Study Guide

The Last Lecture

by Randy Pausch

The Last Lecture Summary

Introduction

The Last Lecture, a book cowritten by computer science professor Randy Pausch and Wall Street Journal reporter Jeffrey Zaslow, was published in 2008 by Hyperion. It is based on the highly acclaimed and inspirational lecture presented by Pausch at Carnegie Mellon University on September 18, 2007.

The title of the book is derived from the concept of a retiring professor’s “last lecture,” which includes the professor’s insights into life and what really matters. Pausch was forced to deliver an untimely and very literal last lecture after facing a diagnosis of terminal pancreatic cancer. His lecture, titled "Really Achieving Your Childhood Dreams," was delivered in front of an audience filled with Pausch’s family, friends, students, and colleagues; it quickly received praise from the public after a copy was posted online, and Pausch even gave an abridged version of his lecture on an episode of The Oprah Winfrey Show.

Written with humor and wisdom, this book serves as a reflection of the main points of Pausch’s lecture. In it, Pausch discusses the importance of childhood dreams and how to go about achieving them as one grows older. The major points of his book include taking the time to dream, the importance of good parents in a child’s life, and how to put people before materials. Intertwined in the major themes of his lecture are Pausch’s own personal anecdotes, complete with how he was able to turn his boyhood dreams into reality, including becoming an Imagineer for Walt Disney World, and creating the Alice software project.

In The Last Lecture, Randy Pausch says, “We cannot change the cards we are dealt, just how we play the hand.” Through his stories and experience, Pausch imparts readers with a “how-to” guide when striving to reach goals and dreams, but the book also serves as one man’s legacy to his three young children. Pausch lived to see The Last Lecture become a New York Times best seller in April of 2008. He lost his battle with pancreatic cancer on July 25, 2008, at the age of forty-seven, but not before inspiring millions of readers to never stop believing in their dreams.

The Last Lecture Synopsis

Randy Pausch’s The Last Lecture, a slim book full of aphorisms and stories, was published in 2008 by Hyperion. In the work, Pausch describes the fulfillment of dreams he has had since childhood and the principles and lessons he has learned along the way into adulthood. The book was written primarily for Pausch’s three children—Dylan, Logan, and Chloe.

Pausch was a computer science professor at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. At 47, he was diagnosed with terminal pancreatic cancer. His tale in The Last Lecture is based on an academic principle in which professors are asked to imagine that they are near death and required to summarize their knowledge and wisdom and pass it along to their students in one final lecture. Pausch took his life’s circumstances and formulated his tale for his children and students.

The book is a result of an actual lecture that took place in 2007 to a crowded lecture hall. Pausch addressed the audience and delivered a humorous, brave, and thought-provoking speech about achieving childhood dreams. Pausch’s lecture was referenced in an article by Jeff Zaslow of The New York Times. He said:

I live in Detroit, about 300 miles away, and I ended up driving to save the cost of a flight. It was like watching Babe Ruth hit his last home run, or Michael Jordan hitting his jump shot at the end of the NBA finals. It was electric in that room. I knew it affected everyone that was there. But I could not have foreseen what followed, even in my wildest dreams.

Zaslow wrote about the lecture in his next column and provided highlights from the video. The video went viral and received thousands of hits on YouTube. ABC’s Good Morning America hosted Pausch on the show, and he also was invited to speak on The Oprah Winfrey Show.

The appeal of Pausch’s video and book is partly due to his upfront, honest, humorous, and humble approach to the end of his life. His story is a real and welcome turn from the hype and celebrity of standard reality shows and entertainment magazines. 

Randy Pausch died on July 25, 2008. His book and video became a best-selling sensation, inspiring people all over the world.

The Last Lecture Extended Summary

Randy Pausch’s The Last Lecture is a work of nonfiction that offers its readers advice on how to achieve their childhood dreams and how to live life. The book, which was written with Jeffrey Zaslow, is based on a lecture Randy Pausch gave. Pausch was a computer science professor at Carnegie Mellon University. After he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, a particularly deadly cancer, he was invited to give a “last lecture.” The last lecture is a tradition in which professors are invited to reflect on their lives and their career before giving a final lecture. Pausch’s lecture was entitled “Really Achieving Your Childhood Dreams.”

