Raw Thought

by Aaron Swartz

Everybody Tells Me So

I remember when I was in fourth grade, while we were eating our snack (graham crackers and milk) in the kitchen, my classmates began discussing the effects of wealth. “Money doesn’t make you happy,” I insisted. I tried to argue the point, but no one else believed me. (The same class was later adamant that Clinton should be impeached, although they did spontaneously throw an anti-fur-coat demonstration.) “Of course money makes you happy,” they insisted. “Just wait, when you’re rich, you’ll change your mind.”

I haven’t.

On TV, whenever a kid is given a to-him-large sum of money, the fatherly adult handing it out says “Don’t spend it all in one place.” Don’t want the kid blowing it on a single movie and then feeling bad that he spent it all. Someone emailed me the same thing the other day, and I had to laugh. I don’t really know how to spend the money period. How could I possibly spend it all in one place? Donate it to the UN?

A friend told me to be sure not to let the money change me. “How could it possibly do that?” I asked. “Well, first you’d buy a fancy new car.” “I don’t know how to drive.” “Then you’d buy a big house in the suburbs.” “I like living in small apartments.” “And you’d start wearing expensive clothes.” “I’ve worn a t-shirt and jeans practically every day of my life.” “And you’d start hanging out with different people.” “I’m so shy I don’t even hang out with the people I know now!”

For months, every time we thought we’d really gotten somewhere on the Condé Nast deal, we’d get a call from Paul Graham. “Don’t get your hopes up,” he’d say. “Deals fall through.” Whenever we passed him on the street, “Deals fall through.” In emails, “Deals fall through.” It got to the point that Alexis put up a photo of Paul Graham and captioned it “Deals fall through.”

I got an email from Paul Graham the other day. “Ok,” he wrote. “Now you can get your hopes up.”

You should follow me on twitter here.

November 3, 2006


You’ve gained two resources: money and time. You have more chance than most of us to maximize your self actualization. Your money opens up more doors that most of us won’t even be able to get our hands on the knob.

It’s up to you to find the creativity to take advantage of those two resources.

Travel to places that we’ll never get to, meet people we’d never be able to meet. Help those we’ll never be able to help. Start a new company that attempts to change the world. Try to fix the education problem. Anything but whine about how unfortunate you are now that you have money.

posted by Egg Shen on November 3, 2006 #

I’m very interested to know what specific burdens, if any, you think come with this money?

posted by Carl Tashian on November 3, 2006 #

When you get to SF, go meet Craig Newmark. You know Craigslist. Read bit more about them. There may be correspondence, matching in the situation.

WSJ interviewed one of their top few months ago I believe - and talked about similar stuff. Or you may already know well about how they are.

They are in rugged (in a sense of ‘homely’) part of SF, Irving, Clement - in Sunset. I believe you’d enjoy Muni ride til get there.

posted by One other, not everyone on November 3, 2006 #

Money can’t buy you happiness.

But it can buy you freedom. And freedom can buy you happiness.

posted by El Payo on November 3, 2006 #

My oh my do I envy Aaron, who has seemingly everthing going for him: Youth, talent, and now money, too :-)

Seriously, congratulations, Aaron! (I’m not sure if I understand this whole “Reddit deal” completely — and of course I’m not supposed to, after all it’s none of my business — but I’m assuming it isn’t some elaborate prank, as one Raw Thought reader said in the comments section of the “Afterparty” thread.)

To give you an unsolicited humble advice: Be careful with the money so you don’t lose the freedom that El Payo alludes to above.

posted by FrF on November 3, 2006 #

Money can buy you freedom and freedom can buy you happiness. I agree.

In fact I’d argue freedom one of the main reasons hackers start startups. I can’t picture Steve Wozniak taking orders from some bureaucratic wacko telling him what to work on. For some reason I bet that even if he had had millions in the bank before Apple, he’d still have worked on the same projects he worked on. But money does not only buy freedom to its owner. Money if in the right hands, brings great things to humanity. No, I’m not talking about some donation to the UN. I’m talking about the crazy scientist and the hacker in the t-shirt that are able to start new open source projects, buy better equipment to run experiments … and because these people are not subject to the bureaucracy of academic/industrial research, new inventions take place that would otherwise not have existed. So yes, my advice is, look no further. Get books, get developers, create your own mini-research lab for that matter… there’s no need to spend the money in the traditional way. Good luck man!

posted by Miguel on November 3, 2006 #


I had a fun time finally getting to meet and chat with you for a few minutes yesterday! (and, yes, folks, he did offer to pay for lunch, but I wouldn’t hear of it - I was the older, fatherly guy - it would be unseemly, I tell you! LOL - but Aaron DID offer! And it was a taco joint, so I think I could cover it!)

