With thanks to my parents who allowed me to dream,
and with hopes for the dreams my children will have.


I have an engineering problem.
While for the most part I’m in terrific physical shape, I
have ten tumors in my liver and I have only a few months left
to live.
I am a father of three young children, and married to the
woman of my dreams. While I could easily feel sorry for myself, that wouldn’t do them, or me, any good.
So, how to spend my very limited time?
The obvious part is being with, and taking care of, my
family. While I still can, I embrace every moment with them,
and do the logistical things necessary to ease their path into a
life without me.
The less obvious part is how to teach my children what I
would have taught them over the next twenty years. They are
too young now to have those conversations. All parents want
to teach their children right from wrong, what we think is
important, and how to deal with the challenges life will bring.
We also want them to know some stories from our own lives,


often as a way to teach them how to lead theirs. My desire to
do that led me to give a “last lecture” at Carnegie Mellon
These lectures are routinely videotaped. I knew what I was
doing that day. Under the ruse of giving an academic lecture,
I was trying to put myself in a bottle that would one day
wash up on the beach for my children. If I were a painter, I
would have painted for them. If I were a musician, I would
have composed music. But I am a lecturer. So I lectured.
I lectured about the joy of life, about how much I appreciated life, even with so little of my own left. I talked about
honesty, integrity, gratitude, and other things I hold dear.
And I tried very hard not to be boring.
This book is a way for me to continue what I began on
stage. Because time is precious, and I want to spend all that I
can with my kids, I asked Jeffrey Zaslow for help. Each day,
I ride my bike around my neighborhood, getting exercise
crucial for my health. On fifty-three long bike rides, I spoke
to Jeff on my cell-phone headset. He then spent countless
hours helping to turn my stories—I suppose we could call
them fifty-three “lectures”—into the book that follows.
We knew right from the start: 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.

An Injured Lion
Still Wants to Roar

Alot of professors give talks titled “The Last Lecture.”
Maybe you’ve seen one.
It has become a common exercise on college campuses.
Professors are asked to consider their demise and to ruminate
on what matters most to them. And while they speak, audiences can’t help but mull the same question: What wisdom
would we impart to the world if we knew it was our last
chance? If we had to vanish tomorrow, what would we want
as our legacy?
For years, Carnegie Mellon had a “Last Lecture Series.”
But by the time organizers got around to asking me to do it,
they’d renamed their series “Journeys,” asking selected professors “to offer reflections on their personal and professional
journeys.” It wasn’t the most exciting description, but I
agreed to go with it. I was given the September slot.
At the time, I already had been diagnosed with pancreatic
cancer, but I was optimistic. Maybe I’d be among the lucky
ones who’d survive.

4 t h e l a s t l e c t u r e

While I went through treatment, those running the lecture series kept sending me emails. “What will you be talking
about?” they asked. “Please provide an abstract.” There’s a
formality in academia that can’t be ignored, even if a man is
busy with other things, like trying not to die. By mid-August,
I was told that a poster for the lecture had to be printed, so I’d
have to decide on a topic.
That very week, however, I got the news: My most recent
treatment hadn’t worked. I had just months to live.
I knew I could cancel the lecture. Everyone would understand. Suddenly, there were so many other things to be done.
I had to deal with my own grief and the sadness of those who
loved me. I had to throw myself into getting my family’s affairs in order. And yet, despite everything, I couldn’t shake
the idea of giving the talk. I was energized by the idea of delivering a last lecture that really was a last lecture. What could
I say? How would it be received? Could I even get through it?
“They’ll let me back out,” I told my wife, Jai, “but I really
want to do it.”
Jai (pronounced “Jay”) had always been my cheerleader.
When I was enthusiastic, so was she. But she was leery of this
whole last-lecture idea. We had just moved from Pittsburgh
to Southeastern Virginia so that after my death, Jai and the
kids could be near her family. Jai felt that I ought to be spending my precious time with our kids, or unpacking our new
house, rather than devoting my hours to writing the lecture
and then traveling back to Pittsburgh to deliver it.
“Call me selfish,” Jai told me. “But I want all of you. Any

An Injured Lion Still Wants to Roar 5
Logan, Chloe, Jai, myself, and Dylan.
time you’ll spend working on this lecture is lost time, because
it’s time away from the kids and from me.”
I understood where she was coming from. From the time
I’d gotten sick, I had made a pledge to myself to defer to Jai
and honor her wishes. I saw it as my mission to do all I could
to lessen the burdens in her life brought on by my illness.

t h e l a s t l e c t u r e
That’s why I spent many of my waking hours making
arrangements for my family’s future without me. Still, I
couldn’t let go of my urge to give this last lecture.
Throughout my academic career, I’d given some pretty
good talks. But being considered the best speaker in a
computer science department is like being known as the
tallest of the Seven Dwarfs. And right then, I had the feeling
that I had more in me, that if I gave it my all, I might be able
to offer people something special. “Wisdom” is a strong word,
but maybe that was it.
Jai still wasn’t happy about it. We eventually took the issue
to Michele Reiss, the psychotherapist we’d begun seeing a few
months earlier. She specializes in helping families when one
member is confronting a terminal illness.
“I know Randy,” Jai told Dr. Reiss. “He’s a workaholic. I
know just what he’ll be like when he starts putting the lecture
together. It’ll be all-consuming.” The lecture, she argued,
would be an unnecessary diversion from the overwhelming
issues we were grappling with in our lives.
Another matter upsetting Jai: To give the talk as scheduled, I would have to fly to Pittsburgh the day before, which
was Jai’s forty-first birthday. “This is my last birthday we’ll
celebrate together,” she told me. “You’re actually going to
leave me on my birthday?”
Certainly, the thought of leaving Jai that day was painful
to me. And yet, I couldn’t let go of the idea of the lecture. I
had come to see it as the last moment of my career, as a way
to say goodbye to my “work family.” I also found myself fan-
An Injured Lion Still Wants to Roar 7
tasizing about giving a last lecture that would be the oratorical equivalent of a retiring baseball slugger driving one last
ball into the upper deck. I had always liked the final scene
in The Natural, when the aging, bleeding ballplayer Roy
Hobbs miraculously hits that towering home run.
Dr. Reiss listened to Jai and to me. In Jai, she said, she saw
a strong, loving woman who had intended to spend decades
building a full life with a husband, raising children to adulthood. Now our lives together had to be squeezed into a few
months. In me, Dr. Reiss saw a man not yet ready to fully retreat to his home life, and certainly not yet ready to climb
into his deathbed. “This lecture will be the last time many
people I care about will see me in the flesh,” I told her flatly.
“I have a chance here to really think about what matters most
to me, to cement how people will remember me, and to do
whatever good I can on the way out.”
More than once, Dr. Reiss had watched Jai and me sit together on her office couch, holding tightly to each other, both
of us in tears. She told us she could see the great respect between us, and she was often viscerally moved by our commitment to getting our final time together right. But she said it
wasn’t her role to weigh in on whether or not I gave the lecture. “You’ll have to decide that on your own,” she said, and
encouraged us to really listen to each other, so we could make
the right decision for both of us.
Given Jai’s reticence, I knew I had to look honestly at my
motivations. Why was this talk so important to me? Was it a
way to remind me and everyone else that I was still very much
8 the last lecture
alive? To prove I still had the fortitude to perform? Was it a
limelight-lover’s urge to show off one last time? The answer
was yes on all fronts. “An injured lion wants to know if he can
still roar,” I told Jai. “It’s about dignity and self-esteem, which
isn’t quite the same as vanity.”
There was something else at work here, too. I had started
to view the talk as a vehicle for me to ride into the future I
would never see.
I reminded Jai of the kids’ ages: five, two and one. “Look,”
I said. “At five, I suppose that Dylan will grow up to have a
few memories of me. But how much will he really remember?
What do you and I even remember from when we were five?
Will Dylan remember how I played with him, or what he and
I laughed about? It may be hazy at best.
“And how about Logan and Chloe? They may have no
memories at all. Nothing. Especially Chloe. And I can tell
you this: When the kids are older, they’re going to go
through this phase where they absolutely, achingly need to
know: ‘Who was my dad? What was he like?’ This lecture
could help give them an answer to that.” I told Jai I’d make
sure Carnegie Mellon would record the lecture. “I’ll get
you a DVD. When the kids are older, you can show it to
them. It’ll help them understand who I was and what I cared
Jai heard me out, then asked the obvious question. “If you
have things you want to say to the kids, or advice you want to
give them, why not just put a video camera on a tripod and
tape it here in the living room?”
An Injured Lion Still Wants to Roar 9
Maybe she had me there. Or maybe not. Like that lion in
the jungle, my natural habitat was still on a college campus,
in front of students. “One thing I’ve learned,” I told Jai, “is
that when parents tell children things, it doesn’t hurt to get
some external validation. If I can get an audience to laugh
and clap at the right time, maybe that would add gravitas to
what I’m telling the kids.”
Jai smiled at me, her dying showman, and finally relented.
She knew I’d been yearning to find ways to leave a legacy for
the kids. OK. Perhaps this lecture could be an avenue for
And so, with Jai’s green light, I had a challenge before me.
How could I turn this academic talk into something that
would resonate with our kids a decade or more up the road?
I knew for sure that I didn’t want the lecture to focus
on my cancer. My medical saga was what it was, and I’d already been over it and over it. I had little interest in giving a
discourse on, say, my insights into how I coped with the disease, or how it gave me new perspectives. Many people might
expect the talk to be about dying. But it had to be about living.

“What makes me unique?”
That was the question I felt compelled to address. Maybe
answering that would help me figure out what to say. I was
sitting with Jai in a doctor’s waiting room at Johns Hopkins,
awaiting yet another pathology report, and I was bouncing
my thoughts off her.
“Cancer doesn’t make me unique,” I said. There was no
1 0 the last lecture
arguing that. More than 37,000 Americans a year are diagnosed with pancreatic cancer alone.
I thought hard about how I defined myself: as a teacher, a
computer scientist, a husband, a father, a son, a friend, a
brother, a mentor to my students. Those were all roles I valued. But did any of those roles really set me apart?
Though I’ve always had a healthy sense of self, I knew this
lecture needed more than just bravado. I asked myself: “What
do I, alone, truly have to offer?”
And then, there in that waiting room, I suddenly knew exactly what it was. It came to me in a flash: Whatever my accomplishments, all of the things I loved were rooted in the
dreams and goals I had as a child . . . and in the ways I had
managed to fulfill almost all of them. My uniqueness, I realized, came in the specifics of all the dreams—from incredibly
meaningful to decidedly quirky—that defined my forty-six
years of life. Sitting there, I knew that despite the cancer, I
truly believed I was a lucky man because I had lived out these
dreams. And I had lived out my dreams, in great measure, because of things I was taught by all sorts of extraordinary people along the way. If I was able to tell my story with the
passion I felt, my lecture might help others find a path to fulfilling their own dreams.
I had my laptop with me in that waiting room, and fueled
by this epiphany, I quickly tapped out an email to the lecture
organizers. I told them I finally had a title for them. “My
apologies for the delay,” I wrote. “Let’s call it: ‘Really Achieving Your Childhood Dreams.’ ”
My Life in a Laptop
How, exactly, do you catalogue your childhood
dreams? How do you get other people to reconnect
with theirs? As a scientist, these weren’t the questions I typically struggled with.
For four days, I sat at my computer in our new home in
Virginia, scanning slides and photos as I built a PowerPoint
presentation. I’ve always been a visual thinker, so I knew the
talk would have no text—no word script. But I amassed 300
images of my family, students and colleagues, along with
dozens of offbeat illustrations that could make a point about
childhood dreams. I put a few words on certain slides—bits
of advice, sayings. Once I was on stage, those were supposed
to remind me what to say.
As I worked on the talk, I’d rise from my chair every
ninety minutes or so to interact with the kids. Jai saw me trying to remain engaged in family life, but she still thought I
was spending way too much time on the talk, especially since
1 2 the last lecture
we’d just arrived in the new house. She, naturally, wanted me
to deal with the boxes piled all over our house.
At first, Jai didn’t plan to attend the lecture. She felt she
needed to stay in Virginia with the kids to deal with the dozens
of things that had to get done in the wake of our move. I kept
saying, “I want you there.” The truth was, I desperately needed
her there. And so she eventually agreed to fly to Pittsburgh on
the morning of the talk.
I had to get to Pittsburgh a day early, however, so at 1:30
p.m. on September 17, the day Jai turned forty-one, I kissed
her and the kids goodbye, and drove to the airport. We had
celebrated her birthday the day before with a small party at
her brother’s house. Still, my departure was an unpleasant reminder for Jai that she’d now be without me for this birthday
and all the birthdays to come.
I landed in Pittsburgh and was met at the airport by my
friend Steve Seabolt, who’d flown in from San Francisco. We
had bonded years earlier, when I did a sabbatical at Electronic
Arts, the video-game maker where Steve is an executive. We’d
become as close as brothers.
Steve and I embraced, hired a rental car, and drove off together, trading gallows humor. Steve said he’d just been to
the dentist, and I bragged that I didn’t need to go to the dentist anymore.
We pulled into a local diner to eat, and I put my laptop on
the table. I flashed quickly through my slides, now trimmed
to 280. “It’s still way too long,” Steve told me. “Everyone will
be dead by the time you’re through with the presentation.”

My Life in a Laptop 1 3
The waitress, a pregnant woman in her thirties with
dishwater-blond hair, came to our table just as a photo of my
children was on the screen. “Cute kids,” she said, and asked
for their names. I told her: “That’s Dylan, Logan, Chloe . . .”
The waitress said her daughter’s name was Chloe, and we
both smiled at the coincidence. Steve and I kept going
through the PowerPoint, with Steve helping me focus.
When the waitress brought our meals, I congratulated her
on her pregnancy. “You must be overjoyed,” I said.
“Not exactly,” she responded. “It was an accident.”
As she walked away, I couldn’t help but be struck by her
frankness. Her casual remark was a reminder about the accidental elements that play into both our arrival into life…
and our departure into death. Here was a woman, having a
child by accident that she surely would come to love. As for
me, through the accident of cancer I’d be leaving three children to grow up without my love.
An hour later, alone in my room at the hotel, my kids remained in my head as I continued to cut and rearrange images from the talk. The wireless internet access in the room
was spotty, which was exasperating because I was still combing the Web, looking for images. Making matters worse, I
was starting to feel the effects of the chemo treatment I’d received days before. I had cramps, nausea and diarrhea.
I worked until midnight, fell asleep, and then woke up at 5
a.m. in a panic. A part of me doubted that my talk would
work at all. I thought to myself: “This is exactly what you get
when you try to tell your whole life story in an hour!”
1 4 the last lecture
I kept tinkering, rethinking, reorganizing. By 11 a.m., I
felt I had a better narrative arc; maybe it would work. I showered, got dressed. At noon, Jai arrived from the airport and
joined me and Steve for lunch. It was a solemn conversation,
with Steve vowing to help look after Jai and the kids.
At 1:30 p.m., the computer lab on campus where I spent
much of my life was dedicated in my honor; I watched the
unveiling of my name over the door. At 2:15 p.m., I was in
my office, feeling awful again—completely exhausted, sick
from the chemo, and wondering if I’d have to go on stage
wearing the adult diaper I’d brought as a precaution.
Steve told me I should lie down on my office couch for a
while, and I did, but I kept my laptop on my belly so I could
continue to fiddle. I cut another sixty slides.
At 3:30 p.m., a few people had already begun lining up for
my talk. At 4 p.m., I roused myself off the couch and started
gathering my props for the walk across campus to the lecture
hall. In less than an hour, I’d have to be on the stage.
The Elephant in the Room
ai was already in the hall—an unexpected full house of
400—and as I hopped on stage to check out the podium
and get organized, she could see how nervous I was. While I
busied myself arranging my props, Jai noticed that I was
making eye contact with almost no one. She thought that I
couldn’t bring myself to look into the crowd, knowing I
might see a friend or former student, and I’d be too overwhelmed by the emotion of that eye contact.
There was a rustling in the audience as I got myself ready.
For those who came to see just what a man dying of pancreatic cancer looked like, surely there were questions: Was that
my real hair? (Yes, I kept all my hair through chemotherapy.)
Would they be able to sense how close to death I was as I
spoke? (My answer: “Just watch!”)
Even with the talk only minutes away, I continued puttering at the podium, deleting some slides, rearranging others. I
was still working at it when I was given the signal. “We’re
ready to go,” someone told me.
1 6 the last lecture

I wasn’t in a suit. I wore no tie. I wasn’t going to get up there
in some professorial tweed jacket with leather elbow patches.
Instead, I had chosen to give my lecture wearing the most appropriate childhood-dream garb I could find in my closet.
Granted, at first glance I looked like the guy who’d take
your order at a fast-food drive-through. But actually, the logo
on my short-sleeved polo shirt was an emblem of honor
because it’s the one worn by Walt Disney Imagineers—the
artists, writers and engineers who create theme-park fantasies.
In 1995, I spent a six-month sabbatical as an Imagineer. It was
a highlight of my life, the fulfillment of a childhood dream.
That’s why I was also wearing the oval “Randy” name badge
given to me when I worked at Disney. I was paying tribute
to that life experience, and to Walt Disney himself, who famously had said, “If you can dream it, you can do it.”
I thanked the audience for coming, cracked a few jokes,
and then I said: “In case there’s anybody who wandered in
and doesn’t know the back story, my dad always taught me
that when there’s an elephant in the room, introduce it. If
you look at my CT scans, there are approximately ten tumors
in my liver, and the doctors told me I have three to six
months of good health left. That was a month ago, so you
can do the math.”
I flashed a giant image of the CT scans of my liver onto
the screen. The slide was headlined “The Elephant in the
Room,” and I had helpfully inserted red arrows pointing to
each of the individual tumors.
The Elephant in the Room 1 7
I let the slide linger, so the audience could follow the arrows and count my tumors. “All right,” I said. “That is what
it is. We can’t change it. We just have to decide how we’ll respond. We cannot change the cards we are dealt, just how we
play the hand.”
In that moment, I was definitely feeling healthy and whole,
the Randy of old, powered no doubt by adrenaline and
the thrill of a full house. I knew I looked pretty healthy, too,
and that some people might have trouble reconciling that with
the fact that I was near death. So I addressed it. “If I don’t seem
as depressed or morose as I should be, sorry to disappoint you,”
I said, and after people laughed, I added: “I assure you I am not
in denial. It’s not like I’m not aware of what’s going on.
“My family—my three kids, my wife—we just decamped.
We bought a lovely house in Virginia, and we’re doing that
because that’s a better place for the family to be down the
road.” I showed a slide of the new suburban home we’d just
purchased. Above the photo of the house was the heading: “I
am not in denial.”
My point: Jai and I had decided to uproot our family, and
I had asked her to leave a home she loved and friends who
cared about her. We had taken the kids away from their Pittsburgh playmates. We had packed up our lives, throwing ourselves into a tornado of our own making, when we could have
just cocooned in Pittsburgh, waiting for me to die. And we
had made this move because we knew that once I was gone,
Jai and the kids would need to live in a place where her extended family could help them and love them.
1 8 the last lecture
I also wanted the audience to know that I looked good, and
felt OK, in part because my body had started to recover from
the debilitating chemotherapy and radiation my doctors had
been giving me. I was now on the easier-to-endure palliative
chemo. “I am in phenomenally good health right now,” I said.
“I mean, the greatest thing of cognitive dissonance you will
ever see is that I am in really good shape. In fact, I am in better
shape than most of you.”
I moved sideways toward center stage. Hours earlier, I
wasn’t sure I’d have the strength to do what I was about to
do, but now I felt emboldened and potent. I dropped to the
floor and began doing push-ups.
In the audience’s laughter and surprised applause, it was
almost as if I could hear everyone collectively exhaling their
anxiety. It wasn’t just some dying man. It was just me. I could
A slide from my talk . . .