When The Last Lecture begins, Pausch explains that he has an “engineering problem.” Although he looks healthy on the outside, inside he has ten tumors in his liver. He has three children: Dylan, Logan, and Chloe. The oldest is five and the youngest is still an infant. Pausch also has a wife, Jai, pronounced “Jay.” Pausch has a lot to live for, but he has been diagnosed with terminal cancer and has perhaps three months to live. Engineering is about doing the best you can with limited resources, and Pausch explains this is what he is trying to do with The Last Lecture.

In retrospect, Pausch explains, the lecture was a great success, but it was not an easy project for him to start. With only a few months left to live, Pausch and Jai moved to Virginia so Jai’s family would be nearby to offer support. Now every day is busy with unpacking and preparing for the inevitable. Jai explains that she is opposed to the project because it will take time from Pausch that he will not be able to spend with his family. Also, the date of the lecture has been set for Jai’s birthday, so on her last birthday with her husband, Pausch will be in Pittsburgh preparing for his lecture rather than spending time with his wife. Although Pausch understands his wife’s concerns, he explains that he felt very drawn to the idea of a last lecture. Perhaps the most important thing for him is that his young children will struggle to remember their father as they get older. However, the last lecture, which will be recorded in front of an audience, will be recorded for posterity. Furthermore, he feels that the advice he offers, validated by an audience, will be more powerful for his children as they grow up. Finally, Pausch points out that “an injured lion still wants to roar.”

After struggling to find a theme, Pausch settles on achieving childhood dreams. He explains that his fight with cancer does not make him unique because thousands of people are diagnosed with pancreatic cancer every year. His work as a computer scientist and as a teacher is important but does not really bring out what makes him unique. Instead, Pausch realizes, he is unique because so much of what he has achieved has been inspired by his childhood dreams. Pausch organizes his lecture with photos that will punctuate his argument, some of which are included in the book. Pausch’s lecture begins by addressing the “elephant in the room.” He explains to his audience that he has been diagnosed with terminal cancer. Although he is receiving chemotherapy treatments, he still has his hair. In fact, in many ways he is still in good health—so much so that he drops to the floor and does push-ups. However, his talk is not about what he has learned from dying. Instead, he is going to talk about living. The key to living is living out childhood dreams.

Pausch credits his parents with allowing him to grow up with a sense of charity and a sense of curiosity. His father was a man who spent his money carefully, but he bought a set of World Encyclopedias, and Pausch credits this with giving him the sense of curiosity that led to him becoming a professor—one who would go on to write an entry in the World Encyclopedia on virtual reality. Pausch also explains that when he was young, he asked his father if he could...

(The entire section is 1618 words.)

The Last Lecture Chapter Summaries

Chapter 1 Summary

An Injured Lion Still Wants to Roar

“Last lectures” are common events on many college campuses. A professor is asked to consider the end of his life and think about what is most important to him. The ideal result is a lecture that causes the audience to ponder the question of their own mortality and legacy. Carnegie Mellon University has done these lectures for years; the series is named Journeys. After Randy Pausch is diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, he is asked to give his Journey lecture in September.

In mid-August, Pausch gets the news that he has only months to live, and he considers canceling his lecture. He and his wife, Jai, think he should be spending all his final days with...

(The entire section is 465 words.)

Chapter 2 Summary

My Life in a Laptop

Pausch is a scientist, so he is unused to thinking about how to connect people to their dreams. He spends four days gathering more than three hundred photos and many other images as well as a few sayings and words of advice; these he will project on a screen. They will help serve as reminders for him as he speaks; he is a visual thinker and he will not use a script. Every ninety minutes he stops and interacts with his children, but Jai still thinks he is spending too much time on the speech and not enough time helping her unpack boxes in their new home.

At first, Jai has no intention of attending her husband’s lecture because she has a house to get settled and myriad...

(The entire section is 448 words.)

Chapter 3 Summary

The Elephant in the Room

Jai is already seated when he arrives, along with about four hundred other people—a large crowd even for the popular lecture series. Pausch is on stage, arranging his props and preparing to speak, but he makes eye contact with no one. Jai can tell he is nervous and probably does not want to make any eye contact that might make him too emotional. Pausch assumes some of the audience is there to see what a dying man has to say, and he is still deleting and rearranging slides when it is time for him to begin.

