The Life of Aaron Swartz

If you’re not a geek you may not have heard who Aaron Swartz is, or that he recently killed himself. If you are a geek, you haven’t heard much else since it happened a few days ago.

Most the blogosphere is alive talking about his death. I want to talk about his life.

Aaron was a very smart geek. He won the ArsDigita Prize in 2000, when he was 12 years old. At 14 he coauthored the specifications for RSS. RSS is the technology the entire internet uses to keep track of blog posts, among other things—if you’re reading this in a feed reader like Google Reader, you are using Aaron’s work. He helped write the code layer of the Creative Commons license. He cofounded reddit.com, one of the biggest sites on the internet, and became wealthy around 20 years old after reddit was sold. He started DemandProgress.org. The list goes on, he was a stud.

He killed himself when he was 26 years old.

The news hit me harder than I expected. I didn’t know him personally, but I did read his blog when he wrote, and I knew his story. But that’s not the reason his death hit. I’ll tell you the reason in a moment.

Aaron was about 2 years younger than I am. Most people can just be sad about losing a genius kid too early, but I have to face more than that. He and I are not only about the same age, but we share many of the same skills. If you had compared us at 11 years old and asked: who will be more successful? Who will have more of an impact? It would have been a toss up by almost any metric.

But our paths began to diverge as he made more broadminded choices than I did. I built my first major web application around the same age that he build The Info Network. Technically they are similarly complex, but The Info Network was wikipedia before wikipedia existed, and mine was a toy for video game players who wanted to organize tournaments. He got the ArsDigita prize and got on the radar of important people. I got a D in social studies.

And the pattern continues. While I was learning similar things, and doing basically trivial things with my knowledge, he was building RSS, reddit, creative commons, demand progress, and more. And maybe it sounds like hubris, but I know that the difference isn’t that he’s a genius and I’m not. I’m confident that I could do any of the individual things that he did. The difference is that I didn’t fucking do it.

The difference is that instead of applying for ycombinator at 18, I got married and took on 2 step children, and anchored myself in a no man’s land of technology. And it wasn’t an accident: I considered ycombinator. I considered moving to San Fransisco or Boston, the tech hubs of the world. But I decided I “couldn’t” because I prioritized having a family, probably too early.

I decided over and over not to do the Big Thing because it was too big without a network, too hard without support, too much with a mortgage and mouths to feed.

And Aaron’s success also isn’t an accident. He thought very deeply about working on important problems. He was extremely circumspect when reddit sold, and wrote that people were missing the point of entrepreneurship, that it could be so much more. He thought that it was all of our duties to work on truly important problems, and that’s how he lived.

And for all the “impressive” things I get pats on the back for, none of them has had the impact of any one of Aaron’s projects. And it’s my fault. It’s not because he’s a genius and I could never do that. It’s my out of whack priorities.

Here’s why I’m really upset about Aaron’s death. Follow me here:

  1. The reason his death hit me so hard is that in a different life, I imagine that I am him,
  2. but I’ve made different, maybe worse, choices than he did, so I’m not him,
  3. but it’s okay, because he is him, I don’t need to be him as long as he is.
  4. And that’s the thing now. He’s gone, and now it falls to us who remain to take up his work.

I told myself I could skate before because people like Aaron were out there doing what I could and should be doing. And now Aaron’s not there, and I realize it’s all a bullshit cop out.

So, to honor his memory and his philosophy I’m re-evaluating my priorities and the projects I’m working on. I realize that I need to expand my support network like he did, and I need to have the courage to stick to my vision of a better world, just like he did.

Aaron Swartz

Aaron Swartz 1986-2013

Thanks for keeping us honest Aaron, and thanks for all your hard work.

I Choose Everything

I’ve spent a lot of time considering not only what should go on this site, but also what I should focus on in my life. I like a lot of different things. I obviously spend a lot of time thinking about psychology and spirituality, which I write about here. Most people don’t realize I’m also an artist, a professional software developer, a math enthusiast, an entrepreneur, an improv comedian, and more (so much more…).

The perennial problem for people like me is too many options. What do I do with my time? With my life? What should I focus on?

I go through phases where I want to focus on different things, hoping I can finally settle, but it never works out. If I do too much of one thing I like, I miss the other things I like. I get bored and listless.