The Parent Lottery
I won the parent lottery.
I was born with the winning ticket, a major reason I was
able to live out my childhood dreams.
My mother was a tough, old-school English teacher with
nerves of titanium. She worked her students hard, enduring
those parents who complained that she expected too much
from kids. As her son, I knew a thing or two about her high
expectations, and that became my good fortune.
My dad was a World War II medic who served in the Battle of the Bulge. He founded a nonprofit group to help immigrants’ kids learn English. And for his livelihood, he ran a
small business which sold auto insurance in inner-city Baltimore. His clients were mostly poor people with bad credit
histories or few resources, and he’d find a way to get them insured and on the road. For a million reasons, my dad was my
I grew up comfortably middle class in Columbia, Maryland. Money was never an issue in our house, mostly because
2 2 the last lecture
my parents never saw a need to spend much. They were frugal to a fault. We rarely went out to dinner. We’d see a movie
maybe once or twice a year. “Watch TV,” my parents would
say. “It’s free. Or better yet, go to the library. Get a book.”
When I was two years old and my sister was four, my
mom took us to the circus. I wanted to go again when I was
nine. “You don’t need to go,” my mom said. “You’ve already
been to the circus.”
It sounds oppressive by today’s standards, but it was actually a magical childhood. I really do see myself as a guy who
had this incredible leg up in life because I had a mother and a
father who got so many things right.
We didn’t buy much. But we thought about everything.
That’s because my dad had this infectious inquisitiveness
about current events, history, our lives. In fact, growing up, I
thought there were two types of families:
1) Those who need a dictionary to get through dinner.
2) Those who don’t.
We were No. 1. Most every night, we’d end up consulting
the dictionary, which we kept on a shelf just six steps from
the table. “If you have a question,” my folks would say, “then
find the answer.”
The instinct in our house was never to sit around like slobs
and wonder. We knew a better way: Open the encyclopedia.
Open the dictionary. Open your mind.
My dad was also an incredible storyteller, and he always
The Parent Lottery 2 3
said that stories should be told for a reason. He liked humorous
anecdotes that turned into morality tales. He was a master at
that kind of story, and I soaked up his techniques. That’s why,
when my sister, Tammy, watched my last lecture online, she
saw my mouth moving, she heard a voice, but it wasn’t mine. It
was Dad’s. She knew I was recycling more than a few of his
choicest bits of wisdom. I won’t deny that for a second. In fact,
at times I felt like I was channeling my dad on stage.
I quote my father to people almost every day. Part of that
is because if you dispense your own wisdom, others often dismiss it; if you offer wisdom from a third party, it seems less
arrogant and more acceptable. Of course, when you have
someone like my dad in your back pocket, you can’t help
yourself. You quote him every chance you get.
My dad gave me advice on how to negotiate my way
through life. He’d say things like: “Never make a decision until you have to.” He’d also warn me that even if I was in a position of strength, whether at work or in relationships, I had
to play fair. “Just because you’re in the driver’s seat,” he’d say,
“doesn’t mean you have to run people over.”
Lately, I find myself quoting my dad even if it was something he didn’t say. Whatever my point, it might as well have
come from him. He seemed to know everything.
My mother, meanwhile, knew plenty, too. All my life, she
saw it as part of her mission to keep my cockiness in check.
I’m grateful for that now. Even these days, if someone asks
her what I was like as a kid, she describes me as “alert, but not
terribly precocious.” We now live in an age when parents
2 4 the last lecture
praise every child as a genius. And here’s my mother, figuring
“alert” ought to suffice as a compliment.
When I was studying for my PhD, I took something
called “the theory qualifier,” which I can now definitively say
was the second worst thing in my life after chemotherapy.
When I complained to my mother about how hard and awful
the test was, she leaned over, patted me on the arm and said,
“We know just how you feel, honey. And remember, when
your father was your age, he was fighting the Germans.”
After I got my PhD, my mother took great relish in introducing me by saying: “This is my son. He’s a doctor, but not
the kind who helps people.”
My parents knew what it really took to help people. They
were always finding big projects off the beaten path, then
throwing themselves into them. Together, they underwrote a
fifty-student dormitory in rural Thailand, which was designed to help girls remain in school and avoid prostitution.
My mother was always supremely charitable. And my
father would have been happy giving everything away and
living in a sack cloth instead of in the suburbs, where the rest
of us wanted to live. In that sense, I consider my father the
most “Christian” man I’ve ever met. He was also a huge
champion of social equality. Unlike my mom, he didn’t easily embrace organized religion. (We were Presbyterians.) He
was more focused on the grandest ideals and saw equality as
the greatest of goals. He had high hopes for society, and
though his hopes were too often dashed, he remained a raging optimist.
The Parent Lottery 2 5
At age eighty-three, my dad was diagnosed with leukemia.
Knowing he didn’t have long to live, he arranged to donate
his body to medical science, and he gave money to continue
his program in Thailand for at least six more years.
Many people who saw my last lecture were taken with one
particular photo that I flashed on the overhead screen: It’s a
photo in which I’m in my pajamas, leaning on my elbow, and
it’s so obvious that I was a kid who loved to dream big dreams.
The wood slat that cuts across my body is the front of the
bunk bed. My dad, a pretty able woodworker, made me that
bed. The smile on that kid’s face, the wood slat, the look in his
eyes: that photo reminds me that I won the parent lottery.
Although my children will have a loving mother who I
know will guide them through life brilliantly, they will not
have their father. I’ve accepted that, but it does hurt.
2 6 the last lecture
I’d like to believe my dad would have approved of how I’m
going about these last months of my life. He would have advised me to put everything in order for Jai, to spend as much
time as possible with the kids—the things I’m doing. I know
he would see the sense in moving the family to Virginia.
I also think my dad would be reminding me that kids—
more than anything else—need to know their parents love
them. Their parents don’t have to be alive for that to happen.
The Elevator in the Ranch House
My imagination was always pretty hard to contain, and
halfway through high school, I felt this urge to splash
some of the thoughts swirling in my head onto the walls of
my childhood bedroom.
I asked my parents for permission.
“I want to paint things on my walls,” I said.
“Like what?” they asked.
“Things that matter to me,” I said. “Things I think will be
cool. You’ll see.”
That explanation was enough for my father. That’s what
was so great about him. He encouraged creativity just by
smiling at you. He loved to watch the spark of enthusiasm
turn into fireworks. And he understood me and my need to
express myself in unconventional ways. So he thought my
wall-painting adventure was a great idea.
My mother wasn’t so high on the whole escapade, but she
relented pretty quickly when she saw how excited I was. She
2 8 the last lecture
also knew Dad usually won out on these things. She might as
well surrender peacefully.
For two days, with the help of my sister, Tammy, and my
friend Jack Sheriff, I painted on the walls of my bedroom.
My father sat in the living room, reading the newspaper, patiently waiting for the unveiling. My mother hovered in the
hallway, completely nervous. She kept sneaking up on us, trying to get a peek, but we remained barricaded in the room.
Like they say in the movies, this was “a closed set.”
What did we paint?
Well, I wanted to have a quadratic formula on the wall. In
a quadratic equation, the highest power of an unknown quantity is a square. Always the nerd, I thought that was worth
−b ± b2−4ac celebrating. Right by the door, I painted:
Jack and I painted a large silver elevator door. To the left of
the door, we drew “Up” and “Down” buttons, and above the
The Elevator in the Ranch House 2 9
elevator, we painted a panel with floor numbers one through
six. The number “three” was illuminated. We lived in a ranch
house—it was just one level—so I was doing a bit of fantasizing to imagine six floors. But looking back, why didn’t I paint
eighty or ninety floors? If I was such a big-shot dreamer, why
did my elevator stop at three? I don’t know. Maybe it was a
symbol of the balance in my life between aspiration and pragmatism.
Given my limited artistic skills, I thought it best if I
sketched things out in basic geometric shapes. So I painted a
simple rocket ship with fins. I painted Snow White’s mirror
with the line: “Remember when I told you that you were the
fairest? I lied!”
On the ceiling, Jack and I wrote the words “I’m trapped in
the attic!” We did the letters backwards, so it seemed as if
we’d imprisoned someone up there and he was scratching out
an S.O.S.
Because I loved chess, Tammy painted chess pieces (she
was the only one of us with any drawing talent). While she
handled that, I painted a submarine lurking in a body of water behind the bunk bed. I drew a periscope rising above the
bedspread, in search of enemy ships.
I always liked the story of Pandora’s box, so Tammy and I
painted our version of it. Pandora, from Greek mythology, was
given a box with all the world’s evils in it. She disobeyed orders
not to open it. When the lid came off, evil spread throughout
the world. I was always drawn to the story’s optimistic ending:
Left at the bottom of the box was “hope.” So inside my Pan-
3 0 the last lecture
dora’s box, I wrote the word “Hope.” Jack saw that and
couldn’t resist writing the word “Bob” over “Hope.” When
friends visited my room, it always took them a minute to figure
out why the word “Bob” was there. Then came the inevitable
Given that it was the late 1970s, I wrote the words “Disco
sucks!” over my door. My mother thought that was vulgar.
One day when I wasn’t looking, she quietly painted over the
word “sucks.” That was the only editing she ever did.
Friends who’d come by were always pretty impressed. “I
can’t believe your parents let you do this,” they’d say.
Though my mother wasn’t thrilled at the time, she never
painted over the room, even decades after I’d moved out. In
fact, over time, my bedroom became the focal point of her
house tour when anyone came to visit. My mom began to realize: People thought this was definitely cool. And they thought
she was cool for allowing me to do it.
Anybody out there who is a parent, if your kids want to
paint their bedrooms, as a favor to me, let them do it. It’ll be
OK. Don’t worry about resale value on the house.
I don’t know how many more times I will get to visit my
childhood home. But it is a gift every time I go there. I still
sleep in that bunk bed my father built, I look at those crazy
walls, I think about my parents allowing me to paint, and I
fall asleep feeling lucky and pleased.
Getting to Zero G
t’s important to have specific dreams.
When I was in grade school, a lot of kids wanted to become astronauts. I was aware, from an early age, that NASA
wouldn’t want me. I had heard that astronauts couldn’t have
glasses. I was OK with that. I didn’t really want the whole astronaut gig. I just wanted the floating.
Turns out that NASA has a plane it uses to help astronauts
acclimate to zero gravity. Everyone calls it “the Vomit Comet,”
even though NASA refers to it as “The Weightless Wonder,” a
public-relations gesture aimed at distracting attention from
the obvious.
Whatever the plane is called, it’s a sensational piece of machinery. It does parabolic arcs, and at the top of each arc, you
get about twenty-five seconds when you experience the rough
equivalent of weightlessness. As the plane dives, you feel like
you’re on a runaway roller coaster, but you’re suspended, flying around.
3 2 the last lecture
My dream became a possibility when I learned that NASA
had a program in which college students could submit proposals for experiments on the plane. In 2001, our team of Carnegie
Mellon students proposed a project using virtual reality.
Being weightless is a sensation hard to fathom when
you’ve been an Earthling all your life. In zero gravity, the inner ear, which controls balance, isn’t quite in synch with what
your eyes are telling you. Nausea is often the result. Could
virtual reality dry-runs on the ground help? That was the
question in our proposal, and it was a winner. We were invited to Johnson Space Center in Houston to ride the plane.
I was probably more excited than any of my students.
Floating! But late in the process, I got bad news. NASA made
it very clear that under no circumstances could faculty advisors fly with their students.
I was heartbroken, but I was not deterred. I would find a
way around this brick wall. I decided to carefully read all the
literature about the program, looking for loopholes. And I
found one: NASA, always eager for good publicity, would allow a journalist from the students’ hometown to come along
for the ride.
I called an official at NASA to ask for his fax number.
“What are you going to fax us?” he asked. I explained: my
resignation as the faculty advisor and my application as the
“I’ll be accompanying my students in my new role as a
member of the media,” I said.
And he said, “That’s a little transparent, don’t you think?”
Getting to Zero G 3 3
I just wanted the floating…
“Sure,” I said, but I also promised him that I’d get information about our experiment onto news Web sites, and send
film of our virtual reality efforts to more mainstream journalists. I knew I could pull that off, and it was win-win for
everyone. He gave me his fax number.
As an aside, there’s a lesson here: Have something to bring
to the table, because that will make you more welcome.
My experience in zero G was spectacular (and no, I didn’t
throw up, thank you). I did get banged up a bit, though,
3 4 the last lecture
because at the end of the magical twenty-five seconds, when
gravity returns to the plane, it’s actually as if you’ve become
twice your weight. You can slam down pretty hard. That’s
why we were repeatedly told: “Feet down!” You don’t want to
crash land on your neck.
But I did manage to get on that plane, almost four decades
after floating became one of my life goals. It just proves that
if you can find an opening, you can probably find a way to
float through it.
I Never Made It to the NFL
love football. Tackle football. I started playing when I Iwas nine years old, and football got me through. It helped
make me who I am today. And even though I did not reach
the National Football League, I sometimes think I got more
from pursuing that dream, and not accomplishing it, then I
did from many of the ones I did accomplish.
My romance with football started when my dad dragged
me, kicking and screaming, to join a league. I had no desire to
be there. I was naturally wimpy, and the smallest kid by far.
Fear turned to awe when I met my coach, Jim Graham, a
hulking, six-foot-four wall-of-a-guy. He had been a linebacker at Penn State, and was seriously old-school. I mean,
really old-school; like he thought the forward pass was a trick
On the first day of practice, we were all scared to death.
Plus he hadn’t brought along any footballs. One kid finally
spoke up for all of us. “Excuse me, Coach. There are no footballs.”
3 6 the last lecture
And Coach Graham responded, “We don’t need any footballs.”
There was a silence, while we thought about that…
“How many men are on the football field at a time?” he
asked us.
Eleven on a team, we answered. So that makes twentytwo.
“And how many people are touching the football at any
given time?”
One of them.
“Right!” he said. “So we’re going to work on what those
other twenty-one guys are doing.”
Fundamentals. That was a great gift Coach Graham gave
us. Fundamentals, fundamentals, fundamentals. As a college
professor, I’ve seen this as one lesson so many kids ignore, always to their detriment: You’ve got to get the fundamentals
down, because otherwise the fancy stuff is not going to work.

Coach Graham used to ride me hard. I remember one practice in particular. “You’re doing it all wrong, Pausch. Go
back! Do it again!” I tried to do what he wanted. It wasn’t
enough. “You owe me, Pausch! You’re doing push-ups after
When I was finally dismissed, one of the assistant coaches
came over to reassure me. “Coach Graham rode you pretty
hard, didn’t he?” he said.
I could barely muster a “yeah.”
“That’s a good thing,” the assistant told me. “When
I Never Made It to the NFL 3 7
you’re screwing up and nobody says anything to you anymore, that means they’ve given up on you.”
That lesson has stuck with me my whole life. When you
see yourself doing something badly and nobody’s bothering
to tell you anymore, that’s a bad place to be. You may not
want to hear it, but your critics are often the ones telling you
they still love you and care about you, and want to make you
There’s a lot of talk these days about giving children selfesteem. It’s not something you can give; it’s something they
have to build. Coach Graham worked in a no-coddling zone.
Self-esteem? He knew there was really only one way to teach
kids how to develop it: You give them something they can’t
do, they work hard until they find they can do it, and you just
keep repeating the process.
When Coach Graham first got hold of me, I was this
wimpy kid with no skills, no physical strength, and no conditioning. But he made me realize that if I work hard enough,
there will be things I can do tomorrow that I can’t do today.
Even now, having just turned forty-seven, I can give you a
three-point stance that any NFL lineman would be proud of.
I realize that, these days, a guy like Coach Graham might
get thrown out of a youth sports league. He’d be too tough.
Parents would complain.
I remember one game when our team was playing terribly.
At halftime, in our rush for water, we almost knocked over
the water bucket. Coach Graham was livid: “Jeez! That’s the
most I’ve seen you boys move since this game started!” We
3 8 the last lecture
were eleven years old, just standing there, afraid he’d pick us
up one by one and break us with his bare hands. “Water?” he
barked. “You boys want water?” He lifted the bucket and
dumped all the water on the ground.
We watched him walk away and heard him mutter to an
assistant coach: “You can give water to the first-string defense.
They played OK.”
Now let me be clear: Coach Graham would never endanger any kid. One reason he worked so hard on conditioning
was he knew it reduces injuries. However, it was a chilly day,
we’d all had access to water during the first half, and the dash
to the water bucket was more about us being a bunch of brats
than really needing hydration.
Even so, if that kind of incident happened today, parents
on the sidelines would be pulling out their cell phones to call
the league commissioner, or maybe their lawyer.
It saddens me that many kids today are so coddled. I think
back to how I felt during that halftime rant. Yes, I was thirsty.
But more than that, I felt humiliated. We had all let down
Coach Graham, and he let us know it in a way we’d never forget. He was right. We had shown more energy at the water
bucket than we had in the damn game. And getting chewed
out by him meant something to us. During the second half,
we went back on the field, and gave it our all.
I haven’t seen Coach Graham since I was a teen, but he
just keeps showing up in my head, forcing me to work harder
whenever I feel like quitting, forcing me to be better. He gave
me a feedback loop for life.
I Never Made It to the NFL 3 9

When we send our kids to play organized sports—football,
soccer, swimming, whatever—for most of us, it’s not because
we’re desperate for them to learn the intricacies of the sport.
What we really want them to learn is far more important:
teamwork, perseverance, sportsmanship, the value of hard
work, an ability to deal with adversity. This kind of indirect
learning is what some of us like to call a “head fake.”
There are two kinds of head fakes. The first is literal. On a
football field, a player will move his head one way so you’ll
think he’s going in that direction. Then he goes the opposite
way. It’s like a magician using misdirection. Coach Graham
used to tell us to watch a player’s waist. “Where his belly button goes, his body goes,” he’d say.
The second kind of head fake is the really important
one—the one that teaches people things they don’t realize
they’re learning until well into the process. If you’re a headfake specialist, your hidden objective is to get them to learn
something you want them to learn.
This kind of head-fake learning is absolutely vital. And
Coach Graham was the master.
You’ll Find Me Under “V”
I live in the computer age and I love it here! I have long
embraced pixels, multi-screen work stations and the information superhighway. I really can picture a paperless world.
And yet, I grew up in a very different place.
When I was born in 1960, paper was where great knowledge
was recorded. In my house, all through the 1960s and 1970s,
our family worshipped the World Book Encyclopedia—the
photos, the maps, the flags of different countries, the handy
sidebars revealing each state’s population, motto and average
I didn’t read every word of every volume of the World
Book, but I gave it a shot. I was fascinated by how it all came
together. Who wrote that section on the aardvark? How that
must have been, to have the World Book editors call and say,
“You know aardvarks better than anyone. Would you write an
entry for us?” Then there was the Z volume. Who was the
person deemed enough of a Zulu expert to create that entry?
Was he or she a Zulu?
You’ll Find Me Under “V” 4 1
My parents were frugal. Unlike many Americans, they
would never buy anything for the purposes of impressing
other people, or as any kind of luxury for themselves. But they
happily bought the World Book, spending a princely sum at
the time, because by doing so, they were giving the gift of
knowledge to me and my sister. They also ordered the annual
companion volumes. Each year, a new volume of breakthroughs and current events would arrive—labeled 1970, 1971,
1972, 1973—and I couldn’t wait to read them. These annual
volumes came with stickers, referencing entries in the original,
alphabetical World Books. My job was to attach those stickers
on the appropriate pages, and I took that responsibility seriously. I was helping to chronicle history and science for anyone who opened those encyclopedias in the future.
Given how I cherished the World Book, one of my childhood dreams was to be a contributor. But it’s not like you can
call World Book headquarters in Chicago and suggest yourself. The World Book has to find you.
A few years ago, believe it or not, the call finally came.
It turned out that somehow, my career up to that time had
turned me into exactly the sort of expert that World Book felt
comfortable badgering. They didn’t think I was the most important virtual reality expert in the world. That person was too
busy for them to approach. But me, I was in that midrange
level—just respectable enough . . . but not so famous that I’d
turn them down.
“Would you like to write our new entry on virtual reality?”
they asked.
4 2 the last lecture
I couldn’t tell them that I’d been waiting all my life for
this call. All I could say was, “Yes, of course!” I wrote the entry. And I included a photo of my student Caitlin Kelleher
wearing a virtual reality headset.
No editor ever questioned what I wrote, but I assume
that’s the World Book way. They pick an expert and trust that
the expert won’t abuse the privilege.
I have not bought the latest set of World Books. In fact,
having been selected to be an author in the World Book, I
now believe that Wikipedia is a perfectly fine source for your
information, because I know what the quality control is for
real encyclopedias. But sometimes when I’m in a library with
the kids, I still can’t resist looking under “V” (“Virtual Reality” by yours truly) and letting them have a look. Their dad
made it.
A Skill Set Called Leadership
Like countless American nerds born in 1960, I spent
part of my childhood dreaming of being Captain James
T. Kirk, commander of the Starship Enterprise. I didn’t see
myself as Captain Pausch. I imagined a world where I actually got to be Captain Kirk.
For ambitious young boys with a scientific bent, there
could be no greater role model than James T. Kirk of Star
Trek. In fact, I seriously believe that I became a better teacher
and colleague—maybe even a better husband—by watching
Kirk run the Enterprise.
Think about it. If you’ve seen the TV show, you know
that Kirk was not the smartest guy on the ship. Mr. Spock,
his first officer, was the always-logical intellect on board. Dr.
McCoy had all the medical knowledge available to mankind
in the 2260s. Scotty was the chief engineer, who had the technical know-how to keep that ship running, even when it was
under attack by aliens.
4 4 the last lecture
So what was Kirk’s skill set? Why did he get to climb on
board the Enterprise and run it?
The answer: There is this skill set called “leadership.”
I learned so much by watching this guy in action. He was
the distilled essence of the dynamic manager, a guy who
knew how to delegate, had the passion to inspire, and looked
good in what he wore to work. He never professed to have
skills greater than his subordinates. He acknowledged that
they knew what they were doing in their domains. But he established the vision, the tone. He was in charge of morale.
On top of that, Kirk had the romantic chops to woo women
in every galaxy he visited. Picture me at home watching TV, a
ten-year-old in glasses. Every time Kirk showed up on the
screen he was like a Greek god to me.
And he had the coolest damn toys! When I was a kid, I
thought it was fascinating that he could be on some planet
and he had this thing—this Star Trek communicator
device—that let him talk to people back on the ship. I now
walk around with one in my pocket. Who remembers that it
was Kirk who introduced us to the cell phone?
A few years ago, I got a call (on my communicator device)
from a Pittsburgh author named Chip Walter. He was cowriting a book with William Shatner (a.k.a. Kirk) about
how scientific breakthroughs first imagined on Star Trek
foreshadowed today’s technological advancements. Captain
Kirk wanted to visit my virtual reality lab at Carnegie
Granted, my childhood dream was to be Kirk. But I still
A Skill Set Called Leadership 4 5
considered it a dream realized when Shatner showed up.
It’s cool to meet your boyhood idol, but it’s almost indescribably cooler when he comes to you to see cool stuff you’re
doing in your lab.
My students and I worked around the clock to build a virtual reality world that resembled the bridge of the Enterprise.
When Shatner arrived, we put this bulky “head-mounted display” on him. It had a screen inside, and as he turned his
head, he could immerse himself in 360-degree images of his
old ship. “Wow, you even have the turbolift doors,” he said.
And we had a surprise for him, too: red-alert sirens. Without
missing a beat, he barked, “We’re under attack!”
Shatner stayed for three hours and asked tons of questions. A colleague later said to me: “He just kept asking and
asking. He doesn’t seem to get it.”
But I was hugely impressed. Kirk, I mean, Shatner, was
the ultimate example of a man who knew what he didn’t
know, was perfectly willing to admit it, and didn’t want to
leave until he understood. That’s heroic to me. I wish every
grad student had that attitude.
During my cancer treatment, when I was told that only 4
percent of pancreatic cancer patients live five years, a line
from the Star Trek movie The Wrath of Khan came into my
head. In the film, Starfleet cadets are faced with a simulated
training scenario where, no matter what they do, their entire
crew is killed. The film explains that when Kirk was a cadet,
he reprogrammed the simulation because “he didn’t believe
in the no-win scenario.”
4 6 the last lecture
Over the years, some of my sophisticated academic colleagues have turned up their noses at my Star Trek infatuation. But from the start, it has never failed to stand me in
good stead.
After Shatner learned of my diagnosis, he sent me a photo
of himself as Kirk. On it he wrote: “I don’t believe in the nowin scenario.”
Winning Big
One of my earliest childhood dreams was to be the
coolest guy at any amusement park or carnival I visited.
I always knew exactly how that kind of coolness was achieved.
The coolest guy was easy to spot: He was the one walking
around with the largest stuffed animal. As a kid, I’d see some
guy off in the distance with his head and body mostly hidden
by an enormous stuffed animal. It didn’t matter if he was a
buffed-up Adonis, or if he was some nerd who couldn’t get
his arms around it. If he had the biggest stuffed animal, then
he was the coolest guy at the carnival.
My dad subscribed to the same belief. He felt naked on a
Ferris wheel if he didn’t have a huge, newly won bear or ape
on his hip. Given the competitiveness in our family, midway
games became a battle. Which one of us could capture the
largest beast in the Stuffed Animal Kingdom?
Have you ever walked around a carnival with a giant
stuffed animal? Have you ever watched how people look at
4 8 the last lecture
you and envy you? Have you ever used a stuffed animal to
woo a woman? I have . . . and I married her!
Giant stuffed animals have played a role in my life from the
start. There was that time when I was three years old and my
sister was five. We were in a store’s toy department, and my father said he’d buy us any one item if we could agree on it and
share it. We looked around and around, and eventually we
looked up and saw, on the highest shelf, a giant stuffed rabbit.
“We’ll take that!” my sister said.
It was probably the most expensive item in the toy department. But my father was a man of his word. And so he
bought it for us. He likely figured it was a good investment. A
home could always use another giant stuffed animal.
As I reached adulthood and kept showing up with more and
bigger stuffed animals, my father suspected that I was paying
people off. He assumed that I was waiting for winners over by
the squirt guns, and then slipping a fifty to some guy who didn’t
realize how a giant stuffed animal could change the world’s perception of him. But I never paid for a stuffed animal.
And I never cheated.
OK, I admit that I leaned. That’s the only way to do it at
the ring toss. I am a leaner, but I am not a cheater.
I did, however, do a lot of my winning out of view of my
family. And I know that increased suspicions. But I found the
best way to bag stuffed animals is without the pressure of a family audience. I also didn’t want anyone to know just how long it
took me to be successful. Tenacity is a virtue, but it’s not always
crucial for everyone to observe how hard you work at something.
Winning Big 4 9
Have you ever walked around a carnival with a
giant stuffed animal?
I am prepared now to reveal that there are two secrets to
winning giant stuffed animals: long arms and a small amount of
discretionary income. I have been blessed in life to have both.
I talked about my stuffed animals at my last lecture, and
showed photos of them. I could predict what the tech-savvy
5 0 the last lecture
cynics were thinking: In this age of digitally manipulated images, maybe those stuffed bears weren’t really in the pictures
with me. Or maybe I sweet-talked the actual winners into letting me have my photo taken next to their prizes.
How, in this age of cynicism, could I convince my audience that I’d really won these things? Well, I would show
them the actual stuffed animals. And so I had some of my
students walk in from the wings of the stage, each carrying a
giant stuffed animal I’d won over the years.
I don’t need these trophies anymore. And although I
know my wife loved the stuffed bear I’d hung in her office
when we were courting, three children later, she doesn’t want
an army of them cluttering up our new house. (They were
leaking styrofoam beads that were making their way into
Chloe’s mouth.)
I knew that if I kept the stuffed animals, someday Jai
would be calling Goodwill and saying, “Take them away!”…
or worse, feeling she couldn’t! That’s why I had decided: Why
don’t I give them to friends?
And so once they were lined up on stage, I announced:
“Anybody who would like a piece of me at the end of this,
feel free to come up and take a bear; first come, first served.”
The giant stuffed animals all found homes quickly. A few
days later, I learned that one of the animals had been taken
by a Carnegie Mellon student who, like me, has cancer. After
the lecture, she walked up and selected the giant elephant. I
love the symbolism of that. She got the elephant in the room.
The Happiest Place on Earth
n 1969, when I was eight years old, my family went on a
cross-country trip to see Disneyland. It was an absolute
quest. And once we got there, I was just in awe of the place. It
was the coolest environment I’d ever been in.
As I stood in line with all the other kids, all I could think
was “I can’t wait to make stuff like this!”
Two decades later, when I got my PhD in computer science from Carnegie Mellon, I thought that made me infinitely
qualified to do anything, so I dashed off my letters of application to Walt Disney Imagineering. And they sent me some of
the nicest go-to-hell letters I’d ever received. They said they
had reviewed my application, and they did not have “any positions which require your particular qualifications.”
Nothing? This is a company famous for hiring armies of
people to sweep the streets! Disney had nothing for me? Not
even a broom?
So that was a setback. But I kept my mantra in mind: The
brick walls are there for a reason. They’re not there to keep us
5 2 the last lecture
out. The brick walls are there to give us a chance to show how
badly we want something.
Fast-forward to 1995. I’d become a professor at the University of Virginia, and I’d helped build a system called “Virtual Reality on Five Dollars a Day.” This was at a time when
virtual reality experts were insisting they’d need a halfmillion dollars to do anything. And my colleagues and I did
our own little version of the Hewlett-Packard garage thing
and hacked together a working low-budget virtual reality
system. People in the computer science world thought this
was pretty great.
Not too long after, I learned that Disney Imagineering was
working on a virtual reality project. It was top secret, and it
was an Aladdin attraction that would allow people to ride a
magic carpet. I called Disney and explained that I was a virtual
reality researcher looking for information on it. I was ridiculously persistent, and I kept getting passed on and on until I
was connected to a guy named Jon Snoddy. He happened to
be the brilliant Imagineer running the team. I felt as if I had
called the White House and been put through to the president.
After we chatted a while, I told Jon I’d be coming to California. Could we get together? (Truth was, if he said yes, the
only reason I’d be coming would be to see him. I’d have gone
to Neptune to see him!) He told me OK. If I was coming anyway, we could have lunch.
Before going to see him, I did eighty hours of homework.
I asked all the virtual reality hotshots I knew to share their
The Happiest Place on Earth 5 3
thoughts and questions about this Disney project. As a result,
when I finally met Jon, he was wowed by how prepared I was.
(It’s easy to look smart when you’re parroting smart people.)
Then, at the end of the lunch, I made “the ask.”
“I have a sabbatical coming up,” I said.
“What’s that?” he asked, which was my first hint of the
academic/entertainment culture clash I’d be facing.
After I explained the concept of sabbaticals, he thought it
would be a fine idea to have me spend mine with his team.
The deal was: I’d come for six months, work on a project, and
publish a paper about it. I was thrilled. It was almost unheard
of for Imagineering to invite an academic like me inside their
secretive operation.
The only problem: I needed permission from my bosses to
take this kind of oddball sabbatical.
Well, every Disney story needs a villain, and mine happened to be a certain dean from the University of Virginia.
“Dean Wormer” (as Jai dubbed him in homage to the film Animal House) was concerned that Disney would suck all this
“intellectual property” out of my head that rightfully belonged
to the university. He argued against my doing it. I asked him:
“Do you think this is a good idea at all?” And he said: “I have
no idea if it is a good idea.” He was proof that, sometimes, the
most impenetrable brick walls are made of flesh.
Because I was getting nowhere with him, I took my case to
the dean of sponsored research. I asked him: “Do you think
it’s a good idea that I do this?” And he answered: “I don’t have
enough information to say. But I do know that one of my star
5 4 the last lecture
My sister and me on the Alice ride: All I could
think was, “I can’t wait to make stuff like this.”
faculty members is in my office and he’s really excited. So tell
me more.”
Now, here’s a lesson for managers and administrators.
Both deans said the same thing: They didn’t know if this sabbatical was a good idea. But think about how differently they
said it!
I ended up being allowed to take that sabbatical, and it
was a fantasy come true. In fact, I have a confession. This is
exactly how geeky I am: Soon after I arrived in California, I
hopped into my convertible and drove over to Imagineering
headquarters. It was a hot summer night, and I had the
soundtrack to Disney’s The Lion King blasting on my stereo.
Tears actually began streaming down my face as I drove past
the building. Here I was, the grown-up version of that wideeyed eight-year-old at Disneyland. I had finally arrived. I was
an Imagineer.
A DV E N T U R E S . . .

