By now you've probably heard that Randy Pausch, the Carnegie Mellon computer science professor whose "Last Lecture" went viral after the video was posted online, has succumbed to cancer at the age of 47. In his wake, he leaves a stirring speech (which, according to Slashdot, has been downloaded by over 10 million people) and a bestselling book that has accrued over 400 reader reviews on Amazon.
What is it about Pausch's parting words that has proved so affecting for so many people? Most of his hour and fifteen minute lecture is spent describing his childhood dreams, how he achieved and didn't achieve them, and the lessons he learned along the way. Pausch's dreams were both ambitious and relatable. He cites goals such as experiencing zero gravity, playing in the NFL, working as an Imagineer with Disney, and becoming "one of the guys who won the big stuffed animals in the amusement park." He even finds the strength to laugh in the face of his own death, deadpanning that he has experienced a "deathbed conversion" and then offering the punchline, "I just bought a Macintosh."
Along the way Pausch offers a handful of easy-to-digest truisms such as "we cannot change the cards we are dealt, just how we play the hand," and he declares early on that he's not going to address spirituality and religion. He upholds that promise, although he does make a biblical reference around midway through. "I, like Moses, get to see the promised land," he says. "But I won't get to set foot in it. And that's okay, because I can see it, and the vision is clear." He makes this allusion in regard to what he sees as his legacy in computer science, but it's a concept that anyone from a computer programmer to a bean farmer can wrap their head around. The questions he poses are quietly implied: What will your legacy be? Will you leave the world a better place? Will your vision be clear enough that, even if you don't make it to the promised land, you'll know peace at the end?
It is, for the most part, a personal lecture, not given by a prophet or a saint, but instead by a regular guy–and this is what seems to make it resonate so deeply. Sure, he was bright and successful, but he could easily have been your friend, your neighbor, or your professor. Work to achieve your dreams, he urges, and do what you can to help others achieve theirs along the way. Do it because it's fun, do it even though it's hard, and do it until the day that you die. Served with a mix of confidence and modesty, and peppered with both tough love and encouragement, Pausch wraps up with a list of principles that most of us mean to practice more often than we do. Show gratitude and work hard, he reminds us. Find the best in everybody, he instructs. Be prepared, he advises, because luck is truly where preparation meets opportunity.
And finally, "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."
In the end, Pausch admits that the lecture actually wasn't prepared for us at all. Instead, it was "old school advice" that he humbly put together for the three children he was leaving behind. We internet masses were just the accidental recipients of a dying man's final offering to his young family.
Haven't seen it, or need a refresher course? Here's the vid: