BEFORE HIS "LAST LECTURE" WENT viral on the Internet, with 6 million hits and counting, before Oprah and network news shows made his name familiar in households everywhere, before the major book deal with Hyperion to expand on that lecture--before any of that, I opened an email that Randy Pausch sent to the members of his church in Pittsburgh. Pausch, who earned a doctorate in Computer Science from Carnegie Mellon in 1988, returned in 1997 as a tenured professor and the much-admired co-founder of Carnegie Mellon's Entertainment Technology Center. The email started with good news: After a year that had included a diagnosis of pancreatic cancer (one of the most deadly); after surgery to remove the tumor, his gallbladder, and part of his pancreas, stomach, and small intestine; after months of punishing chemotherapy; and after a round of a trial vaccine, he was finally feeling like his old self--strong, healthy, and vital. He was lifting weights, riding his bike every day, and roughhousing with his kids, ages 5, 2, and 1. I once again bounce while walking down the hallway, he wrote. Then, he dropped the bombshell. His latest computed tomography scan showed that the pancreatic cancer had returned and spread aggressively throughout his body. It was late August. His doctors thought he might enjoy "good health" for another three months. Six months tops.
Pausch talked about his plans. He would opt for a regimen of palliative chemo, with a 15 to 20 percent chance of buying a few more months. He and his wife, Jai, would move within a matter of days to Virginia, closer to family. They wanted to make sure their son, Dylan, started kindergarten on time. He thanked friends, family, and colleagues: This is obviously not how I wanted things to turn out, he wrote, but my wife and I have no regrets; we did everything I could to maximize my odds. And we want to thank everyone who has so graciously helped us...We are sorry this story doesn't have a happier ending.
In light of such devastating news, I was struck by the unflinching tone, the nod of apology that he couldn't win this one. The email topped a long correspondence journaling his experiences from the beginning, and I scrolled backward, reading each entry until I reached the beginning. Then I very deliberately deleted the email and emptied my trash. I wanted to make sure I wouldn't have a reminder of his fate. Pausch was 46. His children were way too close to the ages of my sons. There are two things so unspeakably horrifying that a parent can't contemplate them a second longer than it takes to shove the thought away. The first is losing a child. The second is leaving your young children in the world without you there to encircle them in that primal bubble of love and care. I can't imagine how Pausch is doing it. I didn't want to.
But the story of how Pausch was facing his impending death was hard to escape. On September 18, he gave his "last lecture" on campus--a talk where a retiring professor packs the wisdom and knowledge of a lifetime into one hour. The last lecture is meant to be hypothetical. And maybe it was that irony, combined with accounts in several newspapers, including one in The Wall Street Journal, as well as the lecture's instant and easy availability via the Internet, that fueled the flash fire of public interest. Suddenly the national networks and Oprah were knocking at the door. Multiple appearances followed. ABC News named him one of their Persons of the Year. Almost everyone I knew had heard about him--even those like me who didn't want to. "My mother wanted me to watch him on Oprah," my sister-in-law told me. "I told her, 'No. It's too painful.'" The paradox that someone who looks so healthy, so full of life--not to mention someone who can drop to the floor in an instant and do clapping push-ups--was too unfathomable to ignore.
Randy Pausch has a history of taking his world by storm. As a high school senior with a 3.7 GPA, he was surprised when Brown University waitlisted him. But instead of enrolling at his second choice, he called Brown and talked his way in. Once there, he attacked his studies with fervor. His mother, Virginia, a retired high school English teacher, tells the story of traveling to parents weekend his first year. She and her husband wanted Randy to have breakfast with them Sunday morning before they returned home. Randy refused. Sunday morning was his only opportunity to get time on the computer. "This was before the days of every student having a computer," his mother remembers. "I was crushed. I cried all the way home. But I didn't cry four years later when he was the top student in computer science."