The Park Is Open Until 8 p.m.
My medical odyssey began in the summer of 2006,
when I first felt slight, unexplained pain in my upper
abdomen. Later, jaundice set in, and my doctors suspected I
had hepatitis. That turned out to be wishful thinking. CT
scans revealed I had pancreatic cancer, and it would take me
just ten seconds on Google to discover how bad this news
was. Pancreatic cancer has the highest mortality rate of any
cancer; half of those diagnosed with it die within six months,
and 96 percent die within five years.
I approached my treatment like I approach so many things,
as a scientist. And so I asked lots of data-seeking questions,
and found myself hypothesizing along with my doctors. I
made audio tapes of my conversations with them, so I could
listen more closely to their explanations at home. I’d find obscure journal articles and bring them with me to appointments. Doctors didn’t seem to be put off by me. In fact, most
thought I was a fun patient because I was so engaged in
everything. (They even didn’t seem to mind when I brought

5 8 the last lecture
along advocates—my friend and colleague Jessica Hodgins
came to appointments to offer both support and her brilliant
research skills in navigating medical information.)
I told doctors that I’d be willing to endure anything in
their surgical arsenal, and I’d swallow anything in their medicine cabinet, because I had an objective: I wanted to be alive as
long as possible for Jai and the kids. At my first appointment
with Pittsburgh surgeon Herb Zeh, I said: “Let’s be clear. My
goal is to be alive and on your brochure in ten years.”
I turned out to be among the minority of patients who
could benefit from what is called the “Whipple operation,”
named for a doctor who in the 1930s conjured up this complicated procedure. Through the 1970s, the surgery itself was
killing up to 25 percent of patients who underwent it. By the
year 2000, the risk of dying from it was under 5 percent if
done by experienced specialists. Still, I knew I was in for a brutal time, especially since the surgery needed to be followed by
an extremely toxic regimen of chemotherapy and radiation.
As part of the surgery, Dr. Zeh removed not only the tumor, but my gallbladder, a third of my pancreas, a third of
my stomach, and several feet of my small intestine. Once I
recovered from that, I spent two months at MD Anderson
Cancer Center in Houston, receiving those powerful dosages
of chemo, plus daily high-dose radiation of my abdomen. I
went from 182 to 138 pounds and, by the end, could hardly
walk. In January, I went home to Pittsburgh and my CT
scans showed no cancer. I slowly regained my strength.
In August, it was time for my quarterly check-in back at
The Park Is Open Until 8 p.m. 5 9
MD Anderson. Jai and I flew to Houston for the appointment, leaving the kids with a babysitter back home. We
treated the trip like something of a romantic getaway. We
even went to a giant water park the day before—I know, my
idea of a romantic getaway—and I rode the speed slide, grinning all the way down.
Then, on August 15, 2007, a Wednesday, Jai and I arrived
at MD Anderson to go over the results of my latest CT scans
with my oncologist, Robert Wolff. We were ushered into an
examining room, where a nurse asked a few routine questions. “Any changes in your weight, Randy? Are you still taking
the same medications?” Jai took note of the nurse’s happy,
singsong voice as she left, how she cheerily said, “OK, the
doctor will be in to see you soon,” as she closed the door behind her.
The examining room had a computer in it, and I noticed
that the nurse hadn’t logged out; my medical records were
still up on the screen. I know my way around computers, of
course, but this required no hacking at all. My whole chart
was right there.
“Shall we have a look-see?” I said to Jai. I felt no qualms
at all about what I was about to do. After all, these were my
I clicked around and found my blood-work report. There
were 30 obscure blood values, but I knew the one I was looking for: CA 19-9—the tumor marker. When I found it, the
number was a horrifying 208. A normal value is under 37. I
studied it for just a second.
6 0 the last lecture
“It’s over,” I said to Jai. “My goose is cooked.”
“What do you mean?” she asked.
I told her the CA 19-9 value. She had educated herself
enough about cancer treatment to know that 208 indicated
metastasis: a death sentence. “It’s not funny,” she said. “Stop
joking around.”
I then pulled up my CT scans on the computer and
started counting. “One, two, three, four, five, six . . .”
I could hear the panic in Jai’s voice. “Don’t tell me you’re
counting tumors,” she said. I couldn’t help myself. I kept
counting aloud. “Seven, eight, nine, ten . . .” I saw it all. The
cancer had metastasized to my liver.
Jai walked over to the computer, saw everything clearly
with her own eyes, and fell into my arms. We cried together.
And that’s when I realized there was no box of tissues in the
room. I had just learned I would soon die, and in my inability
to stop being rationally focused, I found myself thinking:
“Shouldn’t a room like this, at a time like this, have a box of
Kleenex? Wow, that’s a glaring operational flaw.”
There was a knock on the door. Dr. Wolff entered, a
folder in his hand. He looked from Jai to me to the CT scans
on the computer, and he knew what had just happened. I decided to just be preemptive. “We know,” I said.
By that point, Jai was almost in shock, crying hysterically.
I was sad, too, of course, and yet I was also fascinated by the
way in which Dr. Wolff went about the grim task before him.
The doctor sat next to Jai to comfort her. Calmly, he explained to her that he would no longer be working to save my
The Park Is Open Until 8 p.m. 6 1
life. “What we’re trying to do,” he said, “is extend the time
Randy has left so he can have the highest quality of life.
That’s because, as things now stand, medical science doesn’t
have anything to offer him to keep him alive for a normal life
“Wait, wait, wait,” Jai said. “You’re telling me that’s it? Just
like that, we’ve gone from ‘we’re going to fight this’ to ‘the
battle is over’? What about a liver transplant?”
No, the doctor said, not once the metastasis occurs. He
talked about using palliative chemo—treatment that’s not
intended to be curative, but could ease symptoms, possibly
buying a few months—and about finding ways to keep me
comfortable and engaged in life as the end approached.
The whole horrible exchange was surreal for me. Yes, I felt
stunned and bereft for myself and especially for Jai, who
couldn’t stop crying. But a strong part of me remained in
Randy Scientist Mode, collecting facts and quizzing the doctor about options. At the same time, there was another part
of me that was utterly engaged in the theater of the moment.
I felt incredibly impressed—awed really—by the way Dr.
Wolff was giving the news to Jai. I thought to myself: “Look
at how he’s doing this. He’s obviously done this so many
times before, and he’s good at it. He’s carefully rehearsed, and
yet everything is still so heartfelt and spontaneous.”
I took note of how the doctor rocked back in his chair and
closed his eyes before answering a question, almost as if that
was helping him think harder. I watched the doctor’s body
posture, the way he sat next to Jai. I found myself almost
6 2 the last lecture
detached from it all, thinking: “He isn’t putting his arm
around her shoulder. I understand why. That would be too
presumptuous. But he’s leaning in, his hand on her knee.
Boy, he’s good at this.”
I wished every medical student considering oncology
could see what I was seeing. I watched Dr. Wolff use semantics to phrase whatever he could in a positive light. When we
asked, “How long before I die?” he answered, “You probably
have three to six months of good health.” That reminded me
of my time at Disney. Ask Disney World workers: “What
time does the park close?” They’re supposed to answer: “The
park is open until 8 p.m.”
In a way, I felt an odd sense of relief. For too many tense
months, Jai and I had been waiting to see if and when the tumors would return. Now here they were, a full army of them.
The wait was over. Now we could move on to dealing with
whatever came next.
At the end of the meeting, the doctor hugged Jai and
shook my hand, and Jai and I walked out together, into our
new reality.
Leaving the doctor’s office, I thought about what I’d said
to Jai in the water park in the afterglow of the speed slide.
“Even if the scan results are bad tomorrow,” I had told her, “I
just want you to know that it feels great to be alive, and to be
here today, alive with you. Whatever news we get about the
scans, I’m not going to die when we hear it. I won’t die the
next day, or the day after that, or the day after that. So today,
The Park Is Open Until 8 p.m. 6 3
right now, well this is a wonderful day. And I want you to
know how much I’m enjoying it.”
I thought about that, and about Jai’s smile.
I knew then. That’s the way the rest of my life would need
to be lived.
The Man in the Convertible
One morning, well after I was diagnosed with cancer, I
got an email from Robbee Kosak, Carnegie Mellon’s
vice president for advancement. She told me a story.
She said she had been driving home from work the night
before, and she found herself behind a man in a convertible. It
was a warm, gorgeous, early-spring evening, and the man had
his top down and all his windows lowered. His arm was hanging over the driver’s side door, and his fingers were tapping
along to the music on his radio. His head was bobbing along,
too, as the wind blew through his hair.
Robbee changed lanes and pulled a little closer. From the
side, she could see that the man had a slight smile on his face,
the kind of absentminded smile a person might have when
he’s all alone, happy in his own thoughts. Robbee found herself thinking: “Wow, this is the epitome of a person appreciating this day and this moment.”
The convertible eventually turned the corner, and that’s
The Man in the Convertible 6 5
when Robbee got a look at the man’s full face. “Oh my God,”
she said to herself. “It’s Randy Pausch!”
She was so struck by the sight of me. She knew that my
cancer diagnosis was grim. And yet, as she wrote in her email,
she was moved by how contented I seemed. In this private
moment, I was obviously in high spirits. Robbee wrote in her
email: “You can never know how much that glimpse of you
made my day, reminding me of what life is all about.”
I read Robbee’s email several times. I came to look at it as
a feedback loop of sorts.
It has not always been easy to stay positive through my
cancer treatment. When you have a dire medical issue, it’s
tough to know how you’re really faring emotionally. I had
wondered whether a part of me was acting when I was with
other people. Maybe at times I forced myself to appear strong
and upbeat. Many cancer patients feel obliged to put up a
brave front. Was I doing that, too?
But Robbee had come upon me in an unguarded moment.
I’d like to think she saw me as I am. She certainly saw me as I
was that evening.
Her email was just a paragraph, but it meant a great deal
to me. She had given me a window into myself. I was still
fully engaged. I still knew life was good. I was doing OK.
The Dutch Uncle
Anyone who knows me will tell you I’ve always had a
healthy sense of myself and my abilities. I tend to say
what I’m thinking and what I believe. I don’t have much patience for incompetence.
These are traits that have mostly served me well. But there
are times, believe it or not, when I’ve come across as arrogant
and tactless. That’s when those who can help you recalibrate
yourself become absolutely crucial.
My sister, Tammy, had to put up with the ultimate knowit-all kid brother. I was always telling her what to do, as if our
birth order was a mistake that I was incessantly trying to
One time when I was seven years old and Tammy was
nine, we were waiting for the school bus, and as usual, I was
mouthing off. She decided she’d had enough. She picked up
my metal lunch box and dropped it in a mud puddle… just
as the bus pulled up. My sister ended up in the principal’s office, while I was sent to the janitor, who cleaned up my lunch
The Dutch Uncle 6 7
box, threw out my mud-soaked sandwich and kindly gave me
lunch money.
The principal told Tammy he had called our mother. “I’m
going to let her handle this,” he said. When we arrived home
after school, Mom said, “I’m going to let your father handle
this.” My sister spent the day nervously awaiting her fate.
When my father got home after work, he listened to the
story and burst into a smile. He wasn’t going to punish
Tammy. He did everything but congratulate her! I was a kid
who needed to have his lunch box dropped in a puddle.
Tammy was relieved, and I’d been put in my place…
though the lesson didn’t completely sink in.
By the time I got to Brown University, I had certain abilities
and people knew I knew it. My good friend Scott Sherman,
whom I met freshman year, now recalls me as “having a total
lack of tact, and being universally acclaimed as the person
quickest to offend someone he had just met.”
I usually didn’t notice how I was coming off, in part because
things seemed to be working out and I was succeeding academically. Andy van Dam, the school’s legendary computer science
professor, made me his teaching assistant. “Andy van Demand,”
as he was known, liked me. I was impassioned about so many
things—a good trait. But like many people, I had strengths that
were also flaws. In Andy’s view, I was self-possessed to a fault, I
was way too brash and I was an inflexible contrarian, always
spouting opinions.
One day Andy took me for a walk. He put his arm around
my shoulders and said, “Randy, it’s such a shame that people
6 8 the last lecture
perceive you as being so arrogant, because it’s going to limit
what you’re going to be able to accomplish in life.”
Looking back, his wording was so perfect. He was actually
saying, “Randy, you’re being a jerk.” But he said it in a way
that made me open to his criticisms, to listening to my hero
telling me something I needed to hear. There is an old expression, “a Dutch uncle,” which refers to a person who gives
you honest feedback. Few people bother doing that nowadays, so the expression has started to feel outdated, even obscure. (And the best part is that Andy really is Dutch.)
Ever since my last lecture began spreading on the Internet,
more than a few friends have been ribbing me about it, calling me “St. Randy.” It’s their way of reminding me that there
were times I’ve been described in other, more colorful, ways.
But I like to think that my flaws are in the social, rather
than in the moral category. And I’ve been lucky enough to
benefit over the years from people like Andy, who have cared
enough to tell me the tough-love things that I needed to hear.
Pouring Soda in the Backseat
For a long time, a big part of my identity was “bachelor
uncle.” In my twenties and thirties I had no kids, and my
sister’s two children, Chris and Laura, became the objects of
my affection. I reveled in being Uncle Randy, the guy who
showed up in their lives every month or so to help them look
at their world from strange new angles.
It wasn’t that I spoiled them. I just tried to impart my perspective on life. Sometimes that drove my sister crazy.
Once, about a dozen years ago, when Chris was seven
years old and Laura was nine, I picked them up in my brandnew Volkswagen Cabrio convertible. “Be careful in Uncle
Randy’s new car,” my sister told them. “Wipe your feet before you get in it. Don’t mess anything up. Don’t get it dirty.”
I listened to her, and thought, as only a bachelor uncle
can: “That’s just the sort of admonition that sets kids up
for failure. Of course they’d eventually get my car dirty.
Kids can’t help it.” So I made things easy. While my sister
was outlining the rules, I slowly and deliberately opened a
7 0 the last lecture
can of soda, turned it over, and poured it on the cloth seats
in the back of the convertible. My message: People are more
important than things. A car, even a pristine gem like my
new convertible, was just a thing.
As I poured out that Coke, I watched Chris and Laura,
mouths open, eyes widening. Here was crazy Uncle Randy
completely rejecting adult rules.
I ended up being so glad I’d spilled that soda. Because
later in the weekend, little Chris got the flu and threw up all
over the backseat. He didn’t feel guilty. He was relieved; he
had already watched me christen the car. He knew it would
be OK.
Whenever the kids were with me, we had just two rules:
1) No whining.
2) Whatever we do together, don’t tell Mom.
Not telling Mom made everything we did into a pirate adventure. Even the mundane could feel magical.
On most weekends, Chris and Laura would hang out at
my apartment and I’d take them to Chuck E. Cheese, or we’d
head out for a hike or visit a museum. On special weekends,
we’d stay in a hotel with a pool.
The three of us liked making pancakes together. My father had always asked: “Why do pancakes need to be round?”
I’d ask the same question. And so we were always making
weirdly shaped animal pancakes. There’s a sloppiness to that
Pouring Soda in the Backseat 7 1
medium that I like, because every animal pancake you make
is an unintentional Rorschach test. Chris and Laura would
say, “This isn’t the shape of the animal I wanted.” But that allowed us to look at the pancake as it was, and imagine what
animal it might be.
I’ve watched Laura and Chris grow into terrific young
adults. She’s now twenty-one and he’s nineteen. These days,
I am more grateful than ever that I was a part of their childhoods, because I’ve come to realize something. It’s unlikely
that I will ever get to be a father to children over age six. So
my time with Chris and Laura has become even more precious. They gave me the gift of being a presence in their
lives through their pre-teen and teen years, and into adulthood.
Recently, I asked both Chris and Laura to do me a favor.
After I die, I want them to take my kids for weekends here and
there, and just do stuff. Anything fun they can think of. They
don’t have to do the exact things we did together. They can let
my kids take the lead. Dylan likes dinosaurs. Maybe Chris and
Laura can take him to a natural history museum. Logan likes
sports: maybe they can take him to see the Steelers. And Chloe
loves to dance. They’ll figure something out.
I also want my niece and nephew to tell my kids a few
things. First, they can say simply: “Your dad asked us to
spend this time with you, just like he spent time with us.” I
hope they’ll also explain to my kids how hard I fought to stay
alive. I signed up for the hardest treatments that could be
7 2 the last lecture
thrown at me because I wanted to be around as long as possible to be there for my kids. That’s the message I’ve asked
Laura and Chris to deliver.
Oh, and one more thing. If my kids mess up their cars, I
hope Chris and Laura will think of me and smile.
Romancing the Brick Wall
The most formidable brick wall I ever came upon in my
life was just five feet, six inches tall, and was absolutely
beautiful. But it reduced me to tears, made me reevaluate my
entire life and led me to call my father, in a helpless fit, to ask
for guidance on how to scale it.
That brick wall was Jai.
As I said in the lecture, I was always pretty adept at charging
through the brick walls in my academic and professional life. I
didn’t tell the audience the story about my courtship with my
wife because I knew I’d get too emotional. Still, the words I
said on stage completely applied to my early days with Jai:
“. . . The brick walls are there to stop the people who don’t
want it badly enough. They’re there to stop the other people.”
I was a thirty-seven-year-old bachelor when Jai and I met.
I’d spent a lot of time dating around, having great fun, and
then losing girlfriends who wanted to get more serious. For
years, I felt no compulsion to settle down. Even as a tenured
professor who could afford something better, I lived in a
7 4 the last lecture
$450-a-month attic apartment with a fire-escape walkup. It
was a place my grad students wouldn’t live in because it was
beneath them. But it was perfect for me.
A friend once asked me: “What kind of woman do you
think would be impressed if you brought her back to this
I replied: “The right kind.”
But who was I kidding? I was a fun-loving, workaholic
Peter Pan with metal folding chairs in my dining room. No
woman, even the right kind, would expect to settle down
blissfully into that. (And when Jai finally arrived in my life,
neither did she.) Granted, I had a good job and other things
going for me. But I wasn’t any woman’s idea of perfect marriage material.
I met Jai in the fall of 1998, when I was invited to give a
lecture on virtual reality technology at the University of
North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Jai, then a thirty-one-year-old
grad student in comparative literature, was working parttime in the UNC computer science department. Her job was
to host visitors who came to the labs, whether Nobel laureates
or Girl Scout troops. On that particular day, her job was to
host me.
Jai had seen me speak the previous summer at a computer
graphics conference in Orlando. She later told me she had
considered coming up to me afterward to introduce herself,
but she never did. When she learned she’d be my host when I
came to UNC, she visited my Web site to learn more about
me. She clicked through all my academic stuff, and then found
Romancing the Brick Wall 7 5
the links to my funkier personal information—that my hobbies were making gingerbread houses and sewing. She saw my
age, and no mention of a wife or girlfriend, but lots of photos
of my niece and nephew.
She figured I’m obviously a pretty offbeat and interesting
guy, and she was intrigued enough to make a few phone calls
to friends of hers in the computer science community.
“What do you know about Randy Pausch?” she asked. “Is
he gay?”
She was told I was not. In fact, she was told I had a reputation as a player who’d never settle down (well, to the extent
that a computer scientist can be considered a “player”).
As for Jai, she had been married briefly to her college
sweetheart, and after that ended in divorce, with no children,
she was gun-shy about getting serious again.
From the moment I met her the day of my visit, I just
found myself staring at her. She’s a beauty, of course, and she
had this gorgeous long hair then, and this smile that said a lot
about both her warmth and her impishness. I was brought
into a lab to watch students demonstrate their virtual reality
projects, and I had trouble concentrating on any of them because Jai was standing there.
Soon enough, I was flirting pretty aggressively. Because
this was a professional setting, that meant I was making far
more eye contact than was appropriate. Jai later told me: “I
couldn’t tell if you did that with everyone, or if you were singling me out.” Believe me, I was singling.
At one point during the day, Jai sat down with me to ask
7 6 the last lecture
questions about bringing software projects to UNC. By then
I was completely taken with her. I had to go to a formal faculty dinner that night, but I asked if she’d meet me for a
drink afterward. She agreed.
I couldn’t concentrate during dinner. I wished all of those
tenured professors would just chew faster. I convinced everyone not to order dessert. And I got out of there at 8:30 and
called Jai.
We went to a wine bar, even though I don’t really drink,
and I quickly felt a magnetic sense that I really wanted to be
with this woman. I was scheduled to take a flight home the
next morning, but I told her I’d change it if she’d go on a date
with me the following day. She said yes, and we ended up
having a terrific time.
After I returned to Pittsburgh, I offered her my frequent
flyer miles and asked her to visit me. She had obvious feelings
for me, but she was scared—of both my reputation and of
the possibility that she was falling in love.
“I’m not coming,” she wrote in an email. “I’ve thought it
through, and I’m not looking for a long-distance relationship.
I’m sorry.”
I was hooked, of course, and this was a brick wall I thought
I could manage. I sent her a dozen roses and a card that read:
“Although it saddens me greatly, I respect your decision and
wish you nothing but the best. Randy.”
Well, that worked. She got on the plane.
I admit: I’m either an incurable romantic or a bit
Romancing the Brick Wall 7 7
Machiavellian. But I just wanted her in my life. I had fallen in
love, even if she was still finding her way.
We saw each other most every weekend through the winter. Though Jai wasn’t thrilled with my bluntness and my
know-it-all attitude, she said I was the most positive, upbeat
person she’d ever met. And she was bringing out good things
in me. I found myself caring about her welfare and happiness
more than anything else.
Eventually, I asked her to move to Pittsburgh. I offered to
get her an engagement ring, but I knew she was still scared and
that would freak her out. So I didn’t pressure her, and she did
agree to a first step: moving up and getting her own apartment.
In April, I made arrangements to teach a weeklong seminar at UNC. That would allow me to help her pack up so we
could drive her belongings up to Pittsburgh.
After I arrived in Chapel Hill, Jai told me we needed to
talk. She was more serious than I had ever seen her.
“I can’t come to Pittsburgh. I’m sorry,” she said.
I wondered what was in her head. I asked for an explanation.
Her answer: “This is never going to work.” I had to know
“I just . . .” she said. “I just don’t love you the way you
want me to love you.” And then again, for emphasis: “I don’t
love you.”
I was horrified and heartbroken. It was like a punch in the
gut. Could she really mean that?
7 8 the last lecture
It was an awkward scene. She didn’t know how to feel. I
didn’t know how to feel. I needed a ride over to my hotel.
“Would you be kind enough to drive me or should I call a
She drove me, and when we got there, I pulled my bag out
of her trunk, fighting back tears. If it’s possible to be arrogant,
optimistic and totally miserable all at the same time, I think I
might have pulled it off: “Look, I’m going to find a way to be
happy, and I’d really love to be happy with you, but if I can’t be
happy with you, then I’ll find a way to be happy without you.”
In the hotel, I spent much of the day on the phone with
my parents, telling them about the brick wall I’d just smashed
into. Their advice was incredible.
“Look,” my dad said. “I don’t think she means it. It’s not
consistent with her behavior thus far. You’ve asked her to pull
up roots and run away with you. She’s probably confused and
scared to death. If she doesn’t really love you, then it’s over.
And if she does love you, then love will win out.”
I asked my parents what I should do.
“Be supportive,” my mom said. “If you love her, support
And so I did that. I spent that week teaching, hanging out
in an office up the hall from Jai. I stopped by a couple of times,
however, just to see if she was all right. “I just wanted to see how
you are,” I’d say. “If there’s anything I can do, let me know.”
A few days later, Jai called. “Well, Randy, I’m sitting here
missing you, just wishing you were here. That means something, doesn’t it?”
Romancing the Brick Wall 7 9
She had come to a realization: She was in love, after all.
Once again, my parents had come through. Love had won
out. At week’s end, Jai moved to Pittsburgh.
Brick walls are there for a reason. They give us a chance to
show how badly we want something.

