aaron’s archived posts, such as this one on the book that’s changed his life (I’ve read Manufacturing Consent while in college).

      • Eugene,

        I’ve doing much the same, and it is a great deal to take in. I hadn’t seen that post yet, although I had read Manufacturing Consent in college as well.

        I can relate to his life a lot, although I feel somewhat bad that I only really noticed when this happened. I studied math more than I did computer science so I just never got the exposure to him.

        Anyways, I very much like your blog and I don’t know how you do it. I read a great deal but don’t think I could tend to a blog for so long.

  2. When people ask me how I know so much on a particular subject, the answer I give them is that I become interested in one part of the subject, which then leads me to research the hell out of the rest of it. If you look at all the acquired information in the world, none of us know a lot about anything, but if we are curious, it allows us to become less ignorant. And Swartz isn’t the first person to point to his curiosity as the difference; Einstein did, as well.

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