The Last Lecture

Imagine you were a college or university teacher. What would talk about in your last lecture, especially one that you were going to give because you had been diagnosed with an incurable disease and had but a few months to live? Would you try to summarize the research you have done or the future of your discipline or perhaps what you have learned by studying it for most of your life?

This opportunity, sad to say, was recently given to Randy Pausch, a professor of computer sciences at Carnegie Mellon University. Pausch had been informed he had a terminal pancreatic cancer that subsequent treatments failed to arrest. With three to six months of life left, Pausch delivered his widely known last lecture that can be viewed on the Web or read in a slightly expanded version in The Last Lecture.

What I remember most about this book is the dreams that Pausch says he had as a child. As he enumerated them, I tried to recall the dreams I had as a young person. I could not recall a single one, that is, a childhood dream to attain a lifelong goal once I became an adult. All my dreams then were focused on the immediate tasks before me—get the assignment done, do the reading, write the paper.

Paush had many dreams and enthusiastically encouraged his listeners never to give up on their own. As a youth, he had dreamed of being in zero gravity, playing in the National Football League, writing a World Book Encyclopedia article, meeting and being Captain Kirk—a character in the Star Trek series, being "one of the guys who won the big stuffed animals in the amusement park", and becoming a Disney Imagineer, in particular, to work on their cyberspace/new media projects.

In the first part of his lecture Pausch described how he was able to achieve in most respects each of those dreams—while he never played in the National Football League, Pausch participated in a practice session with the Pittsburgh Steelers after they had learned it was one of his childhood goals. In the second half of the lecture he explained with a set of lessons how his viewers or readers could set about reaching their childhood dreams, as well.

Given all the hype that I had heard about Pausch’s lecture, I had high expectations for it. I confess, however, that while I was impressed with Pausch’s gusto, his lecture didn’t meet the hopes I had for it. Perhaps that was because I scarcely had any dreams as a child and the relatively simplicity of his “enabling” lessons.

Regardless, I did make note of a few passages and they are noted below. The passages that I did make note of in his volume are listed below.

What wisdom would we impart to the world if we knew it was our last chance?

We cannot change the cards we are dealt, just how we play the hand.

…if you dispense your own wisdom, others often dismiss it; if you offer wisdom from a third party, it seems less arrogant and more acceptable.

Have something to bring to the table, because that will make you more welcome.

I sometimes think I got more from pursuing that dream, and not accomplishing it, then I did from many of the ones I did accomplish.

You’ve got to get the fundamentals down, because otherwise the fancy stuff is not going to work.

…stay positive.

A friend of ours suggested that Jai [his wife] keep a daily journal, and Jai says it helps. She writes in there the things that get on her nerves about me. “Randy didn’t put his plate in the dishwasher tonight,” she wrote one night. “He just left it there on the table, and went to his computer.” She knew I was preoccupied, heading to the Internet to research possible medical treatments. Still, the dish on the table bothered her. I can’t blame her. So she wrote about it, felt better, and again we didn’t have to get into an argument.

Time is all you have. And you may find one day that you have less than you think.

Luck is indeed where preparation meets opportunity.