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Reflections on "The Last Lecture"

  • Date: 05/11/2008
  • Author: Dr. Luis M. Proenza (President, The University of Akron)
  • Location: UA Commencement
  • Commencement speeches typically express a hopeful and positive view of the future. At thousands of ceremonies like this one, speakers are expressing their sincere hope that the graduates gathered before them will take the knowledge and experiences that they have accumulated over the last four or five years, and use them as the foundation for a long, productive, successful and, most importantly, a happy life.

    That is certainly the wish that I have for each of you. It is a well-worn analogy, but you stand on the threshold of the wonderful journey through life.

    It seems that you have a full life ahead of you and plenty of time to do all of the things that you want to do. For most of you that is, in fact, the case. But I would suggest that your life may be much fuller if you live it as if your time was perhaps much more limited. It is limited enough as it seems.

    I would guess that many of you already have heard advice along that line, maybe in a song or in a book or maybe you have been fortunate enough to have heard it from someone who has faced, or is facing, an immediate threat to life. Now, one such person is Randy Pausch, a professor of computer science at Carnegie Mellon University who at once was confronted with the opportunity of a lifetime and a life-ending illness.

    It started innocuously enough, as many life-altering changes do. Professor Pausch was invited to deliver a speech as part of a "Last Lecture" series,
    in which professors are asked to talk about a topic that really matters to them,
    and to impart their wisdom as if it were the last lecture they would ever give.

    Ironically, a few weeks after being invited to deliver that lecture, Randy was told he had only three to six months to live. At the time, he was 47 years old with a wife and three young children . . . and pancreatic cancer that had spread already to his liver and spleen.

    He decided that the speech was now doubly important. He saw it as a way to "put (himself) in a bottle that would one day wash up on the beach for (his) children, Dylan, Logan and Chloe."1
    His lecture, titled "Really Achieving Your Childhood Dreams," was delivered on September 18, 2007. It struck a chord with many people, earned him widespread recognition and became a number one best-selling book on the shelves today.

    So, I would like to pass along to you some advice from Randy Pausch, a man who knows that his time in this world is very limited indeed.

    First, he said, "Always have fun."1 Now, please notice he did not say, "Do what you want," "Never be serious," or "Party ‘til you drop." He said, "Always have fun."

    Try to find excitement and enjoyment and opportunity in whatever circumstances you find yourself living or working. Fun doesn't need to be reserved for the weekend or your favorite night spot or your college days.

    Many of you will make career and life decisions based on what will create the greatest income or security or stature. There is nothing inherently wrong with those things, but have you thought about personal fulfillment or enjoyment as equally important elements of your life that also deserve some long-term planning attention?

    Think about what your life, and the world, could be like if you always try to have some fun in whatever you do.

    In a recent article, Randy was quoted as saying he wants "to keep having fun every day I have left, because there's no other way to play it."2

    Professor Pausch's second piece of advice is "Dream big."1

    This amazing time in which we live, and this wonderful nation where we live, were created by farsighted thinkers years and years ago . . . and shaped by those who followed the path less traveled in pursuit of their visions for a better world.

    I hope that your experiences here have made you more inquisitive, courageously creative, and thoroughly convinced that your imagination is a powerful asset.

    In the words of Goethe: "Whatever you do, or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius, power, and magic to it. Begin it now."

    But few of us truly live boldly pursuing our dreams. Instead, in the name of pragmatism and security, we try to "play it safe," avoid risk, worry about what tomorrow may bring . . . and certainly not think about our inevitable demise.
    Yet the thought of death, of our days being numbered, is a powerful motivator to focus on chasing our dreams, living our dreams in the moments that we have.Randy has said, "I'm living like I'm dying. But at the same time, I'm very much living like I'm still living."2 How many of us can claim that we do both, or either, of those things?

    The third bit of advice from Randy Pausch is this: "Ask for what you want."1

    As an example, he described a trip to Disney World with his dad and his four-year-old son. As they waited for the monorail, Randy's dad mentioned that it would be great fun to sit in the front of the train with the driver. Randy told him
    "Actually I've learned that there's a trick to getting to sit up front. Would you like to see it?" He walked over to the ride attendant and said, "Excuse me. Could we please sit in the front car?" With that, the attendant led them to the front seat, to the surprise of his dad and the delight of his son.1

    There are so many opportunities that we miss, so many questions that go unanswered, so many doors left unopened, simply because we hesitate to ask for what we want. Never be afraid to ask, because, if you don't ask, the answer is always, NO!

