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What does a 47 year old professor, diagnosed with terminal pancreatic cancer and given six months to live, have to be happy about? Randy Pausch was a little known computer science professor at Carnegie-Mellon University until the video of his speech “The Last Lecture: Really Achieving Your Childhood Dreams” became a global internet phenomenon in September of 2007.
“The Last Lecture” is a popular topic amongst University professors. The original concept was for professors to “consider their demise and to ruminate on what matters most to them.” The ultimate goal was for the professors to inspire in their audience a sense of urgency and mortality; ultimately encouraging them to consider their own lives and what they want their legacy to be.
For Randy Pausch, the presentation was a very real opportunity to make his final public statement to the world. And make it he did. His speech was not one of regret nor the sobriety of death. Instead, Pausch gave a heartfelt and energized tribute to life. For over an hour he shared with his audience the importance of following childhood dreams, and enjoying every moment you have on this planet.
In his follow up best selling book The Last Lecture, Pausch goes into more detail as to the motivations and struggles of not only coming up with the ideal topic, but in following through with his intention of sharing his message. He also reiterated some of the key points from his speech. And from the reflective ramblings of his life, his message transformed into a wonderful dichotomy: we must live our lives with a childlike wonder and big dreaming, while valuing every moment and pursing that which is dear to us with vigor and determination.
The Big Idea
Find brick walls worth tackling
"Brick walls are there for a reason."
Pausch lived his life with the understanding that anything is possible. He believed fully in the potency of childhood dreams. Always the scientist though, he also understood that not all dreams would come easy. There will always be variables, mistakes and accidents along the road of life that are beyond our control. Rather than lament our bad luck, Pausch encourages us to be the scientist. In the face of adversity and challenge, we need to evaluate our goals and, if worth pursuing, tackle them with everything we have. The balance is to dream like a child and commit like a driven adult.
The beautiful thing about brick walls
"The brick walls are there to stop the people who don’t want it badly enough. They’re there to stop other people."
We all face brick walls from time to time – obstacles that seem truly insurmountable. And, if we were lesser people, we may pack up and go home. And sometimes, that’s exactly the right play. Sometimes we need to realize that the time, effort and ingenuity that would be required to defeat that wall is simply not worth the investment. Sometimes. What Pausch teaches though is that we can only justifiably give up if we’ve looked at the situation from a distance. If we can admit that the goal is not one that ties into our life’s pursuit, then it really is worth walking away from. When we have taken the time to cement our dreams – truly rooting them in our very beings – we are able to distinguish those dreams worth pursuing from those less worthy.
If we stop, take a distanced view, and realize that the brick wall in front of us actually does stand between ourselves and our goals, then we need to tackle that wall with everything we’ve got. We need to understand that those brick walls are there for a reason. They’re there to stop those people who don’t want it bad enough. As Pausch says, “Brick walls are there for a reason. They give us a chance to show how badly we want something.”
The clock is ticking…
"We all have finite time and energy. Any time we spend whining is unlikely to help us achieve our goals. And it won’t make us happier."
As I’m sure many do as they near the end of their lives, Pausch reflects often in The Last Lecture about the preciousness of time. As he points out, the only true valuable use of what little time we have is in the pursuit of those things we truly want; those accomplishments and milestones that will mean something at the end of our lives. The reason he encourages us to walk away from certain obstacles is simply to allow us to refocus our attention on the brick walls that are worth tackling. And, under no circumstances should we waste our time lamenting our misfortune. When you look back on your life (whether the end comes at 47 or 97), I doubt very highly that you will reminisce about the times you spent cursing your bad luck. Life’s too short – get out and live it.
Randy Pausch was human. He cried when he learned of his terminal cancer, and he struggled greatly with the fact his children would grow up without him. And yet, he spent his last few months on earth happy. Happy because he had his family, and happy because he had lived his life in such a way that he accomplished more in 47 years than many people accomplish in 90. Randy Pausch passed away on July 25, 2008, but his legacy will live on for generations to come. His message is simple – dream like a child, then live with passion and purpose. It’s the Randy Pausch’s of the world that make our society a better place to live.