on April 8, 2008
One of the staples of "the college experience" at many schools is the "last lecture" --- a beloved professor sums up a lifetime of scholarship and teaching as if he/she were heading out the door for the last time. It's the kind of tweed-jacket-with-elbow-patches talk that may or may not impart useful knowledge and lasting inspiration, but almost surely gives all present some warm and fuzzy feelings.
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.
UPDATE: Randy Pausch passed away on Friday, 25 July 2008. R.I.P.
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.
on April 9, 2008
As I opened the shipping box from Amazon.com, I found two preordered copies of Randy Pausch's book, one for my family and one for whoever needs it most within the next few weeks. This could be a friend or business acquaintance who has reached some personal crisis or turning point. I'll know. Randy's message will find the right recipient.
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...
on May 23, 2008
What do you do when you simply don't like a book, when you want so much to love it? Especially when written by a man dying of cancer?
I was so excited to read The Last Lecture when it was published, but instead of finding inspiration, I was deeply disappointed and sometimes downright irritated.
A primary reason that Randy Pausch wrote this book of exceedingly short vignettes and essays was to leave a legacy of memories to his three small children, a loving and noble goal. I suppose having it published makes that all the more real.
Early on, Pausch confesses to being self-absorbed and arrogant, a warning that the reader should heed. The Last Lecture isn't as much a book of inspiration, but an unabashed chronicle of Pausch's successes and greatness in life. We're to be inspired to follow our childhood dreams by way of his own: becoming an Imagineer for Walt Disney or an astronaut by flying in a zero g-force simulator. But it just doesn't ring true or realistic for more common people with more modest dreams. Instead, the book bogs down into "I-me" stories, over and over again.
I'm not saying that the book is worthless, nor that it shouldn't be read. But take it for what it is -- a self-centered accounting of a life to be left for posterity -- rather than inspiration to follow your childhood dreams, a theme that is but a small portion of an already slim book, although it's touted as the main thrust of the book. There isn't much universal substance here, even when you look for it, but perhaps that's to be forgiven for a young man facing imminent untimely death at the prime of his life and career. But I will say this in closing: if there had been no "last lecture" at Carnegie Mellon or if someone with less chops than Dr Pausch had written it, the book would probably never have been published.
on April 10, 2008
It is obvious that the world is in need of a message that Mr. Pausch has delivered. In a world where you constantly hear about how "bad" things are, it is great to hear from someone who manages to maintain a positive attitude, despite the fact that he is dying. What is not focused on enough is the fact that he is also lobbying in Congress to allocate more funding for pancreatic cancer research. He would like to eventually see those diagnosed after him have atleast some chance at living their lives and seeing their children grow. He is doing this in between treatments and hospitalizations for heart failure and bilateral pleural effusions. I take care of cancer patients on a daily basis and he epitomizes why I do what I do. Most people think it is depressing, but I am constantly reminded that life is wonderful and remain grateful. He has already managed to influence change in peoples lives, including my own mother, and for that I am truly touched. For me, he is another example of the true human spirit touching others in a profound way...
on June 11, 2008
This guy is fantastic! What a gift he has shared with the world, a personal gift to people he will never know. He speaks from his heart with a genuine love of people and a desire to share with us all his astonishing awareness of what matters in life.
It is a plea of sorts to humanity to have FUN because life is very short, to give of yourself and to take care of the people around you because that is the most incredible legacy a person can leave. He gives us unusual awareness, brought by a terminal disease, that most people never have until they are also in his position, if at all.
Read this book! And if you enjoy this kind of awareness, about living in this moment with fun and generosity, you will love Ariel and Shya Kanes' extraordinary books,
Being Here: Modern Day Tales of Enlightenment and How To Create a Magical Relationship. They are beautiful, life inspiring books like 'The Last Lecture', that offer us the chance to experience the heightened awareness Mr. Pausch is describing. Many thanks to these three authors.
Just as inspiring as his famous "Last Lecture" and with some very interesting and moving additional material. Zaslow has done a great job retaining Pausch's voice in the writing without making it seem like you're reading a transcript of a telephone conversation. If you liked the video, you'll love the book. If you haven't seen the video, you'll love the book.
on September 16, 2008
Pausch spoke about "Really Achieving Your Childhood Dreams" living not only your dreams but enabling the dreams of others. This coming from a man who had just found out he was dying so he speaks of "seizing every moment" (because "time is all you have...and you may find one day that you have less than you think") he really knew what he was speaking about.
"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.
on October 20, 2008
I'm finding it hard to express myself, so I'll write as plainly as I can.
Emotionally, I was moved by Dr. Pausch's story. I cried at one point. It's always sad when you think about children losing a parent. But I'm afraid I wasn't that.. inspired. Intellectually, I was disappointed- very disappointed with this book. I guess I was expecting something deeper or better written.
Some people (the SUPPORTERS of this book) have mentioned that we must take into account the dire circumstances that the author was under when dictating it. To me, that says it all. That this is not a high quality book, but a book that's "Good enough- CONSIDERING that the author had a terminal illness, was dictating while riding a bike, it's really for his kids..." etc. etc.
So, potential buyers- if you want to know if you will find value in this book, then you must be someone who is REALLY prepared to take all that into account, otherwise I do NOT recommend buying this book at all.
I feel for Dr. Pausch's ordeal and for his family, may they have the strength to see them through this, but I'm trying to be objective and critique the book for what it is, and not mix sentiment with honest feedback that doesn't pull any punches, which is something Dr. Pausch himself condoned.
I feel bad for writing a negative review, but I also felt bad after finishing the book. I really did feel tricked somehow, perhaps into expecting more because of the hype, and then feeling cheated when this book didn't deliver.
The best I can say about the content of this book is that it may serve as a reminder of some cliches you already know. Sometimes it can be good to be reminded of common sense advice I guess, even if that advice is somewhat blandly delivered. Just please don't get offended that I use the term cliche. Dr.Pausch himself believed in them and defended them and didn't deny that he himself used them frequently in his life, and I guess in his book too.
on March 17, 2009
What an amazing book in its simplicity and intensity. Having learned that he has terminal cancer, Mr. Pausch shares what's important to him and how he has lived his life. The common threads are honesty, integrity, pursuit of his dreams, and true appreciation of others and their impact on his life. I found this book very uplifting and inspiring.
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.