So I decided to embrace my inner polymath, and just do All The Things. I choose everything.

So, to commemorate my decision, I have spread my wings a little. This blog will not change, I like it talking about what it talks about. But now I’ve built two new places to support my other two major areas of interest.

The first is PeteArt.com, which has a selection of my paintings for download and for sale. Buy all the prints so I have lots of money and I can write really good posts for you.

The other is PeteMichaud.github.com. Github is where all the cool kids in technology keep their software source code, and I’m super cool so a lot of my work is there too. If you’re curious about my technical work and thoughts, check it out.

Consequences

The downside to spreading my attention is maybe that I’ll do less of one particular thing or I won’t be as good at it a someone who does it all the time. The practical reality is that if I try to do one thing for too long, I burn out, so I’m not really doing it “all the time” anyway.

The upside is that really interesting things happen when multiple disciplines overlap. I’m among a sea of software developers who can write Ruby, but how many of them are professional artists? There are lots of artists, but how many artists also have a solid foundation in physics? Blogging is crowded, but how many personal development bloggers can also write enterprise scale web applications?

I built Kenrose because I am a writer and a software developer. What will I do next? I suspect that “synergy” may be more valuable than the lack of focus costs, but that remains to be seen. What do you think?

How to Radically Change Your Life

I have a friend named Layla who is one of the best people I know; when she was about 20 years old, in the 50s, she left her nice little home in Britain, and went by herself, literally wading through the jungles of Central Africa. Chest deep in muck, elephant gun held high above her head, she found the famous explorer she’d been looking for and spent the following years Indiana-Jones’ing with him.

The problem with tips and tricks is that incremental improvements won’t solve your malaise. You read articles about how to improve your life all the time, right? So why does your life still seem like 90% sitting around on the internet reading articles? When is the last time there was a seriously tangible difference in the quality of your daily life?

This is to all the people who are stuck and have been for a while, you know who you are.

I say this shit all the time, and you think I’m joking or that it doesn’t apply to you, but here it is people: If you want change then change, goddammit. Radically and permanently alter your daily life. Leave everything behind and literally, not figuratively, join the peace corps, or move to a commune, or travel the world. Cut yourself off from old patterns and old baggage.

The excuses welling up in your brain right now are so loud, I can hear them from here—shut your trap. Break your lease, quit your job, kiss your mama goodbye, and piss off into the wild blue yonder.

Come back in a little while for all I care. I’m not saying you should live the life of a hermit or vagabond forever. Layla isn’t a vagabond. She came back from Africa, and now she’s a real estate mogul in California. Why is she among the best people I know? Because she’s alive, she’s had among the best experiences I know.

There is probably something you’re working toward. You tell yourself that’s what makes the grind worth it. You want to be a big actor or writer, or a successful business person, and you’re diligently working through that between checking facebook and reddit. But if you’re honest, you’re frustrated and burned out. It’s because that one goal you have requires a huge infrastructure of other investments. Living a middle class lifestyle requires a respectable house (with, like, plumbing), a livable income, friends you can relate to and the rest. You can’t just “be an actor” because you have to maintain the rest of the web of requirements that seem to be a prerequisite, and you only have the sliver left over to act with.

The bottom line is that if you are stuck in your life, you have a choice between keeping all the shit that’s burning you out, and staying exactly as you are, or throwing it all away, all at once, right now, and grabbing life by the scruff. There’s nothing stopping you, just do it.

Young and Dumb

1.

I was a precocious kid, the kind that’s remarkably well-spoken for a 6 year old, and everyone thinks it’s cute. At that time I figured, since I got along with adults so well, I must be pretty much on par. I knew I had facts and figures to learn, but obviously I operated on a similar level.

But then I turned 10, and I could plainly see how much sophistication I lacked when I was only 6. I’ll skip the montage, you get it, this is an ongoing process.

But think about this. Now that you’re an adult, when is the last time you can remember being young and dumb? What is the oldest you can remember being, when you were a categorically different person?

I remember turning 18, and I’m talking to this girl online for a couple months, and fast forward a year and I’ve eloped with her. That was dumb.

I’m 21, I’m spending a lot of my week as an officer in this “business fraternity” at my third tier business school because I have this vague idea that it’s a “great networking opportunity,” whatever the fuck that means. That was pretty dumb.