Not All Fairy Tales End Smoothly

ai and I were married under a 100-year-old oak tree on the
lawn of a famous Victorian mansion in Pittsburgh. It was a
small wedding, but I like big romantic statements, and so Jai
and I agreed to start our marriage in a special way.
We did not leave the reception in a car with cans rattling
from the rear bumper. We did not get into a horse-drawn carriage. Instead, we got into a huge, multicolored hot-air balloon that whisked us off into the clouds, as our friends and
loved ones waved up to us, wishing us bon voyage. What a
Kodak moment!
When we had stepped into the balloon, Jai was just beaming. “It’s like a fairy tale ending to a Disney movie,” she said.
Then the balloon smashed through tree branches on the
way up. It didn’t sound like the destruction of the Hindenburg, but it was a little disconcerting. “No problem,” said the
man flying the balloon. (He’s called a “ballooner.”) “Usually
we’re OK going through branches.”
Not All Fairy Tales End Smoothly 8 1
We had also taken off a little later than scheduled, and the
ballooner said that could make things harder, because it was
getting dark. And the winds had shifted. “I can’t really control where we go. We’re at the mercy of the winds,” he said.
“But we should be OK.”
The balloon traveled over urban Pittsburgh, back and
forth above the city’s famous three rivers. This was not where
the ballooner wanted to be, and I could see he was worried.
“There’s no place to put this bird down,” he said, almost to
himself. Then to us: “We’ve got to keep looking.”
The newlyweds were no longer enjoying the view. We
were all looking for a large open space hidden in an urban
landscape. Finally, we floated into the suburbs, and the ballooner spotted a big field off in the distance. He committed
to putting the balloon down in it. “This should work,” he said
as he started descending fast.
I looked down at the field. It appeared to be fairly large,
but I noticed there was a train track at the edge of it. My eyes
followed the track. A train was coming. At that moment, I
was no longer a groom. I was an engineer. I said to the ballooner: “Sir, I think I see a variable here.”
“A variable? Is that what you computer guys call a problem?” he asked.
“Well, yes. What if we hit the train?”
He answered honestly. We were in the basket of the balloon, and the odds of the basket hitting the train were small.
8 2 the last lecture
However, there was certainly a risk that the giant balloon itself (called “the envelope”) would fall onto the tracks when
we hit the ground. If the speeding train got tangled in the
falling envelope, we’d be at the wrong end of a rope, inside a
basket getting dragged. In that case, great bodily harm was
not just possible, but probable.
“When this thing hits the ground, run as fast as you can,”
the ballooner said. These are not the words most brides
dream about hearing on their wedding day. In short, Jai was
no longer feeling like a Disney princess. And I was already
seeing myself as a character in a disaster movie, thinking of
how I’d save my new bride during the calamity apparently
to come.
I looked into the eyes of the ballooner. I often rely on people with expertise I don’t have, and I wanted to get a clear
sense of where he was on this. In his face, I saw more than
concern. I saw mild panic. I also saw fear. I looked at Jai. I’d
enjoyed our marriage so far.
As the balloon kept descending, I tried to calculate how
fast we’d need to jump out of the basket and run for our lives.
I figured the ballooner could handle himself, and if not, well,
I was still grabbing Jai first. I loved her. Him, I’d just met.
The ballooner kept letting air out of the balloon. He
pulled every lever he had. He just wanted to get down somewhere, quickly. At that point, he’d be better off hitting a
nearby house than that speeding train.
The basket took a hard hit as we crash-landed in the field,
Not All Fairy Tales End Smoothly 8 3
This was taken before we got into the balloon.
hopped a few times, bouncing all around, and then tilted almost horizontally. Within seconds, the deflating envelope
draped onto the ground. But luckily, it missed the moving
train. Meanwhile, people on the nearby highway saw our
landing, stopped their cars, and ran to help us. It was quite a
scene: Jai in her wedding dress, me in my suit, the collapsed
balloon, the relieved ballooner.
We were pretty rattled. My friend Jack had been in the
chase car, tracking the balloon from the ground. When he got
to us, he was happy to find us safe following our near-death
We spent some time decompressing from our reminder
that even fairy-tale moments have risks, while the collapsed
balloon was loaded onto the ballooner’s truck. Then, just as
8 4 the last lecture
Jack was about to take us home, the ballooner came trotting
over to us. “Wait, wait!” he said. “You ordered the wedding
package! It comes with a bottle of champagne!” He handed us
a cheap bottle from his truck. “Congratulations!” he said.
We smiled weakly and thanked him. It was only dusk on
our first day of marriage, but we’d made it so far.
Lucy, I’m Home
One warm day, early in our marriage, I walked to
Carnegie Mellon and Jai was at home. I remember this
because that particular day became famous in our household
as “The Day Jai Managed to Achieve the One-Driver, TwoCar Collision.”
Our minivan was in the garage and my Volkswagen convertible was in the driveway. Jai pulled out the minivan without realizing the other car was in the way. The result: an
instantaneous crunch, boom, bam!
What followed just proves that at times we’re all living in
an I Love Lucy episode. Jai spent the entire day obsessing over
how to explain everything to Ricky when he got home from
Club Babalu.
She thought it best to create the perfect circumstances to
break the news. She made sure both cars were in the garage
with the garage door closed. She was more sweet than usual
when I arrived home, asking me all about my day. She put on
soft music. She made me my favorite meal. She wasn’t wearing
8 6 the last lecture
a negligee—I wasn’t that lucky—but she did her best to be the
perfect, loving partner.
Toward the end of our terrific dinner she said, “Randy, I
have something to tell you. I hit one car with the other car.”
I asked her how it happened. I had her describe the damage. She said the convertible got the worst of it, but both cars
were running fine. “Want to go in the garage and look at
them?” she asked.
“No,” I said. “Let’s just finish dinner.”
She was surprised. I wasn’t angry. I hardly seemed concerned. As she’d soon learn, my measured response was
rooted in my upbringing.
After dinner, we looked at the cars. I just shrugged, and I
could see that for Jai, an entire day’s worth of anxiety was just
melting away. “Tomorrow morning,” she promised, “I’ll get
estimates on the repairs.”
I told her that wasn’t necessary. The dents would be OK.
My parents had raised me to recognize that automobiles are
there to get you from point A to point B. They are utilitarian
devices, not expressions of social status. And so I told Jai we
didn’t need to do cosmetic repairs. We’d just live with the
dents and gashes.
Jai was a bit shocked. “We’re really going to drive around
in dented cars?” she asked.
“Well, you can’t have just some of me, Jai,” I told her.
“You appreciate the part of me that didn’t get angry because
two ‘things’ we own got hurt. But the flip side of that is my
Lucy, I’m Home 8 7
belief that you don’t repair things if they still do what they’re
supposed to do. The cars still work. Let’s just drive ’em.”
OK, maybe this makes me quirky. But if your trashcan or
wheelbarrow has a dent in it, you don’t buy a new one.
Maybe that’s because we don’t use trashcans and wheelbarrows to communicate our social status or identity to others.
For Jai and me, our dented cars became a statement in our
marriage. Not everything needs to be fixed.
A New Year’s Story
No matter how bad things are, you can always make
things worse. At the same time, it is often within your
power to make them better. I learned this lesson well on New
Year’s Eve 2001.
Jai was seven months pregnant with Dylan, and we were
about to welcome in 2002 having a quiet night at home,
watching a DVD.
The movie was just starting when Jai said, “I think my water just broke.” But it wasn’t water. It was blood. Within an
instant, she was bleeding so profusely that I realized there was
no time to even call an ambulance. Pittsburgh’s MageeWomens Hospital was four minutes away if I ignored red
lights, which is what I did.
When we got to the emergency room, doctors, nurses and
other hospital personnel descended with IVs, stethoscopes
and insurance forms. It was quickly determined that her placenta had torn away from the uterine wall; it’s called “placenta abrupta.” With the placenta in such distress, the life
A New Year’s Story 8 9
support for the fetus was giving out. They don’t need to tell
you how serious this is. Jai’s health and the viability of our
baby were at great risk.
For weeks, the pregnancy hadn’t been going smoothly. Jai
could hardly feel the baby kicking. She wasn’t gaining
enough weight. Knowing how crucial it is for people to be aggressive about their medical care, I had insisted that she be
given another ultrasound. That’s when doctors realized Jai’s
placenta wasn’t operating efficiently. The baby wasn’t thriving. And so doctors gave Jai a steroid shot to stimulate the development of the baby’s lungs.
It was all worrisome. But now, here in the emergency
room, things had gotten far more serious.
“Your wife is approaching clinical shock,” a nurse said. Jai
was so scared. I saw that on her face. How was I? Also scared,
but I was trying to remain calm so I could assess the situation.
I looked around me. It was 9 p.m. on New Year’s Eve.
Surely, any doctor or nurse on the hospital’s seniority list
had gotten off for the night. I had to assume this was the B
team. Would they be up to the job of saving my child and
my wife?
It did not take long, however, for these doctors and nurses
to impress me. If they were the B team, they were awfully
good. They took over with a wonderful mix of hurry and
calm. They didn’t seem panicked. They carried themselves
like they knew how to efficiently do what had to be done,
moment by moment. And they said all the right things.
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As Jai was being rushed into surgery for an emergency
C-section, she said to the doctor, “This is bad, isn’t it?”
I admired the doctor’s response. It was the perfect answer
for our times: “If we were really in a panic, we wouldn’t have
had you sign all the insurance forms, would we?” she said to
Jai. “We wouldn’t have taken the time.” The doctor had a
point. I wondered how often she used her “hospital paperwork” riff to ease patients’ anxieties.
Whatever the case, her words helped. And then the anesthesiologist took me aside.
“Look, you’re going to have a job tonight,” he said, “and
you’re the only person who can do it. Your wife is halfway to
clinical shock. If she goes into shock, we can treat her. But it
won’t be easy for us. So you have to help her remain calm.
We want you to keep her with us.”
So often, everyone pretends that husbands have an actual
role when babies are born. “Breathe, honey. Good. Keep breathing. Good.” My dad always found that coaching culture amusing, since he was out having cheeseburgers when his first child
was born. But now I was being given a real job. The anesthesiologist was straightforward, but I sensed the intensity of his request. “I don’t know what you should say to her or how you
should say it,” he told me. “I’ll trust you to figure that out. Just
keep her off the ledge when she gets scared.”
They began the C-section and I held Jai’s hand as tightly
as I could. I was able to see what was going on and she
couldn’t. I decided I would calmly tell her everything that
was happening. I’d give her the truth.
A New Year’s Story 9 1
Her lips were blue. She was shaking. I was rubbing her
head, then holding her hand with both of mine, trying to describe the surgery in a way that was direct yet reassuring. For
her part, Jai tried desperately to remain with us, to stay calm
and conscious.
“I see a baby,” I said. “There’s a baby coming.”
Through tears, she couldn’t ask the hardest question. But
I had the answer. “He’s moving.”
And then the baby, our first child, Dylan, let out a wail
like you’ve never heard before. Just bloody murder. The
nurses smiled. “That’s great,” someone said. The preemies
who come out limp often have the most trouble. But the
ones who come out all pissed off and full of noise, they’re
the fighters. They’re the ones who thrive.
Dylan weighed two pounds, fifteen ounces. His head was
about the size of a baseball. But the good news was that he
was breathing well on his own.
Jai was overcome with emotion and relief. In her smile, I
saw her blue lips fading back toward normal. I was so proud
of her. Her courage amazed me. Had I kept her from going
into shock? I don’t know. But I had tried to say and do and
feel everything possible to keep her with us. I had tried not to
panic. Maybe it had helped.
Dylan was sent to the neonatal intensive care unit. I came
to recognize that parents with babies there needed very specific reassurances from doctors and nurses. At Magee, they
did a wonderful job of simultaneously communicating two
dissonant things. In so many words, they told parents that
9 2 the last lecture
1) Your child is special and we understand that his medical
needs are unique, and 2) Don’t worry, we’ve had a million babies like yours come through here.
Dylan never needed a respirator, but day after day, we still
felt this intense fear that he could take a downward turn. It
just felt too early to fully celebrate our new three-person family. When Jai and I drove to the hospital each day, there was
an unspoken thought in both our heads: “Will our baby be
alive when we get there?”
One day, we arrived at the hospital and Dylan’s bassinette
was gone. Jai almost collapsed from emotion. My heart was
pounding. I grabbed the nearest nurse, literally by the lapels,
and I couldn’t even pull together complete sentences. I was
gasping out fear in staccato.
“Baby. Last name Pausch. Where?”
In that moment, I felt drained in a way I can’t quite explain. I feared I was about to enter a dark place I’d never been
invited to before.
But the nurse just smiled. “Oh, your baby is doing so well
that we moved him upstairs to an open-air bassinette,” she
said. He’d been in a so-called “closed-air bassinette,” which is
a more benign description of an incubator.
In relief, we raced up the stairs to the other ward, and
there was Dylan, screaming his way into his childhood.
Dylan’s birth was a reminder to me of the roles we get to
play in our destinies. Jai and I could have made things worse
by falling into pieces. She could have gotten so hysterical that
A New Year’s Story 9 3
she’d thrown herself into shock. I could have been so stricken
that I’d have been no help in the operating room.
Through the whole ordeal, I don’t think we ever said to
each other: “This isn’t fair.” We just kept going. We recognized that there were things we could do that might help the
outcome in positive ways . . . and we did them. Without saying it in words, our attitude was, “Let’s saddle up and ride.”
“In Fifty Years, It Never Came Up”
After my father passed away in 2006, we went through
his things. He was always so full of life and his belongings spoke of his adventures. I found photos of him as a
young man playing an accordion, as a middle-aged man dressed
in a Santa suit (he loved playing Santa), and as an older man,
clutching a stuffed bear bigger than he was. In another photo,
taken on his eightieth birthday, he was riding a roller coaster
with a bunch of twentysomethings, and he had this great grin
on his face.
In my dad’s things, I came upon mysteries that made me
smile. My dad had a photo of himself—it looks like it was
taken in the early 1960s—and he was in a jacket and tie, in a
grocery store. In one hand, he held up a small brown paper
bag. I’ll never know what was in that bag, but knowing my
father, it had to be something cool.
After work, he’d sometimes bring home a small toy or a
piece of candy, and he’d present them with a flourish, building a bit of drama. His delivery was more fun than whatever
“In Fifty Years, It Never Came Up” 9 5
he had for us. That’s what that bag photo brought to my
My dad had also saved a stack of papers. There were letters regarding his insurance business and documents about
his charitable projects. Then, buried in the stack, we found a
My father, in uniform.
9 6 the last lecture
citation issued in 1945, when my father was in the army. The
citation for “heroic achievement” came from the commanding general of the 75th Infantry Division.
On April 11, 1945, my father’s infantry company was attacked by German forces, and in the early stages of battle,
heavy artillery fire led to eight casualties. According to the citation: “With complete disregard for his own safety, Private
Pausch leaped from a covered position and commenced treating the wounded men while shells continued to fall in the immediate vicinity. So successfully did this soldier administer
medical attention that all the wounded were evacuated successfully.”
In recognition of this, my dad, then twenty-two years old,
was issued the Bronze Star for valor.
In the fifty years my parents were married, in the thousands of conversations my dad had with me, it had just never
come up. And so there I was, weeks after his death, getting
another lesson from him about the meaning of sacrifice—and
about the power of humility.
’ve asked Jai what she has learned since my diagnosis.
Turns out, she could write a book titled Forget the Last Lecture; Here’s the Real Story.
She’s a strong woman, my wife. I admire her directness,
her honesty, her willingness to tell it to me straight. Even
now, with just months to go, we try to interact with each
other as if everything is normal and our marriage has decades
to go. We discuss, we get frustrated, we get mad, we make up.
Jai says she’s still figuring out how to deal with me, but
she’s making headway.
“You’re always the scientist, Randy,” she says. “You want
science? I’ll give you science.” She used to tell me she had “a gut
feeling” about something. Now, instead, she brings me data.
For instance, we were going to visit my side of the family
over this past Christmas, but they all had the flu. Jai didn’t
want to expose me or our kids to the chance of infection. I
thought we should take the trip. After all, I won’t have many
more opportunities to see my family.
9 8 the last lecture
“We’ll all keep our distance,” I said. “We’ll be fine.”
Jai knew she’d need data. She called a friend who is a
nurse. She called two doctors who lived up the street. She got
their medical opinions. They said it wouldn’t be smart to take
the kids. “I’ve got unbiased third-party medical authorities,
Randy,” she said. “Here’s their input.” Presented with the
data, I relented. I went for a quick trip to see my family and
Jai stayed home with the kids. (I didn’t get the flu.)
I know what you’re thinking. Scientists like me probably
aren’t always easy to live with.
Jai handles me by being frank. When I’ve gone off course,
she lets me know. Or she gives me a warning: “Something is
bugging me. I don’t know what it is. When I figure it out, I’ll
tell you.”
At the same time, given my prognosis, Jai says she’s learning to let some of the little stuff slide. That’s a suggestion from
our counselor. Dr. Reiss has a gift for helping people recalibrate their home lives when one spouse has a terminal illness.
Marriages like ours have to find their way to “a new normal.”
I’m a spreader. My clothes, clean and dirty, are spread
around the bedroom, and my bathroom sink is cluttered. It
drives Jai crazy. Before I got sick, she’d say something. But
Dr. Reiss has advised her not to let small things trip us up.
Obviously, I ought to be neater. I owe Jai many apologies.
But she has stopped telling me about the minor stuff that
bugs her. Do we really want to spend our last months together arguing that I haven’t hung up my khakis? We do not.
So now Jai kicks my clothes into a corner and moves on.
Jai 9 9
A friend of ours suggested that Jai keep a daily journal,
and Jai says it helps. She writes in there the things that get on
her nerves about me. “Randy didn’t put his plate in the dishwasher tonight,” she wrote one night. “He just left it there on
the table, and went to his computer.” She knew I was preoccupied, heading to the Internet to research possible medical
treatments. Still, the dish on the table bothered her. I can’t
blame her. So she wrote about it, felt better, and again we didn’t
have to get into an argument.
Jai tries to focus on each day, rather than the negative
things down the road. “It’s not helpful if we spend every day
dreading tomorrow,” she says.
This last New Year’s Eve, though, was very emotional and
bittersweet in our house. It was Dylan’s sixth birthday, so
there was a celebration. We also were grateful that I had
made it to the new year. But we couldn’t bring ourselves to
discuss the elephant in the room: the future New Year’s Eves
without me.
I took Dylan to see a movie that day, Mr. Magorium’s
Wonder Emporium, about a toymaker. I had read an online
description of the film, but it didn’t mention that Mr. Magorium had decided it was time to die and hand over the shop
to an apprentice. So there I was in the theater, with Dylan on
my lap, and he was crying about how Mr. Magorium was dying. (Dylan doesn’t yet know my prognosis.) If my life were a
movie, this scene of me and Dylan would get slammed by
critics for over-the-top foreshadowing. There was one line
in the film, however, that remains with me. The apprentice
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(Natalie Portman) tells the toymaker (Dustin Hoffman) that he
can’t die; he has to live. And he responds: “I already did that.”
Later that night, as the new year approached, Jai could tell
I was depressed. To cheer me up, she reviewed the past year
and pointed out some of the wonderful things that had happened. We had gone on romantic vacations, just the two of
us, that we wouldn’t have taken if cancer hadn’t offered a reminder about the preciousness of time. We had watched the
kids grow into their own; our house was really filled with a
beautiful energy and a great deal of love.
Jai vowed she’d continue to be there for me and the kids.
“I have four very good reasons to suck it up and keep going.
And I will,” she promised.
Jai also told me that one of the best parts of her day is
watching me interact with the kids. She says my face lights up
when Chloe talks to me. (Chloe is eighteen months old and is
already talking in four-word sentences.)
At Christmas, I had made an adventure out of putting the
lights on the tree. Rather than showing Dylan and Logan the
proper way to do it—carefully and meticulously—I just let
them have at it haphazardly. However they wanted to throw
those lights on the tree was fine by me. We got video of the
whole chaotic scene, and Jai says it was a “magical moment”
that will be one of her favorite memories of our family together.

Jai has gone on Web sites for cancer patients and their families. She finds useful information there, but she can’t stay on
Jai 101
too long. “So many of the entries begin: ‘Bob’s fight is over.’
‘Jim’s fight is over.’ I don’t think it’s helpful to keep reading
all of that,” she says.
However, one entry she came upon moved her into action.
It was written by a woman whose husband had pancreatic
cancer. They planned to take a family vacation but postponed
it. He died before they could reschedule. “Go on those trips
you’ve always wanted to take,” the woman advised other caregivers. “Live in the moment.” Jai vows to keep doing just that.
Jai has gotten to know people locally who are also caregivers of spouses with terminal illnesses, and she finds it helpful to talk to them. If she needs to complain about me, or to
vent about the pressure she’s under, these conversations have
been a good outlet for her.
At the same time, she tries to focus on our happiest times.
When I was courting her, I sent her flowers once a week. I
hung stuffed animals in her office. I went overboard, and—
when I wasn’t scaring her off—she enjoyed it! Lately, she
says, she’d been pulling up her memories of Randy the Romantic, and that makes her smile and helps her get through
her down moments.
Jai, by the way, has lived out a good number of her childhood dreams. She wanted to own a horse. (That never happened, but she has done a lot of riding.) She wanted to go to
France. (That happened; she lived in France one summer in
college.) And most of all, she dreamed as a girl of having children of her own someday.
I wish I had more time to help her realize other dreams.
102 the last lecture
But the kids are a spectacular dream fulfilled, and there’s
great solace in that for both of us.
When Jai and I talk about the lessons she has learned from
our journey, she talks about how we’ve found strength in
standing together, shoulder to shoulder. She says she’s grateful that we can talk, heart to heart. And then she tells me
about how my clothes are all over the room and it’s very annoying, but she’s giving me a pass, all things considered. I
know: Before she starts scribbling in her journal, I owe it to
her to straighten up my mess. I’ll try harder. It’s one of my
New Year’s resolutions.
The Truth Can Set You Free
I recently got pulled over for speeding not far from my
new home in Virginia. I hadn’t been paying attention, and
I had drifted a few miles an hour over the speed limit.
“Can I see your license and registration?” the police officer
asked me. I pulled both out for him, and he saw my Pittsburgh address on my Pennsylvania driver’s license.
“What are you doing here?” he asked. “You with the military?”
“No, I’m not,” I said. I explained that I had just moved to
Virginia, and I hadn’t had time to re-register yet.
“So what brings you here?”
He had asked a direct question. Without thinking very
hard, I gave him a direct answer. “Well, officer,” I said, “since
you’ve asked, I have terminal cancer. I have just months to
live. We’ve moved down here to be close to my wife’s family.”
The officer cocked his head and squinted at me. “So
you’ve got cancer,” he said flatly. He was trying to figure me
out. Was I really dying? Was I lying? He took a long look at
104 the last lecture
me. “You know, for a guy who has only a few months to live,
you sure look good.”
He was obviously thinking: “Either this guy is pulling one
big fat line on me, or he’s telling the truth. And I have no way
of knowing.” This wasn’t an easy encounter for him because
he was trying to do the near-impossible. He was trying to
question my integrity without directly calling me a liar. And
so he had forced me to prove that I was being honest. How
would I do that?
“Well, officer, I know that I look pretty healthy. It’s really
ironic. I look great on the outside, but the tumors are on the
inside.” And then, I don’t know what possessed me, but I just
did it. I pulled up my shirt, revealing the surgical scars.
The cop looked at my scars. He looked in my eyes. I could
see on his face: He now knew he was talking to a dying man.
And if by some chance I was the most brazen con man he’d
ever stopped, well, he wasn’t taking this any further. He
handed me back my license. “Do me a favor,” he said. “Slow
down from now on.”

