Be Like Aaron

A colleague of mine died on Friday and the internet is aflame with sorrow and anger. I pray his family sees the outpouring and feels within the lives he touched and love he generated.

Aaron Swartz, a technical prodigy and activist was being prosecuted for allegedly stealing thousands of documents. A quick search will leads you to lots of details about the circumstances around Aaron’s involvement and the justness of Justice in his case.

Aaron and I first met last June and again in November, but I couldn’t say he knew who I was. Our meeting was on a bus and we were part of a rolling conversation covering the the state of business analysis at ThoughtWorks, activism, world affairs, media and branding, privacy, the security apparatus surrounding international travel, and more. In these many topics it was quickly obvious I knew about one or two issues. Aaron knew about everything else. It was intimidating, even more than usual, to be around someone who was so young and obviously better informed than I am.

As many have said, Aaron was a prodigy. And when you read enough, of his own words and those who knew him, you learn his technical abilities were only part of the story. In truth he was much more.

How many times have you wondered how something worked or why something wasn’t just a little better? Aaron wondered that, too. Aaron’s curiosity was childlike, asking why without any pretext or presumption. He understood the problem was with the systems trapping people into a course of action instead of the individuals. He worked to put together all the parts into a coherent whole and the motivation behind that whole. He believed he could work hard and make a change. He believe he, and we, could change the world. And then he worked to make it that way.

Forget about his prodigious skill. Forget about what he built so far. If you can, forget about all we have lost with his passing. Instead, dedicate yourself  to doing what Aaron did. Find a problem. Choose to understand the big picture instead of complaining. And then do something to fix it.

Aaron asked lots of questions, and then he offered himself and his talents to the solution. As we start 2013, I cannot think of a better resolution to make than to be more like Aaron.