What Randy Pausch’s The Last Lecture teaches us about life, family, and curiosity

Published On: 9th January 2022 | Updated On: 23rd November 2023

Thanks for letting me borrow this book. It made me laugh. It made me cry. I now have an entire note page on my phone dedicated to the things I learnt from this book!” – S

I came across this message, stuck on the first page, as I opened my edition of Randy Pausch’s warm and emotional book, The Last Lecture, a few days ago to review it. I can’t recollect who S was, but they echoed my sentiments from years back when I first read this book.


This book is for anyone because there’s something in it for everyone. As I pored over it, I realised every different role that I had ever taken on – youngster, mother, employee – could resonate with the book. Randy serves a work that can be consumed heartily by those in the pink of health and those waiting for death’s imminent knock.


Randy writes this book as a narration of the Last Lecture he was invited to give at Carnegie Mellon University, where he taught Computer Science. For Randy, this was his ‘last’ lecture, not because he was leaving the university or retiring. It was actually his last lecture. At the time of writing this book, Randy had been diagnosed with terminal cancer.


Despite the author’s grave prognosis, the book never succumbs to a maudlin narration of the tragedy of young, untimely death. Instead, it is no less a treatise on the audacity of hope, and how life – notwithstanding its misgivings – is still worth living. The lessons we learn from the book are lessons Randy learnt through his experiences.

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Here are a few lessons that I learnt that would also help others – educators, students, and working professionals.


‘Experience is what you get when you didn’t get what you wanted’ he says. Such a simple philosophy, but how rarely we look at it from that perspective. When we don’t get what we want, it is a lesson learnt about being deprived or not achieving what we have been seeking. In other words, it means failures teach us important lessons. As the Dalai Lama once said, not getting what we want is a wonderful stroke of luck.


On Curiosity, he says: ‘If you have a question, don’t just wonder. Open the encyclopedia, open the dictionary, open your mind.’  


On Confidence: Randy brings out the point in many ways that any challenge we overcome on our own is a boost to our self-esteem and confidence. ‘Our upbringing matters, rather influences so much of what we are or how we behave in certain situations.’ This is such an important concept, especially for parents to remember. Randy’s point made me realise this about my own life and many around me; that if we bring up our children with faith in them, trust in their capabilities, allow them to make mistakes and guide them along, they will grow up to be individuals with a strong sense of self-confidence.


At times, failure is not just acceptable. It is often essential, says Randy.  And as we grow up, it is this ‘confidence’ that determines, to a large extent, our behaviour, happiness and conduct in various situations.


Importance of humility: He talks about his father’s valour when he was in the army. His father received a citation for ‘heroic achievement,’ but Randy got to know of it only 50 years later when the former died. He writes, “In the 50 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.”


On Educators and Education he says: ‘Educators help students best when they teach them how to judge themselves; how to be self-reflective.’


And there’s something about ‘collaboration’ ‘team-building’ and ‘workplace satisfaction.’  ‘Work colleagues need to be a family of sorts. The kind of people I want on my research team are those who will make everyone else feel happy to be here.’


On creativity: Through his book, Randy persuades us to cherish our families and break barriers to our children’s creativity. He writes about his courtship days with his lovely wife Jai and his three children Dylan, Logan and Chloe. He says, “Kids more than anything else, need to know that their parents love them. Their parents don’t have to be alive for that to happen.”  ‘Dad allowed me to paint my bedroom walls the way I wanted it.’ Randy says he feels lucky about this. ‘He encouraged creativity just by smiling at you. He loved to watch the spark of enthusiasm turn into fireworks.’  As a grown-up, he says, ‘ I look at those crazy walls. I think about my parents allowing me to paint, and I fall asleep feeling lucky and pleased.’


In simple terms, creativity is about doing new things, or doing the same thing differently. Creativity is also about finding solutions, about innovatively solving problems. ‘Too many people go through life complaining about their problems. I’ve always believed that if you took one-tenth of the energy you put into complaining and applied it to solving the problem, you’d be surprised by how well things can work out.’


On Communication: The Last Lecture also teaches us lessons in effective communication. Randy says, “Let other people finish their sentences when they’re talking.” Many a time, we are ready with our response even before the other person has finished speaking. We forget that it is as important to listen fully to any communication as it is to speak well. Communication is a two-way process, and it needs to evoke a response but not before we have heard the other out completely.


In this email and WhatsApp era, Randy’s views on ‘Handwritten ‘thankyou’ notes’ seem so refreshing. I’m one for anything handwritten, especially when it is something personal. I  feel that ‘Written Communication’ becomes more enticing when it has that handwritten touch.


On Competence: Randy talks about his childhood hero, William Shatner (the one who played Kirk’s role in the T.V. show Star Trek.)  Here he mentions something called ‘a skill set’ that most competent people possess. In this case, he calls the skill set ‘Leadership.’  Randy sums it up brilliantly when he says… ‘Kirk (Shatner) 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.’


Whew! How better can we describe a perfect leader?


After Shatner (whom Randy got a chance to meet) learned of his diagnosis, he sent him a photo of himself as Kirk. On it, Shatner wrote, ‘I don’t believe in the no-win scenario’, a meaningful line by Kirk from one of the Star Trek movies.

Randy left us with meaningful insights for a lifetime. Here’s one that stayed with me long after I was done reading the book.


“When we send our kids to play organised sport, we do feel happy seeing them learn the intricacies of the sport, but what we really want them to learn is far more important…..teamwork, perseverance, sportsmanship, value of hard work, an ability to deal with adversity.”


How the book impacted me


On a personal note, Randy’s notes reminded me of my own parents and the values I imbibed from them. As a parent myself, it made me rethink what I could do for my kids and students and how I could equip them to be their own judges and shape their dreams and their future. As a working professional, the book strengthened my belief in a ‘family-like’ work culture.


As a human being, I learned valuable lessons about success and failure, speaking and listening, and managing time.

I’ll leave you to find out for yourself what terms like ‘head fakes’ and ‘brick walls’ mean. Randy teaches you how ‘tough love’ is necessary and how ‘loyalty’ is a two-way street.


I loved the line where he says, ‘We cannot change the cards we are dealt, just how we play the hand.’


The book also made me think of a 1971 Hindi movie called ‘Anand,’ where the protagonist, an incomparable Rajesh Khanna, battles cancer like Randy with a certain ‘joie de vivre.’ It is a must-watch with fabulous dialogues and songs with meaningful lyrics.


You can also watch the ‘Last Lecture’ video on YouTube. But not until you have read the book. The Last Lecture could by far be anybody’s ‘Best Lecture’.


Randy died on July 25, 2008 at the age of 47.


Read ‘The Last Lecture’ to know more about life and living, about freedom of choices and responsibility, happiness and adversity. Randy lives on through this eternally impactful and touching book.


Pic courtesy: https://www.voicesofyouth.org/


-Anuja Mudur, SoME Guide 

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