The awful truth had set me free. As he trotted back to his
police car, I had a realization. I have never been one of those
gorgeous blondes who could bat her eyelashes and get out of
tickets. I drove home under the speed limit, and I was smiling
like a beauty queen.

I’m on My Honeymoon,
But If You Need Me . . .
ai sent me out to buy a few groceries the other day. After
I found everything on the list, I figured I’d get out of the
store faster if I used the self-scan aisle. I slid my credit card
into the machine, followed the directions, and scanned my
groceries myself. The machine chirped, beeped and said I
owed $16.55, but issued no receipt. So I swiped my credit card
again and started over.
Soon, two receipts popped out. The machine had charged
me twice.
At that point, I had a decision to make. I could have
tracked down the manager, who would have listened to my
story, filled out some form, and taken my credit card to his
register to remove one of the $16.55 charges. The whole tedious ordeal could have stretched to ten or even fifteen minutes. It would have been zero fun for me.
Given my short road ahead, did I want to spend those precious minutes getting that refund? I did not. Could I afford
108 the last lecture
to pay the extra $16.55? I could. So I left the store, happier to
have fifteen minutes than sixteen dollars.
All my life, I’ve been very aware that time is finite. I admit
I’m overly logical about a lot of things, but I firmly believe
that one of my most appropriate fixations has been to manage time well. I’ve railed about time management to my students. I’ve given lectures on it. And because I’ve gotten so
good at it, I really do feel I was able to pack a whole lot of life
into the shortened lifespan I’ve been handed.
Here’s what I know:
Time must be explicitly managed, like money. My students would sometimes roll their eyes at what they called
“Pauschisms,” but I stand by them. Urging students not to
invest time on irrelevant details, I’d tell them: “It doesn’t
matter how well you polish the underside of the banister.”
You can always change your plan, but only if you have
one. I’m a big believer in to-do lists. It helps us break life into
small steps. I once put “get tenure” on my to-do list. That
was naïve. The most useful to-do list breaks tasks into small
steps. It’s like when I encourage Logan to clean his room by
picking up one thing at a time.
Ask yourself: Are you spending your time on the right
things? You may have causes, goals, interests. Are they even
worth pursuing? I’ve long held on to a clipping from a newspaper in Roanoke, Virginia. It featured a photo of a pregnant
woman who had lodged a protest against a local construction
site. She worried that the sound of jackhammers was injuring
her unborn child. But get this: In the photo, the woman is

I’m on My Honeymoon, But If You Need Me . . . 109
holding a cigarette. If she cared about her unborn child, the
time she spent railing against jackhammers would have been
better spent putting out that cigarette.
Develop a good filing system. When I told Jai I wanted
to have a place in the house where we could file everything in
alphabetical order, she said I sounded way too compulsive for
her tastes. I told her: “Filing in alphabetical order is better
than running around and saying, ‘I know it was blue and I
know I was eating something when I had it.’ ”
Rethink the telephone. I live in a culture where I spend a
lot of time on hold, listening to “Your call is very important
to us.” Yeah, right. That’s like a guy slapping a girl in the face
on a first date and saying, “I actually do love you.” Yet that’s
how modern customer service works. And I reject that. I
make sure I am never on hold with a phone against my ear. I
always use a speaker phone, so my hands are free to do something else.
I’ve also collected techniques for keeping unnecessary calls
shorter. If I’m sitting while on the phone, I never put my feet
up. In fact, it’s better to stand when you’re on the phone.
You’re more apt to speed things along. I also like to have
something in view on my desk that I want to do, so I have the
urge to wrap things up with the caller.
Over the years, I’ve picked up other phone tips. Want to
quickly dispatch telemarketers? Hang up while you’re doing
the talking and they’re listening. They’ll assume your connection went bad and they’ll move on to their next call. Want to
have a short phone call with someone? Call them at 11:55 a.m.,
110 the last lecture
right before lunch. They’ll talk fast. You may think you are
interesting, but you are not more interesting than lunch.
Delegate. As a professor, I learned early on that I could
trust bright, nineteen-year-old students with the keys to my
kingdom, and most of the time, they were responsible and impressive. It’s never too early to delegate. My daughter, Chloe, is
just eighteen months old, but two of my favorite photos are of
her in my arms. In the first, I’m giving her a bottle. In the second, I’ve delegated the task to her. She looks satisfied. Me, too.
Take a time out. It’s not a real vacation if you’re reading
email or calling in for messages. When Jai and I went on our
honeymoon, we wanted to be left alone. My boss, however,
felt I needed to provide a way for people to contact me. So I
came up with the perfect phone message:
“Hi, this is Randy. I waited until I was thirty-nine to get
married, so my wife and I are going away for a month. I hope
I’m on My Honeymoon, But If You Need Me . . . 111
you don’t have a problem with that, but my boss does. Apparently, I have to be reachable.” I then gave the names of
Jai’s parents and the city where they live. “If you call directory
assistance, you can get their number. And then, if you can
convince my new in-laws that your emergency merits interrupting their only daughter’s honeymoon, they have our
We didn’t get any calls.
Some of my time management tips are dead-on serious
and some are a bit tongue-in-cheek. But I believe all of them
are worth considering.
Time is all you have. And you may find one day that you
have less than you think.
A Recovering Jerk
t is an accepted cliché in education that the number one
goal of teachers should be to help students learn how to
I always saw the value in that, sure. But in my mind, a better number one goal was this: I wanted to help students learn
how to judge themselves.
Did they recognize their true abilities? Did they have a
sense of their own flaws? Were they realistic about how others
viewed them?
In the end, educators best serve students by helping them
be more self-reflective. The only way any of us can
improve—as Coach Graham taught me—is if we develop a
real ability to assess ourselves. If we can’t accurately do that,
how can we tell if we’re getting better or worse?
Some old-school types complain these days that higher education too often feels like it is all about customer service.
Students and their parents believe they are paying top dollar
for a product, and so they want it to be valuable in a measur-
A Recovering Jerk 113
able way. It’s as if they’ve walked into a department store, and
instead of buying five pairs of designer jeans, they’ve purchased a five-subject course-load.
I don’t fully reject the customer-service model, but I think
it’s important to use the right industry metaphor. It’s not retail. Instead, I’d compare college tuition to paying for a personal trainer at an athletic club. We professors play the roles
of trainers, giving people access to the equipment (books,
labs, our expertise) and after that, it is our job to be demanding. We need to make sure that our students are exerting
themselves. We need to praise them when they deserve it and
to tell them honestly when they have it in them to work
Most importantly, we need to let them know how to judge
for themselves how they’re coming along. The great thing
about working out at a gym is that if you put in effort, you
get very obvious results. The same should be true of college.
A professor’s job is to teach students how to see their minds
growing in the same way they can see their muscles grow
when they look in a mirror.
To that end, I’ve tried hard to come up with mechanical
ways to get people to listen to feedback. I was constantly
helping my students develop their own feedback loops. It was
not easy. Getting people to welcome feedback was the hardest
thing I ever had to do as an educator. (It hasn’t been easy in
my personal life, either.) It saddens me that so many parents
and educators have given up on this. When they talk of
building self-esteem, they often resort to empty flattery
114 the last lecture
rather than character-building honesty. I’ve heard so many
people talk of a downward spiral in our educational system,
and I think one key factor is that there is too much stroking
and too little real feedback.
When I taught the “Building Virtual Worlds” class at
Carnegie Mellon, we’d do peer feedback every two weeks.
This was a completely collaborative class, with the students
working in four-person teams on virtual-reality computer
projects. They were dependent on each other, and their
grades reflected it.
We would take all of the peer feedback and put together a
spreadsheet. At the end of the semester, after each student
had worked on five projects, with three different teammates
on each, everyone would have fifteen data points. That was a
pragmatic, statistically valid way to look at themselves.
I would create multicolored bar charts in which a student
could see a ranking on simple measures such as:
1) Did his peers think he was working hard? Exactly how
many hours did his peers think he had devoted to a
2) How creative was his contribution?
3) Did his peers find it easy or hard to work with him?
Was he a team player?
As I always pointed out, especially for No. 3, what your
peers think is, by definition, an accurate assessment of how
easy you are to work with.
A Recovering Jerk 115
The multicolored bar charts were very specific. All the students knew where they stood relative to their forty-nine peers.
The bar charts were coupled with more free-form peer
feedback, which was essentially specific suggestions for improvement, such as “Let other people finish their sentences
when they’re talking.”
My hope was that more than a few students would see this
information and say, “Wow, I’ve got to take it up a notch.” It
was hard feedback to ignore, but some still managed.
For one course I taught, I’d had students assess each other
in the same way, but only let them know the quartile in which
they ranked. I remember a conversation I had with one student whom others found particularly obnoxious. He was
smart, but his healthy sense of himself left him clueless about
how he was coming off. He saw the data ranking him in the
bottom quartile and remained unfazed.
116 the last lecture
He figured that if he was ranked in the bottom 25 percent,
he must have been at the 24 percent or 25 percent level (rather
than, say, in the bottom 5 percent). So in his mind, that
meant he was almost in the next higher quartile. So he saw
himself as “not so far from 50 percent,” which meant peers
thought he was just fine.
“I’m so glad we had this chat,” I told him, “because I
think it’s important that I give you some specific information.
You are not just in the bottom 25 percent. Out of fifty students in the class, your peers ranked you dead last. You are
number fifty. You have a serious issue. They say you’re not listening. You’re hard to get along with. It’s not going well.”
The student was shocked. (They’re always shocked.) He
had had all of these rationalizations, and now here I was, giving him hard data.
And then I told him the truth about myself.
“I used to be just like you,” I said. “I was in denial. But I
had a professor who showed he cared about me by smacking
the truth into my head. And here’s what makes me special: I
This student’s eyes widened. “I admit it,” I told him. “I’m
a recovering jerk. And that gives me the moral authority to
tell you that you can be a recovering jerk, too.”
For the rest of the semester, this student kept himself in
check. He improved. I’d done him a favor, just as Andy van
Dam had done for me years before.
Training a Jedi
t’s a thrill to fulfill your own childhood dreams, but as you
get older, you may find that enabling the dreams of others
is even more fun.
When I was teaching at the University of Virginia in 1993,
a twenty-two-year-old artist-turned-computer-graphics-wiz
named Tommy Burnett wanted a job on my research team.
After we talked about his life and goals, he suddenly said,
“Oh, and I have always had this childhood dream.”
Anyone who uses “childhood” and “dream” in the same
sentence usually gets my attention.
“And what is your dream, Tommy?” I asked.
“I want to work on the next Star Wars film,” he said.
Remember, this was in 1993. The last Star Wars movie had
been made in 1983, and there were no concrete plans to make
any more. I explained this. “That’s a tough dream to have because it’ll be hard to see it through,” I told him. “Word is that
they’re finished making Star Wars films.”
118 the last lecture
“No,” he said, “they’re going to make more, and when
they do, I’m going to work on them. That’s my plan.”
Tommy was six years old when the first Star Wars came
out in 1977. “Other kids wanted to be Han Solo,” he told me.
“Not me. I wanted to be the guy who made the special
effects—the space ships, the planets, the robots.”
He told me that as a boy, he read the most technical Star
Wars articles he could find. He had all the books that explained how the models were built, and how the special effects were achieved.
As Tommy spoke, I had a flashback to my childhood visit
to Disneyland, and how I had this visceral urge to grow up
and create those kinds of rides. I figured Tommy’s big dream
would never happen, but it might serve him well somehow. I
could use a dreamer like that. I knew from my NFL desires
that even if he didn’t achieve his, they could serve him well,
so I asked him to join our research team.
Tommy will tell you I was a pretty tough boss. As he now
recalls it, I rode him hard and had very high expectations, but
he also knew I had his best interests at heart. He compares me
to a demanding football coach. (I guess I was channeling
Coach Graham.) Tommy also says that he learned not just
about virtual reality programming from me, but also about
how work colleagues need to be like a family of sorts. He remembers me telling him: “I know you’re smart. But everyone
here is smart. Smart isn’t enough. The kind of people I want
on my research team are those who will help everyone else
feel happy to be here.”
Training a Jedi 119
Tommy turned out to be just that kind of team player.
After I got tenure, I brought Tommy and others on my research team down to Disney World as a way of saying thanks.
When I moved on to Carnegie Mellon, every member of
my team from the University of Virginia came with me—
everyone except Tommy. He couldn’t make the move. Why?
Because he had been hired by producer/director George Lucas’s company, Industrial Light & Magic. And it’s worth noting that they didn’t hire him for his dream; they hired him
for his skills. In his time with our research group, he had become an outstanding programmer in the Python language,
which as luck would have it, was the language of choice in
their shop. Luck is indeed where preparation meets opportunity.
It’s not hard to guess where this story is going. Three new
Star Wars films would be made—in 1999, 2002, and 2005—
and Tommy would end up working on all of them.
On Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones, Tommy was
a lead technical director. There was an incredible fifteenminute battle scene on a rocky red planet, pitting clones
against droids, and Tommy was the guy who planned it all
out. He and his team used photos of the Utah desert to create
a virtual landscape for the battle. Talk about cool jobs.
Tommy had one that let him spend each day on another
A few years later, he was gracious enough to welcome me
and my students on a visit to Industrial Light & Magic. My
colleague Don Marinelli had started an awesome tradition of
120 the last lecture
taking students on a trip out west every year, so they could
check out entertainment and high-tech companies that might
give them a start in the world of computer graphics. By then,
a guy like Tommy was a god to these students. He was living
their dreams.
Tommy sat on a panel with three other former students of
mine, and my current students asked questions. This particular bunch of current students was still unsure what to make
of me. I’d been my usual self—a tough teacher with high expectations and some quirky ways—and they weren’t at the
point where they appreciated that. I’m a bit of an acquired
taste in that sense, and after only one semester, some were still
noticeably wary of me.
The discussion turned to how hard it was to get a first
break in the movie business, and someone wanted to know
about the role of luck. Tommy volunteered to answer that
question. “It does take a lot of luck,” he said. “But all of you
are already lucky. Getting to work with Randy and learn from
him, that’s some kind of luck right there. I wouldn’t be here
if not for Randy.”
I’m a guy who has floated in zero gravity. But I was floating
even higher that day. I was incredibly appreciative that Tommy
felt I helped enable his dreams. But what made it really special
was that he was returning the favor by enabling the dreams of
my current students (and helping me in the process). That moment turned out to be a turning point in my relationship with
that class. Because Tommy was passing it on.
They Just Blew Me Away
People who know me say I’m an efficiency freak. Obviously, they have me pegged. I’d always rather be doing two
useful things at once, or better yet, three. That’s why, as my
teaching career progressed, I started to ponder this question:
If I could help individual students, one on one, as they
worked toward achieving their childhood dreams, was there
was a way to do it on a larger scale?
I found that larger scale after I arrived at Carnegie Mellon
in 1997 as an associate professor of computer science. My specialty was “human-computer interaction,” and I created a
course called “Building Virtual Worlds,” or BVW for short.
The premise was not so far removed from the Mickey
Rooney/Judy Garland idea of “Let’s put on a show,” only it
was updated for the age of computer graphics, 3-D animation
and the construction of what we called “immersive (helmetbased) interactive virtual reality worlds.”
I opened the course to fifty undergraduates from all different departments of the university. We had actors, English
122 the last lecture
majors and sculptors mixed with engineers, math majors and
computer geeks. These were students whose paths might
never have had reason to cross, given how autonomous the
various disciplines at Carnegie Mellon could be. But we
made these kids unlikely partners with each other, forcing
them to do together what they couldn’t do alone.
There were four people per team, randomly chosen, and
they remained together for projects that lasted two weeks. I’d
just tell them: “Build a virtual world.” And so they’d program
something, dream up something, show everyone else, and
then I’d reshuffle the teams, and they’d get three new playmates and start again.
I had just two rules for their virtual reality worlds: No
shooting violence and no pornography. I issued that decree
mostly because those things have been done in computer
games only about a zillion times, and I was looking for original thinking.
You’d be amazed at how many nineteen-year-old boys are
completely out of ideas when you take sex and violence off the
table. And yet, when I asked them to think far beyond the obvious, most of them rose to the challenge. In fact, the first year
I offered the course, the students presented their initial projects
and they just blew me away. Their work was literally beyond
my imagination. I was especially impressed because they were
programming on weak computers by Hollywood’s virtual
reality standards, and they turned out these incredible gems.
I had been a professor for a decade at that point, and when
I started BVW, I didn’t know what to expect. I gave the first
They Just Blew Me Away 123
two-week assignment, and ended up being overwhelmed by
the results. I didn’t know what to do next. I was so at sea that
I called my mentor, Andy van Dam.
“Andy, I just gave my students a two-week assignment and
they came back and did stuff that, had I given them an entire
semester to complete it, I would have given them all A’s.
What do I do?”
Andy thought for a minute and said: “OK. Here’s what
you do. Go back into class tomorrow, look them in the eyes
and say, ‘Guys, that was pretty good, but I know you can do
better.’ ”
His answer left me stupefied. But I followed his advice and
it turned out to be exactly right. He was telling me I obviously didn’t know how high the bar should be, and I’d only
do them a disservice by putting it anywhere.
And the students did keep improving, inspiring me with
their creations. Many projects were just brilliant, ranging
from you-are-there white-water rafting adventures to romantic gondola trips through Venice to rollerskating ninjas. Some
of my students created completely unlikely existential worlds
populated by lovable 3-D creatures they first dreamed about
as kids.
On show-and-tell days, I’d come to class and in the room
would be my fifty students and another fifty people I didn’t
recognize—roommates, friends, parents. I’d never had parents come to class before! And it snowballed from there. We
ended up having such large crowds on presentation days that
we had to move into a large auditorium. It would be standing
124 the last lecture
room only, with more than four hundred people cheering for
their favorite virtual-reality presentations. Carnegie Mellon’s
president, Jared Cohon, once told me that it felt like an Ohio
State pep rally, except it was about academics.
On presentation days, I always knew which projects
would be the best. I could tell by the body language. If students in a particular group were standing close together, I
knew they had bonded, and that the virtual world they created would be something worth seeing.
What I most loved about all of this was that teamwork
was so central to its success. How far could these students go?
I had no idea. Could they fulfill their dreams? The only sure
answer I had for that one was, “In this course, you can’t do it

Was there a way to take what we were doing up a notch?
Drama professor Don Marinelli and I, with the university’s blessing, made this thing out of whole cloth that was
absolutely insane. It was, and is still, called “The Entertainment Technology Center” (, but we liked
to think of it as “the dream-fulfillment factory”: a two-year
master’s degree program in which artists and technologists
came together to work on amusement rides, computer games,
animatronics, and anything else they could dream up.
The sane universities never went near this stuff, but
Carnegie Mellon gave us explicit license to break the mold.
The two of us personified the mix of arts and technology;
right brain/left brain, drama guy/computer guy. Given how
They Just Blew Me Away 125
different Don and I were, at times we became each other’s
brick walls. But we always managed to find a way to make
things work. The result was that students often got the best
of our divergent approaches (and they certainly got role models on how to work with people different from themselves).
The mix of freedom and teamwork made the feeling in the
building absolutely electric. Companies rapidly found out
about us, and were actually offering written three-year commitments to hire our students, which meant they were promising to hire people we hadn’t even admitted yet.
Don did 70 percent of the work on the ETC and deserves
more than 70 percent of the credit. He has also created a
satellite campus in Australia, with plans for other campuses in
Korea and Singapore. Hundreds of students I’ll never know,
all over the world, will be able to fulfill their craziest childhood dreams. That feels great.
The Promised Land
Enabling the dreams of others can be done on several
different scales. You can do it one on one, the way I
worked with Tommy, the Star Wars dreamer. You can do it
with fifty or a hundred people at a time, the way we did in the
Building Virtual Worlds class or at the ETC. And, if you have
large ambitions and a measure of chutzpah, you can attempt
to do it on a grand scale, trying to enable the dreams of millions of people.
I’d like to think that’s the story of Alice, the Carnegie
Mellon software teaching tool I was lucky enough to help
develop. Alice allows introductory computing students—and
anyone else, young or old—to easily create animations for
telling a story, playing an interactive game or making a video.
It uses 3-D graphics and drag-and-drop techniques to give
users a more engaging, less frustrating first programming
experience. Alice is offered free as a public service by Carnegie
Mellon, and more than a million people have downloaded it.
In the years ahead, usage is expected to soar.
The Promised Land 127
To me, Alice is infinitely scalable. It’s scalable to the point
where I can picture tens of millions of kids using it to chase
their dreams.
From the time we started Alice in the early 1990s, I’ve
loved that it teaches computer programming by use of the
head fake. Remember the head fake? That’s when you teach
somebody something by having them think they’re learning
something else. So students think they’re using Alice to make
movies or create video games. The head fake is that they’re
actually learning how to become computer programmers.
Walt Disney’s dream for Disney World was that it would
never be finished. He wanted it to keep growing and changing
forever. In the same way, I am thrilled that future versions of
Alice now being developed by my colleagues will be even better than what we’ve done in the past. In upcoming iterations,
people will think they’re writing movie scripts, but they’ll actually be learning the Java programming language. And,
thanks to my pal Steve Seabolt at Electronic Arts, we’ve gotten
the OK to use characters from the bestselling personal computer video game in history, “The Sims.” How cool is that?
I know the project is in terrific hands. Alice’s lead designer
is Dennis Cosgrove, who was a student of mine at the University of Virginia. Another former student who became a
colleague is Caitlin Kelleher. She looked at “Alice” in its earliest stages and said to me, “I know this makes programming
easier, but why is it fun?” I replied: “Well, I’m a compulsive
male and I like to make little toy soldiers move around on my
command, and that’s fun.”
128 the last lecture
So Caitlin wondered how Alice could be made just as fun
for girls, and figured storytelling was the secret to getting them
interested. For her PhD dissertation, she built a system called
“Storytelling Alice.”
Now a computer science professor at Washington University in St. Louis, Caitlin (oops, I mean, Dr. Kelleher) is developing new systems that revolutionize how young girls get
their first programming experiences. She demonstrated that
if it is presented as a storytelling activity, girls become perfectly willing to learn how to write software. In fact, they love
it. It’s also worth noting that it in no way turns the boys off.
Everybody loves telling stories. It’s one of the truly universal
things about our species. So in my mind, Caitlin wins the AllTime Best Head-Fake Award.
In my last lecture, I mentioned that I now have a better
understanding of the story of Moses, and how he got to see
the Promised Land but never got to set foot in it. I feel that
way about all the successes ahead for Alice.
I wanted my lecture to be a call to my colleagues and students to go on without me, and to know I have confidence
that they will do great things. (You can keep tabs on their
progress at
Through Alice, millions of kids are going to have incredible fun while learning something hard. They’ll develop skills
that could help them achieve their dreams. If I have to die,
I am comforted by having Alice as a professional legacy.
So it’s OK that I won’t set foot in the Promised Land. It’s
still a wonderful sight.
This section may be called “It’s About
How to Live Your Life,” but it’s really
about how I’ve tried to live mine. I
guess it’s my way of saying: Here’s what
worked for me.
Dream Big
Men first walked on the moon during the summer of
1969, when I was eight years old. I knew then that
pretty much anything was possible. It was as if all of us, all
over the world, had been given permission to dream big
I was at camp that summer, and after the lunar module
landed, all of us were brought to the main farm house, where
a television was set up. The astronauts were taking a long time
getting organized before they could climb down the ladder
and walk on the lunar surface. I understood. They had a lot
of gear, a lot of details to attend to. I was patient.
But the people running the camp kept looking at their
watches. It was already after eleven. Eventually, while smart
decisions were being made on the moon, a dumb one was
made here on Earth. It had gotten too late. All of us kids were
sent back to our tents to go to sleep.
I was completely peeved at the camp directors. The thought
132 the last lecture
in my head was this: “My species has gotten off of our planet
and landed in a new world for the first time, and you people
think bedtime matters?”
But when I got home a few weeks later, I learned that my
dad had taken a photo of our TV set the second Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon. He had preserved the moment
for me, knowing it could help trigger big dreams. We still
have that photo in a scrapbook.
I understand the arguments about how the billions of dollars spent to put men on the moon could have been used to
fight poverty and hunger on Earth. But, look, I’m a scientist
who sees inspiration as the ultimate tool for doing good.
When you use money to fight poverty, it can be of great
value, but too often, you’re working at the margins. When
you’re putting people on the moon, you’re inspiring all of us
The moon landing on our television, courtesy
of my father.
Earnest Is Better Than Hip 133
to achieve the maximum of human potential, which is how
our greatest problems will eventually be solved.
Give yourself permission to dream. Fuel your kids’
dreams, too. Once in a while, that might even mean letting
them stay up past their bedtimes.
Earnest Is Better Than Hip
’ll take an earnest person over a hip person every time,
because hip is short-term. Earnest is long-term.
Earnestness is highly underestimated. It comes from the
core, while hip is trying to impress you with the surface.
“Hip” people love parodies. But there’s no such thing as a
timeless parody, is there? I have more respect for the earnest
guy who does something that can last for generations, and
that hip people feel the need to parody.
When I think of someone who is earnest, I think of a Boy
Scout who works hard and becomes an Eagle Scout. When I
was interviewing people to work for me, and I came upon a
candidate who had been an Eagle Scout, I’d almost always try
to hire him. I knew there had to be an earnestness about him
that outweighed any superficial urges toward hipness.
Think about it. Becoming an Eagle Scout is just about the
only thing you can put on your resume at age fifty that you
134 the last lecture
My wardrobe hasn’t changed.
did at age fourteen—and it still impresses. (Despite my efforts
at earnestness, I never did make it to Eagle Scout.)
Fashion, by the way, is commerce masquerading as hip.
I’m not at all interested in fashion, which is why I rarely buy
new clothes. The fact that fashion goes out of fashion and
then comes back into fashion based solely on what a few
people somewhere think they can sell, well to me, that’s insanity.
My parents taught me: You buy new clothes when your
old clothes wear out. Anyone who saw what I wore to my last
lecture knows this is advice I live by!
My wardrobe is far from hip. It’s kind of earnest. It’s going to carry me through just fine.
Raising the White Flag
My mother always calls me “Randolph.”
She was raised on a small dairy farm in Virginia during the Depression, wondering if there’d be enough food for
dinner. She picked “Randolph” because it felt like the name
some classy Virginian might have. And that may be why I rejected it and abhorred it. Who wants a name like that?
And yet my mother kept at it. As a teen, I confronted her.
“Do you really believe your right to name me supersedes my
right to have my own identity?”
“Yes, Randolph, I do,” she said.
Well, at least we knew where we stood!
By the time I got to college, I had had enough. She’d send
me mail addressed to “Randolph Pausch.” I’d scrawl “no such
person at this address” on the envelope, and send the letters
back unopened.
In a great act of compromise, my mom began addressing
letters to “R. Pausch.” Those, I’d open. But then, when we’d
talk on the phone, she’d revert back to old form. “Randolph,
did you get our letter?”
Now, all these years later, I’ve given up. I am so appreciative of my mother on so many fronts that if she wants to burden me with an unnecessary “olph” whenever she’s around,
I’m more than happy put up with it. Life’s too short.

