Lessons from The Last Lecture

Cover of The Last Lecture bookI have been wanting to read The Last Lecture, written by Randy Pausch with Jeffery Zaslow, for a few years now.

For those who have not heard of the book, the lecture series, or Randy Pausch, go to www.thelastlecture.com. However, here is a brief synopsis. Pausch was a hard-working, tenured professor at Carnegie Mellon University with three young children and a wonderful wife. He was happy; his hard work was paying off. One day he a had stomachache…and a few tests later he knew the cause…pancreatic cancer. This aggressive cancer is essentially a death sentence. He had about 3-5 months left to live. He lasted for another year and passed away at the age of 47 on July 25, 2008.

But the book, The Last Lecture, isn’t so much a biography/autobiography of Pausch’s life or a self-help book on how to make your life better by reading the stories that taught him life lessons. The book isn’t a transcript of the lecture, though the two are similar. The book is about legacy; it is about figuring out what you can learn, do, and say today that will make a better tomorrow for you, those you love, those who exist right now that you don’t even know, and those who will come in future generations.

Many universities have a lecture series entitled Last Lecture Series, or something similar, in which professors are asked, “if you could only give one last lecture, what would it be about?” For Pausch, there was no if. He was dying of pancreatic cancer. He embraced the hour-long lecture and shared his life story and the lessons he learned along the way. Unfortunately, I never attended a last lecture while I was in undergraduate school. I was frequently busy and the dates never seemed to work out. After reading Pausch’s book and watching the video of his lecture, “Really Achieving Your Childhood Dreams,” I wish I had made the time to go to at least one of these lectures about life. I probably would have made some different mistakes (not less, just different ones!).

As I read Pausch’s book, there were numerous teary moments—how can there not be when you are reading a book that continuously reminds you of the lessons he wants to leave for his children and the preparations he is making for “when [he’s] gone”. Here are several that I pulled out that I felt were meaningful.

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“When parents tell children things, it doesn’t hurt to get some external validation,” (p. 9).

“When there’s an elephant in the room, introduce it,” (p. 16).

“That is what it is. We can’t change it. We just have to decide how we’ll respond. We cannot change the cards we are dealt, just how we play the hand,” (p.17).

“Never make a decision until you have to,” (p. 23).

“Just because you’re in the driver’s seat doesn’t mean you have to run people over,” (p.33).

“Fundamentals, fundamentals, fundamentals….You’ve got to get the fundamentals down, because otherwise the fancy stuff is not going to work,” (p. 36).

“When you’re screwing up and nobody says anything to you anymore, that means they’ve given up on you,” (p.37).

“If [you] work hard enough, there will be things [you] can do tomorrow that [you] can’t do today,” (p.37).

“Tenacity is a virtue, but it’s not always crucial for everyone to observe how hard you work at something,” (p.48).

“The brick walls are there for a reason. They’re not there to keep us out. The brick walls are there to give us a chance to show how badly we want something,” (p. 51-52).

“Sometimes, the most impenetrable brick walls are made of flesh.” (P.53)

“I told doctors I’d be willing to endure anything in their surgical arsenal, and I’d swallow anything in their medicine cabinet, because I had an objective: I wanted to be alive as long as possible for [those I loved],” (p. 58).

“Use semantics to phrase whatever [you can] in a positive light,” (p.62).

“Not everything needs to be fixed,” (p.87).

“No matter how bad things are, you can always make things worse. At the same time, it is often within your power to make them better,” (p.88).

“Time must be explicitly managed, like money,” (p. 108).

“You can always change your plan, but only if you have one,” (p.108).

“Some old-school types complain these days that higher education too often feels like it is all about customer service. Students and their parents believe they are paying top dollar for a product, and so they want it to be valuable in a measurable way. It’s as if they’ve walked into a department store, and instead of buying five pairs of designer jeans, they’ve purchased a five-subject course-load.

