On Sept. 18, 2007, computer science professor Randy Pausch, then 46, gave a customary last lecture to a crowd of 400 people. When professors retire at Carnegie Mellon University, they have the option of giving a last lecture to their students, imparting one more bit of wisdom into the minds of the youth they’ve come to know.
This is exactly what Pausch did. However, he was not retiring – he was dying.
Pausch is the co-author of the bestselling book “The Last Lecture.” The book is based on Pausch’s last lecture titled “Really Achieving Your Childhood Dreams” and consists of 61 short chapters and 207 pages. His lecture, available for viewing on thelastlecture.com and youtube.com, has been viewed by millions.
In the book, Pausch writes about his life – obstacles he’s overcome, good and bad choices he’s made and achieving his dreams. Though this book may at first seem to be about a man with terminal pancreatic cancer writing about his impending death, it is anything but that.
It’s actually a celebration of life. The last thing Pausch wanted people to do was feel sorry for him. In fact, during his actual lecture, he began doing push-ups.
This book is not to preach a better way of living – it’s simply to show one way of doing it from a man with a fresh perspective.
When Pausch writes about his life, the reader does not focus on his inevitable death. Pausch does begin by talking about his cancer, yet refers to it as an “engineering problem.”
The first two chapters reflect upon his illness and how preparing the lecture and book would take away precious time he has to spend with his family. Though it may seem odd that a man who has a wife and three young children all under the age of five, who’s dying wants to spend time writing a book. But when you learn about him, it just makes sense.
For the majority of the book, Pausch points out how he became the man he is today, citing the lessons he learned from various people along the way from his parents to his pee wee football coach. One of the best stories that demonstrates Pausch’s love for people is in chapter 15, titled “Pouring Soda in the Backseat.”
His young niece and nephew came over to take a ride in his new sports car. His sister told them to be very careful not to spill anything. So, once his sister left, Pausch opened up a can of soda and poured it in the back seat. This put the children at ease knowing they weren’t the first to spill something in the new car and even if they did, it was just a material possession. Pausch’s main point was to have fun and not worry about “things.”
Pausch even wrote: “I don’t know how to not have fun. I’m dying and I’m having fun.”
Pausch is quick to point out the people who made him who he is today. His work at various colleges, his family and being a Disney Imagineer all shaped his outlook on life.
What relates best to college students is where Pausch talks about being a professor. He emphasizes working hard, realizing when you’re wrong and apologizing for and the dying art of writing thank-you notes. He created fun workshops in his classes and created a student environment that was OK to fail in. Any student who reads this book will wish for a professor like Pausch. He points out in chapter 56, titled “Make a Decision: Tigger or Eeyore?,” how life is all about how you react to the changes.
As a professor, Pausch was notorious for pushing his students, even when they were doing well. He stated: “When you see yourself doing something badly and nobody’s bothering to tell you anymore, that’s a very bad place to be. Your critics are the ones telling you they still love you and care.”
Throughout the book, the reader almost loses sight that Pausch is dying. However, by the last chapter, you are snapped back into reality as Pausch talks about his children and his true reason for writing this book.
Pausch died on July 25, 2008, at the age of 47.
As college students, we are consumed with reading textbooks, notes and studying. However some of the most valuable life lessons you can learn are in this book. It’s an amazing story that every college student should read. If nothing else, watch Pausch give the lecture on thelastlecture.com. The site also lets the audience learn even more about Pausch through his blog posts and also about the co-author, Jeffrey Zaslow.
Every person – whether you’re fighting a debilitating disease, know someone who is or are as healthy as can be – can find inspiration from Pausch’s story.
As Pausch said: “We cannot change the cards we are dealt, just how we play the hand.”