Now, all these years later, I’ve given up. I am so appreciative of my mother on so many fronts that if she wants to burden me with an unnecessary “olph” whenever she’s around,
I’m more than happy put up with it. Life’s too short.
136 the last lecture
Mom and me, at the beach.
Somehow, with the passage of time, and the deadlines that
life imposes, surrendering became the right thing to do.
Let’s Make a Deal
When i was in grad school, I developed the habit of tipping back in my chair at the dining-room table. I
would do it whenever I visited my parents’ house, and my
mother would constantly reprimand me. “Randolph, you are
going to break that chair!” she’d say.
I liked leaning back in the chair. It felt comfortable. And
Let’s Make a Deal 137
the chair seemed to handle itself on two legs just fine. So,
meal after meal after meal, I’d lean back and she’d reprimand.
One day, my mother said, “Stop leaning back in that
chair. I’m not going to tell you again!”
Now that sounded like something I could sign up for. So I
suggested we create a contract—a parent/child agreement in
writing. If I broke the chair, I’d have to pay to replace not
just the chair . . . but, as an added inducement, the entire
dining-room set. (Replacing an individual chair on a twentyyear-old set would be impossible.) But, until I actually broke
the chair, no lectures from Mom.
Certainly my mother was right; I was putting stress on the
chair legs. But both of us decided that this agreement was a
way to avoid arguments. I was acknowledging my responsibility in case there was damage. She was in the position of being
able to say “You should always listen to your mother” if one
of the chair legs cracked.
The chair has never broken. And whenever I visit her
house and lean backward, the agreement still stands. There’s
not a cross word. In fact, the whole dynamic has changed. I
won’t say Mom has gone as far as to actually encourage me to
lean back. But I do think she has long had her eye on a new
dining-room set.
Don’t Complain, Just Work Harder
Too many people go through life complaining about
their problems. I’ve always believed that if you took onetenth the energy you put into complaining and applied it to
solving the problem, you’d be surprised by how well things
can work out.
I’ve known some terrific non-complainers in my life. One
was Sandy Blatt, my landlord during graduate school. When
he was a young man, a truck backed into him while he was
unloading boxes into the cellar of a building. He toppled
backwards down the steps and into the cellar. “How far was
the fall?” I asked. His answer was simple: “Far enough.” He
spent the rest of his life as a quadriplegic.
Sandy had been a phenomenal athlete, and at the time of
the accident, he was engaged to be married. He didn’t want
to be a burden to his fiancée so he told her, “You didn’t sign
on for this. I’ll understand if you want to back out. You can
go in peace.” And she did.
I met Sandy when he was in his thirties, and he just wowed
me with his attitude. He had this incredible non-whining aura
about him. He had worked hard and become a licensed marriage counselor. He got married and adopted children. And
when he talked about his medical issues, he did so matter-offactly. He once explained to me that temperature changes were
Treat the Disease, Not the Symptom 139
hard on quadriplegics because they can’t shiver. “Pass me that
blanket, will you, Randy?” he’d say. And that was it.
My favorite non-complainer of all time may be Jackie
Robinson, the first African American to play Major League
Baseball. He endured racism that many young people today
couldn’t even fathom. He knew he had to play better than the
white guys, and he knew he had to work harder. So that’s what
he did. He vowed not to complain, even if fans spit on him.
I used to have a photo of Jackie Robinson hanging in my
office, and it saddened me that so many students couldn’t
identify him, or knew little about him. Many never even noticed the photo. Young people raised on color TV don’t spend
a lot of time looking at black-and-white images.
That’s too bad. There are no better role models than people like Jackie Robinson and Sandy Blatt. The message in
their stories is this: Complaining does not work as a strategy.
We all have finite time and energy. Any time we spend whining is unlikely to help us achieve our goals. And it won’t make
us happier.
Treat the Disease, Not the Symptom
Years ago, I dated a lovely young woman who was a few
thousand dollars in debt. She was completely stressed out
140 the last lecture
about this. Every month, more interest would be added to her
To deal with her stress, she would go every Tuesday night
to a meditation and yoga class. This was her one free night,
and she said it seemed to be helping her. She would breathe
in, imagining that she was finding ways to deal with her
debts. She would breathe out, telling herself that her money
problems would one day be behind her.
It went on like this, Tuesday after Tuesday.
Finally, one day I looked through her finances with her. I
figured out that if she spent four or five months working a
part-time job on Tuesday nights, she could actually pay off all
the money she owed.
I told her I had nothing against yoga or meditation. But I
did think it’s always best to try to treat the disease first. Her
symptoms were stress and anxiety. Her disease was the money
she owed.
“Why don’t you get a job on Tuesday nights and skip yoga
for a while?” I suggested.
This was something of a revelation to her. And she took
my advice. She became a Tuesday-night waitress and soon
enough paid off her debts. After that, she could go back to
yoga and really breathe easier.
Don’t Obsess Over What People Think
’ve found that a substantial fraction of many people’s
days is spent worrying about what others think of them. If
nobody ever worried about what was in other people’s heads,
we’d all be 33 percent more effective in our lives and on our
How did I come up with 33 percent? I’m a scientist. I like
exact numbers, even if I can’t always prove them. So let’s just
run with 33 percent.
I used to tell anyone who worked in my research group:
“You don’t ever have to worry about what I’m thinking.
Good or bad, I’ll let you know what’s in my head.”
That meant when I wasn’t happy about something, I
spoke up, often directly and not always tactfully. But on the
positive side, I was able to reassure people: “If I haven’t said
anything, you have nothing to worry about.”
Students and colleagues came to appreciate that, and they
didn’t waste a lot of time obsessing over “What is Randy
thinking?” Because mostly, what I was thinking was this: I have
people on my team who are 33 percent more effective than
everyone else. That’s what was in my head.
Start By Sitting Together
When i have to work with other people, I try to imagine
us sitting together with a deck of cards. My impulse is
always to put all my cards on the table, face up, and to say to
the group, “OK, what can we collectively make of this hand?”
Being able to work well in a group is a vital and necessary
skill in both the work world and in families. As a way to teach
this, I’d always put my students into teams to work on projects.
Over the years, improving group dynamics became a bit of
an obsession for me. On the first day of each semester, I’d
break my class into about a dozen four-person groups. Then,
on the second day of class, I’d give them a one-page handout
I’d written titled “Tips for Working Successfully in a Group.”
We’d go over it, line by line. Some students found my tips to be
beneath them. They rolled their eyes. They assumed they knew
how to play well with others: They had learned it in kindergarten. They didn’t need my rudimentary little pointers.
But the most self-aware students embraced the advice.
They sensed that I was trying to teach them the fundamentals.
It was a little like Coach Graham coming to practice without a
football. Among my tips:
Meet people properly: It all starts with the introduction.
Exchange contact information. Make sure you can pronounce
everyone’s names.
Start By Sitting Together 143
Find things you have in common: You can almost always
find something in common with another person, and from
there, it’s much easier to address issues where you have differences. Sports cut across boundaries of race and wealth. And if
nothing else, we all have the weather in common.
Try for optimal meeting conditions: Make sure no one is
hungry, cold or tired. Meet over a meal if you can; food softens a meeting. That’s why they “do lunch” in Hollywood.
Let everyone talk: Don’t finish someone’s sentences. And
talking louder or faster doesn’t make your idea any better.
Check egos at the door: When you discuss ideas, label
them and write them down. The label should be descriptive
of the idea, not the originator: “the bridge story” not “Jane’s
Praise each other: Find something nice to say, even if it’s
a stretch. The worst ideas can have silver linings if you look
hard enough.
Phrase alternatives as questions: Instead of “I think we
should do A, not B,” try “What if we did A, instead of B?”
That allows people to offer comments rather than defend one
At the end of my little lesson, I told my students I’d found
a good way to take attendance. “It’s easier for me if I just call
you by group,” I’d say. “Group One raise your hands…
Group Two? . . .”
As I called off each group, hands would go up. “Did anybody notice anything about this?” I’d ask. No one had an
answer. So I’d call off the groups again. “Group One?…
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Group Two? . . . Group Three? . . .” All around the room,
hands shot up again.
Sometimes, you have to resort to cheesy theatrics to break
through to students, especially on issues where they think
they know everything. So here’s what I did:
I kept going with my attendance drill until finally my
voice was raised. “Why on earth are all of you still sitting with
your friends?” I’d ask. “Why aren’t you sitting with the people in your group?”
Some knew my irritation was for effect, but everyone took
me seriously. “I’m going to walk out of this room,” I said, “and
I’ll be back in sixty seconds. When I return, I expect you to be
sitting with your groups! Does everyone understand?” I’d waltz
out and I’d hear the panic in the room, as students gathered up
their book bags and reshuffled themselves into groups.
When I returned, I explained that my tips for working in
groups were not meant to insult their intelligence or maturity.
I just wanted to show them that they had missed something
simple—the fact that they needed to sit with their partners—
and so they could certainly benefit from reviewing the rest of
the basics.
At the next class, and for the rest of the semester, my students (no dummies), always sat with their groups.
Look for the Best in Everybody
This is beautiful advice that I got once from Jon Snoddy,
my hero at Disney Imagineering. I just was so taken with
the way he put it. “If you wait long enough,” he said, “people
will surprise and impress you.”
As he saw things: When you’re frustrated with people,
when they’ve made you angry, it just may be because you
haven’t given them enough time.
Jon warned me that sometimes this took great patience—
even years. “But in the end,” he said, “people will show you
their good side. Almost everybody has a good side. Just keep
waiting. It will come out.”
Watch What They Do, Not What They Say
My daughter is just eighteen months, so I can’t tell her
this now, but when she’s old enough, I want Chloe to
know something a female colleague once told me, which is
good advice for young ladies everywhere. In fact, pound for
pound, it’s the best advice I’ve ever heard.
146 the last lecture
My colleague told me: “It took a long time, but I’ve finally
figured it out. When it comes to men who are romantically
interested in you, it’s really simple. Just ignore everything
they say and only pay attention to what they do.”
That’s it. So here it is, for Chloe.
And as I think about it, some day it could come in pretty
useful for Dylan and Logan, too.
If at First You Don’t Succeed…
… try, try a cliché.
I love clichés. A lot of them, anyway. I have great respect
for the old chestnuts. As I see it, the reason clichés are repeated so often is because they’re so often right on the
Educators shouldn’t be afraid of clichés. You know why?
Because kids don’t know most of them! They’re a new audience, and they’re inspired by clichés. I’ve seen it again and
again in my classroom.
Dance with the one who brung you. That’s a cliché
my parents always told me, and it applies far beyond
prom night. It should be a mantra in the business world, in
academia, and at home. It’s a reminder about loyalty and
If at First You Don’t Succeed… 147
Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity. That comes from Seneca, the Roman philosopher
who was born in 5 B.C. It’ll be worth repeating for another
two thousand years, at least.
Whether you think you can or can’t, you’re right. That
is from my cliché repertoire for incoming students.
Other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, how was the play? I’d
say that to students as a reminder not to focus on little issues,
while ignoring the major ones.
I love a lot of pop culture clichés, too. I don’t mind when
my children watch Superman, not because he’s strong and can
fly, but because he fights for “truth, justice and the American
way.” I love that line.
I love the movie Rocky. I even love the theme music. And
what I liked most about the original Rocky movie was that
Rocky didn’t care if he won the fight that ends the film. He
just didn’t want to get knocked out. That was his goal. During the most painful times of my treatment, Rocky was an inspiration because he reminded me: It’s not how hard you hit.
It’s how hard you get hit . . . and keep moving forward.
Of course, of all the clichés in the world, I love football
clichés the most. Colleagues were used to the sight of me
wandering the halls of Carnegie Mellon tossing a football up
and down in front of me. It helped me think. They’d probably say I thought football metaphors had the same effect. But
some of my students, female and male, had trouble adjusting.
They’d be discussing computer algorithms and I’d be speaking football. “Sorry,” I’d tell them. “But it will be easier for
148 the last lecture
you to learn the basics of football than for me to learn a new
set of life clichés.”
I liked my students to win one for the Gipper, to go out and
execute, to keep the drive alive, to march down the field, to
avoid costly turnovers and to win games in the trenches even if
they were gonna feel it on Monday. My students knew: It’s not
just whether you win or lose, it’s how you play the cliché.
Be the First Penguin
Experience is what you get when you didn’t get what
you wanted.
That’s an expression I learned when I took a sabbatical at
Electronic Arts, the video-game maker. It just stuck with me,
and I’ve ended up repeating it again and again to students.
It’s a phrase worth considering at every brick wall we encounter, and at every disappointment. It’s also a reminder
that failure is not just acceptable, it’s often essential.
When I taught the “Building Virtual Worlds” course, I encouraged students to attempt hard things and to not worry
about failing. I wanted to reward that way of thinking. So at
the end of each semester, I’d present one team of students
with a stuffed animal—a penguin. It was called “The First
Penguin Award” and went to the team that took the biggest
Be the First Penguin 149
gamble in trying new ideas or new technology, while failing
to achieve their stated goals. In essence, it was an award for
“glorious failure,” and it celebrated out-of-the-box thinking
and using imagination in a daring way.
The other students came to understand: “First Penguin”
winners were losers who were definitely going somewhere.
The title of the award came from the notion that when
penguins are about to jump into water that might contain
predators, well, somebody’s got to be the first penguin. I originally called it “The Best Failure Award,” but failure has so
many negative connotations that students couldn’t get past
the word itself.
Over the years, I also made a point of telling my students
that in the entertainment industry, there are countless failed
products. It’s not like building houses, where every house built
can be lived in by someone. A video game can be created and
never make it through research and development. Or else it
comes out and no one wants to play it. Yes, video-game creators
who’ve had successes are greatly valued. But those who’ve had
failures are valued, too—sometimes even more so.
Start-up companies often prefer to hire a chief executive
with a failed start-up in his or her background. The person
who failed often knows how to avoid future failures. The person who knows only success can be more oblivious to all the
Experience is what you get when you didn’t get what you
wanted. And experience is often the most valuable thing you
have to offer.
Get People’s Attention
So many of my students were incredibly smart. I knew
they would get into the working world and create terrific
new software programs, animation projects and entertainment devices. I also knew they had the potential to frustrate
millions of people in the process.
Those of us who are engineers and computer scientists
don’t always think about how to build things so they’re easy
to use. A lot of us are terrible at explaining complex tasks in
simple ways. Ever read the instruction booklet for a VCR?
Then you’ve lived the frustration I’m talking about.
That’s why I wanted to impress upon my students the importance of thinking about the end users of their creations.
How could I make clear to them how important it was not to
create technology that is frustrating? I came up with a surefire attention-getter.
When I taught a “user interface” class at the University of
Virginia, I’d bring in a working VCR on the first day. I would
put it on a desk in the front of the room. I would pull out a
sledgehammer. I would destroy the VCR.
Then I would say: “When we make something hard to
use, people get upset. They become so angry that they want
to destroy it. We don’t want to create things that people will
want to destroy.”
The Lost Art of Thank-You Notes 151
The students would look at me and I could tell they were
shocked, bewildered and slightly amused. It was exciting for
them. They were thinking: “I don’t know who this guy is, but
I’m definitely coming to class tomorrow to check out his next
I sure got their attention. That’s always the first step to
solving an ignored problem. (When I left the University of
Virginia for Carnegie Mellon, my friend and fellow professor
Gabe Robins gave me a sledgehammer with a plaque attached. It read: “So many VCRs, so little time!”)
All of the students from my days at UVa. are in the workforce now. As they go about creating new technologies, I hope
that once in a while I come into their minds, swinging that
sledgehammer, reminding them of the frustrated masses,
yearning for simplicity.
The Lost Art of Thank-You Notes
Showing gratitude is one of the simplest yet most powerful things humans can do for each other. And despite
my love of efficiency, I think that thank-you notes are best
done the old-fashioned way, with pen and paper.
Job interviewers and admissions officers see lots of applicants. They read tons of resumes from “A” students with
152 the last lecture
many accomplishments. But they do not see many handwritten thank-you notes.
If you are a B+ student, your handwritten thank-you note
will raise you at least a half-grade in the eyes of a future boss
or admissions officer. You will become an “A” to them. And
because handwritten notes have gotten so rare, they will remember you.
When I’d give this advice to my students, it was not to
make them into calculating schemers, although I know some
embraced it on those terms. My advice was more about helping them recognize that there are respectful, considerate
things that can be done in life that will be appreciated by the
recipient, and that only good things can result.
For instance, there was a young lady who applied to get into
the ETC and we were about to turn her down. She had big
dreams; she wanted to be a Disney Imagineer. Her grades, her
exams and her portfolio were good, but not quite good enough,
given how selective the ETC could afford to be. Before we put
her into the “no” pile, I decided to page through her file one
more time. As I did, I noticed a handwritten thank-you note
had been slipped between the other pages.
The note hadn’t been sent to me, my co-director Don
Marinelli, or any other faculty member. Instead, she had
mailed it to a non-faculty support staffer who had helped her
with arrangements when she came to visit. This staff member
held no sway over her application, so this was not a suck-up
note. It was just a few words of thanks to somebody who, un-
Loyalty Is a Two-Way Street 153
beknownst to her, happened to toss her note to him into her
application folder. Weeks later, I came upon it.
Having unexpectedly caught her thanking someone just
because it was the nice thing to do, I paused to reflect on this.
She had written her note by hand. I liked that. “This tells me
more than anything else in her file,” I said to Don. I read
through her materials again. I thought about her. Impressed
by her note, I decided she was worth taking a chance on, and
Don agreed.
She came to the ETC, got her master’s degree, and is now
a Disney Imagineer.
I’ve told her this story, and now she tells it to others.
Despite all that is now going on in my life and with my
medical care, I still try to handwrite notes when it’s important
to do so. It’s just the nice thing to do. And you never know
what magic might happen after it arrives in someone’s mailbox.
Loyalty Is a Two-Way Street
When dennis Cosgrove was an undergraduate student
of mine at the University of Virginia in the early
1990s, I found him to be impressive. He was doing terrific
work in my computer lab. He was a teaching assistant in the
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operating systems course. He was taking graduate level
courses. And he was an A student.
Well, in most classes he was an A student. In Calculus III,
he was an F student. It wasn’t that he lacked the ability. He
was just so focused on his computer courses, being a teaching
assistant, and a research assistant in my lab that he simply
stopped going to calculus class.
That turned out to be a serious problem, as it was not the
first time he had a semester in which he earned straight A’s
with an F.
It was two weeks into a new semester when Dennis’s
checkered academic record caught the attention of a certain
dean. He knew how smart Dennis was; he had seen his SAT
and AP scores. In his view, the F’s were all due to attitude, not
aptitude. He wanted to expel Dennis. But I knew Dennis had
never received a single warning about any of this. In fact, all
of his A’s offset his F’s to the point where he couldn’t even be
academically suspended. Yet, the Dean invoked an obscure
rule that left expulsion on the table. I decided to go to bat for
my student. “Look,” I told the dean, “Dennis is a strong
rocket with no fins. He’s been a star in my lab. If we kick him
out right now, we’ll be missing the whole point of what we’re
here for. We’re here to teach, to nurture. I know Dennis is going somewhere special. We can’t just dump him.”
The dean was not happy with me. In his view, I was a
young professor getting pushy.
Then I got even pushier. I went tactical. The new semester
had already begun. The university had cashed Dennis’s tuition
Loyalty Is a Two-Way Street 155
check. By doing so, as I saw it, we were telling him he was welcome to remain as a student. Had we expelled him before the
semester, he could have tried to enroll in another school. Now
it was too late for that.
I asked the dean: “What if he hires a lawyer to argue this?
I might just testify on his behalf. Do you want one of your
faculty members testifying against the university?”
The dean was taken aback. “You’re a junior faculty member,” he said. “You’re not even tenured yet. Why are you
sticking your neck out and making this the battle you want to
“I’ll tell you the reason,” I said. “I want to vouch for Dennis because I believe in him.”
The dean took a long look at me. “I’m going to remember
this when your tenure case comes up,” he said. In other
words, if Dennis screwed up again, my judgment would be
seriously questioned.
“That’s a deal,” I told the dean. And Dennis was able to
stay in school.
He passed Calculus III, did us all proud, and after graduating, went on to become an award-winning star in computer science. He’s been part of my life and my labs ever since. In fact,
he was one of the early fathers of the Alice project. As a designer, he did groundbreaking programming work to help make
the virtual reality system more accessible to young people.
I went to bat for Dennis when he was twenty-one years
old. Now at age thirty-seven, he is going to go to bat for me.
I’ve entrusted him with carrying Alice into the future as the
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research scientist designing and implementing my professional legacy.
I enabled Dennis’s dream way back when he needed it . . .
and now that I need it, he is enabling mine.
The Friday Night Solution
got tenure a year earlier than people usually do. That
seemed to impress other junior faculty members.
“Wow, you got tenure early,” they’d say to me. “What was
your secret?”
I said, “It’s pretty simple. Call me any Friday night in my
office at ten o’clock and I’ll tell you.” (Of course, this was before I had a family.)
A lot of people want a shortcut. I find the best shortcut is
the long way, which is basically two words: work hard.
As I see it, if you work more hours than somebody else, during those hours you learn more about your craft. That can make
you more efficient, more able, even happier. Hard work is like
compounded interest in the bank. The rewards build faster.
The same is true in your life outside of your job. All my
adult life I’ve felt drawn to ask long-married couples how
they were able to stay together. All of them said the same
thing: “We worked hard at it.”
Show Gratitude
Not long after I got tenure at the University of Virginia,
I took my entire fifteen-person research team down to
Disney World for a week as my way of saying thank you.
A fellow professor took me aside and said, “Randy, how
could you do that?” Perhaps he thought I was setting a precedent that other soon-to-be-tenured professors would be unwilling to equal.
“How could I do that?” I answered. “These people just
worked their butts off and got me the best job in the world
for life. How could I not do that?”
So the sixteen of us headed down to Florida in a large van.
We had a complete blast, and I made sure we all got some education with our entertainment, too. Along the way, we
stopped at various universities and visited computer research
The Disney trip was gratitude easily delivered. It was a
tangible gift, and it was perfect because it was an experience I
could share with people I cared about.
Not everyone is so easily thanked, however.
One of my greatest mentors was Andy van Dam, my
computer science professor when I was at Brown. He gave me
wise counsel. He changed my life. I could never adequately
pay him back, so I just have to pay it forward.
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I always liked telling my students: “Go out and do for others what somebody did for you.” Riding down to Disney
World, talking to my students about their dreams and goals, I
was trying my best to do just that.
Send Out Thin Mints
As part of my responsibilities, I used to be an academic
reviewer. That meant I’d have to ask other professors
to read densely written research papers and review them. It
could be tedious, sleep-inducing work. So I came up with an
idea. I’d send a box of Girl Scout Thin Mints with every paper
that needed to be reviewed. “Thank you for agreeing to do
this,” I’d write. “The enclosed Thin Mints are your reward.
But no fair eating them until you review the paper.”
That put a smile on people’s faces. And I never had to call
and nag them. They had the box of Thin Mints on their desks.
They knew what they had to do.
Sure, sometimes I had to send a reminder email. But when
I’d ping people, all I needed was one sentence: “Did you eat
the Thin Mints yet?”
I’ve found Thin Mints are a great communication tool.
They’re also a sweet reward for a job well done.
All You Have Is What You Bring
With You
’ve always felt a need to be prepared for whatever situation I’ve found myself in. When I leave the house, what do
I need to bring? When I teach a class, what questions should
I anticipate? When I’m preparing for my family’s future without me, what documents should I have in place?
My mother recalls taking me to a grocery store when I was
seven years old. She and I got to the checkout counter, and she
realized she’d forgotten a couple of items on her shopping list.
She left me with the cart and she ran off to get what she needed.
“I’ll be right back,” she said.
She was gone just a few minutes, but in that time, I had
loaded all the items on the belt and everything was rung up. I
was left staring at the cashier, who was staring at me. The
cashier decided to make sport of the situation. “Do you have
money for me, son?” she said. “I’ll need to be paid.”
I didn’t realize she was just trying to amuse herself. So I
stood there, mortified and embarrassed.
By the time my mom returned, I was angry. “You left me
here with no money! This lady asked me for the money, and I
had nothing to give her!”
Now that I’m an adult, you’ll never catch me with less
160 the last lecture
than $200 in my wallet. I want to be prepared in case I need
it. Sure, I could lose my wallet or it could be stolen. But for a
guy making a reasonable living, $200 is an amount worth
risking. By contrast, not having cash on hand when you need
it is potentially a much bigger problem.
I’ve always admired people who are over-prepared. In
college, I had a classmate named Norman Meyrowitz. One
day he was giving a presentation on an overhead projector
and in the middle of his talk, the lightbulb on the projector
blew out. There was an audible groan from the audience.
We’d have to wait ten minutes until someone found a new
“It’s okay,” Norm announced. “There’s nothing to worry
We watched him walk over to his knapsack and pull something out. He had brought along a spare bulb for the overhead projector. Who would even think of that?
Our professor, Andy van Dam, happened to be sitting
next to me. He leaned over and said, “This guy is going
places.” He had that right. Norm became a top executive at
Macromedia Inc., where his efforts have affected almost
everyone who uses the Internet today.
Another way to be prepared is to think negatively.
Yes, I’m a great optimist. But when trying to make a decision, I often think of the worst-case scenario. I call it “The
Eaten By Wolves Factor.” If I do something, what’s the most
terrible thing that could happen? Would I be eaten by wolves?
One thing that makes it possible to be an optimist is if
A Bad Apology Is Worse Than No Apology 161
you have a contingency plan for when all hell breaks loose.
There are a lot of things I don’t worry about because I have a
plan in place if they do.
I’ve often told my students: “When you go into the wilderness, the only thing you can count on is what you take with
you.” And essentially, the wilderness is anywhere but your
home or office. So take money. Bring your repair kit. Imagine
the wolves. Pack a lightbulb. Be prepared.
A Bad Apology Is Worse Than No Apology
Apologies are not pass/fail. I always told my students:
When giving an apology, any performance lower than an
A really doesn’t cut it.
Halfhearted or insincere apologies are often worse than
not apologizing at all because recipients find them insulting.
If you’ve done something wrong in your dealings with another person, it’s as if there’s an infection in your relationship. A good apology is like an antibiotic; a bad apology is like
rubbing salt in the wound.
Working in groups was crucial in my classes, and friction
between students was unavoidable. Some students wouldn’t
pull their load. Others were so full of themselves that they’d
belittle their partners. By mid-semester, apologies were always