Pausch is dressed casually in what he decided was the most appropriate childhood-dream clothing he could imagine: a polo shirt with the emblem that all Walt...

(The entire section is 452 words.)

Chapter 4 Summary

The Parent Lottery

Pausch believes he won the “parent lottery.” Because of his parents, he was able to live out his childhood dreams. His mother was an “old-school” English teacher who accepted no nonsense and no excuses; she had high expectations for her students, and she had the same for her son. His father was a medic in World War II. He founded a nonprofit organization to help immigrant children learn English, and he sold insurance for a living. His father’s clients were disadvantaged in many ways, and he worked hard to get them insured. Pausch’s dad was his hero.

The family lived in Columbia, Maryland. Pausch’s parents were frugal in the best way, which forced Randy and...

(The entire section is 503 words.)

Chapter 5 Summary

The Elevator in the Ranch House

While in high school, Pausch asks his parents for permission to “splash” some of the many ideas swirling through his head onto his bedroom walls. He tells them he wants to paint things that are important to him, things he thinks are “cool”; that is enough to garner their permission. His parents support creativity and passion, and this is not an easy “yes” for his father. His mother is less enthusiastic but also agrees.

For two days, Pausch, his sister, and one of his friends paint an assortment of things on his bedroom walls and ceiling. He wants to celebrate the fact that in a quadratic equation, the highest power of an unknown quantity is always...

(The entire section is 488 words.)

Chapter 6 Summary

Getting to Zero G

Pausch believes having specific dreams is very important. While many of his classmates in elementary school wanted to become astronauts, Pausch knew he would never be an astronaut because he wore glasses. What he really wanted was the experience of floating.

NASA has a plane it uses to help astronauts acclimate to zero gravity. It is officially called The Weightless Wonder, though unofficially it is known as The Vomit Comet. Riding in the plane is like riding a runaway roller coaster, but it does give its passengers a feeling of weightlessness.

In 2001, Pausch’s dream became a potential reality when a group of Carnegie Mellon students submitted the winning...

(The entire section is 412 words.)

Chapter 7 Summary

I Never Made It to the NFL

Pausch began playing football when he was nine years old and has loved the game ever since. In fact, football helped mold him into the person he is today. Although he did not reach his goal of playing in the National Football League, perhaps he learned more from not accomplishing this goal than he learned from many of the goals he did accomplish.

His father drags him to his first practice, and Pausch does not want to be there. He is a scrawny boy and one of the smallest on the team. The coach is Jim Graham, a former Penn State linebacker. He has old-fashioned ideas about football: he considers a forward pass to be a trick play. All the boys are frightened of this...

(The entire section is 461 words.)

Chapter 8 Summary

You’ll Find Me Under “V”

Though he now lives in the computer age and loves the world of pixels and the information superhighway, Pausch was raised in a very different world. In 1960 when he was born, all the great knowledge was recorded on paper. In his family, the World Book Encyclopedia was the place to find nearly anything worth knowing. He does not claim to have read the entire set of encyclopedias, but he read a lot and was fascinated by who was selected and how they were chosen to write about such a diverse collection of subjects.

His parents were frugal, but they happily purchased the World Book (which was not cheap) to give the gift of knowledge to their children. Each year the...

(The entire section is 416 words.)

Chapter 9 Summary

A Skill Set Called Leadership

Like a lot of other nerdy kids his age, Pausch dreamed of being Captain James T. Kirk, commander of the starship Enterprise. He did not want to be like him: he wanted to be Captain Kirk. The Star Trek hero was the greatest role model for young boys who loved science; and Pausch believes he became a better husband, teacher, and colleague by watching the captain run his ship.

Kirk was not the smartest person on the ship; Mr. Spock, his first officer, was the logical, intelligent one. Dr. McCoy had all the medical knowledge of the universe, and Scotty was able to keep the ship running even in the midst of an alien attack. They needed their captain...

(The entire section is 500 words.)

Chapter 10 Summary

Winning Big

Another childhood goal Pausch had was to be the coolest guy at any amusement park or carnival he visited. The coolest guy was easy to spot—he was the one walking around with the largest stuffed animal. It never mattered to him if the guy behind the huge stuffed toy was a muscle man or a nerd; if he had the largest animal, he was the coolest guy in the place.

