Randy Pausch: Living Life in the Face of Death

The Last Lecture

Randy Pausch. 2008. Hyperion. 206 pages.

In August 2007, Randy Pausch, a Carnegie Mellon professor of computer science, human computer interaction and design, learned that he could expect to have only three to six more months of good health. Pausch, a 46-year-old happily married father of three small children, took on the simple yet powerful analogy above as his mantra. 

A month after learning he was losing his battle to pancreatic cancer, Pausch gave one last lecture to a roomful of students and colleagues, hoping to leave behind a legacy. With his amazingly optimistic attitude as the foundation of the message that would later become a best-selling book titled The Last Lecture, Pausch spoke not on how to cope with death—the proverbial elephant in the room—but on how to live. 

In his lecture, Pausch focused on his goals as a child, how he accomplished them and what he learned along the way. While he didn’t achieve his boyhood dream of playing in the National Football League, he did learn valuable lessons from playing on a football team as a child. For example, he learned the meaning of a “head fake”—a term using the analogy of a football player looking one way but running in another direction with the ball. The head fake “teaches people things they don’t realize they’re learning until well into the process,” said Pausch. While ostensibly teaching how to play football, Pausch’s coach was delivering a head fake—he was actually teaching valuable qualities, such as teamwork and perseverance. 

It was this latter quality that ultimately helped Pausch achieve the majority of his childhood dreams. “Brick walls are there for a reason. They give us a chance to show how badly we want something,” he said. 

The professor expressed one childhood dream of being a contributor to the World Book Encyclopedia. After Pausch had spent years working diligently to become a virtual reality expert, World Book called him to add a contribution to an upcoming edition. 

As a professor, Pausch pushed his students to enter a contest through NASA, knowing the prize would be great—and he would accomplish another childhood dream: that of knowing the feeling of weightlessness. When it indeed won the contest, the class was allowed to ride the “vomit comet,” which flies high enough for passengers to experience zero gravity for 25 seconds. 

Following a vacation in Disneyland when he was 8 years old, Pausch dreamed of having some part in that magic. Twenty-five years later, after sending dozens of applications, making phone calls and flying across the country to meet with an executive, the professor was invited to spend six months working as a Disney Imagineer on a virtual reality project at the “happiest place on earth.” 

Pausch emphasized that no matter the goal, everyone needs help along the way. 

He went on to describe what he learned from his various mentors. For example, he learned sacrifice and humility from his father. A year after his dad’s death, Pausch discovered that, though his father never mentioned it, he had received the Bronze Star for valor for his heroism in a World War II battle. His father also taught him to explore his creativity, which included letting his teenage son paint his own bedroom. 

Pausch’s childhood hero was Captain Kirk of Star Trek. When William Shatner, who played Kirk in the series, visited Pausch’s virtual reality laboratory, Pausch found the actor’s example of leadership to be just as impressive as that of the character he had played. Shatner “knew what he didn’t know, was perfectly willing to admit it and didn’t want to leave until he understood,” noted Pausch. He also recalled the many roles that were played on the show and how every character contributed to the whole to make everything run smoothly. 

Pausch also learned a lot about relationships from his mentors. His mentor at Disneyland taught him to be patient with other people. “When you’re frustrated with people, when they’ve made you angry, it just may be because you haven’t given them enough time. . . . In the end, people will show you their good side.” 

It’s not how hard you hit,” Pausch learned. It’s how hard you get hit . . . and keep moving forward.” 

Roughly 11 months after his diagnosis, Pausch died in his Virginia home early on Friday, July 25, 2008. It could be said that he continued to live life to the full up to his last breath, having touched millions around the world through his speech, his book (cowritten by Jeff Zaslow) and his advocacy for pancreatic cancer research. Along with the publishing of his book in April, Pausch received numerous accolades, including that of being named one of Time magazine’s 100 Most Influential People. 

Pausch’s inspirational attitude and words of wisdom are difficult to portray in just a few paragraphs because the powerful message was so much more than advice about how to achieve a handful of childhood goals. It was about how to live a productive life. 

But that wasn’t his only head fake. His lecture wasn’t meant primarily for the millions of people who have been touched by his words of wisdom. The speech was meant as a legacy for his children. 

Intentionally or not, however, Pausch also left it to each of us—a legacy that contains much wisdom to contemplate. Living life in the face of death is something we all are doing even though we do not like to think about it. One of Pausch’s achievements was to draw our attention to the truth that there is nothing more certain in life than death. He made the most he could of his life, and there may be few who read his book who could say they have gotten as much from their own lives as he did from his. 

If The Last Lecture does no more than give us pause to reflect on our own goals and what kind of legacy we will leave, it has been well worth the read.