The Lasting Lecture of Randy Pausch

It is better to go to a house of mourning than to go to a house of feasting, for death is the destiny of every man; the living should take this to heart. Sorrow is better than laughter, because a sad face is good for the heart. The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning, but the heart of fools is in the house of pleasure. It is better to heed a wise man’s rebuke than to listen to the song of fools. Like the crackling of thorns under the pot, so is the laughter of fools. This too is meaningless. Ecclesiastes 7:2-6 NIV

About five months ago I became familiar with Dr. Randy Pausch while searching for motivational speeches that could be part of some curriculum I was writing for kids in in-school suspension programs. I found his abbreviated speech given on the Oprah Winfrey Show to be just what I was looking for. To say the least, his speech was nothing short of dynamic, moving, and profoundly sad. Immediately, I began to circulate it among my friends and family. The response was exactly what I expected. Tremendous.

For most of us, we can imagine at the moment of our passing from this terrestrial plain, a hopeful moment of being surrounded by loved ones who may just hear us utter a faint parting word of love and peace. Randy Pausch had more than a moment.  After discovering in 2006 that he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer,  and after a year of unsuccessful treatment, given just months to live, he began to consider what he needed to relate to his children of what he learned in life.   On September 18, 2007 he gave a ‘Last Lecture’ speech, one of a series of talks in which academics were challenged to pass on a hypothetical final message, although in Randy’s case there was a good chance it would indeed be his last.

His speech, an impassioned, eloquent and often hilarious acclamation to ‘Really Achieving Your Childhood Dreams’, was recorded and put onto the internet where Prof Pausch’s wise-cracks and life lessons were seen by millions of viewers.  As he put it, ” I have an engineering problem. While for the most part I’m in terrific physical shape, I have ten tumors in my liver and only a few months left to live. I am a father of three young children, and married to the woman of my dreams.”  Those were the sad facts. Nevertheless, Randy Pausch was intent on giving something of significance to his family and even to us.  He asked the simple, but difficult question, and had an answer too.

So, how to spend my very limited time? The obvious part is being with, and taking care of, my family. The less obvious part is how to teach my children what I would have taught them over the next 20 years. My desire to do that led me to give a “last lecture”.

A lot of professors give talks titled “The Last Lecture”. It has become a common exercise on American college campuses. Professors are asked to ruminate on what matters most to them. And while they speak, audiences can’t help but mull over the same question: if we had to vanish tomorrow, what would we want as our legacy?

When commenting on his condition he noted “that it is what it is, we can’t change it, and we just have to decide how we are going to respond to it.  We cannot change the cards we are dealt, just how we play the hand. If I don’t seem as depressed or morose as I should be … sorry to disappoint you!”

Pausch went on to say he wasn’t going to talk about his cancer. Instead, he wanted to celebrate his life and the lessons he had learned while growing up.

Since learning about Randy Pausch’s fight with pancreatic cancer, I bought his book, “The Last Lecture” which I devoured in short order. I also began to visit his web page where he continued to give updates about his life and prognosis.  The last time I checked his page was on Wednesday, July 22, 2008.  At that time, I believed from his last entry that he was actually in some sort of recovery.  Little did I know that within a few days, everything would change.  

On July 25th, 2008, almost two years after his diagnosis, Randy Pausch passed away. His cancer had finally bested him. I didn’t find out about his passing until a few days later.  As for me, although I know he is gone, his words and wisdom however, have not passed away.  Instead, his last lecture has become a lasting one.

Randy Pausch was born on 23 October, 1960 in Baltimore, Maryland.  He studied computer science at Brown University in Rhode Island and Carnegie Mellon University in Pennsylvania. After he gained his PhD, his mother began introducing him, “This is my son-he’s a doctor but not the kind that helps people.”  Little did she know how much and how many people he would and will help.

Related Articles:

Randy Pausch – TIME

The Truth Behind Randy Pausch’s “Last Lecture”

10 Questions for Randy Pausch – TIME

A Father’s Farewell -Reader’s Digest

Randy Pausch’s Personal Page


The Last Lecture by Dr. Randy Pausch, Sept. 18, 2007

A Tribute to Randy Pausch

You can support research into curing pancreatic cancer via the Lustgarten foundation, and/or the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network (PanCAN) .




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