A lot of professors give talks titled "The Last Lecture." Professors are asked to consider their demise and to ruminate on what matters most to them. And while they speak, audiences can't help but mull the same question: What wisdom would we impart to the world if we knew it was our last chance? If we had to vanish tomorrow, what would we want as our legacy?
When Randy Pausch, a computer science professor at Carnegie Mellon, was asked to give such a lecture, he didn't have to imagine it as his last, since he had recently been diagnosed with terminal cancer. But the lecture he gave–"Really Achieving Your Childhood Dreams"–wasn't about dying. It was about the importance of overcoming obstacles, of enabling the dreams of others, of seizing every moment (because "time is all you have…and you may find one day that you have less than you think"). It was a summation of everything Randy had come to believe. It was about living.
In this book, Randy Pausch has combined the humor, inspiration and intelligence that made his lecture such a phenomenon and given it an indelible form. It is a book that will be shared for generations to come.
"We cannot change the cards we are dealt, just how we play the hand." –Randy Pausch
- Reading level: Ages 12 and up
- Hardcover: 224 pages
- Publisher: Hyperion; 1st edition (April 8, 2008)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 1401323251
- ISBN-13: 978-1401323257
- Product Dimensions: 7.2 x 5.5 x 0.8 inches
- Shipping Weight: 10.4 ounces
If "he not busy being born is busy dying", Randy Pausch is immortal
But a “last lecture” by Randy Pausch was different in every possible way. The professor of Computer Science, Human Computer Interaction, and Design at Carnegie Mellon University was just 46, and this really was his last lecture — he was dying.
And dying fast. In the summer of 2006, Pausch had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, a ferociously efficient killer. Only 4% of its victims are alive five years after diagnosis. Most die much faster. Think months, not years.
Pausch fought back. Surgery. Chemo. Progress. But in August of 2007, the cancer returned — and now it had metastasized to his liver and spleen. The new prognosis: 3-6 months of relative health, then a quick dispatch to the grave, leaving behind a wife and three little kids.
On September 18, 2007 — less than a month later — Randy Pausch gave his last lecture.
No one would have faulted him for launching a blast about desperately seizing opportunities in an irrational universe. Instead, Pausch delivered a laugh-filled session of teaching stories about going after your childhood dreams and helping others achieve theirs and enjoying every moment in your life — even the ones that break your heart. Pausch’s philosophy, in brief: “We cannot change the cards we are dealt, just how we play the hand.”
The lecture was taped, and slapped up on YouTube. Jeffrey Zaslow wrote about it in The Wall Street Journal, and news shows made Pausch “person of the week” — and soon Pausch had a book deal reported to be worth almost $7 million. Few expected him to be alive when it was published.
On February 19, I interviewed Randy Pausch for Reader’s Digest. To the surprise of many — including Pausch — he was still his recognizable, energetic self. As I write (in early April, 2008), Pausch reports he’s recovering from a standing eight count. But his good news doesn’t deceive him. He notes that pancreatic cancer did to the photographer Dith Pran (“The Killing Fields”) what Pol Pot couldn’t — it buried him in three months.
And now we have the book. It’s two books, really, because it reads one way with the author still among us and will surely read differently when “The Last Lecture” is like the The Butterfly and the Diving Bell — the record of a dead man, talking. The first book invites your support and gives you a wake-up call. The second, I suspect, is also a wake-up call but, between the lines, reminds you that even happiness can’t save you from death.
Somewhere in between — in the quiet space where a book really lives — is a document that accomplishes a lot in 200 pages. It’s about paying attention to what you think is important (when asked how he got tenure early, Pausch replied, “Call me at my office at 10 o’clock on Friday night and I’ll tell you”) and working hard and listening really well. It’s easy to miss that last part of that in the emotion and the stories surrounding this book, but Pausch argues that hearing what other people say about you and your work is crucial to success and happiness. Because this is what you get: “a feedback loop for life.”
So, if you must, shed your tears for Randy Pausch. Imagine what it would be like if you or your dearest loved one drew the card called pancreatic cancer. And then put dying aside, and get on with your dreams. Amazing how many you can achieve if you want them badly enough. And how they have the power to cushion the pain when the bad stuff happens.
Sounds crazy, I know: Pollyanna in the cancer ward. But I talked with the guy. And we laughed and laughed. Of all the achievements in a life that’s winding down, that’s got to be up there.
The life and dying of a decent man
At one point in my life, I spent a couple of years as a hospital chaplain, ministering pretty regularly to folks who were dying. I discovered one thing: generally people died as they had lived. How a person approaches his or her dying reveals a great deal about the values, character traits, dispositions, and attitudes with which they navigated the business of living.
What comes through clearly in Randy Pausch’s little book is that he’s a guy who’s incredibly decent and loving. He writes warmly of his childhood and his parents; he assures us that he’s achieved just about every goal he dreamed of as a youth; he appears to be a good and dedicated teacher; he loves his wife and kids; and even when he assures us that he, like everyone else, has personality issues that need working on–he is, he tells us, a “recovering jerk”–his admitted foibles seem pretty tame. Pausch is Joe Everyperson.
