What would we choose to talk about if we knew it was going to be the last thing we would be able to say?
As in FOREVER…
You can’t squeeze 20 years of living into 6 months.
If we could stand in front of a group of people, perhaps the whole world, and share something of value, what would it be? What topics would we choose? How would we pick the right words?
- Would we talk about our lives?
- What we were able to accomplish?
- What we left undone?
- The people important to us and how much we cared about them?
- Perhaps take the opportunity to thank people we never thanked?
I bet it wouldn’t be a drama-laden, cynical. triviality-packed, nitpicking-infused petty diatribe. Hopefully…
What if we could prepare and deliver a last lecture to a group of people who would gather specifically to hear what we had to say?
That’s exactly what Randy Pausch did.
He was diagnosed with Pancreatic Cancer in September of 2006 and spent almost 2 years fighting for his life. After exhausting all possible treatments and procedures, he was given 6 months to live.
A Professor of Computer Science at Carnegie Mellon University (CMU), Randy delivered his Last Lecture, “Really Achieving Your Childhood Dreams” to an audience at CMU on September 18, 2007.
Having fought a valiant and inspiring fight, he succumbed to the disease passing away on July 25, 2008.
I’m a cancer survivor. In October of 2015 I was diagnosed with Colon Cancer myself. In December of that year they discovered 5 lesions in my liver. By 2016 the cancer had metastasized to my lungs.
I’ve managed to beat it back each time.
Randy Pausch said that cancer did not make him unique. I acknowledge that it hasn’t made me unique either. In 2017, in the United States, it was estimated that there were 1,688,780 new cancer cases and 600,920 deaths.
What does make anyone with Cancer unique is the way we choose to deal with it and how we carry ourselves. Even when we come to the realization that the fight is literally over and Cancer has won.
How he conducted himself and the grace with which he carried himself over the last 6 months of his life is what made Randy Pausch unique.
A Self Proclaimed Nerd
Randy Pausch said that being the best speaker in the Computer Science department was like the being the tallest of the seven dwarfs.
If I Don’t Seem as Depressed or Morose as I Should Be, Sorry To Disappoint You
I’ve researched his life and read a lot about him. That last lecture at Carnegie Mellon, viewed by 18 million people on YouTube, was published as a book which became an international bestseller, The Last Lecture.
The book based on that lecture wasn’t just a last lecture by a retiring professor. It chronicled Randy Pausch’s carefully chosen last official words to a Carnegie Mellon audience.
More importantly, it captured the messages he wanted to leave behind to his children, his wife, and all his loved ones. Wisdom and lessons for a lifetime of living in 224 pages.
How easy would that be for any of us? Think about it for a minute.
Trying to capture valuable life lessons to impart to a demanding university-level audience, while leaving a legacy for your family, all the time knowing that an incurable disease is ravaging your body and will end up killing you.
Randy Pausch handled it with grace, relentless perseverance, and humor.
His self-deprecating dark humor is something else I’ve found in common with Randy. Under those same circumstances, despite my own battle with cancer, I’m not sure how I would react.
Friendship Measured in Depth Rather than Time
Steve Seabolt was Randy’s good friend and primary contact during his summer in residence at Electronic Arts the video game company headquartered in Redwood City, California in the Spring of 2004.
Despite having known each other for just three years, they had a deep friendship. Introducing Randy at The Last Lecture, Steve said this about him:
Randy brings a particular zest for life and humor, even while facing death. To Randy, this is simply another adventure.
Recently I had the opportunity to speak with Steve in preparing to write this article. I reached out to him out of the blue. When I told him I was writing the article about Randy he was gracious enough to jump on the phone and talk.
What Steve and Randy had most in common was a foundational joy. Life itself was fun. Meant to be lived. Enjoyed. This was evident from my research.
Steve described Randy as a problem solver. Randy always told people that every problem had a solution. After Randy’s death, this would come back to pose a difficult question for Steve to deal with.
When Randy called Steve in 2006 to let him know of his diagnosis, Steve told him that this was “a problem we have to optimize for. A binary situation with small odds at one end”.
