Can you enjoy a story when you know the ending? We all know we are going to die someday, but for computer scientist Randy Pausch, “someday” came into focus back in August 2007, when he learned that his pancreatic cancer had metastasized to his liver and spleen.
Forty-seven years old and the father of three young children, this energetic, time-management enthusiast quickly turned his attention to the wise use of the three-to-six reasonably healthy months his doctors estimated he had left. He moved his family from Pittsburgh to Virginia, so that his wife Jai would be closer to her family after his death. He thought long and hard about the legacy he would leave for his family and for his students at Carnegie Mellon University. The idea of a videotaped “last lecture” strongly appealed to him, although Jai wasn’t so crazy about the energy and time it would take away from their family.
Nevertheless, he did it, and it was a huge success. In fact it was so successful that he agreed to record stories and thoughts from the lecture on tape (while riding his bicycle no less) so that writer Jeffrey Zaslow could shape it into this small book, which quickly ascended the New York Times bestseller list. As of this writing, Randy is still with us, fighting his disease with characteristic humor.
The book is well organized into sections that illustrate Randy’s main points: that you really can achieve your childhood dreams and help others realize theirs. Through his life stories, which include becoming a college professor, a husband and a father, he details the traits and beliefs that have helped him succeed. He starts by acknowledging that he “won the parent lottery.” His parents were engaged, intelligent and supportive. They let him paint the walls of his bedroom with quadratic equations, “Star Trek” lore and Pandora’s Box with his friends. They did not shower him with unearned approval or material things. “We didn’t buy much. But we thought about everything.” The family rarely made it through dinner without resorting to the dictionary or the encyclopedia to discover something new.
As a result of such parenting, and perhaps due to a certain innate arrogance (which he would be the first to admit), Randy believed he could and would achieve his childhood dreams --- being in zero gravity and authoring an article in the World Book Encyclopedia among them. The book recounts how most of them have become a reality, due to hard work, perseverance and luck. Although --- as he says, quoting Seneca, in a section about his favorite clichés, --- “Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity.”
Throughout the book, the author is frank about his emotions but never maudlin. He and his writer friend Zaslow have done a nice job of balancing poignancy and humor, making his advice and maxims both urgent and palatable.
There is at least one other recent title --- NOT FADE AWAY by Laurence Shames and Peter Barton --- in which a super successful man with cancer imparts his life’s accumulated wisdom. I have to admit that books like these fill me with admiration but make me feel a little slug-like in my own confused priorities and misspent energies. Maybe that’s a good thing --- it never hurts to be reminded that our time is limited and that we have choices about how we spend it. In any case, I’m grateful that Randy Pausch chose to do his last lecture, and that through this book we can share it too.
Reviewed by Eileen Zimmerman Nicol on April 8, 2008
The Last Lecture