Moving & Literary Throwbacks: “The Last Lecture”

After Erma, we have Randy Pausch.

This is a slim volume of text containing so many valuable words and lessons. To say that these two books are diametrically opposed is a bit of an over-statement. But they do share an easy narrative style, and I chuckle when I think about these two authors being in such close proximity.

Pausch delivered his last lecture, titled “Really Achieving Your Childhood Dreams“, at Carnegie Mellon on September 18, 2007 (video below). This type of lecture was modeled after an ongoing series of lectures where top academics speak about what matters to them, and then give a hypothetical final talk.

A month before giving the lecture, Pausch had received a dark prognosis. His fight with pancreatic cancer was coming to an end. Fortunately, in addition to the amazing words he spoke, he also published a book to help continue his legacy for years to come. He wrote it as an opportunity to teach his sons the most valuable lessons he learned during his short time on earth.

“Really Achieving Your Childhood Dreams”

Never give up.

I didn’t get into Brown University. I was on the wait list. I called them up and they
eventually decided that it was getting really annoying to have me call everyday so they let me in.

At Carnegie Mellon I didn’t get into graduate school. Andy had mentored me. He said, go to graduate
school, you’re going to Carnegie Mellon. All my good students go to Carnegie Mellon. Yeah, you
know what’s coming. And so he said, you’re going to go to Carnegie Mellon no problem. What he
had kind of forgotten was that the difficulty of getting to the top Ph.D. program in the country had
really gone up. And he also didn’t know I was going to tank my GRE’s because he believed in me.
Which, based on my board scores was a really stupid idea. And so I didn’t get into Carnegie Mellon.
No one knows this.

‘Til today I’m telling the story.

I was declined admission to Carnegie Mellon.

And I was a bit of an obnoxious little kid. I went into Andy’s office and I dropped the rejection letter
on his desk. And I said, I just want you to know what your letter of recommendation goes for at
Carnegie Mellon. [laughter] And before the letter had hit his desk, his hand was on the phone and
he said, I will fix this. [laughter] And I said, no no no, I don’t want to do it that way. That’s not the
way I was raised. [In a sad voice] Maybe some other graduate schools will see fit to admit me.
[laughter] And he said, look, Carnegie Mellon’s where you’re going to be. He said, I’ll tell you what,
I’ll make you a deal. Go visit the other schools.

Because I did get into all the other schools. He said, go visit the other schools and if you really don’t feel comfortable at any of them, then will you let me call Nico?

“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.”

Randy Pausch, The Last Lecture

Nico being Nico Habermann [the head of Carnegie Mellon’s Computer Science Dept.] and
I said, OK deal.

I went to the other schools. Without naming them by name — [in a coughing voice]
Berkeley, Cornell.

They managed to be so unwelcoming that I found myself saying to Andy, you
know, I’m going to get a job. And he said, no, you’re not.

And he picked up the phone and he talked
in Dutch. [laughter] And he hung up the phone and he said, Nico says if you’re serious, be in his
office tomorrow morning at eight a.m. And for those of you who know Nico, this is really scary.

So I’m in Nico Habermann’s office the next morning at eight a.m. and he’s talking with me, and frankly I don’t think he’s that keen on this meeting. I don’t think he’s that keen at all. And he says, Randy, why are we here? And I said, because Andy phoned you? Heh-heh. [laughter] And I said, well, since you admitted me, I have won a fellowship. The Office of Naval Research is a very prestigious
fellowship. I’ve won this fellowship and that wasn’t in my file when I applied.

And Nico said, a fellowship, money, we have plenty of money. That was back then. He said, we have plenty of money. Why do you think having a fellowship makes any difference to us? And he looked at me.

“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.”

Randy Pausch, The Last Lecture

There are moments that change your life. And ten years later if you know in retrospect it was one of
those moments, you’re blessed. But to know it at the moment …. with Nico staring through your
soul. [laughter] And I said, I didn’t mean to imply anything about the money. It’s just that it was an
honor. There were only 15 given nationwide. And I did think it was an honor that would be
something that would be meritorious. And I apologize if that was presumptuous. And he smiled.
And that was good.

NEVER GIVE UP. This is a long journey and it is fraught with many perils, but there are beautiful moments as well. So many of these moments are carved out and transcribed by amazing people. These are people we may never meet, but if we can capture their essence by hearing and reading their words, then maybe, just maybe, somethings will become clear.

Love and Light, Fellow Dreamers

Photo by James Wheeler on