And that Paul Graham - what a cheery fellow he is!

posted by Reg Aubry on November 3, 2006 #

There’s lots of advice here about how money and free time are great ingredients for happiness. But where’s the evidence of this? It sounds like hopeful speculation to me, by people who have never had as much time, money or freedom as they think they need.

Somebody in Aaron’s situation has a tougher challenge than most, because he’s got too many choices. Read Barry Schwartz’s “The Paradox of Choice” to get a better idea of just how difficult of a problem this can present.

And Aaron, the good news is the book also talks about how you can protect yourself against the dangers of choice. And he’s like … your surname soul-mate :)

My impression of you from reading your writing is that you are vulnerable to life’s emotional threats, but that you appreciate a good scientific analysis, and are willing to apply techniques that will give you the upper hand. Good luck!

posted by Daniel Jalkut on November 3, 2006 #

Fix being shy. Join Toastmasters. Live life.

posted by ZZZ on November 3, 2006 #

These posts are getting a little creepy.

The money has clearly already changed you since you’re talking about it so much.

BTW, what is the amount?

posted by anon on November 3, 2006 #

“There’s lots of advice here about how money and free time are great ingredients for happiness. But where’s the evidence of this? “

Where’s the evidence? It’s here, make sure to take note. ISBN 12345678 on page 3. Let me know if you have any questions ;)

posted by RRR on November 3, 2006 #

All this “What good is money” talk might be a troubling thought to economists. You don’t sound like a wealth-maximizing automaton at all!

posted by Hallgrimur H. Gunnarsson on November 3, 2006 #

You could donate it to the Rockridge Foundation. (Or Institute, I can never remember)

posted by misuba on November 3, 2006 #

sounds like two things going on here, option-paralysis and guilt. Overcome the first by just getting on with what work you do best for a while, and as for the second… knock it on the head asap. No large measures of good fortune like this are obvious or logical, but for goodness sake don’t feel bad about it. You got it, now just get on with life. Don’t feel guilty, ever.

posted by Ben on November 3, 2006 #

I’m going to agree with the first couple of posts - money gives you freedom, the freedom to work on changing the world for the better. And that’s how you’ll find happiness.

posted by Andrey Fedorov on November 4, 2006 #

“The same [fourth grade] class was later adamant that Clinton should be impeached, although they did spontaneously throw an anti-fur-coat demonstration.”

Fer crissakes, wasn’t anything in your life ever “normal”? When I was in fourth grade I barely even knew who was president (a pre-impeachment-hearings Nixon). I vaguely knew there was a war going on somewhere, but only because the kid (as I now know he was - at the time to me was a grown up since he had just graduated high school) across the street from me got sent off to, what I later realized was, Vietnam.

“I don’t really know how to spend the money period.”

You could find that homeless kid you met in the subway station, who was giving you the story about his mother losing all their money that she kept in her car which ended up getting bulldozed (or whatever the tale was) and give it all to him…

posted by ged on November 4, 2006 #

Oh, forgot…It would be nice to have a ballpark on what you received for the reddit sale - just so we can tell whether you really are as clueless and arrogant as the past few days posts seem to imply, or if this is just an attempt at satire, or perhaps some kind of social experiment you are running.

You don’t need to publish a copy of the ATM bank statement that you printed out. Just indicate whether it is an immediately life changing amount, or if it will mainly provide a nice nest egg at retiement if wisely invested now.

That, plus I am kind of a nosey sort.

posted by ged on November 4, 2006 #

ged, you’re just jealous. And you’re an idiot no question about it. Look at Aaron’s blog … how many entries are there in the past where he talked about all the crap he’d buy the day he’d sell his startup? None. Not a single post. If this guy was really a “clueless arrogant” he’d probably be wearing a tie and a suit and be in some business school gathering talking crap about how he’d be the next Google. How do you think someone in his early 20’s is supposed to take something like this? He’s human man for god’s sake. What exactly are you going to achieve with your post? Change a “clueless arrogant” guy into something better? Get a life. FYI, look for the digg acquisition … ycombinator gets between 6-10% and then they got less than 100k. 4 Members, 2 of which joined somewhat late. Run the numbers and conclude for yourself.

posted by ggg on November 4, 2006 #

Hey Aaron,

I agree about money not making you happy. I’ve met people in other countries who had absolutely no money, but always smiled and were some of the most friendly people I’ve ever met.

If you are looking to “donate” some of the money, I would suggest putting it towards micro-finance loans, which go to entrepreneurs in developing countries to eradicate poverty at the community level. (See Kiva and Global Giving.) I recently inherited some money from a family member, and am looking to do something along those lines - there are people who will benefit from the money far more than I.


posted by Jeremy Higgs on November 4, 2006 #

As a kind of reference, from one of the CondeNet’s holding. Gates/Melinda/Buffet, ex-eBay Omidya and his Adam Smith approach.


