Thoughts Archive

Being Alive

He could not deal with people talking about him. It’s taken me some time since he died to get used to talking about him because I was under such strict instructions not to. But he fucked up something really major. He made a really dumb, bad decision. And it’s my right now to ignore all the other things that I thought were dumb, too. Maybe if I hadn’t felt I couldn’t talk about him to other people this wouldn’t have happened. I’m not going to let those preferences that led, in one way or another, to him killing himself guide my life anymore. I reject them.

- Taren Stinebrickner-Kauffman, Aaron Swartz’s girlfriend

The New Yorker article on Aaron Swartz is one of the best out there.

I don’t know what it is about Aaron’s story that plays on the emotions as deep as they do, stronger than so many of the other horrible injustices in this world. Perhaps it is the young genius laid to rest so young (he didn’t even make the 27 club). Perhaps it is the injustice of our aptly named justice system. Perhaps it is the death of idealism in the sordid face of reality. Perhaps it is because he wasn’t afraid to live and die as a pure soul. There will always be questions: Is it because he found it incapable of existing in his purest state? Did he choose to depart rather than stick around for the muddy and inordinate details? No one will ever know.

Is suicide an act of cowardice or bravery? The debate rages, but there is something particularly heart-wrenching when such an end is partially the result of a lofty, unattainable idealism. The world is full of corrupting influences, and to keep pure from such devices is a nearly impossible task. Most choose to let this corruption creep into their lives–ever so little at first, but eventually it consumes them. Throughout his life, Aaron had the courage to retain that sort of naive and incorruptible idealism that is the best part of what makes us human.

Montaigne says that you can’t really judge a person until you know how they acted when confronted face-to-face with death. When they killed Che Guevara–a man who Sartre called “the most complete human being of our age”–he supposedly said “Shoot me, you coward! You are only going to kill a man!” In his last moments, he bit his wrists so that he wouldn’t cry out in pain. Death is something we try so hard not to think about consciously, but it’s always there, lurking over our shoulder. Everything we do, the heights of our victories, the sufferings we endure, the lovers we take–secretly, deep down inside, we all realize our own mortality.

There is only one time in my life where I was completely convinced I was going to die. It came upon me quite unexpectedly, and in those final, painful seconds, I kept thinking how disappointed I was with my life– “Wow, this it,” I thought sardonically. I couldn’t help thinking how I’d be letting my family down by leaving so prematurely, and I regretted that I couldn’t tell my mom how much I loved her one last time before I departed. To perish thus seemed disgraceful yet anti-climactic, and it kindled within me a feeling of the most profound yet simultaneously ordinary disappointment — an odd combination that I have never quite encountered since. I realized I would have failed Montaigne’s ultimate test.

I survived, but I learned something valuable about myself through the experience.

Daily life is a grind. It is not glamorous. It is hard. It sucks. But every now and then, you see something beautiful, and it gives you the strength to keep on going. When I reflect on Aaron’s life, what he did, his ideals–it gives me that sort of courage. To keep fighting injustice, and to keep being a good person. It’s so easy to become bitter about one’s life–the person you loved left you, somebody jabbed you in the subway, or you only get two toppings on your Pinkberry when you asked for three. It takes a special kind of person to forget the banal injustices of quotidien life. How do we take a step back and realize how lucky we truly are to be living the way we do? No, we go out into the world and revenge ourselves upon innocent souls–maybe it is an arrogant stare at passersby, maybe it is the hidden political agendas we sow, maybe it is the way we treat those who have no power over us.

Whatever it may be, it is horrible, and it is wrong. It ever so slowly morphs us into sick little creatures that our childhood selves would find unrecognizable. When I sit back and truly think about all the little ways I’ve sold out in my life–all the ways I’ve abandoned the loftiest of my childhood sentiments–it makes me question things. Some days, I am paralyzed by these thoughts, and I waste away the morning and afternoon in useless contemplation on the person I could have been–the person I should be. Sometimes, I find myself wishing I had a tiny fraction of the courage and resolution to be a human being that Aaron had. On reflecting on his disgust at having power over others, he had this to say:

When I go to a library and I see the librarian at her desk reading, I’m afraid to interrupt her, even though she sits there specifically so that she may be interrupted, even though being interrupted for reasons like this by people like me is her very job.