Pausch’s dad agreed, and the family competitiveness showed itself in the midway games. He and his father would routinely do battle for the “largest beast in Stuffed Animal Kingdom.” Pausch loved the feeling of being the object of envy as he walked through the venue, and he used a giant stuffed animal to woo his wife....

(The entire section is 475 words.)

Chapter 11 Summary

The Happiest Place on Earth

Pausch and his family went to Disneyland when he was eight years old, and he was in awe. This was the coolest environment he ever experienced. Even as he stood in line for the rides, he thought to himself that he could not wait to make “this kind of stuff.”

Twenty years later, after he got his PhD in computer science from Carnegie Mellon, he felt perfectly qualified to do anything, so he sent a confident letter of application to Walt Disney Imagineering. In return, he got some of the nicest rejection letters he ever received. The company did not have any jobs that fit his particular qualifications. He found depressing because Walt Disney hires hundreds of...

(The entire section is 497 words.)

Chapter 12 Summary

The Park Is Open Until 8 p.m.

In the summer of 2006, Pausch feels pain in his abdomen; when jaundice sets in, his doctors hope it is hepatitis. Unfortunately it is pancreatic cancer. Half of the people diagnosed with it die within six months and 96 percent die within five years. Pausch approaches his treatment like a scientist, asking many questions and making his own hypotheses. The doctors enjoy having such an engaged patient.

Pausch is willing to do or take whatever his doctors have for him because he has one goal: staying alive as long as possible. He undergoes a specialized surgery in which his gall bladder, a third of his pancreas, a third of his stomach, and several feet of...

(The entire section is 501 words.)

Chapter 13 Summary

The Man in the Convertible

One morning after the fatal diagnosis, Pausch receives an e-mail from Carnegie Mellon’s vice president for advancement, Robbee Kosak, in which she tells him a story.

The night before, she was driving home from work behind a man in a convertible. He had the top down and the windows lowered because it was a beautiful, warm, spring evening. The man’s arm was hanging out the window and he was tapping on the door in time to music on his radio. The wind was blowing through his hair as he bobbed his head to the beat.

Kosak pulled up next to the man and could see a slight smile on his face, as if he were content with his world and his own thoughts. It...

(The entire section is 417 words.)

Chapter 14 Summary

The Dutch Uncle

Pausch has always had a healthy sense of himself and what he is capable of doing; he says what he thinks and believes and has little patience for incompetence. For most of his life, these characteristics have been his strengths; however, at times others have seen him as tactless and arrogant. At these times, he has needed people who can help him get refocused.

His sister, Tammy, has always had to put up with a kid brother who thinks he knows everything. One morning when he was seven and Tammy was nine, they were waiting for the school bus. As usual, he was “mouthing off” to his sister. She took his lunch box and dropped it in a mud puddle just as the bus pulled up. She...

(The entire section is 453 words.)

Chapter 15 Summary

Pouring Soda in the Backseat

For most of his life, Pausch had no children of his own, so in his family he was the “bachelor uncle.” He reveled in being an uncle to Tammy’s two children, Chris and Laura. Every month or so he would pop into their lives and offer his unique perspective on the world. He never spoiled them, but he always tried to get them to see the world from “strange new angles.”

When Chris was seven and Laura was nine, “Uncle Randy” picked them up in his brand new Volkswagen convertible. Tammy warned her children not to make a mess or get anything dirty in their uncle’s new car. As Pausch listened to her admonitions, he thought these warnings were actually...

(The entire section is 503 words.)

Chapter 16 Summary

Romancing the Brick Wall

The most formidable brick wall Pausch ever had to conquer was small in stature, but it reduced him to tears and forced him to re-evaluate his life. Jai was this brick wall.

Charging through brick walls had always been fairly easy for Pausch, at least in his professional and academic life. He believed

brick walls are there to stop the people who do not want it badly enough. They’re there to stop the other people.

Pausch was thirty-seven years old when he met Jai after having fun dating many girls and feeling no desire to settle down. Even as a tenured professor, he lived in an attic apartment with folding chairs in his dining room,...

(The entire section is 497 words.)

Chapter 17 Summary

Not All Fairy Tales End Smoothly

Mr. and Mrs. Pausch get married in a quiet wedding followed by a spectacular send-off in a gigantic, multicolored, hot-air balloon. As she steps into the balloon, Jai says it feels like a fairy tale ending to a Disney movie. The flight over Pittsburgh is beautiful, but they left later than they planned and soon the ballooner (captain of the ship) is worried because he cannot find a place for them to land.