Steve recalled how Randy quickly came to the realization that he needed to be very pragmatic about his situation. With that pragmatism came a graciousness that put people at ease despite the gravity of the situation.
Randy knew he would probably die soon. He just did not have precious time to waste wallowing in self-pity. He had to focus. There were many goals he wanted and needed to accomplish in a very short time.
Of utmost importance was preparing his wife and children to live the rest of their lives without a husband and father. As you well might imagine, they were the primary focus of his time and energy.
At one point, Seabolt recalled that Steve Jobs called Randy, advising him to stop treatments. Seabolt convinced Randy otherwise telling him that Jobs was a “genius marketer but it doesn’t transfer to other areas.”
Having had a year-long experience helping his son fight cancer, and with the closeness they had developed at Electronic Arts, Steve Seabolt was the ideal friend for Randy Pausch.
Randy told Steve, “when the time comes, I want you here”. Steve agreed. But, even with that, he admitted to underestimating how important his role would be towards the end of Randy’s life. As a loyal friend though, he stood up.
Lessons From a Roaring Lion
I share with you now the lessons I gleaned from Randy’s last lecture and from his book. I’ve directly quoted him wherever possible.
The “morals” are my interpretations and conclusions drawn from the lessons. And now for the lessons.
1. Achieving Your Childhood Dreams is Fun
Enabling the dreams of others is even more fun.
Moral: It’s not all about material success.
2. Brick Walls Are There For a Reason
They let us prove how badly we want things. They are there to stop the people who don’t want it badly enough. They are there to stop the other people.
Moral: Persevere. Persevere. Persevere. That is, if you want it bad enough.
3. Have Something to Bring to the Table
Because that will make you more relevant.
Moral: Nothing speaks louder than value.
4. Get The Fundamentals Down
Otherwise the fancy stuff isn’t going to work. As in football, concentrate on what the other 21 guys that aren’t touching the ball are doing.
Moral: Master the basics. The complex stuff gets easier to execute that way.
5. Wait Long Enough and People Will Surprise and Impress You
If you are pissed off at them, you just haven’t given them enough time.
Moral: Patience is indeed a virtue. People deserve time to prove themselves. Just keep waiting.
6. It’s Very Important to Know When You Are in a Pissing Match
And it’s very important to get out of it as quickly as possible.
Moral: Avoid unnecessary confrontations. Especially ones you can’t win.
7. There is a Good Way and a Bad Way
Two people can be saying the same thing, but in completely different ways.
Moral: Be aware of not just what you say, but how you say it.
8. Don’t Bail
Stick with situations even when they don’t appear to be ideal. The best gold is at the bottom of barrels of crap.
Moral: You do the right thing, good stuff has a way of happening.
9. The Power of Humility
After his father’s death as he was going through his personal effects, Randy discovered his father had been awarded the bronze star for valor. No one ever knew. In 50 years of marriage, it had never come up.
How many of us would keep that kind of thing to ourselves?
Moral: It is hugely more effective when you don’t ring your own bell. That is true humility.
10. Introducing Elephants
Randy said that his father always told him, “when there is an elephant in the room introduce it”. He began the Last Lecture displaying a CT Scan of his liver with the ten tumors.
Moral: Tell it like it is. Don’t avoid the obvious.
11. Driving Responsibly
This was another one of Randy’s Dad’s favorite expressions. “Just because you are in the driver’s seat doesn’t mean you have to run people over”.
Moral: Don’t take advantage and act like you have power over people
12. Not Everything Needs Fixing
Although it was Randy’s belief that every problem could be solved, Steve Seabolt said that eventually he came to the logical realization that he would not be able to fix everything. Simply put, there would not be enough time.
While most people measure their lives in decades, Randy had to measure his in weeks.
13. Self Esteem
It can’t be given. It has to be built by each of us.
Moral: We are responsible for our own positivity.
14. When People Stop Telling You You’re Screwing Up
That means they gave up on you. A bad place to be. Your critics are the ones telling you they still love you an care.
Moral: When people give you feedback, cherish it and use it.
15. Experience is What You Get When You Didn’t Get What You Wanted
Moral: Even when you lose out, you win.
16. Head Fake Learning
Most of what we learn, we learn indirectly. This kind of learning is everywhere and you need to keep your eye out for it.
