• November 2014

The Blessing of Randy Pausch's "Last Lecture"

“The brick walls are there for a reason. The brick walls are not there to keep us out. The brick walls are there to give us a chance to show how badly we want something. Because the brick walls are there to stop the people who don’t want it badly enough. They’re there to stop the other people.”

That is but one of the many inspirational pieces of wisdom shared by Carnegie Mellon computer science professor Randy Pausch in the now-famous lecture he gave on Sept. 18, 2007.

Pausch knew that this lecture—“Really Achieving Your Childhood Dreams“—would be one of the last he would deliver, since he had been living with pancreatic cancer for a year and had been given a terminal diagnosis in August 2007: “3 to 6 months of good health left.”

Less than a year later, he died of pancreatic cancer, on July 25, 2008. He was 47.

“I knew I could cancel the lecture,” Pausch writes in the first chapter of what became his New York Times best-selling book, which also became a popular YouTube video. “Suddenly there were so many things to be done … and yet, despite everything, I couldn’t shake the idea of giving the talk.”

Once he decided to go ahead with the lecture, the next step was for Pausch to decide what he wanted to talk about.

“What makes me unique? That was the question I felt compelled to address,” he explains. “Maybe answering that would help me figure out what to say.”

He felt that cancer didn’t make him unique; more than 37,000 Americans a year are diagnosed with pancreatic cancer alone. And then it came to him.

“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 46 years of life. 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. I knew that 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.”

While we don’t want to give away all of the life lessons that Pausch shared in “The Last Lecture,” below is a sample to inspire you.

As you celebrate Thanksgiving this year, consider whether the lessons Pausch imparts can make your holiday more meaningful. — Be Inkandescent


Lessons to help you count your blessings from Randy Pausch:

  • Time must be explicitly managed, like money. “My students would sometimes roll their eyes at what they called ‘Pauschisms,’ but I stand by them. Urging students not to invest time on irrelevant details, I’d tell them: ‘It doesn’t matter how well you polish the underside of the banister.’”
  • You can always change your plan, but only if you have one. “I’m a big believer in to-do lists. But I once put ‘get tenure’ on my to-do list. That was naive. The most useful to-do lists break tasks into small steps. It’s like when I encourage my son Logan to clean his room by picking up one thing at a time.”
  • Ask yourself: Are you spending time on the right things? “You may have causes, goals, interests. Are they even worth pursuing? I’ve long held onto a clipping from the newspaper in Roanoke, VA. It featured a photo of a pregnant woman who had lodged a protest against a local construction site. She worried that the sound of jackhammers was injuring her unborn child. But get this: In the photo, the woman is holding a cigarette. If she cared about her unborn child, the time she spent railing against jackhammers would have been better spent putting out that cigarette.”
  • Develop a good filing system. “When I told my wife Jai that I wanted to have a place in the house where we could file everything in alphabetical order, she said I sounded way too compulsive for her tastes. I told her: ‘Filing in alphabetical order is better than running around saying, “I know it was blue, and I know I was eating something when I had it.”’”
  • Rethink the telephone. “I live in a culture where I spend a lot of time on hold, listening to, ‘Your call is very important to us.’ Yeah, right. That’s like a guy slapping a girl in the face on a first date and saying, ‘I actually do love you.’ Yet that’s how modern customer service works. And I reject that. I make sure I am never on hold with a phone against my ear. I always use a speaker phone, so my hands are free to do something else.”
  • Dance with the one who brung you. “That’s a cliché my parents always told me, and it applies far beyond prom night. It should be a mantra in the business world, in academia, and at home. It’s a reminder about loyalty and appreciation.”
  • Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity. “That comes from Seneca, the Roman philosopher who was born in 5 B.C. It’ll be worth repeating for another 2000 years at least.”
  • Whether you think you can or can’t, you’re right. “That is from my cliché repertoire for incoming students.”
  • Other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, how was the play? “I’d say that to students as a reminder not to focus on little issues, while ignoring the major ones.”

Learn more here about The Last Lecture.

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