The cliche is that death gives meaning to life. One of the most memorable prose passages I have ever read is Dostoevsky’s account in Brothers about his meditations when he was on Russia’s version of death row in Siberia and was fully convinced that he was going to die:

at the beginning of the journey the condemned man, sitting on his shameful cart, must feel that he has infinite life still before him. The houses recede, the cart moves on- oh, that’s nothing, it’s still far to the turning into the second street and he still looks boldly to right and to left at those thousands of callously curious people with their eyes fixed on him, and he still fancies that he is just such a man as they. But now the turning comes to the next street. Oh, that’s nothing, nothing, there’s still a whole street before him, and however many houses have been passed, he will still think there are many left. And so to the very end, to the very scaffold.

We are all of us that condemned person, deluding ourselves throughout our lives. Most of us live as though we have so many houses and streets before us, and we live this way until we are faced with the brutal reality of The End. If we truly realized the meaning of the scaffold, many of us would live differently. The contemplation of human frailty when confronted with death is difficult, but that consideration ultimately makes us stronger people.

Accepting the fact that one is condemned can be one of the most liberating experiences in life. It makes us realize that the most important things are kindness, humanity and the way we treat those around us, whether kin or stranger. It makes us realize that we can make a positive difference for others, and it makes us think that perhaps there is, in fact, a good reason to be alive.

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A New Chapter

Today, I’m announcing that I will be joining TechStars as Managing Director in New York City.

I love New York. When I first moved to this city eight years ago, living on the sordid shores of 12th Avenue, I discovered a peculiar energy and vitality that I had never quite felt before and have never felt anywhere else since. Throughout my subsequent moves and journeys throughout NYC as well as places around the world, this is the city I’ve always considered home. At one point in the mid-2000s, Manhattan was on the verge of becoming an investment-banking dormitory, but a lot has changed since then, both in the world and in New York City itself. The tech community here has blossomed, becoming a powerful force in its own right. I’m excited to continue to play a role in fostering this incredible group of people, as I’ve been doing for the last several years.

These are exciting times for all of us – with the industry at an inflection point, entrepreneurs are nervous and commentators feed the echo chamber with every new article on the “Series A Crunch”. But the tide will eventually shift, as these macro pendulum swings have a tendency to do. Dry powder in the venture capital industry, which peaked at nearly $80 billion in 2001, has finally worked its way back down to the 1985-1995 trend line. While tech companies that have recently gone public are still on average 30% off their highs of last year, they have made steady gains since the depths that were reached in the latter months of 2012. The degree to which the valuation of private startups (and the industry as a whole) has been tied to the immediate state of the public markets has always been a mystery to me, considering the years it takes to build a great company can last longer than the average American marriage. Real returns in tech don’t come from hopping on the latest bandwagon. But fickle valuations are a fact of life. No one can predict with accuracy where sentiments will go—as the banks in Greece or houses in Spain have taught us—but the world is far from over.

Through all these ups and downs, great entrepreneurs just put their heads down and focus on building great companies, and I am as committed as ever to help build those great teams and nurture their great ideas. One of the most wonderful experiences in my life was in bringing together a community of talented people as director/producer of my first film, an indie documentary. It was exhilarating, and it was an early, intense lesson on how a small group of passionate individuals can work to create something valuable out of nothing. Over the years, as an investor at NEA and Warburg Pincus, I’ve had the privilege of helping to nurture the dreams of numerous teams and businesses, providing resources for them to flourish.

As I look forward to beginning this new chapter in my life with the amazing people at TechStars, I will forever be thankful to my mentors and colleagues at NEA. Above all, I look forward to continuing to foster the wonderful, burgeoning tech community I have come to know and love in New York City.

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