This year’s Nobel Peace Prize winner and some high-tech entrepreneurs are competing to provide credit to the world’s poor.

Although I don’t think Aaron talked of donation as a serious option.

posted by a.kusaka on November 4, 2006 #

I hope you made a shitload of money and don’t have too long of a golden handcuffs period because the Wired offices totally BLOW and the people working there are major dinks/douche bags.

posted by the grinch on November 5, 2006 #

Money is just a symbol for resources. Donating money to seemingly “worthy causes” does absolutely nothing, because money isn’t what is needed to solve things like hunger or poverty - it’s people and the decisions they make. Think about how very little money was needed to put together Reddit, and get it sold - seems almost absurd, doesn’t it? Well, that’s actually how it tends to work. It’s not about money, it’s about resources/connections/power/etc.

It’s obvious that you haven’t been exposed to a lot of things, because you will quickly realize that you live in a country with millions of millionaires, and the Reddit money really isn’t all that much … Don’t do the stupid thing and “retire young” or crap like that - go surround yourself with guys who are older and richer than you and yet still keep working on cool stuff; you didn’t have access to “the club” before, but now that you have proven yourself and made a bit of cash, they will let you in. You will learn that yeah, you take your vacation to the tropical island and buy the house you never visit in some distant location, but at the end of the day we are all just people, and people need a passion to keep them going - and it just happens to be that there is this group of people whose passions end up continually making them lots of money.

Find new problems to solve, save your money, and quit talking about it publicly! You are in obvious need of a good banker to sit you down and explain how this shit works. Email anthony.noto@gs.com and tell him one of Goldman’s anonymous clients referred you to him - as a tech analyst, he will know what Reddit is and possibly who you are, and thus he might be able to get you a banking relationship there (and some “sudden wealth therapy”, which you may need). Of course, this may be a lesson in learning that you’re still “poor” - they usually don’t care about people with less than $10m.

Oh, and don’t date any American girls. You’ll just find yourself shopping for your first ex-wife.

posted by unlisted. on November 5, 2006 #

Another concurrence, that “Money doesn’t make you happy” - but it sure does increase the chances!

Aaron, I hate to say this, but it’s really clear that you have never seriously lacked for anything in your entire life. Nothing wrong with that, and I’m not trying for radical-chic, and almost all people reading you are likely highly privileged themselves. But … you’re writing as someone who already had enormous freedom, and wondering how it could be that even more freedom was going to make a difference. Let’s put it this way - not many people are in a position to sympathize there and chime in with good life suggestions.

“And you’d start hanging out with different people.” “I’m so shy I don’t even hang out with the people I know now!” Funny, but not exactly true, else you would not have been able to get the deal which brought you what you have now.

posted by Seth Finkelstein on November 5, 2006 #


I’ll get a life just as soon as you get a sense of humor.


posted by ged on November 6, 2006 #

Seth: The fellow students I was referring to in that section were, in general, even wealthier than I. So we weren’t talking about simply lack-of-needs wealth.

posted by Aaron Swartz on November 6, 2006 #

Aaron: I wasn’t basing my remarks on that section, but rather other things you’ve written. I suspect there might be an issue of confusion between the aspects of wealth as a matter of relative ranking in society, and wealth as resources. That is, sociologically, as you know, many (not all, but many) people with much money are into status displays of resources as showing social rank (“conspicious consumption” - the fancy car, expensive clothes, etc.). Thus money => consumption => rank => happiness. You aren’t interested in playing in that game, intellectuals generally aren’t. HOWEVER, though conspicious consumptions isn’t happiness, it’s a huge and annoying (to other people) mistake to derive from this that available resources have no bearing on one’s happiness.

Money won’t buy you love (though it will buy various services, which may be a reasonable consolation). But arguments stemming from lack of money are frequent relationship-killers.

Money won’t buy you health. But it will buy excellent medical treatment (yeah, yeah, there can be a negative effect of diseases of prosperity, but overall statistically it’s very clearly worth the trade-off).

Money won’t buy fulfillment. But it will buy a lot of freedom to try. While that isn’t hapinness itself, it’s generally highly correlated.

posted by Seth Finkelstein on November 6, 2006 #

Stay away from bankers at large investment banks like Goldman Sachs and Smith Barney. They will just want to sell you things you don’t need.

All you need to know about how to manage your money, you can learn yourself. It is actually much easier than most of the problems you spend your time on.

I recommend reading “The Intelligent Asset Allocator”, and optionally “A Random Walk Down Wallstreet”.

I’m sure that you think it is selfish and childish to worry about how to maximize your new-found wealth, but really, it isn’t. The better you are at managing your wealth now, the more you’ll have to leave to charity later. If you think that the right thing to do is to leave it all to charity right this minute, definitely spend a long time thinking about that first…

posted by Mark on November 7, 2006 #

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