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Cover of "The Last Lecture"

Advice to Everybody on Life and Living from an Academic Terminally Ill with Pancreatic Cancer

Book Title: The Last Lecture

Author: Prof. Randy Pausch

Preamble

If life is a sentence, a full stop comes eventually, even if after several commas, semicolons and dashes. All of us would eventually die. That’s one inexorable fact of life. However, even after cogitating for thousands of years; the mystery of life and death is still not fully decoded.

All living beings including human beings die. But humans are the only species that are fully conscious of death. Most of us avoid the thought of dying and death as a painful moment that is best relegated to the backwaters of our mind as long as we can.

Quite a few prescient humans have, however, reflected on the meaning of life and death. Some of them have delivered thoughtful lectures on the subject. Some have even penned inspiring books on death and dying.

Can we learn some valuable lessons on life and living from the dead and dying?

There are now scores of books on death and dying written by philosophers, religious leaders, academics and scientists including those who wrote them on the verge of dying. Let’s take up just one of them: The Last Lecture by Randy Pausch (2008, coauthored with Jeffrey Zaslow).

Who was Dr Randy Pausch?

Randolph F. Pausch was in Baltimore, Maryland on October 23, 1960, and grew up in Columbia, Maryland.

Randy was an American computer scientist who worked at the prestigious Carnegie Mellon University (CMU), Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, US. He taught the highly popular course “Building Virtual Worlds” at CMU for 10 years from 1997 to 2007. Before this, he was a faculty member at the Department of Computer Science, School of Engineering and Applied Science, University of Virginia, Charlottesville, Virginia from 1988 to 1997.

He published 5 books and over 70 scientific articles, received two Association for Computing Machinery (ACM) awards (2007), and was elected a Fellow of ACM in 2007.

The Last Lecture

In the midst of a hectic academic career, Pausch was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer on September 19, 2006, an insidious disease for which the chances of survival is abysmally low. Though he underwent treatment, it was ultimately unsuccessful in saving the leading scientist from the sinister disease. By August 2007, doctors told him that he had just 3-6 months to live on his earthly abode.

What is a “last lecture”? It’s a series of lectures instituted in several US universities in which top academics are asked to deeply reflect upon what matters most to them and deliver a hypothetical “final talk” incorporating the ideas, wisdom, and legacy that you would leave for the world if you knew it was your last chance.” CMU has recently dubbed the series as “Journeys.”

Against the advice of his wife, Jai Pausch (who wanted him to spend his last moments with her and their 3 kids), Randy decided to give his last lecture at CMU. Pausch delivered his last lecture titled “Really Achieving Your Childhood Dreams” on September 18, 2007. His talk was meant for his young kids, his students, and a few of his colleagues. His lecture was attended by 400-odd colleagues and students.

Though Pausch was dying, his lecture wasn’t about death but was focused on lessons on living, overcoming the obstacles in life, achieving your dreams, and the importance of relationships.

Lessons from the Last Lecture

There are several lessons we can learn from Randy’s last lecture. We cannot deal with all of them here. However, let’s pick some of the best gems from the immortal thoughts he conveyed in his lecture.

First, he tells us to give up excuses if we wish to achieve meaningful goals in life. In his inimitable style he tells us “We cannot change the cards we are dealt, just how we play the hand.” Second, Pausch stresses upon the need for turbo-charged motivation that can overcome obstacles in life’s journey. He says “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.” Third, he explains that experience is the sum of failures that we accumulate in our attempts to achieve our dreams and the lessons that we learn from them. Randy tells us to be “the First Penguin” and continues “Experience is what you get when you did not achieve what you wanted.” Fourth, he emphasizes that it’s better to search for solutions instead of complaining about problems: “Too many people go through life complaining about their problems. I’ve always believed that if you took one-tenth the energy you put into complaining and applied it to solving the problem, you’d be surprised by how well things can work out.” Fifth, Pausch prods us to always have fun in life. He says “I mean, I don’t know how not to have fun in life. 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.” He also asks us to live “one day at a time.” Sixth, he says that fulfillment in life isn’t about achieving your dreams but rather about leading your life. In this context, he told the audience “It’s not about how to achieve your dreams, it’s about how to lead your life…if you lead your life the right way, the karma will take care of itself, the dreams will come to you.”

Seventh, Pausch tells that a true leader is an enabler, an empowerer of others “It’s a thrill to fulfill your own childhood dreams, but as you get older, you may find that enabling the dreams of others is even more fun.” Eighth, he highlights the importance of relationships, “When we’re connected to others, we become better people.” Ninth, he urges us to ignore the little blunders in life: “Anybody out there who is a parent, if your kids want to paint their bedrooms, as a favor to me, let them do it. It’ll be OK.”  Tenth, Randy nudges us to tell the truth and, if we’ve committed mistakes, tender genuine apologies.

He says “If I only had three words of advice, they would be, Tell the Truth. If I got three more words, I’d add, all the time”; “Proper apologies have three parts:

  1. What I did was wrong.
  2. I feel badly that I hurt you.
  3. How do I make this better?”

Finally, Dr Pausch highlighted the significance of careful budgeting of time in our lives: “Time is all you have and you may find one day that you have less than you think.”

Legacy

Dr Randy Pausch died from pancreatic cancer at his home in Chesapeake, Virginia, on July 25, 2008. He was just 47 when he passed away. He left his wife, Jai Pausch and three children: Dylan, Logan, and Chloe Pausch.

The Last Lecture became an internet sensation. It became viral on the YouTube, and has been viewed 18 million times. The eponymous book was published on April 8, 2008. It became a New York Times (NYT) bestseller in 2008. It has been translated into 48 languages and has sold more than 5 million copies in the US alone.

The Randy Pausch Memorial Footbridge was inaugurated at CMU on October 30, 2009; with Jai Pausch and her three children cutting the ribbon.

Famous victims of pancreatic cancer

Some famous victims of pancreatic cancer (besides Pausch) include: Luciano Pavarotti, opera singer; Patrick Swayze, Hollywood star; Steve Jobs, of the Apple, iPad, iPod, and iPhone fame; Syd Barrett, English singer-songwriter; Bill Hicks, American comedian; Miles Kington, journalist and satirist; and Rene Maritte, Belgian surrealist painter.

Coda

Many outstanding writers and poets have addressed the theme of sickness, death and dying. Susan Sontag wrote “Illness as Metaphor.” She was vehemently against using metaphors to describe diseases. Examples include consumption (TB), ‘plague of AIDS’, and ‘Jihad against COVID-19’ etc.

Sontag wrote “Everyone who is born holds dual citizenship, in the kingdom of the well and in the kingdom of the sick. Although we all prefer to use the good passport, sooner or later each of us is obliged, at least for a spell, to identify ourselves as citizens of that other place.”

Adapting the simile of Sontag, 22-year-old Princeton paralegal graduate, Suleika Jaouad wrote a book titled “Between Two Kingdoms” portraying how her life was interrupted by acute myeloid leukemia (AML), and how she put her life back in order after recovering from it.

When life’s “full stop” eventually arrives, must we face it defiantly, as poignantly portrayed by the poet Dylan Thomas in “Do not go gentle into that good night.” However, the poem also has many other layers of meaning too! More about the lessons for life and living in future articles.

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