I think that’s the value of his Last Lecture. Pausch clearly isn’t of a philosophical bent of mind. If you pick up his book looking for profound existential discussions about human frailty and mortality (as, I confess, I did), you’re not going to find them. I’ve no doubt that, since the onslaught of his illness, he and his wife Jai have endured despairing dark nights of the soul, paralyzing bouts of panic, and heart-pounding rage against the dying of the light. But except for very rare intimations, Pausch draws a veil over such episodes, and instead offers a mixture of autobiographical reflections and homespun tips on making the most of life (such as managing time, re-thinking priorities, and learning to listen to others). As he tells us, his final lecture to us is about life more than death.
Pausch’s ability to hang onto the everyday, to the ordinary aspects of life even as his own draws to an end, is both the book’s strength and its weakness. It’s a strength in that it spotlights human courage and compassion, and in this regard The Last Lecture is an inspirational success. But one also senses that Pausch’s insistence on staying on the surface of things might suggest a deep resistance to the unsettling fact that the surface of things is inexorably slipping away from him. One can talk candidly about one’s death without having come to terms with the reality of what one’s saying.
I say this without any intent whatsoever of making a value judgment. Each of us copes with death the best we can, and I have no window into Pausch’s soul. It’s just that after reading (and rereading) his book, I don’t really feel as if I’ve come to know him. Although The Last Lecture is the story of Randy Pausch’s life and dying, I sometimes got the uncanny impression that he wasn’t really in it. At the end of the book, I felt as if I’d gotten to know his wife, Jai, better than I knew Pausch.
But these reservations should be taken as they’re intended: reflections, not necessarily criticisms, of a moving story about a man confronting the mystery all of us must face. Pausch’s book, the chronicle of an ordinary man trying to die as decently as he lived, is well worth reading.
A Big Gift of Affirmation in a Small Package
This book is a very large gift in its compact, neatly bound actuality. It is a gift of hope and affirmation, a gift of encouragement and courage.
Recently I said good-bye to a friend and business colleague who at 58 died of pancreatic cancer. His was a more private passing, but nevertheless he fought the disease until the disease won, and he died with dignity. Two days before his death, he called a mutual friend to wish this friend good luck with minor corrective surgery. Even two days before death my stricken friend was thinking of others’ welfare. As I sat in his memorial service with 300 other mourners, watching a slide presentation of his photographs and original art, I also thought about Randy Pausch. The two personalities mixed together because they shared so many of the same qualities: creativity, professionalism, gusto for living, a sense of humor, lifelong dedication to giving back to their communities, and a profound faith in personal power.
This is the story of The Last Lecture: that we can face any challenge in this life as long as we welcome our fate with optimism and determination to confront all odds. We can live for the welfare of others. We can live today with our legacies in mind for the future — after we are also gone.
The good professor is his own metaphor. In this final gift, he both teaches and does.
Much will be said about this book and its immediate iconic impact on a nation experiencing the doldrums of war, economic turmoil and loss of standing among other nations. Here is the story of one American sharing the wisdom of our universal humanity, our fragility, our mortality, and our capacities to transcend. Here’s one of our best and brightest.
In the ways of passionate storytellers, Randy Pausch and coauthor Jeffry Zaslow tell us how to achieve the most vital of all human yearnings: realization of childhood dreams. And for adults who believe their dreams have passed them by, this book offers an intuitive methodology to reignite the fires of youthful optimism and fervor.
Within this book’s narrative are timeless lessons of showing gratitude, setting goals, keeping commitments, tolerating frustration, maintaining a sense of humor in the face of adversity, telling the truth, working hard, celebrating victories when they arrive, and choosing to be a fun-loving Tigger over a sad-sack Eeyore.
Life is short, a fact affirmed once again with the passing of Randy Pausch on July 25, 2008. This “last lecture” is no less significant for the young and healthy as it is for the sick and old.
Dream big, reach for the stars now…
One of a Kind
The Last Lecture has Randy’s timeless insight on living and loving life, though he is also an incredible advocate for pancreatic cancer research. May all the attention being given to the book lead to tremendous support for eradicating this horrible cancer that has a 95% mortality rate within 5 years.
Read this book and watch Randy’s lecture on YouTube. As cliche as it sounds, you will never see the world the same way again.
In The Last Lecture, Randy discusses Alice [...], which is a free virtual reality program that makes it really easy to create 3D movies and stories, while learning computer programming. It’s great for kids, and adults who are kids at heart. Just like the Last Lecture has helped Randy share with millions of people his philosophy on life, Randy has already helped countless students through providing Alice as a free, fun, challenging, educational program.
I draw these comparisons to pancreatic cancer advocacy and Alice because they exemplify the kind of person that Randy is, and the challenges and legacies he leaves for us. And, since Randy says to “always tell the truth”, I believe there is no better way for the world to honor the man than to support these things to which he gives so much.
Every Moment Counts
The book reminded me of Being Here: Modern Day Tales of Enlightenment, a collection of stories by Ariel & Shya Kane about life, full of grace and beauty.
These books are definitely worth reading and offer a powerful perspective of living in the moment. Both books consist of independent chapters, so you don’t need to do front-to-back reading, or make any time commitment, but can just pick up either book and read a chapter. That’s all it took for me to
feel more balanced and my view of life shifted and became more vibrant. I highly recommend both books.
A true inspiration
“The Last Lecture” is not a book about dying, it is a book about living. The book is filled with warmth, humor, and was truly inspiring. Another book I really enjoyed reading is Being Here: Modern Day Tales of Enlightenment by Ariel & Shya Kane, a book of short stories about living in the moment. Both of these books
touched my heart.