I don’t fully reject the customer-service model, but I think it’s important to use the right industry metaphor. It’s not retail. Instead, I’d compare college tuition to paying for a personal trainer at an athletic club. We professors play the roles of trainers, giving people access to the equipment (books, labs, our expertise) and after that, it is our job to be demanding. We need to make sure that our students are exerting themselves. We need to praise them when they deserve it and to tell them honestly when they have it in them to work harder.” (P. 112-113)

“Give yourself permission to dream. Fuel your kids’ dreams, too. Once in a while, that might even mean letting them stay up past their bedtimes,” (p.133).

“Too many people go through life complaining about their problems. I’ve always believed that if you took one-tenth the energy you put into complaining and applied it to solving the problem, you’d be surprised by how well things can work out,” (p. 138).

“Complaining does not work as a strategy. We all have finite time and energy. Any time we spend whining is unlikely to help us achieve our goals. And it won’t make us any happier,” (p. 139).

“It’s always best to try and treat the disease first. [For example, h]er symptoms were stress and anxiety. Her disease was the money she owed,” (P.140).

“Tips for Working Successfully in Groups” (p. 142-143)

Meet people properly: It all starts with the introduction. Exchange contact information. Make sure you can pronounce everyone’s names.

Find things you have in common: You can almost always find something in common with another person, and from there, it’s much easier to address issues where you have differences. Sports cut across boundaries of race and wealth. And if nothing else, we all have the weather in common.

Try for optimal meeting conditions: Make sure no one is hungry, cold, or tired. Meet over a meal if you can; food softens a meeting. That’s why they “do lunch” in Hollywood.

Let everyone talk: Don’t finish someone’s sentences. And talking louder or faster doesn’t make your idea any better.

Check egos at the door: When you discuss ideas, label them and write them down. The label should be descriptive of the idea, not the originator: “the bridge story” not “Jane’s story.”

Praise each other: Find something nice to say, even if it’s a stretch. The worst ideas can have silver linings if you look hard enough.

Phrase alternatives as questions: Instead of “I think we should do A, not B,” try “What if we did A, instead of B?” That allows people to offer comments rather than defend one choice.

“When you’re frustrated with people, when they’ve made you angry, it just may be because you haven’t given them enough time,” (p. 145).

“It’s not about how hard you hit. It’s how hard you get hit…and keep moving forward,.” (p. 147)

“Experience is what you get when you don’t get what you wanted,” (p. 148).

“The lost art of thank-you notes…recognize that there are respectful, considerate things that can be done in life that will be appreciated by the recipient, and that only good things can result,” (p. 153-154).

“A lot of people want a shortcut. I find the best shortcut is the long way, which is basically two words: work hard,” (p.156).

“One of my greatest mentors…changed my life. I could never adequately pay him back, so I just pay it forward,” (p.157).

“Apologies are not pass/fail. I always told my students: When giving an apology, any performance lower than an A doesn’t cut it. half-hearted or insincere apologies are often worse than not apologizing at all because recipients find them insulting,” (p. 161).

“Two classic bad apologies:

  1. “I’m sorry you feel hurt by what’ve I’ve done.” (This is an attempt at an emotional salve, but it’s obvious you don’t want to put any medicine on the wound.)
  2. “I apologize for what I did, but you also need to apologize to me for what you’ve done.” (That’s not giving an apology. That’s asking for one.)

Proper Apologies have three parts:

1. What I did was wrong.

2. I feel badly that I hurt you.

3. How do I make this better?” (P. 162)

“People lie for lots of reasons, often because it seems like a way to get what they want with less effort. But like many short-term strategies, it’s ineffective long-term. You run into people again later, and they remember you lied to them. And they tell lots of other people about it. That’s what amazes me about lying. Most people who have told a lie think they got away with it…when in fact, they didn’t,” (p. 163-164).

“We all believe we have a right to a jury trial. And yet many people go to great lengths to get out of jury duty,” (p.175).

“Sometimes, all you have to do is ask,” (p. 177).

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You can purchase the book on Amazon in hardcover or paperback. The Last Lecture (Kindle Edition) is also available on Amazon. Just recently, The Last Lecture (Enhanced Kindle Edition) was released with embedded video and audio from the lecture.