A little over 10 years ago, a fellow by the name of Randy Pausch was planning a speech at Carnegie Mellon University.
Pausch was a professor there, and his speech was to be in the style of a “last lecture” – the lessons he’d want to impart if he were to give a final lecture to students. However, in his case, it actually was his last lecture. He was dying of pancreatic cancer.
A WSJ reporter, Jeffrey Zaslow, was considering attending the speech, but was uncertain on driving 300 miles for a single newspaper column. He ultimately decided to go. That was probably a good decision.
Most folks are familiar with the story. (If you’re not – because you were too young or on a top-secret spy mission or living under a rock, you should definitely check out the video and/or book). Pausch’s last lecture wasn’t focused on academics, but on life lessons. Its title was “Achieving Your Childhood Dreams.”
Zaslow’s WSJ article, which included video highlights, was a huge hit. The full video of Pausch’s lecture went viral and garnered millions of views. Oprah even lumbered into the picture. Pausch and Zaslow joined forces to write a book (“The Last Lecture”) to expand on the speech. Over 5 million copies later, it’s still going strong.
Many people were deeply inspired by The Last Lecture. Pausch revealed that he wasn’t really talking about achieving childhood dreams; he was talking about how to lead your life. He provided some good rules for living and astute observations on life. His story was compelling, and the anecdotes he shared were entertaining and meaningful.
However, his message was amplified by his terminal condition. The Last Lecture had a big influence on me, but it wasn’t really from the content itself. It’s not what he wrote, but what he did, that made an impact on my life.
“I Have An Engineering Problem”
The nature of Pausch’s effort and his goal is contained in the very first sentence of the book:
“I have an engineering problem.”
Pausch was going to die before he could teach his three young children many of the things he wanted them to know. He would not be there to tell his children he loved them, and his youngest child wouldn’t even have any memories of him. The Last Lecture was his desperate effort to remedy that, but he freely conceded it was an imperfect solution:
“None of this is a replacement for a living parent. But engineering isn’t about perfect solutions; it’s about doing the best you can with limited resources. Both the lecture and this book are my attempts to do exactly that.”
His children would have a living testament to him, and he could continue to teach them and send them his love though he was already gone.
Pausch delivered his last lecture at an impressionable time in my life. As I was welcoming my first child, he was preparing to tell his own goodbye.
When my second child was born, I re-read The Last Lecture. It was only then that I realized something profound (I am a rather slow learner sometimes). Pausch had written:
“Lately, I’ve been making a point of speaking to people who lost parents when they were very young…
They told me they found it consoling to learn about how much their mothers and fathers loved them. The more they knew, the more they could still feel that love…
These people told me something else, too. Since they have so few of their own memories of their parents, they found it reassuring to know that their parents died with great memories of them.”
If I were to die with no warning, my two boys (at the time, age 3 and a newborn) would have no idea how much I loved them. They would assume that I did, ‘cause that’s what parents do. But I’m sure a young child who has lost a parent would give almost anything for tangible proof of that love, something that took it from the conceptual and made it real.
It was ironic: Pausch, who was long gone, still had a far more powerful message for his children than I did for mine. He’d been trying to tell me that for three years, and I’d been ignoring him.
My simple solution was to start writing.
I began a journal and filled it with little anecdotes and minutia from my life with my sons. It was never intended to be a comprehensive chronicle; rather, I just wanted to capture some of the magic moments and let them know, if I were to go, how much I had loved them. After just a few pages, I realized I had a message for them that was truly meaningful, just in case.
I’ve been lucky. My boys are now old enough to know firsthand what I feel for them, and we share many wonderful memories. I don’t think they have any doubt of my love for them, and they certainly don’t need some written journal for confirmation. You could argue it’s served its purpose.
However, I’ve decided to keep writing. As my boys have grown, I continue to find it rewarding to take a few minutes and capture my thoughts. Sometimes I describe a special event, sometimes I talk about the challenges and rewards of being a parent, and sometimes I just celebrate our lives together. When life intrudes, I can go long stretches without recording anything, but I always return with something more to add. Perhaps when my boys are adults, I’ll share my journal with them. It may bring back some memories and be worth a smile or two.
I’m reminded of my lesson from The Last Lecture every time friends prepare to welcome their first child. In the first few years when a child’s memories don’t last, I’d encourage every new parent to capture their thoughts, their fears, and their love for their child, just in case. It can be a simple letter, a video, or any other medium that works. Folks may stop short of an unending journal like mine; capturing even a brief message may be enough.
I like to ponder hypotheticals, so I’ll give you this one: if you were to pass today, what would you give to come back for just a moment to send a final message to someone you love? There’s nothing stopping you from writing that message right now.
We All Have An Engineering Problem
After Pausch’s death, his wife said:
\”Randy was so happy and proud that the lecture and book inspired parents to revisit their priorities, particularly their relationships with their children.\”
Thankfully, I didn’t need his help to revisit my priorities or my relationship with my kids. However, The Last Lecture has made me far more comfortable with the decisions I’ve made serving those priorities.
We all face competing demands for our time and resources. Balancing children, spouses, other family, careers, our needs, the needs of others, and a world of other commitments leaves us unable to do any one thing perfectly.
Whenever I second-guess myself, I try to remember that life itself is just an engineering problem. We may have more time than Pausch, but every one of our lives is “about doing the best you can with limited resources”.
Pausch’s solution to his engineering problem likely exceeded his expectations. By inspiring millions of people, his message – which was really just for his three kids – became far more powerful. Learning he was about to die was devastating for him and his family, but he did the best he could with the hand he was dealt.
A final lesson I learned from The Last Lecture wasn’t taught by Pausch. It was from his co-author,
Jeffrey Zaslow, who was a quiet scribe throughout the whirlwind of Randy Pausch’s final days. The next time I saw Zaslow’s name was when he died instantly in a car accident in 2012, leaving behind a wife and three daughters.
Pausch’s lesson is that we can make a huge difference and leave a powerful legacy, even if we have little time left. Zaslow’s lesson is that we should start today.
If you\’d like to watch The Last Lecture in its entirety:
For the WSJ highlights with Zaslow’s commentary: