In real life, we often meet people we admire, but it is pretty seldom to find people that truly inspire us to become better and achieve our full potential. After reading The Last Lecture by Carnegie Mellon professor Randy Pausch, I found myself crying so hard for the loss of someone who really touched me on a personal level even if I never met him face to face.
The Last Lecture is a book Professor Pausch co-wrote with Jeffrey Zaslow based on his highly successful last lecture at Carnegie Mellon entitled Really Achieving Your Childhood Dreams which he delivered in September 2007. He delivered the lecture upon learning that he only had months to live after he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in the terminal stages. Pausch accepted the engagement as his form of saying goodbye to his peers and students, as well as a means to leave his legacy to his wife and children. It became an instant internet sensation soon after.
What truly struck me about the book is the way it jumps out at you. Delivered in a first person narrative and laced with dry wit, the readers’ attention is immediately captivated by lines such as “There’s a formality in the academia that can’t be ignored, even if a man is busy with other things, like trying not to die.” I found myself taking notes of his “Pauschisms” as I read the book. That’s how good it was.
Randy spoke of many things that enabled him to fulfill the dreams he had when he was a child. He spoke highly of his father and his admiration of the man rang true with every statement he attributed to his dad, who died not too long before he did the lecture.
The Last Lecture allowed readers to hear what Randy was truly saying. It was written in such a way like he was right there in the room with you, talking about stuff he did when he was little. He shared his experiences with his old football coach and how his words affected him as he was growing up. He mused about his dreams of becoming an Disney Imagineer and floating around in zero gravity — which he achieved through some manipulation and sidestepping of “The Rules.” He spoke of the people who called him on his bull and made him face the fact that he was becoming obnoxious and overbearing. He spoke of his first real heartbreak and how he and wife wife Jai found each other after his long years of bacherhood.
I am not a big fan of non-fiction works. I tried reading one once and I was so overcome by emotion about the author’s plight that I had to put the book down and pop on a chick flick on the DVD to feel normal again. But Randy’s book was different. It was not depressing, despite the major issue of cancer on the table.
Because he was a scientist, he broke the lecture down in different parts to enable the reader to absorb the impact of each stage in his life. His approach was both methodical and humorous and engaging to the point that one will simply forget that he had cancer when he did the lecture. However, there were points in the book where he tries to appear strong but his sadness and regret over not being with his family longer, breaks through the barrier of joviality.
The book was like an introduction to a good friend, the type of fun geek that will both fascinate and exasperate you. Randy shows off his good qualities as well as his bad sides — his Peter Pan persona and his pitbull persona (I say this because he seemed like a tenacious and stubborn guy in his dealings with his students and his peers). But unlike other overachievers, he tells his stories not just to brag about his accomplishments. He gives credit to where credit is due. Throughout the course of the 206-page book, he credits his parents, his sister, his undergrad professor Andy Van Dam, his football mentor Coach Graham and the variety of friends, students and co-workers he met throughout his journey, as well as his wife and kids who gave him love and peace and the strength to wage his battle against the Big C. He even thanks complete strangers who offered him prayers and support after his lecture.
Readers will learn a lot from reading the book. They will surely relate to some of the realities that the professor vocalizes. These were only some of statements (for me) that really hit home:
1. One’s uniqueness comes from having specific dreams. No two people will have the exact same goal. Nurture yours and work hard in making your come true.
2. The concept of the head fake. The head fake is a football term wherein a player turns his head the other way to mislead his opponent. The mental head fake, is, on the other hand speaking about something and but really teaching a different underlying message.
3. Fundamentals, fundamentals. Because the fancy stuff just wont work if you dont nail the basics.
4. People are more important than things. (This was when his wife Jai was stressing out about crashing their cars and Randy refused to have them repaired because they still worked)
5. Brick walls (trials) are there only to stop the people who don’t want it bad enough. They are there for a reason, to let us know how badly we want something.
6. Even fairy tale moments have risks. (After Randy and Jai got married, they took a romantic balloon ride that almost cost them their lives.)
7. Educators today suffer from the too much ego stroking, too little feedback syndrome in dealing with students, coddling them to the point that they get too big for their britches.
8. Admitting fault and trying to overcome it. (This when he was told by Professor Van Dam in not so many words that he was being a know it all jerk)
9. Luck is where preparation meets opportunity (Seneca, 5 B.C.)
10. Look for the best in everybody. If you wait long enough, people will surprise you and impress you. Almost everybody has a good side. Just keep waiting, it will come out. (Disney Imagineer)
11. Failure is not just acceptable. It is sometimes essential.
12. No job is beneath you. This is how you prove you have the drive and the chops to do more.
13. If you can find your footing between two cultures, sometimes you have to be the best of both worlds. (This he said in dealing with varying cultures of academe and entertainment) Sounds a bit like Hannah Montana but he was speaking here of his immersion into the Disney world from his point of view as an academic.
It takes great courage to battle a disease like cancer, and even more strength to allot hours and days to work on a lecture and a book that encapsulates all the things that you feel you may be able to share with the world. For this, I truly admire Professor Pausch. He has achieved much in his 47 years (He died in July 2008, three months after the book was released), than most people achieve in twice the amount of time because he went for what he wanted, and he worked hard, sometimes in an unorthodox way, to get it. He took risks and he was not afraid to fail, and try again. But he also acknowledged that sometimes, no matter how hard people plan, there will be a variable (problem) — an insurmountable brick wall that you just have to overcome in a different way.
Before he ended his final lecture he asked his audience if they could identify the head fakes:
(The lecture) is not about how to achieve your dreams. Its about how you lead your life.If you lead your life the right way, the karma will take care of itself. The dreams will come to you….
The second head fake? The talk was not only for those in the room. They were also for my kids
Rest in Peace Professor, I get it. And hopefully, so did they.
To check out the video of the last lecture, click here