Bowyer: Randy Pausch’s Real Last Lecture

Randy Pausch, deliverer of what has come to be known as The Last Lecture, passed last night.

Millions of people saw it: Dr. Pausch’s Carnegie Mellon University address, in which he announced his terminal pancreatic cancer. Instead of wallowing in self-pity, he used his affliction as a take-off point for transmitting his life lessons.

It was pure CMU stuff; a youngish, athletic professor, technological and pragmatic. CMU features an emphasis on problem solving, and used to -- perhaps still does -- require that as part of their freshman core curriculum. I have a few friends who teach economics there, but they call it ‘decision sciences’. These are the best and brightest, and the Last Lecture showed that.

The problem is that even the best and brightest are not good or smart enough. There are some problems which even they can’t solve. That was the subject of the Real Last Lecture. Not the one which circulated on the internet, then turned into a book and a virtual cottage industry of commentators and bloggers.

The real last lecture was given when that second to the last lecture ended; when he made the decision to enter into palliative care.

There are limits. CMU is slow to admit this. Randy Pausch is slow to admit this. Jerry Bowyer is slow to admit this, and so are you. Some problems appear far above our pay grade. If you read, like I do, you are probably slower to admit this than others.

Randy spoke about some powerful life lessons: “Experience is what we get when we don’t get what we want.” “Walls aren’t there to stop us; they are there to see how badly we want something.” That’s all good stuff. It’s the kind of stuff good men tell their kids.

But some walls do stop us. No amount of positive thinking, or chemo, or stem cells, or push-ups or lectures or ‘decision sciences’ get through. No tree of life, whose fruit we are permitted to grab. No alchemist’s philosopher’s stone from which we can wring the elixir of life.

Randy Pausch’s last lecture was mortality. He didn’t speak it, he lived it. By entering hospice, he implicitly said “no more needles, no more pills, no more chemo, vomiting and pain, which my wife experiences right along with me. Let me leave in peace. Let me be with them completely for this last bit. I can’t live forever, and I know this.”

A good friend of mine was at a conference a few years ago, one filled with very influential business executives. The lecture was about science and longevity. The speaker asked the audience how many of them would like to live for 100 years. Almost every hand went up. Then he asked them if they would like to live for 250 years, almost as many hands. Finally, he asked if they would like to live for more than 250 years, still a majority -- not including my friend.

This week Randy answered that question for himself. Better to have better days than more days. Better to end well, then to try not to end. That was, in my opinion, his last and best lecture.

What are other guest commentators saying?