It gets fuzzier at that point. As an adult you have fewer growth experiences than you do as a child, so it takes longer. The gap between now and when you were young and dumb gets longer and longer.

That’s a bad thing.

I have a theory that you should strive to keep that gap as short as possible. Every year you should look back and think about what a dumbass you were a year ago. That way, you know you’re growing.

To phrase it another way, if you look back and don’t see how much of a dumbass you were a year ago, then you’re still the same dumbass from a year ago.

2.

The perception of time passing is controlled by how many “salient events” take place during that time. For our purposes, salient events are events that we consciously notice. They might be novel in some way, either by being different and new, or by being exciting.

You can see this is true if you consider that a year backpacking abroad will seem in retrospect to have been a whole lifetime. So many new and exciting things happened during that year, that when your brain recreates the experience it feels subjectively “longer” than if you sat in a cubical filling out TPS reports the whole time.

When you’re a kid, time crawls by because every day you’re experiencing new and exciting things. As you age, you settle into routine and soon nothing much is new or exciting, and time is flying by.

When we are bored, we become aware of each passing second. Each agonizing moment becomes a salient event because we’re aware of them as they pass, and so time passes in a trickle. Later that day we sink four hours into World of Warcraft without a second thought.

3.

To be a new and better person means to have new and better experiences—events that shape who you are, and color your perception. Each new experience can potentially be the event horizon of being “young and dumb.” On one side of the horizon you see your young self, and on this side you find your new, better self.

The key ingredient to growth and the perception of a full and meaningful life is those salient events. Don’t sink into routine; seek out new ideas and new people, and new experiences.

The last time I clearly remember being young and dumb was a little over a year ago when I separated from my wife. That was a tremendous moment of growth for me, and I can confidently say that I’m a categorically different, better person now.

But that gap is getting too long, so I’m getting antsy. It’s time to up the ante, make a rukus, meet new people, go new places, start new projects. You should think about doing the same.

Life is a Sunset

Earlier this week I wrote about the importance of being unattached to outcomes and someone commented that it was a very Buddhist philosophy. Buddhist see everything in this world as temporary and encourage people to disengage from temporary things to break the cycle of rebirth.

I don’t consider myself Buddhist, because I think disengagement isn’t the right answer. I think we’re here having a human experience, and we should revel in it and soak it up. I’d feel better jumping off Samsara if I knew what it was for.

Buddhists are right that your experiences as a human being are illusory and temporary, but that doesn’t have to be a bad thing. We don’t spend our lives obsessing over a coming sunset, or living in existential dread for when the sunset is over. We just see it, and it’s beautiful, so we sit with it a while and enjoy it.

We enjoy the moments we have with it, and we fully expect and are at peace with its inevitable ending. We know it’s not really a “thing” in itself—it’s just an arrangement of the sun and the sky and the earth, with a certain type of light hitting our certain type of atmosphere at a certain angle that only people standing near us can see. All that makes a beautiful, meaningful, and temporary experience that really only exists from your particular vantage point in the universe.

When it’s over, nothing is lost, it just means you’ve moved out that vantage point. You also know that you’re part of an ongoing cycle and you’ll see a similar, maybe more beautiful sunset, when the time comes.

That’s my philosophy. I think any experience that you become consciously aware of has the capacity to look beautiful from your particular vantage point, if you want it to.

Success and failure, and love, and anger, and power outages, and travel, and sex, and everything you experience is beautiful, and you can give whatever meaning to it that you choose, and you will eventually move out of the vantage point from which its visible, and that’s perfectly fine.

You’re part of a larger cycle, and when the time is right, you’ll see it all again. And since you’re going to be wiser when that happens, maybe it’ll all be more beautiful and meaningful than you ever knew before.

Say Hello 2 Heaven

There’s a creeping bitterness that nips at my heels. I think I do a good job of keeping it at bay, but everyone knows the cliche of the bitter old person, and I can see how the gray get there. Not everyone can keep it at bay. They get disillusioned after being broken one too many times.

It’s hard to blame them for becoming cynical. There are only so many times you can die under your Dad’s car tire, grow up with a broken face, sink good years of your life into an abusive relationship, lose your father, your mother, your siblings, your children, your livelihood and legacy, and keep on trucking with clear eyes.

