On this Thanksgiving holiday, when we sit with family and friends to express gratitude for the things we have in life, I will think of Randy Pausch. If you haven't heard his name yet, you should have. On the afternoon of Sept. 18 the Carnegie-Mellon University professor walked into a packed auditorium on the Pittsburgh campus and delivered his "last lecture."
It was a doozy.
Pausch spoke with the theatrics of a showman, the wit of a master comic, and the eloquence of a statesman. He recalled his own childhood dreams, his life's goal to enable the dreams of others, and the lessons he learned and wanted to share over the 46 years of his life. Pausch is a handsome man, with a full head of black hair, bushy eyebrows, and a remarkable sense of humor. Of all the lectures this computer science prof had delivered during years in classrooms, this one was especially poignant and urgent. He began simply enough by quoting his father who always told him that when there is an elephant in the room you introduce it.
So Pausch pulled up on an overhead screen a trio of CAT scans that showed the 10 tumors in his liver and spoke about his doctors' prognosis that he had three to six months of good health left. "That is what it is," he said simply. "We can't change it. We cannot change the cards we are dealt—just how we play the hand."
Close to Home
The one-hour lecture quickly became an Internet sensation. An estimated five million people have since watched at least part of it on the Web. (Click here to see the lecture.) After front-page articles in Pittsburgh's two local newspapers, the national media jumped on the story. The frenzy that followed—including an appearance on Oprah—culminated in a reported $6.7 million book deal for Pausch and a collaborator who wrote a story on him in The Wall Street Journal.
I was instantly drawn to the story, if only because three of my closest friends have been diagnosed with cancer over the past two years. Two have died within the past 12 months. The last of the three—with a death sentence of stage IV liver and stomach cancer — checked out of Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center on Sunday after extensive surgery. To put it mildly, I could relate to Pausch and what he had to say that day.
When one of Pausch's closest friends got the news four weeks earlier, he was stunned.
"Dude, you can't die," Steve Seabolt, a vice-president at Electronic Arts (ERTS), told him over the telephone.
"What do you mean?" asked Pausch.
"When you die, the average IQ of my friends is going to drop 50 points!"
"You need to find brighter friends," joked Pausch, trying to take the horror out of the sad news. The conversation recalled one of my own with a friend now lost.
Most of us go through our lives using no more than a small fraction of our potential. Pausch teaches us how to more effectively tap into the vast reservoir of unused talent and energy that resides deep within each of us. That is no small feat. In a world filled with distractions and frustrations, it often takes a tragedy to move us to action. By sharing his personal ordeal with us, Pausch created the urgency so many of us require to awake the human potential that is so frequently wasted.
So what did Pausch actually say that day? He spoke about the brick walls that often appear in the path of every accomplishment. "Remember," he said, pacing the floor, "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. The brick walls are there to stop the people who don't want it badly enough."
Believing in Karma
Pausch urged his audience to take great enjoyment and amusement doing whatever they pursue in life. "Have fun," he shouted. "For me, it's kind of like a fish talking about the importance of water. I don't know how to not have fun. I'm dying, and I'm having fun. And I am going to keep having fun every day I have left, because there is no other way of life. You just have to decide whether you are a Tigger or an Eeyore." Clearly, Pausch chose Tigger.
He advised us on how to get people to help us achieve our dream. "You can't get there alone," he said. "People have to help you, and I do believe in karma. I believe in paybacks. You get people to help you by telling the truth, by being earnest. I will take an earnest person over a hip person every day, because hip is short-term, earnest is long-term."
From the frenetic man in the black knit shirt and khakis, there was more, much more. Some of it you've heard before, from countless self-help books, management development courses, your mentor, or your mother or father. But coming from a dying man, it all seemed more real, more relevant, more gripping.
• "Never give up."
• "Apologize when you screw up."
• "Focus on other people, not yourself."
• "Don't bail. The best gold is at the bottom of barrels of crap."
• "Show gratitude."
• "Work hard. I got tenure a year early. Junior faculty members used to say to me: 'Wow, what's your secret?' I said: 'It's pretty simple. Call me any Friday night in my office at 10 o'clock, and I'll tell you.'"
• "Be prepared. Luck is where preparation meets opportunity."
• "Find the best in everybody. You might have to wait a long time, sometimes years, but people will show you their good side. Just keep waiting. No matter how long it takes. No one is all evil. Everyone has a good side. Just keep waiting. It will come out."
• "Get a feedback loop and listen to it…it can be one great man who tells you what you need to hear. The hard part is to listen to it. Anybody can get chewed out. It's the real person who says: 'Oh my God, you were right.' When people give you feedback, cherish it and use it."
For His Children
His incredible wit was much in evidence. The "best piece of advice, pound for pound, I ever heard," he said, involved a bit of counsel on romance. "When it comes to men who are romantically interested in you, it's really simple. Just ignore everything they say and pay total attention to what they do. It's that simple. It's that easy. I thought back to my bachelor days and said 'damn'."
With his lecture over, Pausch then threw his audience a couple of curves. He told them that his lecture wasn't about how to achieve one's dream. It was about how you lead your life. "If you lead your life the right way, the karma will take care of itself," he said, his voice softening. "The dreams will come to you."
And he said the presentation wasn't really for anyone in the audience. It was for his three children: Dylan, 5, Logan, 2, Chloe, 1. Their fondest memory of their dad will be an Internet video, one that everyone should watch during this holiday when we give thanks for all we have and all we sacrifice.
Let this be the Thanksgiving holiday when you turn off the TV football game and gather your family around a computer to witness a courageous man and his powerful words.