‘The Last Lecture’ represents one professor’s legacy for his children

July 22, 2013

By Matthew E. Milliken
July 22, 2013

In 2006, a computer science professor named Randy Pausch was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, an especially deadly disease. The married father of three learned about a year after he first fell ill that the tumors had metastasized. He was told that he had only a few months of good health remaining.

While he was in treatment, Pausch was invited by his university, Carnegie Mellon, to give a lecture. He took advantage of the occasion to tell a packed auditorium about how he had lived his life. The talk, which was titled “Really Achieving Your Childhood Dreams,” was implicitly aimed at his three young children, who would grow up without him.

The presentation became known as “The Last Lecture.” That’s also the title of a book that Pausch co-wrote with journalist Jeffrey Zaslow. The volume was published in April 2008, about three months before Pausch succumbed to cancer.

I approached The Last Lecture knowing the general background behind it. Somewhat to my surprise, the book isn’t a transcript of the talk, although a few specific moments from the Sept. 18, 2007, lecture are described in detail. Instead, this is a memoir that delves into different episodes that informed the presentation. 

Pausch, who was 47 when he died, is an inspiring figure in many ways. Of six dreams he had in childhood, four were realized outright, and he approached another of them. He projects an image of unshakeable confidence and optimism. Take this paragraph, which sums up the advice and encouragement Pausch received over his illness.

My friends. My loved ones. My minister. Total strangers. Every single day I receive input from people who wish me well and boost my spirits. I’ve truly gotten to see examples of the best in humanity, and I’m so grateful for that. I’ve never felt alone on this ride I’m taking.

Pausch plays up the virtue of persistence. He recalls telephoning Brown University’s admissions office regularly until the school let him in off the wait list. He also appealed an outright rejection from Carnegie Mellon’s Ph.D. program, which ultimately also admitted him. “It was a brick wall surmounted with a huge boost from a mentor and some sincere groveling,” Pausch writes in The Last Lecture.

The professor also emphasizes the usefulness of being willing to ask for favors. Once, he e-mailed a legendary computer scientist named Fred Brooks Jr. to request a meeting. Brooks became a mentor and helped Pausch meet the woman who became his wife.

Pausch was a confirmed bachelor until relatively late in life. He loved driving showy convertibles, but he also worked hard. Asked how he was able to get tenure a year ahead of many other junior professors, he replied, “It’s pretty simple. Call me any Friday night in my office at ten o’clock and I’ll tell you.”

But Pausch eschewed flashy clothing and was willing to drive around with a few stains and dents. Once, when his sister was lecturing his niece and nephew about keeping their uncle’s brand-new car clean, Pausch poured a can of soda on the back seat. The message: “A car, even a pristine gem like my new convertible, was just a thing.”

The book continues:

I ended up being so glad I’d spilled that soda. Because later in the weekend, little Chris got the flu and threw up all over the backseat. He didn’t feel guilty. He was relieved; he had already watched me christen the car. He knew it would be OK.

The professor acknowledges that he comes from the tough-love school of teaching, a development for which he gives a hard-driving youth-football coach a great deal of credit. Occasionally, his advice comes across as mundane; sometimes, his personality seems grating.

But Pausch’s saving grace is that both before and after facing a mortal illness, he appears to have thrived living life by his rules. One telling anecdote in the book involves an e-mail message he got from a Carnegie Mellon administrator who spotted a high-spirited Pausch driving his convertible and smiling happily, despite the grim prognosis he faced.

Pausch, disarmingly, is up front about some of his failings. He admits that he can drive his wife crazy sometimes, and he describes himself as being a recovering jerk.

Some of Pausch’s advice, such as his encouragement to write thank-you notes by hand, is universally applicable. Sadly, I think one of his key pieces of wisdom is a bit harder to put into action.

I mean, I don’t know how not to have fun. I’m dying and I’m having fun. And I’m going to keep having fun every day I have left. Because there’s no other way to play it.

I came to a realization about this very early in my life. As I see it, there’s a decision we all have to make, and it seems perfectly captured in the Winnie-the-Pooh characters created by A. A. Milne. Each of us must decide: Am I a fun-loving Tigger or am I a sad-sack Eeyore? Pick a camp. I think it’s clear where I stand on the great Tigger/Eeyore debate.

That’s great as far as it goes. I wish, however, that Pausch had more to say about how to be a Tigger. I’m a great admirer of the San Francisco 49ers head coach, Jim Harbaugh, whose mantra is to attack each day with an enthusiasm unknown to mankind. Yes, but — how?

All in all, though, I found The Last Lecture inspiring. Pausch faced the end of his life with admirable composure. The reader seeking encouragement and guidance could do much, much worse than to adopt some of Pausch’s credos.

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