I guess it’s important to hit bottom at least once, for perspective, but the part that strikes me as really strange is that there’s nothing to do with all the heartbreak. It feels like there should be something, some outlet for it, and I think people get stuck—sometimes for their whole lives—trying to process their bad experiences, trying to find that outlet to get the hurt out of their bodies and spirits, trying to find the key that will make whatever happened acceptable so they can have permission to be happy again.

But there’s nothing there to find.

There’s no catharsis, there’s no movie ending where the bad guys get what’s coming, or the douchebag sees the errors of her ways. Life just rolls on, and you have to keep moving and just exist with whatever has happened, otherwise you stop living and growing, and burn out into one of those bitter, gray people.

Heaven & The Abyss

I was listening to that song that everyone loves “Say Hello 2 Heaven,” which is about a guy named Andrew Wood, who died of a heroin overdose after battling with depression. One of the lines struck me:

“He hurt so bad, like his soul breaking
But he never said nothing to me”

And that’s what got me thinking about all this. I’ve been broken a few times, and come back mostly better and stronger, but I wonder where the line is between that bitterness nipping at your heels but being at bay, versus being broken and just not telling anyone in the hope that if you fake it long enough, you’ll make it.

I think my conclusion is to throw out the question. That is a question framed by inevitable bitterness, and the question is about what degree you let it affect you. But I reject that premise.

I’m saying that the advice I’d give to my younger self, is that you need to remain unattached to outcomes, and just learn to exist in a state of unconditional, childlike wonder. Horrors and atrocities and soul breaking tragedy will undoubtedly hit, and all you can do in the face of that titanic sadness is shine as brightly as you know how, as a reflection to others that there’s love and hope in the world, but also as a reflection to yourself.

Don’t fake it—I’ve wept until I couldn’t breathe, until my soul ground to a halt, until I had no light to give. If you’re there, be there. The worst thing you can do is exist in limbo, between gut-wrenching sadness and the veneer of normalcy. That limbo is where people get lost—they stumble through a fog of distractions, with that sadness at their heels forever, until the day they die.

I say plumb the depths of that darkness, and stare it in the face. There’s no movie ending, no catharsis. Just you and that abyss, looking back at you. When you can look into it and stop fighting against it existing, then it loses its power over you. It exists, you exist. That’s all.

You exist. Let that childlike wonder take over.

Now you can shine again, from a place so deep inside that tragedy cannot strike, so bright that darkness cannot exist.

Dominoes and the Price of Admission

I really wanted to quit my job. I was too afraid of the domino effect to do it though. Quitting my job meant not being able to pay my mortgage and take care of my family.

We get stuck because we start thinking about the domino effect. The fear that the changes we want are going to cause a cascade of changes we don’t want.

The sticking point here is that we spend all this time thinking about the aspects of our lives we want to change, but when we can’t figure out how to change those things without affecting anything else, we give up.

Fuck yeah, fuck my boss! He can take my gray little Dilbert cubicle and shove it right up his ass!” sounds great until your car payment is due.

Leaving your verbally abusive wife sounds good until you think about finding a new place to live, and the reality of your growing waistline in the face of having to go out and date again. You stop thinking about it because it feels too painful.

Don’t do that.

Here’s what you do instead: write down the consequences of the thing you want to do and work backward to eliminate them. Get rid of the bills you’re afraid you can’t pay. While you can still afford to live in the bigger place, move into a smaller place. While you can still afford two cars, sell them and buy two bikes instead, or a clunker. Now you’re free to stay or quit without the fear of the domino effect.

It helps to think like the worst has already happened. Sit and imagine you’ve just been fired. What do you do? Do you start looking for ways to cut back expenses? Do you take some time off to relax? Do you look for a different job? Do those things now, before you leave your job: cut expenses like you’re destitute, take some time off, look for a different job (you really are a masochist, aren’t you?). Now those dominoes have no power over you.

Tah-dah! You’re free to quit your job.

Caveat: Price of Admission

There are circumstances in which you endure one thing in order to hang onto another thing, and that can be okay. I call it the “price of admission.” You might have a boyfriend who you love dearly, and he might drive you up the wall by constantly leaving his clothes on the floor. You pick them up and wash them. Price of admission.