    Next, "dare to take a risk."1

    Professor Pausch created an award, a stuffed penguin, that he presented to the student team that took the biggest gamble on a project in his class, but didn't meet its final goals. Randy said, "The award came from the idea that, when penguins jump in water that might have predators ... one of them has to be the first penguin (in the water)."1 So, his stuffed penguin rewarded the students who weren't afraid to take a risk and "dive in," if you wish, to a challenging task.

    Those who create wealth and help drive the economy are the entrepreneurs,
    the innovators, the risk takers. They understand that success and failure have a lot in common, and that failure, even repeated failure, often is a prelude to success. Entrepreneurs learn what they can, weigh the potential costs and benefits, assume the calculated risk and then dive in to do everything they can to succeed at something they have decided is worthwhile.

    I suggest that we would all do well to follow that example.

    Take a chance, ask for what you want, chase big dreams and persevere in the face of obstacles with this maxim from Randy in mind, "Brick walls are there for a reason; they let us prove how badly we want things."2

    Professor Pausch also advised to "look for the best in everybody" and to let children be children, as well as providing this final piece of wisdom, which is not surprising from a man with only days or months to live.

    He said, "Make time for what matters."1

    Interestingly, the story Randy used to illustrate that point was not from recent history.

    Randy Pausch was 39 when he got married, and when he went on his honeymoon ... years before his cancer diagnosis ... he wanted to devote his full attention to his new bride. But his boss demanded that people be able to reach Randy while he was on his honeymoon. And so, on his answering machine, Randy recorded this message:

    "Hi. This is Randy. I waited until I was 39 to get married, so my wife and I are going away for a month. I hope you don't have a problem with that, but my boss does. Apparently I have to be reachable." He then gave the name of his wife's parents and the city where they lived. He concluded with, "If you call directory assistance, you can get their phone number. And then, if you can convince my in-laws that your emergency merits interrupting their only daughter's honeymoon, they have our number."1

    Their honeymoon was not interrupted by any phone calls.

    You will have to make decisions every day of your life, choosing how to spend that most precious resource - time. Try not to confuse what is urgent with what is truly important, and always remember that it is impossible to get back even one second of time wasted.

    As of just a few days ago, Randy Pausch was still alive and continuing to battle cancer, nearly nine months after being given his terminal diagnosis. His time, however, is most definitely short. He has battled back from heart and kidney failure - and, as of May 2, the cancer had spread to his lungs, lymph nodes and abdomen. For him, the end of life is very near on the horizon, so he feels a special urgency about living his life as fully as possible, guided by the rules for living that I just shared with you from him.

    In sharing his latest diagnoses on his Web site, Randy wrote, "This is unfortunate, but we knew it would happen sooner or later, and we've been able to stave it off much longer than anticipated, so I'm very grateful for that."3

    For most of us, the end of life is out of our range of sight, and perhaps well beyond because of the miracles of modern medicine. But we can all live more fully if we never forget that our situations can change in the blink of an eye, so it is vital that we make the most of every day we have.

    I am confident that the faculty, staff, administrators and others here at the University have done their best to equip each of you with the knowledge, skills and guidance needed to prepare you for your future. And I believe that you may find the greatest personal happiness and success if you take to heart the simple advice of Randy Pausch; always have fun, dream big, ask for what you want, dare to take risks, look for the best in everybody, and make time for what matters. 1



    1 Pausch, Randy (2008, April 6). The lessons I'm leaving behind. Parade. Available: http://www.parade.com/articles/editions/2008/edition_04-06-2008/1My_Last_Lecture.

    2 Zaslow, Jeffrey (2008, May 3). The final farewell. The Wall Street Journal. p. R1. Available: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB120951287174854465.html.

    3 Pausch, Randy (2008, May 7). May 2nd, 2008: Cancer spreads. Randy Pausch's Update Page. Available: http://download.srv.cs.cmu.edu/~pausch/news/index.html


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