The newlyweds are no longer looking at the view; now they are desperately looking for a large open space hidden somewhere in the urban setting below them. They are at the mercy of the wind, but at last they float over the suburbs and find a large field in...

(The entire section is 499 words.)

Chapter 18 Summary

Lucy, I’m Home

Early in their marriage, Pausch walks to the university on a day that eventually becomes famous in their household as “The Day Jai Managed to Achieve the One-Driver, Two-Car Collision.” Their minivan is in the garage and the Volkswagen convertible is in the driveway. Jai drives out of the garage—and hits her husband’s car. What follows is just like an episode of I Love Lucy as Jai worries all day about how to explain the accident to her husband when he gets home.

To soften the blow, Jai creates what she believes to be the perfect environment in which to deliver her bad news. Both cars are hidden in the garage when Pausch arrives, and Jai sweetly asks all...

(The entire section is 442 words.)

Chapter 19 Summary

A New Year’s Story

On New Year’s Eve 2001, Jai is seven months pregnant and planning a quiet night at home watching a movie with her husband. Suddenly she begins bleeding. Pausch drives her to the hospital just a few minutes away. The doctors in the emergency room soon discover the placenta has torn away from the uterine wall and the baby’s life, along with Jai’s, is at risk.

Her pregnancy has been rough for weeks because her placenta was not functioning efficiently and the baby was not thriving. She was given steroids to stimulate the baby’s lung development, but now her condition is much more serious. Jai is close to clinical shock, and Pausch is worried that the doctors might...

(The entire section is 472 words.)

Chapter 20 Summary

“In Fifty Years, It Never Came Up”

After Pausch’s father died in 2006, the family sorted through his things. They rediscovered what they already knew—he was a man full of life and a spirit of adventure. In his father’s belongings, Pausch found photos of his father as a young man playing the accordion; as a middle-aged man doing one of his favorite things, playing Santa; and as an older man clutching a gigantic stuffed bear. There is another photo of him riding a rollercoaster on his eightieth birthday, surrounded by young people and wearing a huge smile.

Some of his father’s mysteries make his son smile. There is a photo of him in a jacket and tie, standing in a grocery store and...

(The entire section is 412 words.)

Chapter 21 Summary

Jai

Jai could write her own book about what she has learned since Pausch was diagnosed with cancer. She is a strong woman, direct and honest, willing to speak plainly to her husband. Even knowing their time together is limited, they attempt to interact as normally as possible. She tells her husband she is still learning how to deal with him, but she is making progress.

She used to talk to him about her “gut feelings” about things; however, since he is a scientist, she now brings him data. At Christmas they planned to visit his family, but they all had the flu. Pausch still wants to go since his opportunities to see them are limited, but Jai is sure it would not be best. To make her...

(The entire section is 506 words.)

Chapter 22 Summary

The Truth Can Set You Free

Pausch is driving near his new home in Virginia and is not paying close enough attention to the speed limit. As a result of his inattention, he is pulled over by a local police officer who, of course, asks to see his driver’s license and registration. Pausch hands him both documents, and the officer notes his address in Pittsburgh on his Pennsylvania driver’s license.

The officer asks if Pausch is here as part of the military, but Pausch explains he has just moved to Virginia and has not yet had an opportunity to get his new license or register his vehicle. The officer asks what brought him to this area. It is a direct question and Pausch, without giving it too...

(The entire section is 421 words.)

Chapter 23 Summary

I’m on My Honeymoon, but If You Need Me…

Jai sends her husband for some groceries; he decides he will get out of the store more quickly if he uses the self-scan aisle. He slides his credit card in the machine and scans all of his items, as directed. The machine tells him he owes $16.55 but does not give him a receipt; he swipes his card and starts the process over again. In a moment, the machine gives him two receipts. He has been charged twice.

Pausch has two options. He can take the receipt to the store manager and get the problem fixed, and his account will be credited for the $16.55. It will probably take ten or fifteen minutes, and there will be nothing satisfying about the...

(The entire section is 492 words.)

