215.804.9487 [email protected]

It’s Not About Dying

We cannot change the cards we are dealt, only how we play the hand.
-Randy Pausch, “The Last Lecture”

I still have the applause at the end of “The Last Lecture” ringing in my ears as I type this first line. I’m a bit teary-eyed. Go ahead, click the link and watch the hour long lecture. You’ll be teary-eyed, too. As a matter of fact, you might be better served if you did, rather than read this distillation of the notes that I took on the lecture.

Randy Pausch is quite an engaging speaker, and he has PowerPoint. He gave this lecture at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, PA on September 18, 2007, ten months before his death from terminal Pancreatic cancer.

The lecture wasn’t for me, or for you, or for the people who attended. As Randy said at the end, it was for his three children. “Really Achieving Your Childhood Dreams,” as the lecture is also known, was Randy’s message in a bottle to the three little ones whom he was leaving behind. It became a message to millions of people.

I encourage you, watch the lecture—it’s free. Then share it. I’m sharing it with all of you. I’ll give you some of the high points, some of my take-away messages, and my own thoughts. Randy’s overriding theme, or as he called it “Head Fake Number One” was that the lecture was not about how to achieve your dreams, it was about how to live your life. My theme is in the form of a question: “How would you respond to notification that you had 3-6 months to live?” Would you say, “Well, then I need to book a lecture hall?” I doubt I would. Would you focus on sharing your wisdom and inspiring people? Eh, maybe I would—Randy and I are both ego maniacs—but I would have to overcome a mountain of self pity and anger first.

But enough about me, let’s talk about Randy. As he said, you should focus on other people more than yourself.

Learn The Fundamentals Before The Fancy

One of Randy’s first lessons, this one was learned while attempting to achieve the childhood dream of being a pro football player and drilling over and over during football practice. That dream never was achieved but he applied the lesson on the football field, in college, while teaching at Carnegie Mellon, experiencing anti-gravity on the “Vomit Comet,” working for Disney Imagineering and collaborating with some big name video game gurus.

 Brick Walls are Not to Keep us Out, They’re to Show Our Dedication

This man hit some brick walls. Long before becoming a tenured member of the Carnegie Mellon faculty, he was rejected by University admissions and would not have even become a student if not for pushing past his first “No.”

It is noteworthy that the “pushing past” was done with humility and dedication, not with temper tantrums and self pity. Cancer is a big brick wall. The Last Lecture is Randy’s way of pushing past it and living on for his kids. I’m sure there had to be a bit of a temper tantrum and self pity, but when conquered, it was right back to humility and dedication.

 If You Wait Long Enough, People Will Surprise and Impress You

Everyone. No one is totally evil. This is a lesson on patient faith in the goodness of people. Not total goodness—it is not naïveté—but potential goodness.

 There are Good Ways and Bad Ways to Say I Don’t Know

Randy talks about a “Dean Wormer” at CMU who wasn’t going to let him take a sabbatical to work with Disney Imagineering, another of his childhood dreams, because he didn’t have enough information and Randy was too important. This Dean deferred to another Dean who responded to Randy’s request with, “Well, I have one of my star faculty in my office—all excited about something—and I want to hear more about it.”

 One way to say “I don’t know” closes a door, the other one opens it.

Loyalty is a Two Way Street


 When Men Are Romantically Interested in You, Ignore All They Say, Pay Attention to What They Do

 Yep-yep-yep. This one was to his daughter, I’ll wager.

 Tell The Truth, Be Earnest, Apologize and Focus on Others

Randy’s recipe for success. I’ll not tinker with it, only to add that this is also the recipe for living with a manageable-to-zero level of guilt and anxiety. Do you struggle with those terrible twins? Follow the recipe above.

When You Do The Right Thing, Good Stuff Happens

Randy set a ground rule for not talking about religion. This lesson is the closest that he came, aside from saying, “I did have a deathbed conversion…I just bought a Mac.”

While I can’t attest to the physics of this lesson, I can affirm its function. Also, one of the principles of life that I work with my patients on is “Do good, you feel good. Do bad, you feel bad.”

Get a Feedback Loop and Listen Gratefully

Your feedback loop could be a spreadsheet crunching the data of your life or a person that you come to when you need an honest assessment. The trick is to listen, be grateful and take something from the process.

I am blessed (cursed) with some wonderful human feedback loops. Some of these friends have been with me since I was seven years old. I didn’t used to listen as gratefully as I have been trying to do these past for years. I’m sorry for that, you fine ladies and gentlemen.

Don’t Complain, Just Work Harder

Yep. And when you do complain, don’t complain. Make your complaints solution-focused observations of a problem so that what you are providing the response to your own complaint—work harder, and carry your own water.

Never Give Up 

The man found out that he had cancer and less than a year to live. It’s my belief that he looked at the problem analytically and didn’t see the problem as cancer, but not being able to live long enough to shepherd and pass along this wisdom to his children slowly and gently. So Randy never gave up, didn’t complain, worked harder and solved his problem as best he could. I’m grateful for that.

I believe that the pseudo-immortality which we feel as teenagers still lingers in half-life until we look into the eyes of our first child. Then the truth of our mortality kicks us firmly in the nuts. I am not a healthy man. I’ve tried to do what Randy did in fear of a sudden heart attack, stroke or airplane engine crashing into my bedroom. I get overcome with emotion every time. I think I’ll try again. I will keep praying, and trying to become healthier, because I want to spend as much time with my friends and family as I can. But once I hear that death knell, I can only hope that I accept it with as much grace, style and jokes as Randy Pausch. 

Carnegie Mellon—and the world—are better places for having had Randy Pausch in them.
-Jared L. Cohon, Carnegie Mellon University President


Comments are closed.