Book Review #4: The Last Lecture

Randy Pausch, Author of The Last Lecture. Image Source.

The Last Lecture is written by Randy Pausch, a 47-year-old father, professor, and husband, as he is dying of pancreatic cancer. He tries to make sense of his past in this book as a way to help his family navigate a future without him.

Who I think would most value The Last Lecture:

  • A young adult who is “leaving the nest”
  • A working adult who wants to manage his/her time better and doesn’t know where to start
  • A young adult or working adult who has recently lost a parent or mentor in their lives
  • A person who loves to read on his/her morning commute

Why read it?

From a practical point of view, this book is easy to read. Each chapter is short, original, and focused on one life lesson, which is why I recommend it for your morning commute.

The Last Lecture is unique for two important reasons. The first is that Pausch wrote this book when he was 47 years old and dying of pancreatic cancer. This, as Pausch said in an interview with the New York Times, lends the book “gravitas” that it wouldn’t have had otherwise (NYT, 2008).

The second reason this book carries weight is that Pausch wrote this book for his three kids. In that same New York Times interview, Pausch said, “I’ve always said I only care about the first three copies of the book” (NYT, 2008). He writes from the perspective of a father trying to make sense of his life for his children who will have to grow up without him. 

When I was little, my Mom would say, “You need to—“ and I’d cut her off and say “I know! Piano! Ughhh!” Then she’d usually say something I wasn’t expecting, like, “No…I just finished washing your soccer uniform. You need to take it upstairs.” It’s hard to be receptive when someone is telling you what to do, isn’t it? We’re quick to think or say, “I know,” or “I’ve got it, thanks.” But, you can take a deep breath here because Pausch is giving suggestions to his kids, not to you. So, lower your guard. It’s not about you. But whether you know it or not, you’ll end up considering his advice as if he was your mentor with an open heart and mind.

Who is Randy Pausch?

Pausch was a professor of computer science, human-computer interaction, and design at Carnegie Mellon University. He was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 2006 and died in 2008. But before his death, he wrote this book and another one called Time Management. He had three kids and a wife, Jai, whom he mentions in The Last Lecture

Two moments in particular helped me understand the kind of person Pausch was.

The first was when he went on his honeymoon and used this vacation responder:

“Hi, this is Randy, I waited until I was thirty-nine to get married, so my wife and I are going away for a month. I hope you don’t have a problem with that, but my boss does. Apparently, I have to be reachable.” He also added his in-law’s names and location and said, “If you call director assistance, you can get their number. And then, if you can convince my new in-laws that your emergency merits interrupting their only daughter’s honeymoon, they have our number.”

Pausch, 110.

Bold! And hilarious! The other moment was when he risked tenure for one of his students to be able to stay at the university.

“The dean took a long look at me,” said Pausch, “‘I’m going to remember this when your tenure case comes up’, [the dean] said.” Pausch’s student went on to be a success, as Pausch promised.

Pausch, 155.

He was a risk-taker and fiercely loyal to people he believed in. He was also a driver, extremely passionate about projects and outspoken about things he didn’t agree with, perhaps to the point of abrasiveness when he was really insistent about something. But, I’m one could usually bet that his persistence was for a good reason.

Why is this book called “The Last Lecture?

The title “The Last Lecture” is a follow-up to Pausch’s final lecture at Carnegie Mellon University. His talk was part of a series at Carnegie Mellon in which distinguished professors give advice and wisdom and share their life lessons in a presentation. The lecture series has been renamed “Journeys”. 

My 3 Takeaways

You can achieve your dreams without having to give up your lifestyle. Pausch achieved almost every one of his childhood dreams by finding creative ways to experience them without living a life around them. 

I realized this in 2017 when I achieved my dream of being an actress. I wasn’t sure I wanted to live my life as an actress, but I’ve always wanted to be in a movie. Over a year ago, I signed up to be an extra for Denzel Washington’s movie, The Equalizer 2. I had to bike to set at 6am, but I got to experience the behind the scenes like an actress and I walked right behind Denzel Washington as he rushed out of a bookshop! I’m nothing but a blur in the movie, but you can tell it’s me from the lime green shoes I wore that day ;). I challenge you to incorporate this lesson into your life, too. You can start by asking yourself this, “I wonder how I can live my dream in a few minutes, days, or weeks, without having to give up the life I have now?” 

Manage your time like you manage your money. One of my best friends in law school has a law journal competition coming up soon. For the competition, she’ll be given over 1000 journal articles and have to write two pieces about them. She can’t possibly read all 1000 articles in the amount of time she’s given, so what will she do? She’ll have to find ways to eliminate as many articles as possible to focus her efforts and time where it’s most likely to make an impact. This competition is like everyday life, where we’re faced with hundreds, sometimes thousands, of emails, notifications, requests, and ways to spend our time. Pausch urges us to spend our time wisely because our lives, like this competition, has a time limit.

To navigate choices I face every day, I reference my goals and values list. I have two lists that rank my personal and professional goals and one list that names my values. Whenever I don’t know how to spend my time, I look at the list and choose whatever will help me achieve the highest goal or stay true to one of my values. 

I’ve also stopped checking texts and email regularly. I now check them when “in-transit”, or out of the house and on my way somewhere, or right before appointments when I have a mandatory time-limit. The goal isn’t to isolate myself from friends and family. It’s to ensure that I only spend as much time as necessary on social media.

Context matters. Good communication matters. My friend, E, is an introvert and my other friend, F, is an extrovert. When they first started dating, E played video games to unwind after work some days. F got more and more upset, thinking that she had done something wrong.  “How did you guys figure it out?” I asked them one day. E looked at me in surprise, “I just explained it to her.” “I am an introvert and need this time to myself,” was a crucial piece of information that F needed to accept E’s need. Without it, they couldn’t have kept dating and I wouldn’t have gone to their wedding(!).

The words you say can open new doors and windows of opportunity that will affect the rest of your life. They can also keep these same doors and windows open over time. Or, they can close them. Pausch learns this early in his career, when a mentor confronts him and says, “Randy, it’s such a shame that people perceive you as being so arrogant, because it’s going to limit what you’re going to be able to accomplish in life” (Pausch, 67). Yes, words matter.

By the way, if you ever need to mend a relationship, these are what Pausch suggests including in a sincere apology (Pausch, 162):

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

If Pausch had a call-to-action, it would be:

Almost every chapter has an actionable lesson in it, which gives you over 60 actionable choices. But, if I had to name one as “the big one,” I’d say it was this: Focus first on living on the life you want to lead. 

A college counselor I had in high school had a pink-painted, wood cut-out of the words, “Achieve your dreams,” on his windowsill. The dot over the “i” was a kitschy star. I was taught by him, my teachers, and my mom to imagine my biggest dreams and chase after them. But, I’ve since discovered that beautiful dreams sometimes carry a less-than-appealing lifestyle. I think Pausch says this well in his last chapter: “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” (Pausch, 206).

Which comes first, the dream or the lifestyle? I’m in the lifestyle camp with Pausch, but you can go either way. No matter what, they must complement each other and, with a little hard work, luck, and experience, I think they should eventually become the same thing. 

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