Chapter 24 Summary

A Recovering Jerk

It may be the primary goal of every teacher to teach students how to learn, but Pausch wants his students to learn how to judge themselves realistically. The only way for people to improve is to develop the ability to assess themselves. He sees college as paying for a personal trainer at an athletic club. Equipment is provided and trainers (teachers) should be helping students exert themselves, offering praise when it is deserved and telling them honestly when they need to work harder. Just as people who work out see the physical results, students should be able to recognize their minds are growing just as their muscles grow.

Getting students to accept and even welcome...

(The entire section is 491 words.)

Chapter 25 Summary

Training a Jedi

Fulfilling a personal childhood dream is satisfying, but Pausch eventually learns that helping others’ dreams come true is even more rewarding. As a teacher at the University of Virginia in 1993, a young man named Tommy Burnett is interviewing to be on Pausch’s research team. In the course of their conversation, Burnett reveals his childhood dream to work on the next Star Wars movie.

The last Star Wars movie was made in 1983. There are no concrete plans to make another one, so Pausch tries to temper Burnett’s aspirations with reality; however, the young man is adamant that more Star Wars movies will be made and he will work on them. It is his...

(The entire section is 475 words.)

Chapter 26 Summary

They Just Blew Me Away

Pausch is an “efficiency freak,” always preferring to do two or—even better, three—things at one time. This prompts him to wonder how he can help a larger group of students achieve their childhood dreams in addition to what he is currently doing. He figures out a way after he arrived at Carnegie Mellon.

He creates a course called “Building Virtual Worlds” (BVW, for short). It is open to fifty undergraduates from all different departments and majors. The group is eclectic, and most of the students would never connect with one another outside of this class. He puts them in random groups of four and gives them a simple two-week project: build a virtual world....

(The entire section is 495 words.)

Chapter 27 Summary

The Promised Land

Enabling students to fulfill their dreams can be done on the smallest scale (one-on-one) to the grandest scale, as Pausch does by helping create a software teaching tool named Alice. This program allows virtually anyone to create animations for a variety of purposes, such as storytelling, interactive games, or videos. It is a free program offered as a public service by Carnegie Mellon, and Pausch believes it is something tens of millions of kids will use to help achieve their dreams.

Pausch loves Alice because it is a “head-fake”: users think they are using Alice just to make video games or movies, but they are actually learning how to become computer programmers. Just...

(The entire section is 428 words.)

Chapter 28 Summary

Dream Big

The first man walked on the moon when Pausch was eight years old, in the summer of 1969. Once that happens, Pausch, even as a young boy, knows that anything is possible. This one act gives everyone all over the world permission to dream bigger dreams than ever before. Pausch is at camp that summer and, once the lunar module lands, all the campers are summoned to the main farm house to watch the television.

It takes the astronauts a long time to get organized before they can climb down the ladder and actually walk on the surface of the moon. Pausch can see they have a lot of gear and a lot of important details to which they must attend, so he watches patiently. The adults in the...

(The entire section is 413 words.)

Chapter 29 Summary

Earnest Is Better Than Hip

Pausch believes he must always choose “earnest” over “hip” because hip is only for the short-term and earnest is always for the long-term. Earnestness, he believes, is underestimated and comes from deep inside, while hip merely skims the surface and has one goal: to impress.

People who are considered hip love parodies, but there is nothing timeless about a parody. It is the earnest person who creates something that will last for generations and is worth parodying. In fact, earnest people create the originals that hipsters feel the need to parody.

A Boy Scout who works diligently to become an Eagle Scout certainly qualifies as someone...

(The entire section is 400 words.)

Chapter 30 Summary

Raising the White Flag

Pausch’s mother, the proper and demanding English teacher, always called her son “Randolph.” She grew up on a small dairy farm in Virginia during the Depression under circumstances which shaped her life. Like so many others around the country at that time, she often wondered if there would be any food on the dinner table each night. When she had a son, she chose the name “Randolph” because it seemed to her a name that some wealthy, classy Virginian might have. Perhaps that is why Randy never embraced the name. In fact, he “rejected and abhorred” the name. It seemed ridiculous to him for many years of his life.

Pausch makes it clear that he does not want...

(The entire section is 408 words.)

Chapter 31 Summary

Let’s Make a Deal

While he is in graduate school, Pausch gets into the habit of tipping back in his chair at the dining-room table at his parents’ house. Whenever he visits them, he tilts his chair back and, predictably, his mother scolds him for doing so. She calls him Randolph when she scolds him, of course, telling him he is going to break the chair.

