To millions who have watched him on the Internet or on Oprah Winfrey’s TV show, Randy Pausch is the 47-year-old professor dying of cancer who inspired them with his “last lecture,” about achieving childhood dreams and living with integrity and joy. His neighbours in a Virginia suburb know him as the guy biking around the streets for exercise while chattering into a cellphone headset.
That’s what the Carnegie Mellon University computer science professor did to expand his 76-minute talk into a book without taking time that he doesn’t have away from the people for whom the book was intended: the three children, all under seven, he won’t be around to help his wife raise.
“The Last Lecture” is being published Tuesday by Hyperion, after a bidding war that netted a deal reportedly worth US$6.7 million, a figure Pausch won’t confirm. The book is the result of a collaboration with the man listening on the other end of the phone as Pausch pedalled and talked during 53 long rides, the Wall Street Journal’s Jeffrey Zaslow, who attended the lecture in September and later wrote about it in his column.
Watch the lecture
The book goes beyond the lecture, giving Pausch more room to tell his kids what he would have tried to teach them over the next 20 years. He counsels them to have fun, tell the truth, dare to take risks, look for the best in everyone, make time for what matters and always be prepared (explaining that’s why he usually carries $200 in his wallet).
“I like the book better than the lecture because I like operational advice,” he says during an interview at a coffee shop, where he orders hot water and stirs in hot-chocolate mix from a packet he pulls out of his pocket. He avoids the drinks on the menu as a precaution; surgery to remove parts of several organs has left him lactose-intolerant.
He decided to do the book, at his wife’s urging, because thousands of people wrote to him after seeing his lecture, wanting him to know his words helped them or loved ones going through cancer or other tough situations. “We just felt … if I can find some way to make lemonade for somebody else out of these lemons, then let’s do that,” he says.
The six-foot Pausch is thin — his weight has dropped from 182 pounds to as low as 138 — with an almost unnervingly direct stare, bushy brows and thick, greying hair. He found out in September 2006 that he had pancreatic cancer, an especially deadly cancer with few treatment options. Last August, he learned the cancer had spread. Doctors told him he had three to six months live. He recently suffered heart and kidney failure. He’s in pain all the time and he hasn’t been strong enough to ride his bike. He’s stopped chemotherapy and spends many days in bed.
He emphasizes that he isn’t giving up and he’s doing what he can to “stretch the clock” so maybe he will live long enough to see someone find a cure. His prognosis now is muddier, but “there is no respectable physician in the world who would take an over-under bet that I’ll be here past December.” On the advice of experts, he doesn’t plan to tell his kids he’s dying until he looks and acts sick.
A month after learning the cancer was terminal, Pausch gave his talk, in an auditorium packed with students and colleagues at Carnegie Mellon, where he had co-founded the Entertainment Technology Center and pioneered the nonprofit Alice project, which teaches students computer programming in a 3-D environment. It’s not uncommon for college professors to be asked to ponder what advice they would want to impart if they had to give a last lecture, then deliver that talk. For Pausch, though, it wasn’t just an academic exercise.
The lecture opens with him projecting onto a large screen slides of his CT scans showing 10 tumours. To demonstrate that he’s still active and not to be pitied, he does push-ups.
(When his friend and Carnegie Mellon colleague, Jessica Hodgins, teases during an interview with The Associated Press that she hasn’t seen him doing a lot of push-ups lately, Pausch shoves his chair away from the table and gets ready to prove he still has it in him. She laughs and persuades him not to drop to the floor.)
Pausch goes on to talk about achieving his childhood dreams, such as becoming an “Imagineer” who helped develop rides for the Disney Co. and being Capt. Kirk — well, he got to meet William Shatner, the actor who played the part on “Star Trek,” when Shatner visited his lab.
He also talks about lessons he learned along the way, such as to show gratitude, don’t complain and don’t give up when faced by challenges, which he calls “brick walls.” He also discusses enabling the dreams of others. He did this, for example, by creating a popular computer science course on building virtual reality worlds.
At the end, Pausch tells the audience that his talk wasn’t for them. It was for his kids.
“The lecture wasn’t about dying, it’s about living,” Pausch says. “The book is the same way. I had no interest in writing about dying.”
One of the most touching moments of the lecture comes when he has a cake with one large candle brought in and leads the audience in singing “Happy Birthday” to his wife, whose birthday was the day before. Jai Pausch walks up on stage from her front-row seat, and the couple embraces.
In the book, Pausch reveals what his wife whispered to him at that moment: “Please don’t die.”
“Jai wanted that in. She felt that was important,” he says, his eyes reddening briefly before he jokes, “What Jai wants, Jai gets.”
After he gave the talk, Pausch planned to live out the rest of his life quietly with Jai and their sons Dylan, 6, and Logan, 3 and daughter Chloe, who is almost two.
Then Zaslow’s column appeared, video clips of the speech spread across the Internet — Pausch says he stopped counting after the speech hit six million views on YouTube and other sites — and Pausch became famous. He appeared on Winfrey’s show in October. In November, he returned to the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, where he taught before Carnegie Mellon, to give one last lecture on another topic close to his heart: time management. In March, he spoke to Congress to urge lawmakers to spend more money on pancreatic cancer research. And he has small role, with one line, in the upcoming “Star Trek” film.
Pausch is grateful for all the attention, but the downside is that some people have been pushy, even scary. He had to change his home phone two days after the lecture because the family was inundated by calls. To protect their privacy and safety, he asks that the name of the Virginia city where the family moved from Pittsburgh to be near his wife’s relatives not be mentioned.
And Pausch has some funny stories to tell that he didn’t think fit in the book. He could do a whole riff, for example, on the stupid things people say when you have cancer because they don’t know what to say.
“One of my favourites was, ‘Oh, well, but you kept your hair, it couldn’t have been that bad,”‘ he says. “I lost several internal organs, and you’re worried about my hair?”
-with a report from CP
Looking for more?
Get the best of Maclean's sent straight to your inbox. Sign up for news, commentary and analysis.