Book #6: The Last Lecture – Randy Pausch

THE LAST LECTURE

Author: Randy Pausch, former professor of Computer Science and Human-Computer Interaction in Carnegie Mellon; The book was written with the help of author and journalist, Jeffrey Zaslow.

Genre: Non-Fiction

First Published: 2008

Status: Read

Pages: 224

Rating: A

“Enlightening and heartbreaking, The Last Lecture is Randy Pausch’s final attempt to leave a lasting legacy—46-years’ worth of life lessons squeezed into one lecture. In this book, Pausch inspires his readers to realize their dreams through living a life of integrity, hard work, gratitude, and fortitude.”

RANDY PAUSCH has made no secret of it—The Last Lecture wasn’t written for commercial purposes or for public consumption, it was written for his kids. The book was based on a 2007 lecture Pausch gave for Carnegie Mellon University. The lecture was called “The Last Lecture: Really Achieving Your Childhood Dreams”. It was a part of a series of lectures where top academics were asked to give ‘hypothetical last lectures’ and to share what was really important to them.

In Pausch’s case, there was nothing hypothetical about this final lecture. It was the last one he’d make in front of his students and colleagues—it was also the finest legacy he could ever leave to his family. The book starts off with Pausch ‘introducing the elephant in the room.’ In his words:

“I have an engineering problem. While for the most part I’m in terrific physical shape, I have ten tumors in my liver and I have only a few months left to live.”

Although pressed for time—time which his wife, Jai, believed he could spend with his family—Pausch insisted on doing the lecture. He believed that this was the best thing he could leave his children, a glimpse of who their father was. According to Pausch: “If I were a painter, I would have painted for them. If I were a musician, I would have composed music. But I am a lecturer. So I lectured.”

These straightforward, unflinching admissions set the tone for the rest of the book. Pausch doesn’t ask the reader to feel sorry for him; instead, he does the opposite. He tries to impart optimism to his readers by talking about the joy of living. Through his personal anecdotes, he encourages the reader to set achievable goals and to take pride in these achievements.

As a child, Pausch was a dreamer. There were a lot of things he wanted to do with his life. But what set him apart from other kids was how specific his life goals were. These dreams included: (1) being in zero gravity; (2) playing in the NFL; (3) writing an article for the World Book Encyclopedia; (4) becoming Captain Kirk; (5) winning a number of stuffed animals; and (6) becoming a Disney Imagineer. Out of all these dreams, the only one Pausch didn’t accomplish was to play for the NFL—everything else he got by working hard, working smart, and most importantly, having the right attitude.

Of course, he had a bit of help from his friends and family too. In the book, Pausch talks about winning the “parent lottery”. His parents helped shape his personality by encouraging him to dream but keeping his feet on the ground by teaching him the importance of humility. Throughout the book, he speaks of his parents with admiration and respect, but is also quick to point out the importance of compromise between the parents and the child.

Another important figure in Pausch’s life was his kiddie football coach, Jim Graham. Coach Graham could be hard on the kids, but to Pausch, that was the coach’s way of teaching the children the importance of perseverance and learning the fundamentals. Through the coach, Pausch learned more about giving and taking ‘head fakes’ or indirect learning.

Then there’s Pausch’s immediate family. Now, his children may have been the reason for the lecture, but it was his wife, Jai, who made the lecture possible. Falling in love with Jai changed Pausch. In a way, she softened him by balancing out his strong-willed nature with her own quiet strength and fortitude. Her strength also served as a comfort to Pausch, especially after learning about his terminal illness. In the lecture, Pausch speaks about being confident that his kids will grow up right because they have a strong and loving mother to guide them. The love Pausch felt for Jai is so palpable in this book. Just the way he speaks about her–the undertones of reverence and gratitude–it makes it impossible for anyone not to feel touched, hopeful, and a little heartbroken after reading about their story.