Pausch's energy and confidence could have carried him to a different place. He likes to tell the story of a life-defining moment that came compliments of his mentor, computer science professor Andy van Dam. Pausch was a sophomore, one of van Dam's undergraduate teaching assistants. He bounded into a Tuesday evening tutoring hour with what he calls an "I'm going to save the world" attitude. There was a long line of students, and Pausch made what he calls "a big ballyhoo" about how fast he was going to get them helped. Afterward, van Dam pulled him aside, put his arm around his shoulder, and took him for a little walk. "It's a shame that people perceive you as arrogant," van Dam told him. "It's really going to limit what you're able to accomplish in life."
Says Pausch, "To this day, I think it's probably one of the best-constructed sentences I've ever heard in my life. He didn't insult me; he didn't make a value judgment. It was an observation about how other people were perceiving me--without addressing the issue of whether it was true. He spoke to it as how it would be a bad consequence for me, not that it was a bad consequence for others. I think that's brilliant." Not that it went down so easily in the moment. When Pausch went back to his room, his roommate commented that he looked like he had just seen a ghost. "I was completely drained," Pausch says. "I was taken to a place where I had to think very hard about who I was and what kind of person I wanted to be. Without Andy, I wouldn't be where I am today. Period."
Where he is today is in the vanguard as a teacher and innovator. When he was hired from a tenured position at the University of Virginia to the Carnegie Mellon faculty in 1997, he hoped for a joint appointment in computer science and human-computer interaction. He never expected a third appointment--in design. Pausch was flattered--and stumped. When he talked to that department's faculty, they told him, "Oh, you're a designer. You just don't know it."
"That was just such a classic Carnegie Mellon moment," Pausch says. "We don't define people by narrowly putting them into bins. Carnegie Mellon thinks so broadly and operates under the principle of letting people bring out the best in themselves and worry what to call it later. Sometimes we just say, 'There is someone really creative, really smart. Let's find a place here for that person.'"
Pausch made his initial mark at Carnegie Mellon when he created the cross-curriculum course Building Virtual Worlds. BVW brings together 50 students who design virtual-reality projects in random, small groups over the semester. It's a learn-by-doing, team-building kind of course intended to bring out the best blend of creativity and technology. Pausch's inspiration for the course came from the sabbatical he took at Walt Disney's Imagineering Labs a few years earlier--a sabbatical unprecedented for both Disney and academia. Pausch calls it the best sabbatical in history, "certainly in terms of benefit accrued in academia. ... I just brought a whole culture back. That was an absolute turning point because that was when the seeds were sown for everything else for me professionally, putting artists and engineers together."
The premise of BVW is deceptively simple: Make whatever virtual world you want--barring shooting violence and pornography. "That's been done already in virtual reality," Pausch explains. Then, with his swift wit, he adds, "You'd be amazed at how many 19-year-old boys are completely out of ideas when you take those off the table." The class always comes through, though. A must-see event on campus every December is the BVW showcase in McConomy Hall, where students present their projects, which have ranged from encountering a sudden waterfall during a virtual river-rafting adventure to a world where stick figures in a child's notebook peel themselves off the pages in search of romance and adventure (but not until they've vanquished the menacing stick monster with a bottle of white-out). Archived BVW videos can be viewed at www.etc.cmu.edu/bvw/worlds.php.
BVW became the bedrock on which the Entertainment Technology Center was built. Pausch co-founded ETC with drama professor Don Marinelli. (And he makes a point of giving Marinelli 70 percent of the credit.) The program brings together fine arts and computer science for a two-year master's degree in entertainment technology. ETC is described as the graduate program for the left and right brain, the idea being that artists and computer geeks need to be trained to work together--not to become each other. Pausch likes to call it "the dream fulfillment factory." ETC is the gold-standard organization for training artists and engineers to work together, according to Steve Seabolt of Electronic Arts, makers of the popular computer game The Sims. "It's the interactive program by which all others in the world are judged," he says.
