Pausch’s The Last Lecture is a Must Read

Published in Pawtucket Times, January 30, 2015

Sometimes you may just pick up a good book to read, especially during a storm when the Governor’s call for a State of Emergency three days ago because of the blizzard. Yes, being homebound because of bad weather does have its advantages. It gives you time to read books, especially if you still have electricity.

For years, my wife has gently suggested that I read a book, lying on her night stand. She told me that “it’ll help you put life’s priorities in order.” But, I never did, until this week when I finally picked up that nationally acclaimed book, “The Last Lecture” coauthored by Randy Pausch and Jeffrey Zaslow. I quickly devoured the 206 page book, published by Hyperion in 2008, in just one day.

Thoughts of a Dying Professor

Doctors gave Pausch, a 47-year-old father of three, from three to six more months of “good health” when they diagnosed him with pancreatic cancer in August 2007. Just one month later, the dying Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) professor would address a packed auditorium for his afternoon lecture, addressing over 400 students, colleagues and friends. His talk was part of an ongoing CMU lecture series where top academics gave their “final talk”, revealing what really matters to them and the insights gleaned over their life if it was their last opportunity. Sadly, Pausch literally got his last chance.

Pausch was an award-winning professor and researcher, in the Computer Science, Human Computer Interaction, and Design at CMU in Pittsburg, Pennsylvania. He passed away from complications from his disease on July 25, 2008. Zaslow, a columnist for The Wall Street Journal, attended the last lecture, and wrote the story that helped fuel worldwide interest in it.

According to Wikipedia, “The Last Lecture became a New York Times bestseller in 2008, and remained on the prestigious list for 112 weeks, continuing into the summer of 2011. The book [ISBN: 978-1-4013-2325-7] has been translated into 48 languages [including Italian, German, Chinese, Arabic and more] and has sold more than 5 million copies in the United States alone, states the free internet encyclopedia.”

The CMU shot a video (one hour and 16 minutes in length) of Pausch’s last lecture—and soon the footage began spreading across the internet, on You Tube, popping up in tens of thousands of websites. Pausch’s inspirational talk, which has been viewed today by more than 17 million people today on You Tube can now be seen on CMU’s website, at http://www.cmu.edu/randyslecture/. His book and e-book can also be purchased on this website or at any bookstore, including your favorite neighborhood store.

Pausch’s Last Hurrah

Pausch’s lecture, “Really Achieving Your Childhood Dreams” wasn’t about his dying. But, he freely admitted that he would rather have terminal cancer than being hit by a bus and suddenly killed because if he was hit by a sudden accident he would not have time to spend with his family and getting his house in order. He moved from Southern Virginia to Pittsburg so his wife, Jai, and his children could be near family.

Meanwhile, the CMU lecturer humorously begins by noting that while he had cancerous lesions throughout his body, outwardly he looked healthy. At one point, to prove his point, he dropped down to the floor and did push-ups on stage.

Throughout his talk, Pausch reeled off his unique insights gained from his four plus decades of life experience, specifically surmounting the challenges in your life he calls “brick walls.” He says, “Brick walls are there for a reason. They give us a chance to show how badly we want something,” he said. Seize the moment, he adds, because, “time is all you have…and you may find one day that you have less than you think”

One of his dreams was becoming a Disney Imagineer. Three rejection letters and a Dean who attempted to block his efforts were an insurmountable “brick wall.” He ultimately would accomplish that childhood dream. He met William Shatner, won large stuffed animals, floated in zero gravity and even authored an article in the World Book encyclopedia. Although he never played for the NFL, he learned about life from his football coaches in his early school years.

So, while Professor Pausch stresses his talk was about achieving childhood dreams, it’s really about how to lead your life, he admits. “If you live your life the right way, the karma will take care of itself,” he believes. Oftentimes referring to ‘head fake’ throughout the lecture, meaning we tend to gain the most experience or lesson when guised by something else. But, at the lecture’s conclusion, Pausch freely admits the ‘last lecture’ was the biggest head fake of them all – for it wasn’t for those in the room but for his children, all under 7 years old. His talk is sprinkled with things he wants his children to learn and wants them to know about him, including personal stories of his growing up, his courtship with their mother, and ways to succeed in life. So, there are many levels and points Pausch gets across in his lecture, detailed in his bestselling book.

Pausch practiced what he preached, telling the packed auditorium to enjoy life and just have fun, like he did. Live life to the fullest because one never knows when it might be taken away, the terminally ill professor warns, who has just months to live.

Loyalty is important so “dance with the one who brings you,” says Pausch. He quotes Seneca, the Roman philosopher born in 5 B.C., “Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity. With this quote, “Other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, how was the play?” He reminds us not to focus on the little issues while ignoring the big ones. “We cannot change the cards we are dealt, just how we play the hand,” he says.

Pausch tells a story of his father’s “heroic achievement” for bravery awarded to him by the commanding general of the 7th Infantry Division in War II. The 22 year old solider, like many of the Greatest Generation, never mentioned his bronze star, which he only discovered after his death. It just never came up, stated Pausch, but revealed volumes about the importance of being touted their awards, never revealed to mother.

The CMU Professor would even award the “First Penguin” to students who failed to achieve their goals in his “Building Virtual Worlds” course, even though they took a risk using new technology or ideas in their design. He says this award was for “glorious failure” and “out-of-the-box thinking and using imagination in a daring way.”

The Last Lecture is a great read for those who seek a road map for living a better more productive life. It’s jam-packed with Pausch’s wisdom that will certainly come in handy throughout one’s journey in life especially when you confront the “brick walls” or challenges in your personal and professional careers. Take time to live your dreams to be crossed off your bucket list. Sometimes life can be unexpectedly too short, just like Pausch ultimately found out.

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