Randy Pausch’s Last Lecture

Posted on April 18, 2008


Randy Pausch, a science professor at Carnegie Mellon, has given his last lecture entitled “Really Achieving Your Childhood Dreams.” You can learn more about the professor everywhere, at USA Today, at Oprah.com, at abcnews.com, and view the lecture on Google Video, or YouTube. Most recently he was asked 10 questions by viewers at Time.com.

Why is this professor’s “last lecture” so captivating? What has caused a fairly large portion of the American conscious to be drawn to this? I offer some thoughts and reflections, and some directives as to how we ought to live our lives as a “last lecture.”

The content of the lecture is not necessarily that profound. You can read the full text here. Excellent stuff, no doubt, and really good advice. It’s really a memoir more than a lecture with some tidbits in there that are really worth thinking about and pondering.

The story of his football coach on the field without a ball, and the quote,”You’ve got to get the fundamentals down because otherwise the fancy stuff isn’t going to work.” While working at Electronic Arts he learned that “experience is what you get when you didn’t get what you wanted.” His perspective on brick walls is gold:

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.

Later he asks the poignant question, “how can I enable the childhood dreams of others?” The story of his dad’s Bronze Star of Valor is touching. His mother only found out about it while rummaging through his stuff after his father’s death. I concur, there is a lesson in humility in that. Given that I’ve been prone to “Eeyoreness” (a Winnie the Pooh reference), I loved this:

So my next piece of advice is, you just have to decide if you’re a Tigger or and Eeyore. [shows slide with an image of Tigger and Eeyore with the phrase “Decide if you’re Tigger or Eeyore”] I think I’m clear where I stand on the great Tigger/Eeyore debate. [laughter] Never lose the childlike wonder. It’s just too important. It’s what drives us. Help others.

And there are many others that may resonate with you.

So, again. Why is this professor’s “last lecture” so captivating? What has caused a fairly large portion of the American conscious to be drawn to this?

I suggest 3 things.

One, it is inevitable that all of us at one point in our lives will be faced with the stark reality of death. (See Ernst Becker’s book The Denial of Death). It seems recently, however, that those points are becoming more frequent, more pronounced, and more immanent as we deal with the tragedies that continually occur around us. Some have identified this as a key element of postmodernity and Generations X & Y. It is, of course, a paradox. This morbid awareness is happening at the same time medical advances are lengthening lifespan potentially well past 100 years. Regardless, eternal life is still reserved for the here-(and there)-after, and the collective conscious of the world continues to become more aware of our mortality as natural disasters, disease, and war, all crowd in on us, all advanced and perpetuated through globalization. Like Mitch Albom’s Tuesday’s with Morrie, Randy Pausch’s last lecture strikes a harmonious chord with the human soul.

Two, death is really about life. As much as the Christian myth/story (theology, etc.) has perpetuated a “life after death” ethic, how, and even when we die tells us more about how we lived than where we are going to live. This is especially true in light of NT Wright’s latest book Surprised by Hope (my blog post here). Pausch’s last lecture illuminates that further in that he intentionally avoids religion and spirituality. He simply tells the story of his life. There’s something very powerful and comforting in that. And for those of us who counsel and pastor those who are dying, we might do well to think more about how to celebrate one’s life than focus on whether or not they are are going to heaven or hell. Now, we must be well grounded in good Biblical and theological work (by Wright and others), but let us also be informed by things like Pausch’s lecture as a tangible example of how to be a comfort and a hope to people who are nearing the end of their lives. And let us also recognize that those two are not necessarily at odds; that they may be more compatible than we perhaps may be aware of.

Three, no matter how much individualization we face in our culture, communality will always be a driving force in our human experience. I don’t think there is anyone out there that denies a continually perpetuating self-individualization (yes, that is redundant) shift in our collective conscious. Books like Putnam’s Bowling Alone, are telling. But what many are realizing, recognizing, and capitalizing on is that humans will always be communal. I recently heard (someone can help me cite this well) a commentator say that the human ethic use to be “tribal.” It has shifted into a high sense of “individualization.” However, it didn’t stay there for long. What we have now is a “tribe of individuals.” In some ways, because we all share a human experience in death, it brings to the forefront what is being wrestled with continually in our growing isolated context; that I need others, and I need to be needed by others. As you read through and listen to the questions that were asked of him by Time (Time Magazine, April 21, 2008, p.4) they come either to offer some sort of advice, (a piece of me that I can offer to you) or it’s a request for advice, (a piece of you that you can offer to me). And through the “piecemealing,” we express again our deep desire to be connected, to have something in common, to share an experience.

What does all this commission us to do?

Live well.

Simple? Yeah. Profound. No doubt.

Posted in: Culture