Moral: Football doesn’t just teach the sport itself, but teamwork, sportsmanship,and perseverance.
It is a Skill Set. A set of skills. You may not be the smartest, most talented, fastest, or the most technical. But leaders can lead well because they are skilled at it.
Moral: Leadership skills are just as important as any other skills.
18. Soda in the Back Seat
Randy amazed his niece and nephew, not to mention his sister while she was admonishing them to be careful not to mess up their Uncle’s new convertible. He took a can of coke and poured it on the back seat.
Moral: People are more important than things, including a brand new pristine convertible.
19. A Great Way to Tell Someone They Are Being A Jerk
Randy’s mentor told him “It’s such a shame that people perceive you as so arrogant. Because it’s going to limit what you’re going to be able to accomplish in life.”
Moral: Tough feedback is even more effective when delivered the right way.
20. 15 Minutes of Your Life
With months left to live, Randy was at the grocery store going through the Self Checkout lane. He realized the register had double charged his $16.55 purchase. He thought about it, and then left the store.
The 15 minutes of his life it would’ve taken to straighten out the double charge was worth much more than $16.55. When you have but 6 months of life to live, every minute is precious.
Moral: Yes. Every minute of life is precious.
21. Self Assessing
The best gift an educator can give is to get someone to become self-reflective. Get a feedback loop and listen to it. The hard part is the listening.
Moral: Knowing who you are and what you are capable of is priceless.
22. Alice — A Virtual Reality Tool for Kids — Through the Looking Glass
“I, like Moses,get to see the promised land, but I won’t get to set foot in it. And that’s OK, because I can see. And the vision is clear.”
Alice is Randy’s Professional Legacy. Tell stories. Build games. Learn to program. ”Millions of kids having fun while learning something hard”. Once again, the Head Fake. “I will live on in Alice”.
Alice is used to teach students how to code.www.alice.org
Moral: Don’t underestimate the power and value of your legacy.
23. Decide if You’re Tigger or Eeyore
“I’m dying and I’m having fun. And I am going to keep having fun every day I have left. Because there is no other way to play ” ~ Randy Pausch.
Moral: Keep Having Fun.
24. Loyalty Is a Two Way Street
When you see the good in people stand by them even if there is a personal price to pay. They in turn will stand by you when you need them. Like friends Dennis Cosgrove and Steve Seabolt who both stood up big time for Randy.
Moral: What goes around comes around.
25. We Can’t Change The Cards We Are Dealt
We can only change the way we play the hand. And that’s how you should be investing your time.
Moral: Don’t waste time on things that can’t be changed or controlled.
26. The Real Head Fake
You lead your life the right way, the Karma will take care of itself. The dreams will come to you.
Moral: It’s not about how to live your dreams though, it’s about how to lead your life.
And it was all about his kids — this was the Second and Last Head Fake…
When the call from Randy finally came, Steve Seabolt boarded a red-eye on the west coast and was in Virginia by 6 AM. When he walked in he could tell the end was indeed near.
In typical problem solver fashion, they broke the problem down into pieces.
- Insurance policy. Check.
- Autograph books for the kids. Check.
- Security system for the house. Check.
- Help Jai, Randy‘s wife, by controlling the Media circus that was sure to come. Check.
- All the boxes. Check Check. Check.
At 2 AM the next morning Steve said to Randy, “You realize I’m going to be stuck with you for the rest of my life. I’m going to be known as the friend of that dead professor.”
Randy smiled and said, “You finally figured that out!”
At 4 AM, while Steve held him, Jai asleep in the next room, Randy died.
Later, Randy’s son questioned Steve.
“My Dad said every problem can be solved?”
Steve told him, “Yes, but in their time. It wasn’t time for his problem.”
I never met Randy Pausch. I wish I had.
Having completed the research for this article I can only conclude that he was one outstanding human being. The world is a lesser place without him.
Randy Pausch left an indelible mark on his world. Our world. We should all aspire, like Randy, to keep roaring until the end.
“Professor Randy Pausch showed us that facing your mortality is really a gift. And it can be the biggest motivator to start to live your life now and remain present in the now”.