But what Pausch considers his legacy's core is Alice, software that teaches programming to middle school and high school students. Alice started out as a programming tool for virtual reality; then it became a programming tool to make it easier to write 3D graphics programs. "Then somewhere along the line, we realized we were holding the wrong end of the tiger, and what we had built was a system that actually made it easier to learn to program in the first place," says Pausch. "I am very proud of the fact that it ended up going in a completely different direction than we had originally thought. We rolled with that as researchers."
The beauty of Alice, he says, is what he calls a "head fake," borrowing a sports term--teaching youngsters programming while they think they're making animations, interactive games, or videos. Alice is not an acronym, by the way. It's a nod to Lewis Carroll. "Lewis Carroll was one of the greatest mathematicians of his day. But he also knew how to make things incredibly simple. It's obvious that virtual reality is a good metaphor for stepping through the looking glass," says Pausch. Then, speaking pragmatically, he adds, "Everybody can spell Alice, everybody can pronounce it, it drifts to the top of alphabetized lists. I am nothing if not an engineer."
Alice software is free, courtesy of Carnegie Mellon, at www.alice.org. There have been more than 1 million downloads, and eight textbooks have been written about it. "And it's not the good stuff yet. The good stuff is coming in the next version," says Pausch. He's referring to version 3.0, due out later this year. It's a collaboration with Electronic Arts and uses characters from The Sims. This newest version may position Alice as the national standard for teaching software programming. "I, like Moses, get to see the Promised Land, but I won't get to set foot in it," Pausch says. "But that's okay, because I can see it. And the vision is clear. Millions of kids having fun while learning something hard. That's pretty cool. I can deal with that as a legacy."
His legacy's final piece will be his last lecture and a book, The Last Lecture, which puts Pausch's message in print. The book, to be released this month, is co-written by Jeff Zaslow, The Wall Street Journal reporter who originally covered the lecture and coincidentally, a 1980 Carnegie Mellon graduate.
Pausch thinks the lecture struck such a chord because he's giving what he calls old-school advice in a way that doesn't sound old school. "I'm not an old fuss-budget wagging his finger and saying, 'All these kids nowadays. ...' "I'm just saying, 'Look, I did all these cool things. Here's what works for me. I suggest you try it.'" In the end, though, as he reveals at the lecture's close, the talk is really meant for an audience of just three.
"I'm just a guy," he says, "who is trying to raise his kids from beyond the grave."
In spite of his prognosis, Pausch peppers the conversation with energetic words--Cool. Phenomenal. Wonderful. Awesome. I talked to him on the phone one day in November when he had been riding his bicycle. On the days that the palliative chemo doesn't have him down, he gets in an hour of exercise while his two youngest ones nap. He had just gotten the news the day before that the chemo was helping. His tumors were shrinking. Doctors said it will keep him feeling good for another three months. "I just doubled my life expectancy," he laughed. "You try to do that."
He still has no illusion that the effect is permanent. He was always the kind of person, he says, to look at each day as a gift. So that's what he's doing. Living each moment as fully as he can while he's here. You try to do that
Sally Ann Flecker is an award-winning writer whose work appears regularly in this magazine.
The Last Lecture
by Randy Pausch with Jeffrey Zaslow
An Injured Lion Still Wants to Roar
A lot of professors give talks titled "The Last Lecture." Maybe you've seen one.
It has become a common exercise on college campuses. Professors are asked to consider their demise and to ruminate on what matters most to them. And while they speak, audiences can't help but mull the same question: What wisdom would we impart to the world if we knew it was our last chance? If we had to vanish tomorrow, what would we want as our legacy?
For years, Carnegie Mellon had a "Last Lecture Series." But by the time organizers got around to asking me to do it, they'd renamed their series "Journeys," asking selected professors "to offer reflections on their personal and professional journeys." There wasn't a lot of life in that description, but I agreed to go with it. I was given the September slot.
At the time, I already had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, but I was optimistic. Maybe I'd be among the lucky ones who'd survive.
While I went through treatment, those running the lecture series kept sending me emails. "What will you be talking about?" they asked. "Please provide an abstract." There's a formality in academia that can't be ignored, even if a man is busy with other things, like trying not to die. By mid-August, I was told that a poster for the lecture had to be printed, so I'd have to decide on a topic.
