By Randy Pausch
With Jeffrey Zaslow
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"We cannot change the cards we are dealt, just how we play the hand." —Randy Pausch
A lot of professors give talks titled "The Last Lecture." Professors are asked to consider their demise and to ruminate on what matters most to them. And while they speak, audiences can't help but mull over the same question: What wisdom would we impart to the world if we knew it was our last chance? If we had to vanish tomorrow, what would we want as our legacy?
When Randy Pausch, a computer science professor at Carnegie Mellon, was asked to give such a lecture, he didn't have to imagine it as his last, since he had recently been diagnosed with terminal cancer. But the lecture he gave—"Really Achieving Your Childhood Dreams"—wasn't about dying. It was about the importance of overcoming obstacles, of enabling the dreams of others, of seizing every moment (because "time is all you have . . . and you may find one day that you have less than you think"). It was a summation of everything Randy had come to believe. It was about living.
In this book, Randy Pausch has combined the humor, inspiration and intelligence that made his lecture such a phenomenon and given it an indelible form. It is a book that will be shared for generations to come.
I HAVE AN engineering problem.
While for the most part I'm in terrific physical shape, I have ten tumors in my liver and I have only a few months left to live.
I am a father of three young children, and married to the woman of my dreams. While I could easily feel sorry for myself, that wouldn't do them, or me, any good.
So, how to spend my very limited time?
The obvious part is being with, and taking care of, my family. While I still can, I embrace every moment with them, and do the logistical things necessary to ease their path into a life without me.
The less obvious part is how to teach my children what I would have taught them over the next twenty years. They are too young now to have those conversations. All parents want to teach their children right from wrong, what we think is important, and how to deal with the challenges life will bring. We also want them to know some stories from our own lives, often as a way to teach them how to lead theirs. My desire to do that led me to give a "last lecture" at Carnegie Mellon University.
These lectures are routinely videotaped. I knew what I was doing that day. Under the ruse of giving an academic lecture, I was trying to put myself in a bottle that would one day wash up on the beach for my children. If I were a painter, I would have painted for them. If I were a musician, I would have composed music. But I am a lecturer. So I lectured.
I lectured about the joy of life, about how much I appreciated life, even with so little of my own left. I talked about honesty, integrity, gratitude, and other things I hold dear. And I tried very hard not to be boring.
This book is a way for me to continue what I began on stage. Because time is precious, and I want to spend all that I can with my kids, I asked Jeffrey Zaslow for help. Each day, I ride my bike around my neighborhood, getting exercise crucial for my health. On fifty-three long bike rides, I spoke to Jeff on my cell-phone headset. He then spent countless hours helping to turn my stories—I suppose we could call them fifty-three "lectures"—into the book that follows.
We knew right from the start: None of this is a replacement for a living parent. But engineering isn't about perfect solutions; it's about doing the best you can with limited resources. Both the lecture and this book are my attempts to do exactly that.
Chapter 1 An Injured Lion Still Wants to Roar
A LOT OF professors give talks titled "The Last Lecture." Maybe you've seen one.
It has become a common exercise on college campuses. Professors are asked to consider their demise and to ruminate on what matters most to them. And while they speak, audiences can't help but mull the same question: What wisdom would we impart to the world if we knew it was our last chance? If we had to vanish tomorrow, what would we want as our legacy?
For years, Carnegie Mellon had a "Last Lecture Series." But by the time organizers got around to asking me to do it, they'd renamed their series "Journeys," asking selected professors "to offer reflections on their personal and professional journeys." It wasn't the most exciting description, but I agreed to go with it. I was given the September slot.
At the time, I already had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, but I was optimistic. Maybe I'd be among the lucky ones who'd survive.
While I went through treatment, those running the lecture series kept sending me emails. "What will you be talking about?" they asked. "Please provide an abstract." There's a formality in academia that can't be ignored, even if a man is busy with other things, like trying not to die. By mid-August, I was told that a poster for the lecture had to be printed, so I'd have to decide on a topic.
That very week, however, I got the news: My most recent treatment hadn't worked. I had just months to live.
I knew I could cancel the lecture. Everyone would understand. Suddenly, there were so many other things to be done. I had to deal with my own grief and the sadness of those who loved me. I had to throw myself into getting my family's affairs in order. And yet, despite everything, I couldn't shake the idea of giving the talk. I was energized by the idea of delivering a last lecture that really was a last lecture. What could I say? How would it be received? Could I even get through it?
"They'll let me back out," I told my wife, Jai, "but I really want to do it."
