Dying computer scientist shared wisdom for living

COFFEE WITH WARREN, with Warren Harbeck
Cochrane Eagle, July 30, 2008

Like an autumn leaf brilliant in celebrating its journey through the seasons, Randy Pausch won the acclaim of many for his glorious celebration of a life rich in experiences, but now brought to its final hours. The Carnegie Mellon University professor and human being extraordinaire died July 25, nearly two years after being diagnosed with terminal cancer. But like a beautiful waxed leaf, his final words have become an inspiring keepsake for those committed to embracing life to its fullest day by day. He was 47.

Since his passing, the news media have paid great respect to Professor Pausch – or simply “Randy,” as he has come to be known – not so much for his research leadership in computer science as for his modelling a lifestyle unintimidated by mortality.

He articulated this lifestyle last Sept. 18 in what has become popularly known as “The Last Lecture,” but was actually titled, “Really Achieving Your Childhood Dreams.”

Universities sometimes extend to retiring faculty members the honour of delivering to their students and colleagues a special last lecture, a retrospective, so to speak, of professional achievements. In Randy’s case, his audience might have reasonably expected his lecture to refer extensively to matters of struggle and despair, death and dying. But no, other than a brief introduction of the “elephant” that was with him on the stage – i.e., pancreatic cancer – the rest of his talk was about wisdom he hoped to pass on to his three children.

I am grateful to several of our coffee companions for bringing Randy’s lecture to my attention. Among other places, the video of his 76-minute presentation can be seen at download.srv.cs.cmu.edu/~pausch. (So far, the lecture has been accessed nearly 5 million times on the Internet.) Also, The Last Lecture is the title of a book jointly authored by Randy Pausch and Jeffrey Zaslow and published earlier this year.

Randy had his own childhood dreams, which included experiencing weightlessness, playing football, and being an imagineer with Disney. His dreams did not, of course, include cancer.

Here are some of the lessons he learned along the way toward his dreams and shared in this amazingly passionate, upbeat lecture:

“We cannot change the cards we are dealt, just how we play the hand.” (This was a reference to how he chose to respond to his cancer diagnosis.)

“Brick walls are there for a reason; they let us prove how badly we want something . . . because the brick walls are there to stop people who don’t want it badly enough.” (This was his way of saying, when you really believe in something, don’t take “No” for an answer. In his case as an academic, he surmounted the seemingly insurmountable to realize his dream of cooperating with Walt Disney Imagineering in virtual reality development.)

“Wait long enough and people will surprise you and impress you.” (Randy had developed a reputation for going to bat for people he came to believe in, even when things may have started out on the wrong track.”)

“If the students are standing close to each other, the world is good.” (Randy was referring to a photograph of some of his graduate students all bunched together in fun and friendship at the end of a successful virtual reality project.)

Did I mention fun? At the heart of Randy’s wisdom is having fun in what you do and not being afraid to draw on the help of others.

Here are ten more Randy rules for achieving one’s dreams:

  • Tell the truth.
  • Be earnest.
  • Apologize when you mess up.
  • Focus on others, not yourself.
  • Have a feedback loop.
  • Show gratitude.
  • Don’t complain.
  • Be good at something.
  • Work hard.
  • Be prepared.

This lecture was not really about achieving one’s dreams, however, but about leading one’s life, Randy said. “If you lead your life the right way, . . . the dreams will come to you.”

I discussed his talk the other day with Hugh and Shirley Pepper, two of our Cochrane coffee companions who were also deeply moved by his words. I thought Shirley captured well the essence of the lecture and his life philosophy as “moments of presence.”

Indeed, in a CBS interview carried on YouTube, Randy Pausch, described as “a man who looked death straight in the eye and told millions of the rest of us what he saw,” declared:

“I’m not in denial, but I don’t see any reason not to enjoy today, and tomorrow, and the next day. Yeah, I’m going to die soon, but . . . not today!”

© 2008 Warren Harbeck

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