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The Last Lecture by Randy Pausch and Jeffrey Zaslow

December 23, 2015

The_Last_Lecture_(book_cover)

On September 18, 2007, a computer science professor at Carnegie Melon gave a lecture titled “Really Achieving Your Childhood Dreams.” It was in the tradition of the “last lecture,” the final lecture professors would give if they imagined it was to be their last. What would be their parting wisdom? The professor’s name was Randy Pausch, and for him the last lecture was more than hypothetical. He had recently been diagnosed with terminal cancer. His doctors gave him 3-6 months to live.

This book captures that lecture, the thoughts behind it and reflections on what it meant. It is a book of advice. As one might imagine from a computer science professor, much of it is very practical. It’s about how to be a good student, a good teammate, a good manager. But it’s also, as Pausch reveals, about how to live your life. “If you lead your life the right way, the karma will take care of itself. The dreams will come to you.” And in the most touching sentiment, he also reveals that the talk wasn’t really for the people in the room. It was for his three young children.

pausch

What makes this book successful (and the actual talk even more so), is that Pausch is brutally honest, yet almost arrogant in his defiance. In the actual lecture, he did clapping pushups on stage. He is still in the prime of his health on the outside. He speaks about the tough road to come, but is filled with optimism for the day. And the stories he tells are specific and tangible and personal. The lessons to take away might come across as platitudes, but he sets them up with stories of how he learned them.

And the biggest weakness in the book—the sometimes corny tone—is offset if you actually watch the video of the lecture. Pausch is a computer scientist. He has that mixture of nerdiness and arrogance that really smart, successful people sometimes have. In the book, he doesn’t always pull it off, but in the video you get a better sense that it’s an essential part of his character. I imagine he was a very tough, but very good professor.

 

“The Last Lecture” (the video) was a recommendation from David Plotz on Slate’s Political Gabfest. A great recommendation.

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