Computer science professor Randy Pausch at the lecturn during his "last lecture."
The Last Lecture: For his kids - and the rest of us
By TERRY MATHEWS, News-Telegram Arts Editor
June 3, 2008 - At one time not too long ago, Randy Pausch's life was running in greased grooves. The 47-year old computer science professor at Carnegie-Mellon University in Philadelphia had achieved tenure and led one of the most popular classes on campus. He waited 39 years to marry because as he said, "It took me that long to find someone whose happiness was more important than mine." He and his lovely wife Jai (pronounced Jay) were the parents of three children, Dylan, Logan and Chloe.
Then, everything fell off the rails.
Randy and Jai Pausch pose for a family portrait with their childen, Dylan,
Logan and Chloe.
Pausch was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in September of 2006. Although he found the best doctors and opted for the most aggressive therapy, in August of 2007, the cancer had spread to this liver and his spleen. The doctors gave him six months.
On September 18, 2007, Pausch gave a "last lecture" to 400 Carnegie-Mellon students and faculty members. Last lectures are traditionally the way professors have a chance to "impart wisdom to the world" one final time.
Pausch's talk has become one of YouTube's most viewed videos. His book, "The Last Lecture" loosely based on the text of his speech, has been on the New York Times' bestsellers list since it was released on April 8.
So much for the facts. What makes Pausch's lecture so memorable is that he chose to focus on how to achieve your childhood dreams and how to enable the dreams of others.
Before he got down to the subject of dreams, Pausch acknowledged the cancer by projecting images of his tumors via a big screen PowerPoint presentation.
"When there's an elephant in the room, introduce it," Pausch said. "That is what it is. We can't change it. We just have to decide how we're going to respond to that. We cannot change the cards we are dealt, just how we play the hand. If I don't seem depressed or morose as I should be, sorry to disappoint you."
Pausch then launches into an hour of remembering his childhood dreams, reviewing his accomplishments and offering advice on how to make the most of the time we're given.
Pausch's childhood dreams included: being in zero gravity; playing in the NFL; authoring an article for the World Book Encyclopedia; being Captain James T. Kirk of the Starship Enterprise; winning a lot of stuffed animals; and being a Disney Imagineer. And he realized all of them except playing in the NFL. During the lecture, he gave credit to his Little League football coaches for teaching him some pretty important life lessons. To this day, when he's working on a tough problem, he tosses a football while trying to think how to resolve the issue.
"When you do something young enough and when you train for it," Pausch explained, "it becomes part of you."
Pausch also explained the importance of a "head fake."
"We send our kids out to play football," he said. "We actually don't want our kids to learn just football. We send them out to learn much more - teamwork, sportsmanship and perseverance. These kind of 'head fake' lessons are absolutely important."
After the speech, the Pittsburgh Steelers invited him to practice, thus completing his childhood "to do" list.
Pausch also mentioned the importance of brick walls (roadblocks to our dreams).
"Brick walls teach us how badly we want things," he explains. "Some brick walls are made of flesh, and brick walls are there to stop the people who don't want it badly enough."
In addition to realizing his own childhood dreams, Pausch has spent most of his professional life enabling the dreams of others.
While at Carnegie-Mellon, Pausch realized he had the opportunity to enable the dreams of thousands of students. He created a virtual world-building class where 50 students, drawn from all intellectual disciplines, came together to build a virtual reality world of their choosing. The worlds could not deal with violence or pornography, which provided its own set of challenges for the 19-year old boys in the class, Pausch recalls with a chuckle. However, the girls and boys came through - big time.
"On their first assignment, they just blew me away," Pausch said. "The day they showed their projects to the class became an underground thing. Parents and roommates showed up."
At the end of the semester, they had to move the showing to an auditorium because of the demand for tickets.
"The energy in the room was nothing like I've ever experienced before," Pausch said. "At the end of the day, a whole lot of people had a whole lot of fun."
Pausch didn't just concentrate on his professional life. He took time to thank his parents for giving him such a happy childhood.
"I decided to paint my bedroom," he said. "I wanted an elevator and a submarine and they let me do it. They've never repainted it."
Additionally, he said he learned about humility from his father.
"When my mother and I were cleaning out his things after his death, we found that he had been awarded the Bronze Star in World War II," Pausch said. "He never told my mother, even after 50 years of marriage."
Humility was a lesson Pausch readily acknowledges he didn't understand at first.
During a particularly difficult graduate class, Pausch complained to his mother about how hard he had to work and how unfair it was.
"We know how you feel, honey," his mother said. "When your father was your age, he was fighting the Germans."
Pausch got another tough lesson about the importance of humility from his mentor Andy van Dam. van Dam was Pausch's mentor at Brown University and cut him absolutely no slack.
One night, van Dam put his arm around Pausch's shoulder and said, "Randy, it's such a shame that people perceive you as so arrogant because it's going to limit what you're going to be able to accomplish in life," Pausch said. "What a helluva a way to say, 'You're being a jerk.'"
Van Dam is also responsible for Pausch's becoming an educator.
"He said to get a PhD and become a professor," Pausch said. "He said, 'You're such a good salesman that any company that gets you is going to use you as a salesman and you might as well be selling something worthwhile, like education."
The retelling of this moment was one of the few times that Pausch teared up.
Pausch wrapped up the lecture by giving some advice: respect authority while questioning it; learn from others; decide if you're a Tigger or an Eeyore (characters from A.A. Milne's children's book "Winne the Pooh." Tigger is incredibly happy and bounces on his tail, while Eeyore is a sad sack who carries a black rain cloud around.); never lose your childlike wonder; help others; be loyal; never give up; tell the truth; be earnest; apologize when you screw up; focus on others; when you do the right thing, good things follow; get a feedback loop and listen to it; show gratitude; don't complain, just work harder; be good at something - it makes you valuable; find the best in everybody; and be prepared.
After listing the advice, Pausch asked the audience, "Did you figure out the head fake? This is not about how to achieve your dreams. It's about how to lead your life."
Then, he asked, "Did you figure out the second head fake?"
In the book, Pausch says that he put the answer in his PowerPoint presentation because he didn't think he would be able to say it out loud without breaking down.
A higher power must have been in the room that day because in a strong, steady voice he said, "This was not for you guys. This was for Dylan, Logan and Chloe."
I read "The Last Lecture" first, and was truly moved by it. Then I watched the video. While I believe in the power of the written word, in this instance, watching Pausch on the screen is somehow more impressive and moving. You can find a link to the video at Carnegie Mellon's website:
http://www.cmu.edu/uls/journeys/randy-pausch/index.html. Pausch also has a website at www.thelastlecture.com, where he blogs about his progress.
On May 18, with his health failing, Pausch returned to Carnegie Mellon to give a brief 6-minute charge to the graduates. After telling them to find their passion in life and in love, Pausch walked over to his wife, kissed her, picked her up and carried her back to their seats.
While it's a tragedy that Pausch won't be around to watch his children grow into adulthood, they can find consolation in the great legacy he has left for them. During the years to come, they will be able to read his book, watch his videos and know two things: their father was a wise and generous man; and he loved them and their mother beyond measure.