Sunday, August 29, 2010

The Last Lecture

“We cannot change the cards we are dealt, just how we play the hand.”
--Randy Pausch

Randy Pausch was an American professor at Carnegie Mellon University. As many professors are, he had been asked to give a theoretical "last lecture" about his experience of life and what he would like his legacy to be. But unlike most such lectures, in a sense it really was his last. He had been diagnosed with terminal pancreatic cancer, and did not have long to live.

When he started speaking, he glibly apologized for looking so healthy, and said that actually, despite the fact he was dying, he was in better shape than most of his audience. Then, just to make the point, he dropped to the floor and started doing push-ups.

I saw the last lecture back in 2008. Pausch was already dead when I watched his lecture, but watching him on stage, dying but truly alive, and hearing him talk passionately about life, made a huge impact on me. I was talking about it for months afterwards.

I have read the book based on the lecture a number of times. I’ve never felt able to watch the lecture again, but the book is something I have returned to over and over.

As the stunt with the push-ups showed, Pausch was a born showman. But he had also done a lot of learning in his 47 years, and was keen to say goodbye in a way that passed some of it on, to his colleagues, students, and friends, but mostly to his wife and three young children.

He spoke about many things. But the thing that struck me the most was the limited time we all have. We don’t all have a terminal cancer diagnosis, but we do all have bodies that will fail eventually. None of us know if we will live another day, or another fifty years. We can make educated guesses, but none of us really know if today will be our last.

In the past, health is something that I have tended to take for granted. It is only over the last few years that I have slowly come to appreciate it. The old cliché about how we don’t know what we’ve got till it’s gone is very true, and as I have gone through this roller-coaster ride of depression and anxiety, I spent a lot of time angry and frustrated about how terrible I felt.

But very slowly I am coming to appreciate the times when I am doing well. I don’t know if I will ever fully recover, ever be really happy. So I can’t base my peace of mind around that.

Sometimes I think about Awakenings, and how the patients in that movie were fortunate to have the recovery they did, even though it was temporary. Like those patients, I have to seize the moments I have and use them to the best of my abilities.

When it comes down to it, all life is temporary anyway, so even if my depression disappeared tomorrow, the fundamental situation would still be the same. Limited time, limited energy, large challenges.

In the introduction to his book, Pausch noted that engineering is not about perfect solutions, it is about doing the best one can with limited resources. Perhaps I should accept that and live my life with that in mind. It just might lead to me being a little easier on myself and others, and to a life that is a little more enjoyable.


  1. Bilge's surpriseAugust 30, 2010 at 8:37 PM

    Nice lecture - how do you come by these obscure things anyway?

    I read somewhere once that if you weren't born to fit-in in this world then you were born to change it. I think a lot of depression stems from not being born to flourish in this society, but not realizing you can change it or not having the courage to - in other words, apathy.

    I used to be apathetic, I never valued my own life and figured I'd abuse it and just kind of kill time until it was over, the sooner the better. But eventually my apathy turned into rage and I realized that there are things around us that need to be changed, that people who aren't depressed in some fashion rarely consider their surroundings or analyze the injustices around them. In that sense I think depression can be a terrible weapon against the status-quo.

    My outlook on life has changed. Now I regret I have such a short time to be here, and that no matter how much I work, there will be so much left to do after I am gone. But that is a good thing. We can either sell our labor, buy into consumerism and wait to die, or fight to make this place better with what time we have. Life is a great opportunity.

  2. I was lucky, I was able to see the Last Lecture when it first hit the net - and Pausch was very much alive. Then the 'not so lucky' - I HAPPENED to be reading his book when he passed away --- I was up to the g'bye to his kids, and I just couldn't do it. It riped my heart out.

    BUT During that time I found a cool little book called Five Wishes (By: Gay Hendricks) - it is small, but packs a punch. For some reason when I saw the post about the Last Lecture I immediately thought of this book. Apparently, there is a website too = never been there, but here you go.

  3. I am so grateful that you lead me to R. Pausch and all the wisdom and spirit that still lives on despite his death. Humour, compassion, wit and a great taste in movies "Star Wars" were just part of his gifts he passed along to those lucky enough to have "known" him in some way.

    For you D.R. to have been so moved by him reflects those same qualities you have inside yourself or else you would never have resonated with him.

    Don't forget when times are darkest, you have an inner-mentor in Randy that touches us all. Thank you for showing us who you are as a person and having the courage to find the light in the darkness.

  4. Hello everyone, thank you all for coming by and posting, I really appreciate you taking the time.

    Bilge - How do I find all these obscure things? I'd have to say having too much free time on my hands and access to the internet!

    As for your points on really living, instead of simply marking time, I agree. There are too many things that are wrong in the world. We cannot change all of them, but we can change some of them. And if we are not trying to improve things where we can, what is the point of being alive?

    Maggie Beth - It was hard enough for me to watch the last lecture and read the book when Pausch was already gone, I can only imagine what it felt like to be reading it when he died. It is strange, and part of the magic of words, that we can feel so close to someone who we never met.

    Thanks for sharing the 5 wishes link. I checked out the website and watched the short movie made of the conversation. It is similar in that both he and Pausch are focused on mortality and achieving the best we can within its boundaries, so I can imagine why you thought of this book when you saw the Last Lecture.

    Wendy - Thanks for that, you are very welcome, I am always happy to preach the Gospel according to Randy! Internet sensations come and go, but some of them do have real significance. It is always good knowing that I have some good pointers to come back to when times get rough.

  5. I like you go back to the last lecture often... It has so much to show us about enjoying the time we have and not taking it for granted. also liked your reference to awakenings... another of my favorites

  6. Hi MMM! The point about not taking our time for granted is an important one, and I think we need regular reminders so we don't lapse into complacency. Thanks for coming by and posting!