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Leaning into the pain

January 13, 2013

I didn’t know Aaron Swartz personally, but I’ve been reading about his life and death (hat tip Suresh Naidu) in the past day and he was clearly a remarkable thinker. His writing about procrastination in the context of computer programming (hat tip Matt Stoller) is particularly resonant. From the essay:

Yes it’s painful, but the trick is to make that mental shift. To realize that the pain isn’t something awful to be postponed and avoided, but a signal that you’re getting stronger — something to savor and enjoy. It’s what makes you better.

Pretty soon, when you start noticing something that causes you psychic pain, you’ll get excited about it, not afraid. Ooh, another chance to get stronger. You’ll seek out things you’re scared of and intentionally confront them, because it’s an easy way to get the great rewards of self-improvement. Dalio suggests thinking of each one as a puzzle, inside of which is embedded a beautiful gem. If you fight through the pain to solve the puzzle, you unlock it and get to keep the gem.

The trick is: when you start feeling that psychological pain coming on, don’t draw back from it and cower — lean into it. Lean into the pain.

You should really read the whole thing. Aaron explains something about good coding practices that elevates coding to a philosophical activity (which it deserves but rarely achieves) and, like any good philosophy, makes us reconsider how we spend our time and what we choose to do with it.

I know exactly what pain I’m leaning into this morning.

Categories: musing
  1. January 13, 2013 at 10:05 am

    I’ve been applying this to my own physical pain, but even more so to my son’s difficulty with grasping basic math concepts. Instead of trying to make it all better by giving him the answer, I let him struggle and guide him as much as possible.


  2. January 13, 2013 at 10:16 am

    Thanks. Besides the “pain” post, I quite like the “mindset” post which basically says that being a hacker (in the sense of “solve the puzzle”) is a good direction to go in.


  3. Marcos
    January 13, 2013 at 10:20 am

    A gem of a post; not only in regards to coding (learning Python now, and finally going to fight my laziness and learn classes) but to life as well (I think it ties up with Nassim Taleb’s Anitifragility).


  4. January 13, 2013 at 11:17 am

    Fighting the apparent benefits of perching near a disastrous phase change is, in Structural Stability Theory, the process of providing an increasing margin from a catastrophic cliff of qualitative disruption, providing an increase in structural stability (SS) against parametric (not dependent variable) fluctuations. I think this process is indeed related to Taleb’s Antifragility, and with its application to financial structures.

    I don’t know if Aaron Swartz ever looked into the exotic world of Thom’s Catastrophe Theory or the less general Structural Stability Theory, but his mind would have brought new insights, I’m sure. His is a tragic loss, more so if as the result of a vindictive campaign in revenge for the fall of SOPA, hidden in the lost cause of profit-marketing academic publications.


  5. January 13, 2013 at 11:25 am

    Question – Your Opinion of higher intelligence and suicidal thoughts? I have been a NERD all my life, not just for business (Twitter) – In school I was the one that blew the curve on every test and got beat up a lot but even as an adult, I have felt like I never fit in…. depression – I’ve dealt with it all my life – I believe there is a correlation between higher intelligence and suicidal thoughts because I live it, each day I remind myself there is a REASON… I’ve even thought about writing a blog to discuss but wanted someone else’s opinion…. Thank you in advance for your thoughts and thanks for writing this!

    Carla aka data_nerd


    • January 14, 2013 at 12:16 pm


      There is, definitely, and especially for women.

      But I like to think of being a nerd as both an advantage and a disadvantage on the depression front – the fact that we can find each other (and that we sometimes are very generous and community-minded like you and make lists of other cool woman nerds) helps us stay hopeful. So we are more aware than most about how shit is fucked up but also more able to communicate it and get corroboration, and ultimately to move past it from being personal to figuring out how to improve the world.

      Good luck, babe! Cathy


      • January 14, 2013 at 1:09 pm

        I so appreciate your comments, I do better than most in combating my daily depression, the logical side of me kicks in but then there are those days – dealing with Aaron’s death in my own head today! Thank you for your kinds words, they mean a lot to me! I agree with everything you said, the world is a fucked up place but there are some really great reasons to hang in there :o)

        Thanks Cathy! Carla


  6. J.L.
    January 13, 2013 at 11:46 am

    I personally liked his thoughts on the nihilism of The Dark Knight.

    [“The Joker had by far the most interesting plan: he hoped to out-corrupt the corrupters, to take their place and give the city “a better class of criminal”.

    And the crazy thing is that it works”]

    [“Thus Master Wayne is left without solutions. Out of options, it’s no wonder the series ends with his staged suicide.”]


  7. Mark G.
    January 13, 2013 at 11:48 pm

    You’ll find that many programmers are severely bipolar, as I am. I can whip myself into mania, unapproachable for many, many hours, memorizing every word I code. Several years ago, I was taken by ambulance to a mental hospital — I hadn’t slept __at all__ in weeks. And as years go by, and as I experience more and more cumulative manic episodes, the more unbearably painful it can be.


  8. February 7, 2013 at 3:49 am

    Superb blog! Do you have any helpful hints for aspiring writers? I’m planning to start my own blog soon but I’m a little lost on everything. Would you recommend starting with a free platform like WordPress or go for a paid option? There are so many choices out there that I’m totally confused .. Any suggestions? Kudos!


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