That very week, however, I got the news: My most recent treatment hadn't worked; I had just months to live.
I knew I could cancel the lecture. Everyone would understand. Suddenly, there were so many other things to be done. I had to deal with my own grief, and the sadness of those who loved me. I had to throw myself into getting my family's affairs in order. And yet, despite everything, I couldn't shake the idea of giving the talk. I was energized by the idea of delivering a last lecture that really was a last lecture. What could I say? How would it be received? Could I even get through it?
"They'll let me back out," I told my wife, Jai, "but I really want to do it."
Jai had always been my cheerleader -- when I was enthusiastic, so was she -- but she was leery of this whole last-lecture idea. We had just moved from Pittsburgh to Southeastern Virginia so that after my death, Jai and the kids could be near her brother and sister-in-law. Jai felt that I ought to be spending my precious time with our kids, or unpacking our new house, rather than devoting my hours to writing the lecture and then traveling back to Pittsburgh to deliver it.
"Call me selfish," Jai told me. "But I want all of you. Any time you'll spend working on this lecture is wasted time, because it's time away from the kids and from me."
I understood where she was coming from. From the time I'd gotten sick, I had made a pledge to myself to defer to Jai and honor her wishes. I saw it as my mission to do all I could to lessen the burdens in her life brought on by my illness. That's why I spent many of my waking hours making arrangements for my family's future without me. Still, I couldn't let go of my urge to give this last lecture.
Throughout my academic career, I'd given some pretty good talks. But being considered the best speaker in a computer-science department is like being known as the tallest of the Seven Dwarfs. And right then, I had the feeling that I had more in me, that if I gave it my all, I might be able to offer people something special. "Wisdom" is a strong word, but maybe that was it.
Jai still wasn't happy about it. We eventually took the issue to Michele Reiss, the psychotherapist we'd begun seeing a few months earlier. She specializes in helping families when one member is confronting a terminal illness.
"I know Randy," Jai told Dr. Reiss. "He's a workaholic. I know just what he'll be like when he starts putting the lecture together. It'll be all-consuming." The lecture, she argued, would be an unnecessary diversion from the overwhelming issues we were grappling with, in our lives.
Another matter upsetting Jai: To give the talk as scheduled, I would have to fly to Pittsburgh the day before, which was Jai's 41st birthday. "This is my last birthday we'll celebrate together," she told me. "You're actually going to leave me on my birthday?"
Certainly, the thought of leaving Jai that day was painful to me. And yet, I couldn't let go of the idea of the lecture. I had come to see it as the last moment of my career, as a way to say goodbye to my "work family." I also found myself fantasizing about giving a last lecture that would be the oratorical equivalent of a retiring baseball slugger driving one last ball into the upper deck. I had always liked the final scene in "The Natural," when the aging, bleeding ballplayer Roy Hobbs miraculously hits that towering home run.
Dr. Reiss listened to Jai and to me. In Jai, she said, she saw a strong, loving woman who had intended to spend decades building a full life with a husband, raising children to adulthood. Now our lives together had to be squeezed into a few months. In me, Dr. Reiss saw a man not yet ready to fully retreat to his home life, and certainly not yet ready to climb into his deathbed. "This lecture will be the last time many people I care about will see me in the flesh," I told her flatly. "I have a chance here to really think about what matters most to me, to cement how people will remember me, and to do whatever good I can on the way out."
More than once, Dr. Reiss had watched Jai and me sit together on her office couch, holding tightly to each other, both of us in tears. She told us she could see the great respect between us, and she was often viscerally moved by our commitment to getting our final time together right. But she said it wasn't her role to weigh in on whether or not I gave the lecture. "You'll have to decide that on your own," she said, and encouraged us to really listen to each other, so we could make the right decision for both of us.
