Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Dying 47-Year-Old Professor Gives Exuberant ‘Last Lecture’

'The Last Lecture' by Randy Pausch/Jeffrey Zaslow
CMU professor shares wealth of values
Sunday, April 06, 2008

For a man whose final lecture at Carnegie Mellon University has been viewed more than 6 million times on the Web, writing a book called "The Last Lecture" would seem to be the very definition of an anticlimax.

But with the help of Wall Street Journal columnist Jeffrey Zaslow, it doesn't come off that way at all. If anything, "The Last Lecture" has even more emotional punch than when Pausch told a packed auditorium in September that he was dying of pancreatic cancer, and then proceeded to describe all the ways he had been able to fulfill this childhood dreams.

Pausch has said more than once that no one would pay the slightest attention to his nuggets of wisdom if he weren't a 47-year-old man with a terminal illness, leaving behind a wife and three young children.

Realizing that, he has seized every opportunity to build a video and written legacy for his family, especially knowing that two of his children will be too young to have many concrete memories of him if he dies, as he expects, within the next several months.

Much of the book elaborates on the experiences he made famous in his lecture, from the importance of his parents to the value of his mentors, whether it was a football coach or a trusted professor.

But what comes through more strongly than in the lectures is the value Pausch places on hard work and learning from criticism, and his skewering of the prevailing cult of self-esteem.

Recalling his tough scholastic football coach, Jim Graham, he said, "Coach Graham worked in a no-coddling zone. Self-esteem? He knew there was really only one way to teach kids how to develop it: You give them something they can't do, they work hard until they find they can do it, and you just keep repeating the process."

"I've heard so many people talk about a downward spiral in our educational system," he writes later, "and I think one key factor is that there is too much stroking and too little real feedback."

Recalling how he used to put his entertainment technology students in working groups and require them to provide written feedback to each other, he remembered one socially abrasive student who was ranked in the bottom quartile of his peers' evaluations.

"He figured that if he was ranked in the bottom 25 percent, he must have been at the 24 percent or 25 percent level ... So he saw himself as 'not so far from 50 percent,' which meant his peers thought he was just fine."

That's when Pausch told the student that in fact he ranked dead last, and as the student tried to deal with the shock, his professor said:

"I used to be just like you. I was in denial. But I had a professor who cared about me by smacking the truth into my head. And here's what makes me so special: I listened. ... I'm a recovering jerk. That's what gives me the moral authority to tell you that you can be a recovering jerk, too."

The book isn't just a compendium of life lessons. It also contains surprisingly honest stories of his upbringing, how he met and wooed his wife, Jai, and why each of his children is special to him.

He relates, for instance, how his wife told him initially that she didn't love him enough to marry him. Of course, she relented, and then he was afraid he had nearly ruined everything when the hot air balloon they got into right after the wedding ceremony had to crash-land in a field outside Pittsburgh.

As they descended toward a set of railroad tracks and an approaching train, Pausch wrote, the balloonist said, "'When this thing hits the ground, run as fast as you can.' These are not the words most brides dream about hearing on their wedding day."

He also wrote about a recent scuba diving trip he took with friends, after he had given his lecture. "We reminisced, we horsed around and we made fun of each other," he said. "Actually, it was mostly them making fun of me for the 'St. Randy of Pittsburgh' reputation I've gotten since my last lecture."

Perhaps the most poignant -- and real -- moment of the book comes when he reveals what Jai said to him after he surprised her with a birthday cake during the lecture.

As she held him on stage, she put her lips next to his ear and whispered, "Please don't die."

It's the one dream he most wishes he could fulfill.

Barring that, he will leave the record of his life and love, and this tiny, powerful volume.

Mark Roth can be reached at mroth@post-gazette.com or at 412-263-1130.


Randy Pausch's Update page

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