Jai (pronounced "Jay") had always been my cheerleader. When I was enthusiastic, so was she. But she was leery of this whole last-lecture idea. We had just moved from Pittsburgh to Southeastern Virginia so that after my death, Jai and the kids could be near her family. Jai felt that I ought to be spending my precious time with our kids, or unpacking our new house, rather than devoting my hours to writing the lecture and then traveling back to Pittsburgh to deliver it.
"Call me selfish," Jai told me. "But I want all of you. Any time you'll spend working on this lecture is lost time, because it's time away from the kids and from me."
I understood where she was coming from. From the time I'd gotten sick, I had made a pledge to myself to defer to Jai and honor her wishes. I saw it as my mission to do all I could to lessen the burdens in her life brought on by my illness. That's why I spent many of my waking hours making arrangements for my family's future without me. Still, I couldn't let go of my urge to give this last lecture.
Throughout my academic career, I'd given some pretty good talks. But being considered the best speaker in a computer science department is like being known as the tallest of the Seven Dwarfs. And right then, I had the feeling that I had more in me, that if I gave it my all, I might be able to offer people something special. "Wisdom" is a strong word, but maybe that was it.
Jai still wasn't happy about it. We eventually took the issue to Michele Reiss, the psychotherapist we'd begun seeing a few months earlier. She specializes in helping families when one member is confronting a terminal illness.
"I know Randy," Jai told Dr. Reiss. "He's a workaholic. I know just what he'll be like when he starts putting the lecture together. It'll be all-consuming." The lecture, she argued, would be an unnecessary diversion from the overwhelming issues we were grappling with in our lives.
Another matter upsetting Jai: To give the talk as scheduled, I would have to fly to Pittsburgh the day before, which was Jai's forty-first birthday. "This is my last birthday we'll celebrate together," she told me. "You're actually going to leave me on my birthday?"
Certainly, the thought of leaving Jai that day was painful to me. And yet, I couldn't let go of the idea of the lecture. I had come to see it as the last moment of my career, as a way to say goodbye to my "work family." I also found myself fantasizing about giving a last lecture that would be the oratorical equivalent of a retiring baseball slugger driving one last ball into the upper deck. I had always liked the final scene in The Natural, when the aging, bleeding ballplayer Roy Hobbs miraculously hits that towering home run.
Dr. Reiss listened to Jai and to me. In Jai, she said, she saw a strong, loving woman who had intended to spend decades building a full life with a husband, raising children to adulthood. Now our lives together had to be squeezed into a few months. In me, Dr. Reiss saw a man not yet ready to fully retreat to his home life, and certainly not yet ready to climb into his deathbed. "This lecture will be the last time many people I care about will see me in the flesh," I told her flatly. "I have a chance here to really think about what matters most to me, to cement how people will remember me, and to do whatever good I can on the way out."
More than once, Dr. Reiss had watched Jai and me sit together on her office couch, holding tightly to each other, both of us in tears. She told us she could see the great respect between us, and she was often viscerally moved by our commitment to getting our final time together right. But she said it wasn't her role to weigh in on whether or not I gave the lecture. "You'll have to decide that on your own," she said, and encouraged us to really listen to each other, so we could make the right decision for both of us.
Given Jai's reticence, I knew I had to look honestly at my motivations. Why was this talk so important to me? Was it a way to remind me and everyone else that I was still very much alive? To prove I still had the fortitude to perform? Was it a limelight-lover's urge to show off one last time? The answer was yes on all fronts. "An injured lion wants to know if he can still roar," I told Jai. "It's about dignity and self-esteem, which isn't quite the same as vanity."
There was something else at work here, too. I had started to view the talk as a vehicle for me to ride into the future I would never see.
I reminded Jai of the kids' ages: five, two and one. "Look," I said. "At five, I suppose that Dylan will grow up to have a few memories of me. But how much will he really remember? What do you and I even remember from when we were five? Will Dylan remember how I played with him, or what he and I laughed about? It may be hazy at best.
"And how about Logan and Chloe? They may have no memories at all. Nothing. Especially Chloe. And I can tell you this: When the kids are older, they're going to go through this phase where they absolutely, achingly need to know: 'Who was my dad? What was he like?' This lecture could help give them an answer to that." I told Jai I'd make sure Carnegie Mellon would record the lecture. "I'll get you a DVD. When the kids are older, you can show it to them. It'll help them understand who I was and what I cared about."
Jai heard me out, then asked the obvious question. "If you have things you want to say to the kids, or advice you want to give them, why not just put a video camera on a tripod and tape it here in the living room?"