162 the last lecture
in order. When students wouldn’t do it, everything would
spin out of control. So I’d often give classes my little routine
about apologies.
I’d start by describing the two classic bad apologies:
1) “I’m sorry you feel hurt by what I’ve done.” (This is an
attempt at an emotional salve, but it’s obvious you
don’t want to put any medicine in the wound.)
2) “I apologize for what I did, but you also need to apologize to me for what you’ve done.” (That’s not giving an
apology. That’s asking for one.)
Proper apologies have three parts:
1) What I did was wrong.
2) I feel badly that I hurt you.
3) How do I make this better?
Yes, some people may take advantage of you when answering question three. But most people will be genuinely appreciative of your make-good efforts. They may tell you how to
make it better in some small, easy way. And often, they’ll work
harder to help make things better themselves.
Students would say to me: “What if I apologize and the
other person doesn’t apologize back?” I’d tell them: “That’s
not something you can control, so don’t let it eat at you.”
If other people owe you an apology, and your words of
apology to them are proper and heartfelt, you still may not
Tell the Truth 163
hear from them for a while. After all, what are the odds that
they get to the right emotional place to apologize at the exact
moment you do? So just be patient. Many times in my career,
I saw students apologize, and then several days later, their
teammates came around. Your patience will be both appreciated and rewarded.
Tell the Truth
f i could only give three words of advice, they would be
“tell the truth.” If I got three more words, I’d add: “All the
time.” My parents taught me that “you’re only as good as
your word,” and there’s no better way to say it.
Honesty is not only morally right, it’s also efficient. In a
culture where everyone tells the truth, you can save a lot of
time double-checking. When I taught at the University of
Virginia, I loved the honor code. If a student was sick and
needed a makeup exam, I didn’t need to create a new one.
The student just “pledged” that he hadn’t talked to anybody
about the exam, and I gave the old one.
People lie for lots of reasons, often because it seems like a
way to get what they want with less effort. But like many
short-term strategies, it’s ineffective long-term. You run into
people again later, and they remember you lied to them. And
164 the last lecture
they tell lots of other people about it. That’s what amazes me
about lying. Most people who have told a lie think they got
away with it . . . when in fact, they didn’t.
Get in Touch with Your Crayon Box
People who know me sometimes complain that I see
things in black or white.
In fact, one of my colleagues would tell people: “Go to
Randy if you want black-and-white advice. But if you want
gray advice, he’s not the guy.”
OK. I stand guilty as charged, especially when I was
younger. I used to say that my crayon box had only two colors
in it: black and white. I guess that’s why I love computer science, because most everything is true or false.
As I’ve gotten older, though, I’ve learned to appreciate
that a good crayon box might have more than two colors.
But I still think that if you run your life the right way, you’ll
wear out the black and the white before the more nuanced
In any case, whatever the color, I love crayons.
At my last lecture, I had brought along several hundred of
them. I wanted everyone to get one when they walked into the
lecture hall, but in the confusion, I forgot to have the folks at
The $100,000 Salt and Pepper Shaker 165
the door pass them out. Too bad. My plan was this: As I spoke
about childhood dreams, I’d ask everyone to close their eyes
and rub their crayons in their fingers—to feel the texture, the
paper, the wax. Then I’d have them bring their crayons up to
their noses and take a good long whiff. Smelling a crayon takes
you right back to childhood, doesn’t it?
I once saw a colleague do a similar crayon routine with a
group of people, and it had inspired me. In fact, since then,
I’ve often carried a crayon in my shirt pocket. When I need
to go back in time, I put it under my nose and I take another
I’m partial to the black crayon and the white crayon, but
that’s just me. Any color has the same potency. Breathe it in.
You’ll see.
The $100,000 Salt and Pepper Shaker
When i was twelve years old and my sister was fourteen,
our family went to Disney World in Orlando. Our
parents figured we were just old enough to roam a bit around
the park without being monitored. In those days before cell
phones, Mom and Dad told us to be careful, picked a spot
where we would meet ninety minutes later, and then they let
us take off.
166 the last lecture
Think of the thrill that was! We were in the coolest place
imaginable and we had the freedom to explore it on our own.
We were also extremely grateful to our parents for taking us
there, and for recognizing we were mature enough to be by
ourselves. So we decided to thank them by pooling our allowances and getting them a present.
We went into a store and found what we considered the
perfect gift: a ceramic salt and pepper shaker featuring two
bears hanging off a tree, each one holding a shaker. We paid
ten dollars for the gift, headed out of the store, and skipped
up Main Street in search of the next attraction.
I was holding the gift, and in a horrible instant, it slipped
out of my hands. The thing broke on impact. My sister and I
were both in tears.
An adult guest in the park saw what happened and came
over to us. “Take it back to the store,” she suggested. “I’m
sure they’ll give you a new one.”
“I can’t do that,” I said. “It was my fault. I dropped it.
Why would the store give us another one?”
“Try anyway,” the adult said. “You never know.”
So we went back to the store . . . and we didn’t lie. We explained what happened. The employees in the store listened to
our sad story, smiled at us . . . and told us we could have a new
salt and pepper shaker. They even said it was their fault because they hadn’t wrapped the original salt and pepper shaker
well enough! Their message was, “Our packaging should have
been able to withstand a fall due to a twelve-year-old’s overexcitement.”
The $100,000 Salt and Pepper Shaker 167
I was in shock. Not just gratitude, but disbelief. My sister
and I left the store completely giddy.
When my parents learned of the incident, it really
increased their appreciation of Disney World. In fact, that
one customer-service decision over a ten-dollar salt and
pepper shaker would end up earning Disney more than
Let me explain.
Years later, as a Disney Imagineering consultant, I would
sometimes end up chatting with executives pretty high up the
Disney chain of command, and wherever I could I would tell
them the story of the salt and pepper shaker.
I would explain how the people in that gift shop made my
sister and me feel so good about Disney, and how that led my
parents to appreciate the institution on a whole other level.
My parents made visits to Disney World an integral part
of their volunteer work. They had a twenty-two-passenger
bus they would use to drive English-as-a-second-language
students from Maryland down to see the park. For more than
twenty years, my dad bought tickets for dozens of kids to go
to Disney World. I went on most of those trips.
All in all, since that day, my family has spent more than
$100,000 at Disney World on tickets, food and souvenirs for
ourselves and others.
When I tell this story to today’s Disney executives, I always end it by asking them: “If I sent a child into one of your
stores with a broken salt and pepper shaker today, would your
policies allow your workers to be kind enough to replace it?”
168 the last lecture
The executives squirm at the question. They know the answer: Probably not.
That’s because nowhere in their accounting system are
they able to measure how a ten-dollar salt and pepper shaker
might yield $100,000. And so it’s easy to envision that a child
today would be out of luck, sent out of a store with empty
My message is this: There is more than one way to measure profits and losses. On every level, institutions can and
should have a heart.
My mom still has that $100,000 salt and pepper shaker.
The day the folks at Disney World replaced it was a great day
for us . . . and not a bad one for Disney!
No Job Is Beneath You
t’s been well-documented that there is a growing sense of
entitlement among young people today. I have certainly
seen that in my classrooms.
So many graduating seniors have this notion that they
should be hired because of their creative brilliance. Too many
are unhappy with the idea of starting at the bottom.
My advice has always been: “You ought to be thrilled you
No Job Is Beneath You 169
got a job in the mailroom. And when you get there, here’s
what you do: Be really great at sorting mail.”
No one wants to hear someone say: “I’m not good at sorting mail because the job is beneath me.” No job should be beneath us. And if you can’t (or won’t) sort mail, where is the
proof that you can do anything?
After our ETC students were hired by companies for internships or first jobs, we’d often ask the firms to give us feedback on how they were doing. Their bosses almost never had
anything negative to say about their abilities or their technical
chops. But when we did get negative feedback, it was almost
always about how the new employees were too big for their
britches. Or that they were already eyeing the corner offices.
When I was fifteen, I worked at an orchard hoeing strawberries, and most of my coworkers were day laborers. A couple of teachers worked there, too, earning a little extra cash
for the summer. I made a comment to my dad about the job
being beneath those teachers. (I guess I was implying that the
job was beneath me, too.) My dad gave me the tonguelashing of a lifetime. He believed manual labor was beneath
no one. He said he’d prefer that I worked hard and became
the best ditch-digger in the world rather than coasting along
as a self-impressed elitist behind a desk.
I went back into that strawberry field and I still didn’t like
the job. But I had heard my dad’s words. I watched my attitude and I hoed a little harder.
Know Where You Are
Ok, professor Boy, what can you do for us?”
That was the greeting I received from Mk Haley, a
twenty-seven-year-old Imagineer who was given the job of
babysitting me during my sabbatical at Disney.
I had arrived in a place where my academic credentials
meant nothing. I became a traveler in a foreign land who had
to find a way to come up with the local currency—fast!
For years, I’ve told my students about this experience because it’s a crucial lesson.
Although I had achieved my childhood dream of being an
Imagineer, I had gone from being the top dog in my academic research lab to an odd duck in a rough-and-tumble
pond. I had to figure out how my wonky ways could fit in this
make-or-break creative culture.
I worked on the Aladdin virtual reality attraction then being tested at Epcot. I joined Imagineers interviewing guests
about how they liked the ride. Did they get dizzy, disoriented,
Some of my new colleagues complained that I was applying academic values that wouldn’t work in the real world.
They said I was too focused on poring over data, too insistent
on approaching things scientifically rather than emotionally.
It was hard-core academia (me) versus hard-core entertain-
Never Give Up 171
ment (them). Finally, though, after I figured out a way to save
twenty seconds per guest by loading the ride differently, I
gained some street cred with those Imagineers who had their
doubts about me.
The reason I tell this story is to emphasize how sensitive
you need to be when crossing from one culture to another—
in my students’ cases, from school to their first job.
As it turned out, at the end of my sabbatical, Imagineering offered me a full-time job. After much agonizing, I
turned it down. The call of teaching was too strong. But because I’d figured out how to navigate in both academia and
the entertainment industry, Disney found a way to keep me
involved. I became a once-a-week consultant to Imagineering,
which I did happily for ten years.
If you can find your footing between two cultures, sometimes you can have the best of both worlds.
Never Give Up
When i was a senior in high school, I applied to Brown
University and didn’t get in. I was on the wait list. I
called the admissions office until they eventually decided they
might as well accept me. They saw how badly I wanted in.
Tenacity got me over the brick wall.
172 the last lecture
When it was time to graduate from Brown, it never occurred to me in a million years to go to graduate school. People in my family got an education and then got jobs. They
didn’t keep getting an education.
But Andy van Dam, my “Dutch uncle” and mentor at
Brown, advised me, “Get yourself a PhD. Be a professor.”
“Why should I do that?” I asked him.
And he said: “Because you’re such a good salesman, and if
you go work for a company, they’re going to use you as a
salesman. If you’re going to be a salesman, you might as well
be selling something worthwhile, like education.”
I am forever grateful for that advice.
Andy told me to apply to Carnegie Mellon, where he had
sent a long string of his best students. “You’ll get in, no problem,” he said. He wrote me a letter of recommendation.
The Carnegie Mellon faculty read his glowing letter. They
saw my reasonable grades and my lackluster graduate-exam
scores. They reviewed my application.
And they rejected me.
I was accepted into other PhD programs, but Carnegie Mellon didn’t want me. So I went into Andy’s office and dropped
the rejection letter on his desk. “I want you to know how much
Carnegie Mellon values your recommendations,” I said.
Within seconds of the letter hitting his desk, he picked up
the phone. “I’ll fix this. I’ll get you in,” he said.
But I stopped him. “I don’t want to do it that way,” I told
So we made a deal. I would check out the schools that
Never Give Up 173
accepted me. If I didn’t feel comfortable at any of them, I’d
come back to him and we’d talk.
The other schools ended up being such a bad fit that I
soon found myself returning to Andy. I told him I had decided to skip graduate school and get a job.
“No, no, no,” he said. “You’ve got to get your PhD, and
you’ve got to go to Carnegie Mellon.”
He picked up the phone and called Nico Habermann, the
head of Carnegie Mellon’s computer science department,
who also happened to be Dutch. They talked about me in
Dutch for a while, and then Andy hung up and told me: “Be
in his office at 8 a.m. tomorrow.”
Nico was a presence: an old-school, European-style academic. It was clear our meeting was only happening as a favor
to his friend Andy. He asked me why he should be reconsidering my application, given that the department had already evaluated me. Speaking carefully, I said, “Since the time that I was
reviewed, I won a full fellowship from the Office of Naval Research.” Nico replied gravely, “Having money isn’t part of our
admissions criteria; we fund our students out of research
grants.” And then he stared at me. More precisely, he stared
through me.
There are a few key moments in anyone’s life. A person is
fortunate if he can tell in hindsight when they happened. I
knew in the moment that I was in one. With all the deference
my young, arrogant self could muster, I said “I’m sorry, I
didn’t mean to imply it was about the money. It’s just that
they only awarded fifteen of these fellowships nationwide, so
174 the last lecture
I thought it an honor that would be relevant, and I apologize
if that was presumptuous of me.”
It was the only answer I had, but it was the truth. Very,
very slowly, Nico’s frozen visage thawed and we talked for a
few minutes more.
After meeting with several other faculty, I ended up being
accepted by Carnegie Mellon, and I got my PhD. It was a
brick wall surmounted with a huge boost from a mentor and
some sincere groveling.
Until I got on stage at my last lecture, I had never told
students or colleagues at Carnegie Mellon that I had been rejected when I applied there. What was I afraid of? That
they’d all think I wasn’t smart enough to be in their company? That they’d take me less seriously?
It’s interesting, the secrets you decide to reveal at the end
of your life.
I should have been telling that story for years, because the
moral is: If you want something bad enough, never give up
(and take a boost when offered).
Brick walls are there for a reason. And once you get over
them—even if someone has practically had to throw you
over—it can be helpful to others to tell them how you did it.
Be a Communitarian
We’ve placed a lot of emphasis in this country on the
idea of people’s rights. That’s how it should be, but it
makes no sense to talk about rights without also talking about
Rights have to come from somewhere, and they come
from the community. In return, all of us have a responsibility
to the community. Some people call this the “communitarian” movement, but I call it common sense.
This idea has been lost on a lot of us, and in my twenty
years as a professor, I’ve noticed more and more students just
don’t get it. The notion that rights come with responsibilities
is, literally, a strange concept to them.
I’d ask students to sign an agreement at the start of each
semester, outlining their responsibilities and rights. They had
to agree to work constructively in groups, to attend certain
meetings, to help their peers by giving honest feedback. In return, they had the right to be in the class and to have their
work critiqued and displayed.
Some students balked at my agreement. I think it’s because
we as adults aren’t always great role models about being communitarians. For example: We all believe we have a right to a
jury trial. And yet many people go to great lengths to get out
of jury duty.
176 the last lecture
So I wanted my students to know. Everyone has to contribute to the common good. To not do so can be described
in one word: selfish.
My dad taught this to us by example, but he also looked for
novel ways to teach it to others. He did something very clever
when he was a Little League baseball commissioner.
He had been having trouble rounding up volunteer umpires. It was a thankless job, in part because every time you
called a strike or a ball, some kid or parent was sure you got it
wrong. There was also the issue of fear: You had to stand
there while kids with little or no control flailed their bats and
threw wild pitches at you.
Anyway, my dad came up with an idea. Instead of getting
adults to volunteer, he had the players from the older-age divisions serve as umpires for the younger kids. He made it an
honor to be selected as an ump.
Several things happened as a result of this.
The kids who became umpires understood how hard a job
it was and hardly ever argued with umpires again. They also
felt good that they were lending a hand to the kids in the
younger divisions. Meanwhile, the younger kids saw older
role models who had embraced volunteering.
My dad had created a new set of communitarians. He knew:
When we’re connected to others, we become better people.
All You Have to Do Is Ask
On my dad’s last trip to Disney World, he and I were
waiting for the monorail with Dylan, who was then four
years old. Dylan had this urge to sit in the vehicle’s coollooking nose-cone, with the driver. My theme-park-loving father thought that would be a huge kick, too.
“Too bad they don’t let regular people sit up there,” he said.
“Hmmmm,” I said. “Actually, Dad, having been an Imaginer, I’ve learned that there’s a trick to getting to sit up front.
Do you want to see it?”
He said sure.
So I walked over to the smiling Disney monorail attendant
and said: “Excuse me, could the three of us please sit in the
front car?”
“Certainly, sir,” the attendant said. He opened the gate
and we took our seats beside the driver. It was one of the only
times in my life I ever saw my dad completely flabbergasted.
“I said there was a trick,” I told him as we sped toward the
Magic Kingdom. “I didn’t say it was a hard trick.”
Sometimes, all you have to do is ask.
I’ve always been fairly adept at asking for things. I’m
proud of the time I got up my courage and contacted Fred
Brooks Jr., one of the most highly regarded computer scientists in the world. After beginning his career at IBM in the
178 the last lecture
All we had to do was ask.
Fifties, he went on to found the computer science department
at University of North Carolina. He is famous in our industry for saying, among other great things: “Adding manpower
to a late software project makes it later.” (This is now known
as “Brooks Law.”)
I was in my late twenties and still hadn’t met the man, so
I emailed him, asking: “If I drive down from Virginia to
North Carolina, would it be possible to get thirty minutes of
your time to talk?”
He responded: “If you drive all the way down here, I’ll
give you more than thirty minutes.”
He gave me ninety minutes and became a lifelong mentor
to me. Years later, he invited me to give a lecture at the University of North Carolina. That was the trip that led to the
most seminal moment in my life—when I met Jai.
Make a Decision: Tigger or Eeyore 179
Sometimes, all you have to do is ask, and it can lead to all
your dreams coming true.
These days, given my short road ahead, I’ve gotten even
better at “just asking.” As we all know, it often takes days to
get medical results. Waiting around for medical news is not
how I want to spend my time lately. So I always ask: “What’s
the fastest I can get these results?”
“Oh,” they often respond. “We might be able to have it
for you within an hour.”
“OK then,” I say… “I’m glad I asked!”
Ask those questions. Just ask them. More often than you’d
suspect, the answer you’ll get is, “Sure.”
Make a Decision: Tigger or Eeyore
When i told Carnegie Mellon’s president, Jared Cohon,
that I would be giving a last lecture, he said, “Please
tell them about having fun, because that’s what I will remember you for.”
And I said, “I can do that, but it’s kind of like a fish talking about the importance of water.”
I mean, I don’t know how not to have fun. I’m dying and
I’m having fun. And I’m going to keep having fun every day
I have left. Because there’s no other way to play it.
180 the last lecture
I came to a realization about this very early in my life.
As I see it, there’s a decision we all have to make, and
it seems perfectly captured in the Winnie-the-Pooh characters created by A. A. Milne. Each of us must decide: Am I a
fun-loving Tigger or am I a sad-sack Eeyore? Pick a camp.
I think it’s clear where I stand on the great Tigger/Eeyore
For my last Halloween, I had great fun. Jai and I dressed
up as the Incredibles, and so did our three kids. I put a photo
of us on my Web site letting everyone know what an “Incredible” family we were. The kids looked pretty super. I looked
invincible with my fake cartoon muscles. I explained that
chemo had not dramatically affected my superpowers, and I
got tons of smiling emails in response.
I recently went on a short scuba-diving vacation with three
of my best friends: my high school friend Jack Sheriff, my college roommate Scott Sherman, and my friend from Electronic
Arts, Steve Seabolt. We all were aware of the subtext. These
were my friends from various times in my life, and they were
banding together to give me a farewell weekend.
My three friends didn’t know each other well, but strong
bonds formed quickly. All of us are grown men, but for much
of the vacation it was as if we were thirteen years old. And we
were all Tiggers.
We successfully avoided any emotional “I love you, man”
dialogue related to my cancer. Instead, we just had fun. We
reminisced, we horsed around and we made fun of each
other. (Actually, it was mostly them making fun of me for the
Make a Decision: Tigger or Eeyore 181
Chemo has not dramatically affected my superpowers.
“St. Randy of Pittsburgh” reputation I’ve gotten since my last
lecture. They know me, and they were having none of it.)
I won’t let go of the Tigger inside me. I just can’t see the
upside in becoming Eeyore. Someone asked me what I want
on my tombstone. I replied: “Randy Pausch: He Lived Thirty
Years After a Terminal Diagnosis.”
I promise you. I could pack a lot of fun into those thirty
182 the last lecture
years. But if that’s not to be, then I’ll just pack fun into whatever time I do have.
A Way to Understand Optimism
After i learned I had cancer, one of my doctors gave me
some advice. “It’s important,” he said, “to behave as if
you’re going to be around awhile.”
I was already way ahead of him.
“Doc, I just bought a new convertible and got a vasectomy. What more do you want from me?”
Look, I’m not in denial about my situation. I am maintaining my clear-eyed sense of the inevitable. I’m living like
I’m dying. But at the same time, I’m very much living like I’m
still living.
Some oncologists’ offices will schedule appointments for
patients six months out. For the patients, it’s an optimistic signal that the doctors expect them to live. There are terminally
ill people who look at the doctor’s appointment cards on their
bulletin boards and say to themselves, “I’m going to make it
to that. And when I get there, I’m going to get good news.”
Herbert Zeh, my surgeon in Pittsburgh, says he worries
about patients who are inappropriately optimistic or illinformed. At the same time, he is upset when patients are told
The Input of Others 183
by friends and acquaintances that they have to be optimistic
or their treatments won’t work. It pains him to see patients
who are having a tough day healthwise and assume it’s because they weren’t positive enough.
My personal take on optimism is that as a mental state, it
can enable you to do tangible things to improve your physical
state. If you’re optimistic, you’re better able to endure brutal
chemo, or keep searching for late-breaking medical treatments.
Dr. Zeh calls me his poster boy for “the healthy balance
between optimism and realism.” He sees me trying to embrace my cancer as another life experience.
But I love that my vasectomy doubled as both appropriate
birth control and an optimistic gesture about my future. I
love driving around in my new convertible. I love thinking I
might find a way to become the one-in-a-million guy who
beats this late-stage cancer. Because even if I don’t, it’s a better mindset to help me get through each day.
The Input of Others
Since my last lecture began spreading on the Internet, I’ve
been hearing from so many people I’ve known over the
years—from childhood neighbors to long-ago acquaintances.
And I’m grateful for their warm words and thoughts.
184 the last lecture
It has been a delight to read notes from former students
and colleagues. One coworker recalled advice I gave him
when he was a non-tenured faculty member. He said I had
warned him to pay attention to any and all comments made
by department chairs. (He remembers me telling him: “When
the chair casually suggests that perhaps you might consider
doing something, you should visualize a cattle prod.”) A former student emailed to say I had helped inspire him to create
a new personal-development Web site titled “Stop Sucking
and Live a Life of Abundance,” designed to help people who
are living far below their potential. That sounded sort of like
my philosophy, though certainly not my exact words.
And just to keep things in perspective, from the “SomeThings-Never-Change” department, an unrequited crush from
high school wrote to wish me well and gently reminded me
why I was way too nerdy for her back then (also letting slip
that she’d gone on to marry a real doctor).
More seriously, thousands of strangers also have written to
me, and I’ve been buoyed by their good wishes. Many shared
advice on how they and their loved ones have coped with
matters of death and dying.
A woman who lost her forty-eight-year-old husband to
pancreatic cancer said his “last speech” was to a small audience: her, his children, his parents and his siblings. He
thanked them for their guidance and love, reminisced about
the places he had gone with them, and told them what had
mattered most to him in life. This woman said counseling
had helped her family after her husband died: “Knowing
The Input of Others 185
what I know now, Mrs. Pausch and your children will have a
need to talk, cry and remember.”
Another woman, whose husband died of a brain tumor
when their children were ages three and eight, offered insights
for me to pass along to Jai. “You can survive the unimaginable,” she wrote. “Your children will be a tremendous source
of comfort and love, and will be the best reason to wake up
every morning and smile.”
She went on: “Take the help that’s offered while Randy
lives, so you can enjoy your time with him. Take the help
that’s offered when he’s no longer here, so you can have the
strength for what’s important. Join others who have this kind
of loss. They will be a comfort for you and your children.”
This woman suggested that Jai reassure our kids, as they get
older, that they will have a normal life. There will be graduations, marriages, children of their own. “When a parent dies
at such an early age, some children think that other normal
life cycle events may not happen for them, either.”
I heard from a man in his early forties with serious heart
problems. He wrote to tell me about Krishnamurti, a spiritual
leader in India who died in 1986. Krishnamurti was once
asked what is the most appropriate thing to say to a friend
who was about to die. He answered: “Tell your friend that in
his death, a part of you dies and goes with him. Wherever he
goes, you also go. He will not be alone.” In his email to me,
this man was reassuring: “I know you are not alone.”
I have also been moved by comments and good wishes
from some well-known people who got in touch as a result of
186 the last lecture
the lecture. For instance, TV news anchor Diane Sawyer interviewed me, and when the cameras were off, helped me
think more clearly about the touchstones I’ll be leaving for
my kids. She gave me an incredible piece of advice. I knew
I was going to leave my kids letters and videos. But she told
me the crucial thing is to tell them the specific idiosyncratic
ways in which I related to them. So I’ve been thinking a lot
about that. I’ve decided to tell each of my kids things like: “I
love the way you tilted back your head when you laughed.”
I will give them specific stuff they can grasp.
And Dr. Reiss, the counselor Jai and I see, has helped me
find strategies to avoid losing myself in the stress of my periodic cancer scans, so I’m able to focus on my family with an
open heart, a positive outlook and almost of all my attention.
I had spent much of my life doubting the effectiveness of
counseling. Now, with my back against the wall, I see how
hugely helpful it can be. I wish I could travel through oncology wards telling this to patients who are trying to tough it
out on their own.