Given Jai's reticence, I knew I had to look honestly at my motivations. Why was this talk so important to me? Was it a way to remind me and everyone else that I was still very much alive? To prove I still had the fortitude to perform? Was it a limelight-lover's urge to show off one last time? The answer was yes on all fronts. "An injured lion wants to know if he can still roar," I told Jai. "It's about dignity and self-esteem, which isn't quite the same as vanity."
There was something else at work here, too. I had started to view the talk as a vehicle for me to ride into the future I would never see.
I reminded Jai of the kids' ages: 5, 2 and 1. "Look," I said. "At five, I suppose that Dylan will grow up to have a few memories of me. But how much will he really remember? What do you and I even remember from when we were five? Will Dylan remember how I played with him, or what he and I laughed about? It will be hazy at best.
"And how about Logan and Chloe? They may have no memories at all. Nothing. Especially Chloe. And I can tell you this: When the kids are maybe twelve or thirteen, they're going to go through this phase where they absolutely, achingly need to know: "Who was my dad? What was he like?' This lecture could help give them an answer to that." I told Jai I'd make sure Carnegie Mellon would record the lecture. "I'll get you a DVD. When the kids are older, you can show it to them. It'll help them understand who I was and what I cared about."
Jai heard me out, then asked the obvious question. "If you have things you want to say to the kids, or advice you want to give them, why not just put a video camera on a tripod and tape it here in the living room?"
Maybe she had me there. Or maybe not. Like that lion in the jungle, my natural habitat was still on a college campus, in front of students. "One thing I've learned," I told Jai, "is that when parents tell children things, it doesn't hurt to get some external validation. If I can get an audience to laugh and clap at the right time, maybe that would add gravitas to what I'm telling the kids."
Jai smiled at me, her dying showman, and finally relented. She knew I'd been yearning to find ways to leave a legacy for the kids. Okay. Perhaps this lecture could be an avenue for that.
And so, with Jai's green light, I had a challenge before me. How could I turn this academic talk into something that would resonate with our kids a decade or more up the road?
I knew for sure that I didn't want the lecture to focus on my cancer. My medical saga was what it was, and I'd already been over it and over it. I had little interest in giving a discourse on, say, my insights into how I coped with the disease, or how it gave me new perspectives. Many people might expect the talk to be about dying. But it had to be about living.
* * *
"What makes me unique?"
That was the question I felt compelled to address. Maybe answering that would help me figure out what to say. I was sitting with Jai in a doctor's waiting room at Johns Hopkins, awaiting yet another pathology report, and I was bouncing my thoughts off her.
"Cancer doesn't make me unique," I said. There was no arguing that. More than 37,000 Americans a year are diagnosed with pancreatic cancer alone.
I thought hard about how I defined myself: as a teacher, a computer scientist, a husband, a father, a son, a brother, a mentor to my students. Those were all roles I valued. But did any of those roles really set me apart?
Though I've always had a healthy sense of self, I knew this lecture needed more than just bravado. I asked myself: "What do I, alone, truly have to offer?"
And then, there in that waiting room, I suddenly knew exactly what it was. It came to me in a flash: Whatever my accomplishments, all of the things I loved in life, were rooted in the dreams and goals I had as a child and in the ways I had managed to fulfill almost all of them. My uniqueness, I realized, came in the specifics of all the dreams -- from incredibly meaningful to decidedly quirky -- that defined my 46 years of life. Sitting there, I know that despite the cancer, I truly believed I was a lucky man because I had lived out these dreams. And I had lived out my dreams, in great measure, because of things I was taught by all sorts of extraordinary people along the way. If I was able to tell my story with the passion I felt, I thought, my lecture might help others find a path to fulfilling their own dreams.
I had my laptop with me in that waiting room, and fueled by this epiphany, I quickly tapped out an email to the lecture organizers. I told them I finally had a title for them. "My apologies for the delay," I wrote. "Let's call it: 'Really Achieving Your Childhood Dreams.'"
Excerpted from THE LAST LECTURE by RANDY PAUSCH with JEFFREY ZASLOW. Copyright (c) 2008 RANDY PAUSCH. All rights reserved. Published by Hyperion. Available wherever books are sold.