Wednesday, March 17, 2010

The Last Lecture

The Last Lecture by Randy Pausch

Book review by Teresa Friedlander, copyright 2010

Some kids never grow up. Randy Pausch, who departed this world at age 47, held fast to his ability to find fun in life, even after learning that he was dying of pancreatic cancer. Dr. Pausch was at the height of his career as a professor of computer science and human-computer interaction at Carnegie-Mellon University in Pittsburg, Pennsylvania. He was married to the woman of his dreams and was father to three small children. While neither rich nor famous, Randy Pausch was successful in all the ways that mattered: he was happy at home and at work, by himself and with others. When physicians delivered his death sentence, Dr. Pausch – a perpetual child at heart – reacted in a very un-childlike manner. He skipped the denial and anger phases of grief and set about creating a legacy for his family which would enable him to remain part of their lives long after he was gone.

Carnegie-Mellon University sponsors an annual lecture by a professor who is considered singular, remarkable, and in demand. The idea behind this lecture series, entitled “Journeys”, was to ask great professors to share vital life lessons, as if this were a last opportunity to do so. In 2007, one year after his diagnosis, Dr. Randy Pausch, delivered his lecture to a standing-room-only audience. He called it “The Last Lecture” and began with a slide show of his diseased liver before dropping down to do push-ups. It was ironic, he said, that he could be so fit and feel so well while cancer was rapidly stealing the life from him. Dr. Pausch wasn’t interested in crying and he didn’t want his audience to cry either. So he made them laugh instead. Following the lecture, which became an overnight sensation, Dr. Pausch wrote a memoir, celebrating the people in his life whom he felt enriched by: his parents, wife, children, friends, colleagues, mentors, students, etc. The result of this rapture is The Last Lecture, co-written by Jeffrey Zaslow of the Wall Street Journal.

The Last Lecture is a delightful 206 pages of how to approach life positively, and can be read in one sitting. It is the kind of book which easily could have been maudlin, morbid, or both. Rather, its purpose is to inspire all of us to retain or re-find our childhood dreams, because it is these dreams which can lead us to a happy and fulfilling life as individuals, and on a larger scale to save humanity from our baser nature. That was the essential message Randy Pausch imparted to his audience. So, what were Randy Pausch’s childhood dreams?

“Men first walked on the moon during the summer of 1969, when I was eight years old. I knew then that pretty much anything was possible. It was as if all of us, all over the world, had been given permission to dream big dreams.”

During a visit to Disneyland in 1969, Randy decided that when he grew up he wanted create experiences that were equally fun and inspiring. A life-long “Trekkie”, young Randy wanted to be Captain Kirk. Most of all, geeky Randy Pausch wanted to be the “coolest guy at the fair”, the one who won the giant stuffed animals. His other dreams included playing in the NFL, being published in the World Book Encyclopedia, and experiencing zero gravity. While, none of these dreams was aimed at saving the world, the point is that whatever your dream is, don’t leave it behind with your childhood toys.

Before succumbing to pancreatic cancer, Dr. Pausch realized all of his childhood dreams, perhaps not in the way he originally envisioned, but in the end that didn’t really matter. Dr. Pausch worked for Disney Imagineering and Electronic Arts, helping to create cutting edge virtual experiences for modern Disney patrons before establishing innovative programs at Carnegie-Mellon; he and William Shatner became friends and communicated frequently; and on numerous occasions he won the giant stuffed animals at many fairs by doggedly keeping his eyes on the prize. He published the definitive entry on virtual reality in the Encyclopedia Britannica. As far as playing in the NFL, shortly after delivering his “last lecture”, the Pittsburgh Steelers invited Dr. Pausch to attend one of their practices. In his lecture, Dr. Pausch had related the most important lesson he had learned as a child from his first football coach: with twenty-two players on the field, and only one touching the ball, the emphasis had to be on the other twenty-one players. That ended up being a parable for how he dealt with his cancer. Rather than letting the cancer drive his life, Dr. Pausch focused on everything and everyone else. He wasted no time feeling sorry for himself because he wanted to enjoy every second of the time he had left.

Whatever your political or religious beliefs, this book will make you feel better about being here, now, in America. We have great differences which politicians and lobbyists exploit (for their own benefit) at the expense of honest, decent, citizens struggling to get through life one day at a time. Reading this book made me remember that wonderful feeling of optimism in our country before President Kennedy was assassinated and the Vietnam War created social and political divisions which have yet to heal. The Last Lecture also reminded me that in spite of that turmoil, visionaries, such as Dr. Martin Luther King, dreamed of a world in which one’s race and ethnicity were facts rather than barriers. Today we have a president whose father was Kenyan and whose wife is the descendent of American slaves. Whether you voted for him or not, President Obama represents a great step forward for our nation in terms of moving beyond the painful legacy of slavery, segregation, and racism. Without one great man saying to one great nation: “I have a dream…” Barack Obama would never have become a senator, Mike Steele would never have been Maryland’s lieutenant governor, and culturally we all be rather boring.

Reading this book reminded me of the poem by Langston Hughes, entitled “Dreams

Hold fast to dreams
For if dreams die
Life is a broken-winged bird
That cannot fly.

Hold fast to dreams
For when dreams go
Life is a barren field
Frozen with snow

I can’t help but think that Randy Pausch read this poem in high school and took it to heart. Without dreams, wishes, and aspirations, he would have quietly died, leaving a widow and three children with little more than Social Security benefits. By dreaming and reaching out, Randy Pausch created an enormous support network for his family, wrote a best-selling book, and inspired countless thousands of people to reorient their priorities.

The Last Lecture reminded me that life is a gift that we should make the most of because we never know when the end will come, and it would be terrible if we left our loved ones wondering how we felt about them. When confronting his demise Dr. Pausch said, "I don't know how not to have fun. I'm dying and I'm having fun. And I'm going to keep having fun every day I have left." Dr. Pausch’s wife, children, friends, and others all knew how he felt about them. Before he died, he cleaned up after himself so his wife wouldn’t have to and wrote lots of thank you notes to people who had done kindnesses to him and his family. Until he drew his last breath, Randy Pausch was loving life. We should all exit so gracefully.
To access Dr. Pausch’s lecture online, visit

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