While reading this book, you can also tell right away that Pausch–though not perfect–was actually a really great man. Beyond working to achieve his dreams, he also strived to help others attain theirs. As a professor, Pausch didn’t just teach his students the subject matter, he inspired them to set goals, aim high, work hard, and most importantly, to help each other in achieving their dreams. Now, four years after his death, Pausch continues to inspire millions through this beautiful book.

All in all, I give this book an A. It’s the type of book that will motivate you to do something with your life. It’s honest, heartfelt, and touching.  The only thing that would make this book better is if Pausch and Zaslow expounded on some of the ideas more. Other than that, this book is the perfect read for anyone looking for a bit of guidance.

Favorite Quotes:

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

“Experience is what you get when you didn’t get what you wanted. And experience is often the most valuable thing you have to offer.”

“The brick walls are there for a reason. The brick walls are not there to keep us out. The brick walls are there to give us a chance to show how badly we want something. Because the brick walls are there to stop the people who don’t want it badly enough. They’re there to stop the other people.””

“No job is beneath you.”

Featured Poem#1: Mirror – Sylvia Plath

Every writer (successful, aspiring, failed, or whatnot) has an interesting anecdote on that “something” that got him/her started on writing. My “something” was Sylvia Plath’s “Mirror”. I don’t remember much of the details. I know it was in high school at my Creative Writing class under my then-favorite teacher. I remember him handing out copies of this poem and later, reading the poem out loud to a quiet audience.

Don’t get me wrong. There was no lightning bolt. No lightbulb. No sirens. No Eurekas! No exclamation points. There was just this stillness. This incredible stillness. It was dread, resignation, elation, calm, peace, understanding, and truth (a glimpse of the absolute truth?) all rolled into one. It was a lingering ache that stayed for days.

I knew. I didn’t want to be a writer, I needed to be one. I realized that it didn’t matter what I did in the mean time, I would always go back to writing. To borrow from Milan Kundera’s Unbearable Lightness of Being: “Muss es sein? Ja, es muss sein!”

Reading this poem ten years later, it still makes me feel the same way.

Mirror – Sylvia Plath

I am silver an exact. I have no preconceptions.

Whatever I see I swallow immediately

Just as it is, unmisted by love or dislike.

I am not cruel, only truthful,

The eye of a little god, four-cornered.

Most of the time I meditate on the opposite wall.

It is pink, with speckles. I have looked at it so long

I think it is a part of my heart. But it flickers.

Faces and darkness separate us over and over.

Now I am a lake. A woman bends over me,

Searching my reaches for what she really is.

Then she turns to those liars, the candles or the moon.

I see her back, and reflect it faithfully.

She rewards me with tears and an agitation of hands.

I am important to her. She comes and goes.

Each morning it is her face that replaces the darkness.

In me she has drowned a young girl, and in me an old woman

Rises toward her day after day, like a terrible fish.

Book #4: A Room of One’s Own

A ROOM OF ONE’S OWN

Author: Virginia Woolf
Genre: Non-Fiction; Essay
Rating: A+
First Published: 1929
Status: Reread
Pages: 98

Like revolutionary poetry, Virginia Woolf’s “A Room of One’s Own” ignites the passion to write, to be heard, and to persevere in the face of seemingly insurmountable circumstances.

In this extended essay on “Women and Fiction”, Woolf posits that ‘…a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.’ She speaks of this room as a figurative space where a woman can think and exist away from the constraints of a patriarchal society and unaffected by the misogynistic views prevalent in early studies of her sex.

According to Woolf, for centuries, society has kept women from writing by limiting their financial resources and forcing them into the roles of mother, daughter, wife, mistress, and homemaker. These roles enable women to serve as ‘looking-glasses possessing magic and delicious power of reflecting the figure of man at twice its natural size’, (p.29). Yet even at their most docile, women seem to pose as a threat to even the greatest of men. Men ‘insist so emphatically upon the inferiority of women, for if they [women] were not inferior, they [men] would cease to enlarge.’

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