The last lecture, by Randy Pausch

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The late Randy Pausch and his beautiful kids

This post on The Last Lecture will be a little shorter than usual because the book did not live entirely to my expectations. I was lured into reading it by its premise – a 47 year-old charismatic professor that gives his last lecture a few months before dying of cancer – and by the inordinate number of positive reviews.

Having said this, I don’t want to waste time writing a negative review so I will, as always, try to focus on what I did find inspiring.

For me, the main theme of the book is the appreciation of the gift of life. Whereas for us, non terminally-ill humans, death is something faint and distant, and the thought of it usually doesn’t affect our daily lives, for Prof. Pausch it permeated every minute of his life, causing him to reflect deeply on what made his life so special. He did not – as we often do – take every day for granted. He treasured  and cherished every memory: his wife, his kids, his friends, his professional achievements and – more simply – moments of fun, laughter and joy.

I enjoyed the part of the book where he talks about his childhood dreams, and about how he achieved most of them with passion, determination and hard work. I agree with his underlying argument: life is about having dreams and doing everything possible to achieve them. No dream is too big. We should not fear our dreams, only our inability to have them. The metaphor he uses is that of a brick wall:
“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”.

I also loved the pages dedicated to his family, especially we he describes: the first meeting with the girl that was to become his loyal and supporting wife; the birth of his first child; the doctor’s appointment when he learns, with his wife by his side, that he has a few months left to live. Family is a central topic in The Last Lecture, and you can sense that it was one the main drivers of Pausch’s life. It is clear that what gave him the strength to go through those last, terrible months, was the love for his wife and for his kids. I can totally identify with that. If I were to have such a devastating illness, I too would focus most of my thoughts on my family, because, at the end of the day, it’s the greatest source of life’s meaning for me as well.

It is particularly touching, at the end of the lecture, when Pausch tells the audience that, really, this whole talk was not intended for them, but for his kids. It is, in essence, his legacy to them (especially considering that, at the time, his eldest was only 6 years old and the youngest a mere 18 months). The lecture is thus a means for him to be remembered as a father and, perhaps more importantly, to impart the wisdom that he would’ve liked to share with his children slowly and gradually over the course of their childhood and adolescence. Unfortunately, he didn’t have that luxury, and was thus forced to condense his message in a number of slides.

Ultimately, The Last Lecture is, above all else, a powerful reminder that life is finite, and that it might be much shorter than we expect. It is an exhortation to wake up every morning as if it were the last, treasuring every moment, especially those in the company of the people we love.

There is strong underlying spirituality in Pausch’s words, even though he never refers to a specific religion or to any form of transcendence. The spiritual message I take with me is that I shouldn’t wait to have pancreatic cancer to live a life infused with meaning, gratefulness, love and passion. I should do it now and every day. Because the clock is ticking. My timer may not be set for six months (al least I hope!), but it is set to some number, and it is sure as hell ticking! The Last Lecture reminded me of how precious life is, of how imbued it is with wonderful memories, fantastic dreams and extraordinary feelings of love and friendship. How unfortunate is it that we often fail to see this in our “busy” – but often spiritually empty – daily lives.

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