Maybe she had me there. Or maybe not. Like that lion in the jungle, my natural habitat was still on a college campus, in front of students. "One thing I've learned," I told Jai, "is that when parents tell children things, it doesn't hurt to get some external validation. If I can get an audience to laugh and clap at the right time, maybe that would add gravitas to what I'm telling the kids."
Jai smiled at me, her dying showman, and finally relented. She knew I'd been yearning to find ways to leave a legacy for the kids. OK. Perhaps this lecture could be an avenue for that.
And so, with Jai's green light, I had a challenge before me. How could I turn this academic talk into something that would resonate with our kids a decade or more up the road?
I knew for sure that I didn't want the lecture to focus on my cancer. My medical saga was what it was, and I'd already been over it and over it. I had little interest in giving a discourse on, say, my insights into how I coped with the disease, or how it gave me new perspectives. Many people might expect the talk to be about dying. But it had to be about living.
"What makes me unique?"
That was the question I felt compelled to address. Maybe answering that would help me figure out what to say. I was sitting with Jai in a doctor's waiting room at Johns Hopkins, awaiting yet another pathology report, and I was bouncing my thoughts off her.
"Cancer doesn't make me unique," I said. There was no arguing that. More than 37,000 Americans a year are diagnosed with pancreatic cancer alone.
I thought hard about how I defined myself: as a teacher, a computer scientist, a husband, a father, a son, a friend, a brother, a mentor to my students. Those were all roles I valued. But did any of those roles really set me apart?
Though I've always had a healthy sense of self, I knew this lecture needed more than just bravado. I asked myself: "What do I, alone, truly have to offer?"
And then, there in that waiting room, I suddenly knew exactly what it was. It came to me in a flash: Whatever my accomplishments, all of the things I loved were rooted in the dreams and goals I had as a child...and in the ways I had managed to fulfill almost all of them. My uniqueness, I realized, came in the specifics of all the dreams—from incredibly meaningful to decidedly quirky—that defined my forty-six years of life. Sitting there, I knew that despite the cancer, I truly believed I was a lucky man because I had lived out these dreams. And I had lived out my dreams, in great measure, because of things I was taught by all sorts of extraordinary people along the way. If I was able to tell my story with the passion I felt, my lecture might help others find a path to fulfilling their own dreams.
I had my laptop with me in that waiting room, and fueled by this epiphany, I quickly tapped out an email to the lecture organizers. I told them I finally had a title for them. "My apologies for the delay," I wrote. "Let's call it: 'Really Achieving Your Childhood Dreams.' "
Chapter 2 My Life in a Laptop
HOW, EXACTLY, do you catalogue your childhood dreams? How do you get other people to reconnect with theirs? As a scientist, these weren't the questions I typically struggled with.
For four days, I sat at my computer in our new home in Virginia, scanning slides and photos as I built a PowerPoint presentation. I've always been a visual thinker, so I knew the talk would have no text—no word script. But I amassed 300 images of my family, students and colleagues, along with dozens of offbeat illustrations that could make a point about childhood dreams. I put a few words on certain slides—bits of advice, sayings. Once I was on stage, those were supposed to remind me what to say.
As I worked on the talk, I'd rise from my chair every ninety minutes or so to interact with the kids. Jai saw me trying to remain engaged in family life, but she still thought I was spending way too much time on the talk, especially since
we'd just arrived in the new house. She, naturally, wanted me to deal with the boxes piled all over our house.
At first, Jai didn't plan to attend the lecture. She felt she needed to stay in Virginia with the kids to deal with the dozens of things that had to get done in the wake of our move. I kept saying, "I want you there." The truth was, I desperately needed her there. And so she eventually agreed to fly to Pittsburgh on the morning of the talk.
I had to get to Pittsburgh a day early, however, so at 1:30 p.m. on September 17, the day Jai turned forty-one, I kissed her and the kids goodbye, and drove to the airport. We had celebrated her birthday the day before with a small party at her brother's house. Still, my departure was an unpleasant reminder for Jai that she'd now be without me for this birthday and all the birthdays to come.
I landed in Pittsburgh and was met at the airport by my friend Steve Seabolt, who'd flown in from San Francisco. We had bonded years earlier, when I did a sabbatical at Electronic Arts, the video-game maker where Steve is an executive. We'd become as close as brothers.
Steve and I embraced, hired a rental car, and drove off together, trading gallows humor. Steve said he'd just been to the dentist, and I bragged that I didn't need to go to the dentist anymore.