If you’re facing something that you think might be a deal breaker but you’re not sure, then:

  1. Ask yourself: What is causing my pain? I pick up dirty clothes because I want a clean room and my boyfriend leaves his shit everywhere.
  2. Ask yourself: What do I get for my pain? In exchange for cleaning clothes on the floor and a small portion of my sanity, I get an intensely loving, sexy boyfriend.
  3. Is what I get worth my pain? In other words, if someone proposed a deal to me to get the thing from question two in exchange for my pain, would I take the deal? Yes, I would take a kickass boyfriend in exchange for a life of uncertain laundry cleanliness.
  4. No, the upside isn’t worth the downside. Then stop taking the deal: it’s a deal breaker.
  5. Yes, the upside is worth the downside. Then you have two things to do. You must do the first. The second is up to your discretion and creativity:
    1. Become 100% okay with whatever the bad thing is. Even if you wouldn’t generally choose to clean up clothes after a grown-ass man, you have chosen to clean up in this context. That word is important: cleaning the dirty clothes is now a choice that I made, not a situation that I’m victimized by. If you find it impossible to be okay with a situation, then stop kidding yourself: the upside really isn’t worth the downside, stop taking the deal.
    2. Solve the problem in a different way. Hire a housekeeper. Problem solved.

    Don’t let the domino effect stop you from making the changes you know you need to make for a life of passion and fire. Eliminate the power those dominoes have over you, or fully embrace the prices you deliberately choose to pay for the life you truly desire.

You Suck At Everything

People are born with talents. You better hope you get one that’s impressive or lucrative, because otherwise you’re screwed.

Take these two artists for example:

Artist #1

Artist #2

I didn’t choose these two artists so I could pick on the first one though. I actually picked these two because they illustrate my point, and there’s something really interesting about both of these guys: they have the same name. It’s not impossible, but “Jonathan Hardesty” isn’t the most common name to share.

The Difference Between The Jonathan Hardestys

I want to show you another comparison. It’s the Jonathans’ self portraits.

Jonathan #1

Jonathan #2

What are the chances of these two artists’ names being identical?

100%

Jonathan #1 is from 2002. Jonathan #2 is from 2011, almost a decade later.

The Jonathans have the same DNA, the same mother, the same father. The difference between the two Jonathans is time, determination, and persistence. Talent doesn’t exist; get to work.

Nothing in the world can take the place of Persistence. Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent. The slogan ‘Press On’ has solved and always will solve the problems of the human race.
-Calvin Coolidge

Strong Man and Doer of Deeds

“It is not the critic who counts: not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles or where the doer of deeds could have done better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who strives valiantly, who errs and comes up short again and again, because there is no effort without error or shortcoming, but who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions, who spends himself for a worthy cause; who, at the best, knows, in the end, the triumph of high achievement, and who, at the worst, if he fails, at least he fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who knew neither victory nor defeat.”

Theodore Roosevelt
“Citizenship in a Republic,”
Speech at the Sorbonne, Paris, April 23, 1910

Accomplish something today.

Change the World, No Excuses

Thank you very much!!

Your blog was a little spark that ignite a fire inside me.

I don’t know if you remember, but my heart was destroyed, and the next day a I got an email from G8 (the best 8 universities in Australia) inviting me to apply for masters. It was something i have always wanted, but at that time, it could have been a sudoku or a puzzle, no difference.

I did all the paperwork to think of something else and now I’m leaving! I’ll get my master in crosscultural communication in USydney, with a scholarship that covers everything! I think it’s fate! or maybe the spark was always there and it just needed something to ignite.

Your blog did that to me. I looked for help and i found it in your blog. Thank you very much dude. Everything happens for a reason, I guess. Sometimes things need to be torn down and apart to build something new, better and more beautiful

I feel like super happy now

Thanks!

CB

Cristian Barrera has been a reader for a long time and this week he sent me that message.

When I get those types of messages my heart skips a beat, I feel a rush of blood in my neck, I feel alive. The effort I put into my work here on this site changes peoples’ lives. It empowers people to create themselves and build the reality they choose. I know I’m doing what I’m meant to do.

I could be a well-paid software engineer. My grandparents would be proud, they would understand what I do, and be able to explain it to their friends who would all be impressed knowing I had a Good Job™.

But I chose to build this site instead. I chose to do my breakthrough sessions instead. That wasn’t an easy choice, but it was the right choice.

Do you get messages like this from the people you work with? Are you changing lives? If not, then why the hell not?