Many, many people have written to me about matters of
faith. I’ve so appreciated their comments and their prayers.
I was raised by parents who believed that faith was something very personal. I didn’t discuss my specific religion in my
lecture because I wanted to talk about universal principles that
apply to all faiths—to share things I had learned through my
relationships with people.
Some of those relationships, of course, I have found at

The Input of Others 187

church. M. R. Kelsey, a woman from our church, came and
sat with me in the hospital every day for eleven days after my
surgery. And since my diagnosis, my minister has been very
helpful. We belonged to the same swimming pool in Pittsburgh, and the day after I’d learned my condition was terminal, we were both there. He was sitting by the pool and I
climbed up on the diving board. I winked at him, then did a
flip off the board.
When I got to the side of the pool, he said to me, “You
seem to be the picture of good health, Randy.” I told him:
“That’s the cognitive dissonance. I feel good and look great,
but we heard yesterday that my cancer is back and the doctors
say I only have three to six months.”
He and I have since talked about the ways I might best
prepare for death.
“You have life insurance, right?” he said.
“Yes, it’s all in place,” I told him.
“Well, you also need emotional insurance,” he said. And
then he explained that the premiums of emotional insurance
would be paid for with my time, not my money.
To that end, he suggested that I needed to spend hours
making videotapes of myself with the kids, so they’ll have a
record of how we played and laughed. Years from now, they
will be able to see the ease with which we touched each
other and interacted. He also gave me his thoughts on specific things I could do for Jai to leave her a record of my
“If you cover the premiums on your emotional insurance

188 the last lecture

now, while you’re feeling OK, there will be less weighing on
you in the months ahead,” he said. “You’ll be more at peace.”
My friends. My loved ones. My minister. Total strangers.
Every single day I receive input from people who wish me
well and boost my spirits. I’ve truly gotten to see examples of
the best in humanity, and I’m so grateful for that. I’ve never
felt alone on this ride I’m taking.


Dreams for My Children

There are so many things I want to tell my children, and
right now, they’re too young to understand. Dylan just
turned six. Logan is three. Chloe is eighteen months old. I
want the kids to know who I am, what I’ve always believed in,
and all the ways in which I’ve come to love them. Given their
ages, so much of this would be over their heads.
I wish the kids could understand how desperately I don’t
want to leave them.
Jai and I haven’t even told them yet that I’m dying. We’ve
been advised that we should wait until I’m more symptomatic. Right now, though I’ve been given just months to live,
I still look pretty healthy. And so my kids remain unaware
that in my every encounter with them I’m saying goodbye.
It pains me to think that when they’re older, they won’t
have a father. When I cry in the shower, I’m not usually
thinking, “I won’t get to see them do this” or “I won’t get to
see them do that.” I’m thinking about the kids not having a
father. I’m focused more on what they’re going to lose than

192 the last lecture

on what I’m going to lose. Yes, a percentage of my sadness is,
“I won’t, I won’t, I won’t . . .” But a bigger part of me grieves
for them. I keep thinking, “They won’t . . . they won’t . . .
they won’t.” That’s what chews me up inside, when I let it.
I know their memories of me may be fuzzy. That’s why
I’m trying to do things with them that they’ll find unforgettable. I want their recollections to be as sharp as possible. Dylan and I went on a mini-vacation to swim with dolphins. A
kid swims with dolphins, he doesn’t easily forget it. We took
lots of photos.
I’m going to bring Logan to Disney World, a place that I
know he’ll love as much as I do. He’d like to meet Mickey
Mouse. I’ve met him, so I can make the introduction. Jai and
I will bring Dylan along as well, since every experience Logan
has these days doesn’t seem complete unless he’s engaged in
the action with his big brother.
Making memories with Dylan.

Dreams for My Children 193

Logan, the ultimate Tigger.
Every night at bedtime, when I ask Logan to tell me the
best part of his day, he always answers: “Playing with Dylan.”
When I ask him for the worst part of his day, he also answers:
“Playing with Dylan.” Suffice it to say, they’re bonded as
I’m aware that Chloe may have no memory of me at all.
She’s too young. But I want her to grow up knowing that I was
the first man ever to fall in love with her. I’d always thought the
father/daughter thing was overstated. But I can tell you, it’s
real. Sometimes, she looks at me and I just become a puddle.
There are so many things Jai will be able to tell them
about me when they’re older. She might talk about my opti-

194 the last lecture

mism, the way I embraced having fun, the high standards I
tried to set in my life. She may diplomatically tell them some
of the things that made me exasperating; my overly analytical
approach to life, my insistence (too often) that I know best.
But she’s modest, much more modest than me, and she might
not tell the kids this: that in our marriage, she had a guy who
really deeply truly loved her. And she won’t tell them all the
sacrifices she made. Any mother of three small children is
consumed with taking care of them. Throw in a cancerstricken husband and the result is a woman who is always
dealing with someone else’s needs, not her own. I want my
kids to know how selfless she was in caring for all of us.
Lately, I’ve been making a point of speaking to people
who lost parents when they were very young. I want to know
what got them through the hard times, and what keepsakes
have been most meaningful to them.
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.
They also wanted reasons to be proud; they wanted to believe that their parents were incredible people. Some of them
sought specifics on their parents’ accomplishments. Some
chose to build myths. But all had yearnings to know what
made their parents special.
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.

Dreams for My Children 195

To that end, I want my kids to know that my memories of
them fill my head.
Let’s start with Dylan. I admire how loving and empathetic he is. If another child is hurt, Dylan will bring over a
toy or blanket.
Another trait I see in Dylan: He’s analytical, like his old
man. He has already figured out that the questions are more
important than the answers. A lot of kids ask, “Why? Why?
Why?” One rule in our house is that you may not ask oneword questions. Dylan embraces that idea. He loves to formulate full-sentence questions, and his inquisitiveness goes
beyond his years. I remember his pre-school teachers raving
about him, telling us: “When you’re with Dylan you find
yourself thinking: I want to see what kind of adult this kid
turns into.”
Dylan is also the king of curiosity. Wherever he is, he’s
looking somewhere else and thinking, “Hey, there’s something over there! Let’s go look at it or touch it or take it
apart.” If there’s a white picket fence, some kids will take a
stick to it and walk along listening to the “thwack, thwack,
thwack!” Dylan would go one better. He’d use the stick to
pry one of the pickets loose, and then he’d use the picket to
do the thwacking thing because it’s thicker and sounds better.
For his part, Logan makes everything an adventure. When
he was born, he got stuck in the birth canal. It took two doctors, pulling with forceps, to bring him into the world. I remember one of the doctors, his foot on the table, pulling with
all his might. At one point the doctor turned to me and said:

196 the last lecture

“I’ve got chains and Clydesdales in the back if this doesn’t
It was a tough passage for Logan. Given how cramped he
was for so long in the birth canal, his arms weren’t moving
just after he was born. We were worried, but not for long.
Once he started moving, he never really stopped. He’s just
this phenomenal ball of positive energy; completely physical
and gregarious. When he smiles, he smiles with his whole
face; he’s the ultimate Tigger. He’s also a kid who’s up for
everything and befriends everyone. He’s only three years old,
but I’m predicting he’ll be the social chair of his college fraternity.
Chloe, meanwhile, is all girl. I say that with a bit of awe
because until she came along, I couldn’t fathom what that
meant. She was scheduled to be a C-section baby, but Jai’s
water broke, and not long after we got to the hospital, Chloe
just slipped out. (That’s my description. Jai might say
“slipped out” is a phrase only a man could come up with!)
Anyway, for me, holding Chloe for the first time, looking into
this tiny girl’s face, well, it was one of the most intense and
spiritual moments of my life. There was this connection I felt,
and it was different from the one I had with the boys. I am
now a member of the Wrapped Around My Daughter’s Finger Club.
I love watching Chloe. Unlike Dylan and Logan, who are
always so physically daring, Chloe is careful, maybe even
dainty. We have a safety gate at the top of our staircase, but
she doesn’t really need it because all of her efforts go into not

Dreams for My Children 197

getting hurt. Having grown accustomed to two boys who
rumble their way down any staircase, fearing no danger, this
is a new experience for Jai and me.
I love all three of my kids completely and differently. And
I want them to know that I will love them for as long as they
live. I will.
Given my limited time, though, I’ve had to think about
how I might reinforce my bonds with them. So I’m building
separate lists of my memories of each of the kids. I’m making
videos so they can see me talking about what they’ve meant to
me. I’m writing letters to them. I also see the video of my last
lecture—and this book, too—as pieces of myself that I can
leave for them. I even have a large plastic bin filled with mail
I received in the weeks after the lecture. Someday, the kids
might want to look through that bin, and my hope is that
they’ll be pleased to find both friends and strangers who had
found the talk meaningful.
Because I’ve been so vocal about the power of childhood
dreams, some people have been asking lately about the dreams
I have for my children.
I have a direct answer for that.
It can be a very disruptive thing for parents to have specific dreams for their kids. As a professor, I’ve seen many unhappy college freshman picking majors that are all wrong for
them. Their parents have put them on a train, and too often,
judging by the crying during my office hours, the result is a
train wreck.
As I see it, a parent’s job is to encourage kids to develop a

198 the last lecture

joy for life and a great urge to follow their own dreams. The
best we can do is to help them develop a personal set of tools
for the task.
So my dreams for my kids are very exact: I want them to
find their own path to fulfillment. And given that I won’t be
there, I want to make this clear: Kids, don’t try to figure out
what I wanted you to become. I want you to become what you
want to become.
Having seen so many students go through my classrooms,
I’ve come to know that a lot of parents don’t realize the power
of their words. Depending on a child’s age and sense of self,
an offhand comment from Mom or Dad can feel like a shove
from a bulldozer. I’m not even sure I should have made the
reference to Logan growing up to be social chair of a fraternity. I don’t want him to end up in college thinking that I expected him to join a fraternity, or to be a leader there—or
anything. His life will be his life. I would just urge my kids to
find their way with enthusiasm and passion. And I want them
to feel as if I am there with them, whatever path they choose.

Jai and Me

As any family dealing with cancer knows, caregivers are
often pushed to the sidelines. Patients get to focus on
themselves. They’re the objects of adulation and sympathy.
Caregivers do the heavy lifting, with little time to deal with
their own pain and grief.
My wife, Jai, is a cancer caregiver with even more on her
plate: three little kids. So as I prepared to give my last lecture, I
made a decision. If this talk was to be my moment, I wanted
some way to show everyone how much I love and appreciate her.
It happened like this: Near the end of the lecture, as I reviewed the lessons I’d learned in my life, I mentioned how vital it is to focus on other people, not just yourself. Looking
offstage, I asked: “Do we have a concrete example of focusing
on somebody else over there? Could we bring it out?”
Because the day before had been Jai’s birthday, I arranged
to have a large birthday cake with a single candle waiting on a
rolling table offstage. As the cake was wheeled out by Jai’s
friend Cleah Schlueter, I explained to the audience that I

200 the last lecture

hadn’t given Jai a proper birthday, and thought it might be nice
if I could get four hundred people to sing to her. They applauded the idea and began singing.
“Happy birthday to you. Happy birthday to you . . .”
Realizing some might not know her name, I quickly said,
“Her name is Jai . . .”
“Happy birthday, dear Jai . . .”
It was so wonderful. Even people in the nearby overflow
room, watching the lecture on a video screen, were singing.
As we all sang, I finally allowed myself to look at Jai. She
sat in her front-row seat, wiping away tears with this surprised
smile on her face, looking so lovely—bashful and beautiful,
pleased and overwhelmed. . . .
There are so many things Jai and I are discussing as we work
to come to terms with what her life will be like after I’m gone.
“Lucky” is a strange word to use to describe my situation, but
a part of me does feel fortunate that I didn’t get hit by the
proverbial bus. Cancer has given me the time to have these vital conversations with Jai that wouldn’t be possible if my fate
were a heart attack or a car accident.
What are we talking about?
For starters, we both try to remember that some of the
best caregiving advice we’ve ever heard comes from flight attendants: “Put on your own oxygen mask before assisting others.” Jai is such a giver that she often forgets to take care of
herself. When we become physically or emotionally run
down, we can’t help anybody else, least of all small children.

Jai and Me 201

So there’s nothing weak or selfish about taking some fraction
of your day to be alone, recharging your batteries. In my experience as a parent, I’ve found it hard to recharge in the presence of small children. Jai knows that she’ll have to give
herself permission to make herself a priority.
I’ve also reminded her that she’s going to make mistakes,
and to just accept that. If I were able to live, we’d be making
those mistakes together. Mistakes are part of the process of
parenting, and she shouldn’t attribute them all to the fact
that she’ll be raising the kids herself.
Some single parents fall into the trap of trying to compensate by giving the kids material things. Jai knows: No material
possessions can make up for a missing parent, and they can
actually do harm in establishing a kid’s values.
It’s possible that Jai, like many parents, will find the most
challenging years to be when the kids become teenagers. Having been around students all my life, I’d like to think I would
come into my own as a father of teens. I’d be tough, but I’d
understand the mind-set. So I’m sorry I won’t be there to
help Jai when the time comes.
The good news, though, is that other people—friends and
family—will also want to help, and Jai plans to let them. All
children need a fabric of people in their lives who love them,
and that’s especially true for kids who’ve lost a parent. I think
back to my own parents. They knew they couldn’t be the only
crucial influences in my life. That’s why my dad signed me
up to play football with Jim Graham. Jai will be on the lookout for some Coach Grahams for our kids.

202 the last lecture

As for the obvious question, well, here’s my answer:
Most of all, I want Jai to be happy in the years ahead. So if
she finds happiness through remarriage, that will be great. If she
finds happiness without remarrying, that also will be great.
Jai and I work hard at our marriage. We’ve gotten so much
better at communicating, at sensing each other’s needs and
strengths, and at finding more things to love about each other.
So it saddens us that we won’t get to experience this richness in
our marriage for the next thirty or forty years. We won’t get to
amortize the hard efforts we’ve put in so far. Still, we wouldn’t
trade our eight years of marriage for anything.
I know that so far, I’ve been handling my diagnosis pretty
well. Jai has, too. As she says: “No one needs to cry for me.” She
means it. But we want to be honest, too. Though counseling has
helped tremendously, we’ve had some tough times. We’ve cried
together in bed, fallen back asleep, woken up and cried some
more. We’ve gotten through in part by focusing on the tasks at
hand. We can’t fall to pieces. We’ve got to get some sleep, because one of us has to get up in the morning and give the kids
breakfast. That person, for the record, is almost always Jai.
I recently celebrated my forty-seventh birthday, and Jai
had to wrestle with the question: “What do you get the man
you love for his last birthday?” She opted for a watch and a
big-screen TV. Though I’m not a fan of TV—it’s mankind’s
greatest time-waster—the gift was completely appropriate,
since I’ll be in bed so much at the end. TV will be one of my
last links to the outside world.
There are days when Jai tells me things and there’s little I can

Jai and Me 203

say in response. She has told me: “I can’t imagine rolling over in
bed and you’re not there.” And: “I can’t picture myself taking
the kids on vacation and you not being with us.” And: “Randy,
you’re always the planner. Who’s going to make the plans?”
I’m not worried. Jai will make the plans just fine.

I really had no idea what I would do or say after the audience
sang “Happy Birthday” to Jai. But as I urged her onto the
stage, and she came toward me, a natural impulse overtook
me. Her, too, I guess. We embraced and we kissed, first on the
lips, and then I kissed her cheek. The crowd kept applauding.
We heard them, but it was like they were miles away.
As we held each other, Jai whispered something in my ear.
“Please don’t die.”
It sounds like Hollywood dialogue. But that’s what she
said. I just hugged her more tightly.

The Dreams Will Come to You

For days, I had worried that I’d be unable to get through
the final lines of my lecture without choking up. So I had
a contingency plan. I placed the last few sentences of the talk
on four slides. If, in the moment on stage, I couldn’t bring
myself to say the words, my plan was to click silently through
the slides, and then simply say “Thank you for coming today.”
I had been on stage for just over an hour. Given the chemo
side effects, the long stretch on my feet, and the emotions involved, I was truly feeling spent.
At the same time, I felt at peace and fulfilled. My life had
come full circle. I had first made the list of my childhood
dreams when I was eight years old. Now, thirty-eight years
later, that very list had helped me say what I needed to say
and carried me through.
Many cancer patients say their illness gives them a new
and deeper appreciation for life. Some even say they are grateful for their disease. I have no such gratitude for my cancer,
although I’m certainly grateful for having advance notice of

The Dreams Will Come to You 205

my death. In addition to allowing me to prepare my family
for the future, that time gave me the chance to go to Carnegie
Mellon and give my last lecture. In a sense, it allowed me to
“leave the field under my own power.”
And my list of childhood dreams had continued to serve
so many purposes. Without it, who knows if I would have
been able to thank all the people who deserved my thanks.
Ultimately, that little list had allowed me to say goodbye to
those who meant so much to me.
There’s something else. As a high-tech guy, I never fully
understood the artists and actors I’ve known and taught over
the years. They would sometimes talk about the things inside
them that “needed to come out.” I thought that sounded selfindulgent. I should have been more empathetic. My hour on
stage had taught me something. (At least I was still learning!)
I did have things inside me that desperately needed to come
out. I didn’t give the lecture just because I wanted to. I gave
the lecture because I had to.
I also knew why my closing lines would be so emotional
for me. It was because the end of the talk had to be a distillation of how I felt about the end of my life.
As I wound down, I had taken a minute to review some of
the key points of the lecture. And then I offered a summation, but with a twist; a surprise ending, if you will.
“So today’s talk was about achieving childhood dreams,” I
said. “But did you figure out the head fake?”
I paused. The room was quiet.
“It’s not about how to achieve your dreams. It’s about how

206 the last lecture

to lead your life. If you lead your life the right way, the karma
will take care of itself. The dreams will come to you.”
I clicked to the next slide, and a question filled the large
screen: “Have you figured out the second head fake?”
I took a breath. I decided to speak at a slightly faster clip
than I had before. Maybe if I just talked faster, I thought, I
could get through it. I repeated the words on screen.
“Have you figured out the second head fake?”
Then I told them: The talk wasn’t just for those in the
room. “It was for my kids.”
I clicked to the very last slide, a photo of me standing by
our swing set, holding a smiling Logan with my right arm
and sweet Chloe with my left, Dylan sitting happily on my


My great thanks to Bob Miller, David Black, and Gary
Morris. I wish to especially thank our editor, Will Balliett, for his great kindness and integrity throughout, and Jeffrey Zaslow, for his incredible talent and professionalism.

The full set of people I must thank will not fit on this page. Fortunately, web pages scroll: please visit
for a full list of acknowledgments and attributions. Video of
my “last lecture” can also be viewed from that site.

My life will be lost to pancreatic cancer. Two organizations I
have worked with that are dedicated to fighting this disease are:
The Pancreatic Cancer Action Network
The Lustgarten Foundation

About the Authors

Randy Pausch is a professor of Computer Science, Human Computer
Interaction, and Design at Carnegie Mellon University. From 1988 to 1997,
he taught at the University of Virginia. He is an award-winning teacher and
researcher, and has worked with Adobe, Google, Electronic Arts (EA), and
Walt Disney Imagineering, and pioneered the non-profit Alice project.
(Alice is an innovative 3-D environment that teaches programming to young
people via storytelling and interactive game-playing.) He lives in Virginia
with his wife and three children.
Jeffrey Zaslow, a columnist for the Wall Street Journal, attended the Last
Lecture, and wrote the story that helped fuel worldwide interest in it. He
lives in suburban Detroit with his wife, Sherry, and daughters Jordan, Alex,
and Eden.


Design by Fritz Metsch
By Randy Pausch, Professor, Carnegie Mellon with Jeffrey Zaslow.


THE LAST LECTURE. Copyright © 2008 Randy Pausch. All
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ISBN 978-1-4013-9161-4
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