We pulled into a local diner to eat, and I put my laptop on the table. I flashed quickly through my slides, now trimmed to 280. "It's still way too long," Steve told me. "Everyone will be dead by the time you're through with the presentation."
The waitress, a pregnant woman in her thirties with dishwater-blond hair, came to our table just as a photo of my children was on the screen. "Cute kids," she said, and asked for their names. I told her: "That's Dylan, Logan, Chloe..." The waitress said her daughter's name was Chloe, and we both smiled at the coincidence. Steve and I kept going through the PowerPoint, with Steve helping me focus.
When the waitress brought our meals, I congratulated her on her pregnancy. "You must be overjoyed," I said.
"Not exactly," she responded. "It was an accident."
As she walked away, I couldn't help but be struck by her frankness. Her casual remark was a reminder about the accidental elements that play into both our arrival into life... and our departure into death. Here was a woman, having a child by accident that she surely would come to love. As for me, through the accident of cancer I'd be leaving three children to grow up without my love.
An hour later, alone in my room at the hotel, my kids remained in my head as I continued to cut and rearrange images from the talk. The wireless internet access in the room was spotty, which was exasperating because I was still combing the Web, looking for images. Making matters worse, I was starting to feel the effects of the chemo treatment I'd received days before. I had cramps, nausea and diarrhea.
I worked until midnight, fell asleep, and then woke up at 5 a.m. in a panic. A part of me doubted that my talk would work at all. I thought to myself: "This is exactly what you get when you try to tell your whole life story in an hour!"
I kept tinkering, rethinking, reorganizing. By 11 a.m., I felt I had a better narrative arc; maybe it would work. I showered, got dressed. At noon, Jai arrived from the airport and joined me and Steve for lunch. It was a solemn conversation, with Steve vowing to help look after Jai and the kids.
At 1:30 p.m., the computer lab on campus where I spent much of my life was dedicated in my honor; I watched the unveiling of my name over the door. At 2:15 p.m., I was in my office, feeling awful again—completely exhausted, sick from the chemo, and wondering if I'd have to go on stage wearing the adult diaper I'd brought as a precaution.
Steve told me I should lie down on my office couch for a while, and I did, but I kept my laptop on my belly so I could continue to fiddle. I cut another sixty slides.
At 3:30 p.m., a few people had already begun lining up for my talk. At 4 p.m., I roused myself off the couch and started gathering my props for the walk across campus to the lecture hall. In less than an hour, I'd have to be on the stage.
Chapter 3 The Elephant in the Room
JAI WAS already in the hall—an unexpected full house of 400—and as I hopped on stage to check out the podium and get organized, she could see how nervous I was. While I busied myself arranging my props, Jai noticed that I was making eye contact with almost no one. She thought that I couldn't bring myself to look into the crowd, knowing I might see a friend or former student, and I'd be too overwhelmed by the emotion of that eye contact.
There was a rustling in the audience as I got myself ready. For those who came to see just what a man dying of pancreatic cancer looked like, surely there were questions: Was that my real hair? (Yes, I kept all my hair through chemotherapy.) Would they be able to sense how close to death I was as I spoke? (My answer: "Just watch!")
Even with the talk only minutes away, I continued puttering at the podium, deleting some slides, rearranging others. I was still working at it when I was given the signal. "We're ready to go," someone told me.
I wasn't in a suit. I wore no tie. I wasn't going to get up there in some professorial tweed jacket with leather elbow patches. Instead, I had chosen to give my lecture wearing the most appropriate childhood-dream garb I could find in my closet.
Granted, at first glance I looked like the guy who'd take your order at a fast-food drive-through. But actually, the logo on my short-sleeved polo shirt was an emblem of honor because it's the one worn by Walt Disney Imagineers—the artists, writers and engineers who create theme-park fantasies. In 1995, I spent a six-month sabbatical as an Imagineer. It was a highlight of my life, the fulfillment of a childhood dream. That's why I was also wearing the oval "Randy" name badge given to me when I worked at Disney. I was paying tribute to that life experience, and to Walt Disney himself, who famously had said, "If you can dream it, you can do it."
I thanked the audience for coming, cracked a few jokes, and then I said: "In case there's anybody who wandered in and doesn't know the back story, my dad always taught me that when there's an elephant in the room, introduce it. If you look at my CT scans, there are approximately ten tumors in my liver, and the doctors told me I have three to six months of good health left. That was a month ago, so you can do the math."
- On Sale
- Apr 8, 2008
- Page Count
- 224 pages
- Hachette Books