Column: The lecture of a lifetime
By Neely Tucker
The Washington Post
It was not really complicated. Randy Pausch, a computer science professor at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, stood up last Sept. 18 and gave a talk to about 400 students, faculty and friends about some life lessons he’d learned. He was 47, he was in the early stages of pancreatic cancer, and he thought that an amiable presentation to his school ó with the notion that his young children might value a videotape of the speech later on ó might be a good idea.
He was right. Well, except for the part where he said that a computer learning program named “Alice” would be his legacy. He was wrong about that.
Pausch died Friday at his home in Chesapeake, Va., the co-author of the No. 1 bestseller “The Last Lecture” and star of an Internet video sensation, that of his speech. More than 6 million people have viewed highlights or the entirety of the 76-minute talk, and Hyperion has 2.8 million copies of the book in print. It’s being translated into more than a dozen languages. He was eulogized across the land.
It seems safe to say that will be the professor’s legacy.
There was no $6.7 million book deal the day he gave the speech, and no promise of any sort of glory. There was just a bright, personable guy with a lot of energy, a terminal disease, and something he wanted to say. He was witty and earnest and did not blink in the face of his demise. He wore tan slacks, a knit shirt and a mop-top haircut, and he had goofy props. He gave the impression of a guy who would go out on his deathbed like Oscar Wilde. Shortly before he died, it is said, Wilde looked around his room and said: “My wallpaper and I are fighting a duel to the death. One or the other of us has to go.”
It’s tough to beat that, but Randy Pausch did just fine. “If I don’t seem as depressed or morose as I should be, sorry to disappoint you,” he said.
“If you have any herbal supplements or remedies, please stay away from me,” he said.
“I’m dying, and I’m having fun,” he said.
He said he wasn’t going to talk about things that were the most important ó his wife, Jai, and children, Logan, Chloe and Dylanó but he would talk about making your childhood dreams come true. That was the surface topic ó stuff about how he wanted to be in zero gravity, play in the National Football League, write an article for the World Book Encyclopedia. The underlying lesson, he said, was that if you live your life the right way, the dreams take care of themselves. Good conduct consisted of being earnest, honest, working hard and realizing that brick walls in life are only there to separate those who really want to do something from those who just say they want to.
Do all that and “the dreams come to you,” he said.
The display of sincere emotion is not terribly complicated, and it is always moving to other human beings. It is surprisingly easy to recognize. This can be learned by watching people tell you a story in a language that you don’t understand. You’ll realize, before you get the translation, whether you believe what they are saying, and whether you care.
Sincerity translates, in other words, on a far more primal level than language. This, Randy Pausch understood. And on the one day he could leave a scratch mark on the face of oblivion, he did so with simple, honest life lessons. That they were ultimately intended for his children after his death gave the talk its aura, and he was showman enough to intuit that.
The book was an afterthought.
Jeffrey Zaslow, a Wall Street Journal columnist, attended the speech and wrote a column about it. It was a huge hit on the Journal’s Web site, which led to television appearances for Pausch and to much publishing buzz.
Pausch was unfazed.
“It took him five weeks to make up his mind he even wanted to do it,” Zaslow said Friday in a telephone interview. The pair worked out the book during the course of 53 hour-long talks, conversing by phone while Pausch cycled around his neighborhood last winter to keep his strength up. Zaslow put in herculean hours and got the book out this spring.
And then the season turned to summer, and the tumors came and claimed him.
Death was, as he had made clear that magic evening on the stage, both near and inevitable. But he had made sure his legacy was set. He had done all that a father can ó provide for his children and, at the end, let them know that all he really did in this life was to love them.
Life is not complicated and it is not fair, Randy Pausch might have said. It’s just hard sometimes.