Pausch likes leaning back in the chair. It is comfortable and, despite his mother’s admonition, the chair seems perfectly adept at holding him up on only two of its four legs. Because of that, Pausch leans back in that chair, meal after meal, and every time his mother scolds him for doing it.

One day Pausch’s mother tells...

(The entire section is 418 words.)

Chapter 32 Summary

Don’t Complain, Just Work Harder

Too many people spend their lives complaining about their problems. Pausch believes that if people spent one-tenth of the energy they spend on complaining and used it to solve the problem, they would be amazed at how well things might turn out for them. But not everyone is a complainer.

Sandy Blatt, Pausch’s landlord while he is in graduate school, is not a complainer. He had a tragic accident when he was a young man. While he was unloading boxes into the cellar of a building, a truck backed into him. He fell backwards down the stairs and into the cellar. One time when Pausch asked him how far he fell, Blatt simply said, “Far enough.” Blatt has spent...

(The entire section is 454 words.)

Chapter 33 Summary

Treat the Disease, Not the Symptom

One of the young women Pausch used to date was several thousand dollars in debt. Not surprisingly, this was a major source of stress for her, and every month more interest got added to her debts. Again, it was not surprising that this only served to compound her stress. To help deal with the mounting pressures of her growing debt, she decided she would attend a meditation and yoga class every Tuesday night. It was the only free night she had available in her busy schedule, but she insisted the class helped alleviate her stress.

The classes became a kind of refuge. As she breathed in, she would imagine herself finding creative solutions to deal with her...

(The entire section is 401 words.)

Chapter 34 Summary

Don’t Obsess Over What People Think

It is Pausch’s experience and belief that people spend an inordinate amount of time every day worrying about what other people think of them. It is a useless pursuit and a waste of time. The scientist in him has got it all figured it out: if people never worried about what other people might possibly be thinking about them, the world would be thirty-three percent more effective both at their jobs and in their lives. (In truth, of course, Pausch cannot substantiate his figure of thirty-three percent with any statistical data. He says he likes exact numbers, whether he can prove them or not, and he plans to stick with this one.)

Pausch regularly worked...

(The entire section is 396 words.)

Chapter 35 Summary

Start by Sitting Together

When Pausch has the opportunity to work with a team, he imagines them sitting down together at a table with a deck of cards. He wants to lay all of his cards on the table, face up, and ask the group what they can do together with the hand he has laid out for them. Working together effectively is a vital skill both at work and in families. Pausch uses his classroom projects to teach his students this life skill.

Teaching his students how to improve their group dynamics has become a kind of obsession for Pausch, and each semester he begins by dividing his classes into four-person groups and then spending time on a handout he developed called “Tips for Working...

(The entire section is 459 words.)

Chapter 36 Summary

Look for the Best in Everybody

Jon Snoddy is Pausch’s hero and friend; he is also a Disney Imagineer who has a unique way of looking at the world. One piece of advice from Snoddy makes a tremendous impression on Pausch. He believes that if a person waits long enough, people will surprise and impress him. This is a lesson he has learned over the course of his life and is something he lives by today.

This kind of thinking is what inspires Pausch to consider Snoddy his hero, and he begins to think as his hero does. Sometimes, when people are frustrating him and making him angry, perhaps it is because he has not yet given them enough time. Snoddy warns him that many times great patience is...

(The entire section is 192 words.)

Chapter 37 Summary

Watch What They Do, Not What They Say

Chloe Pausch is only eighteen months old, so she is too young for her father to tell her this now, but when she is old enough to understand he wants her to know something he once heard from a female colleague. What Pausch’s friend said is good advice for all young women; in fact, he believes it may be the best advice of any kind he has ever gotten.

She told Pausch that it took her a long time to figure this out, but she eventually did and she wanted to share it with him. What she learned is actually quite simple. When a man is romantically interested in her, she ignores everything he says; instead, she only pays attention to what he does. It is his...

(The entire section is 218 words.)

Chapter 38 Summary

If at First You Don’t Succeed...

While most people consider clichés to be trite and overused, Pausch has great respect for them. He believes they are old and overused because they are so often an accurate assessment of life. Educators try to avoid clichés, but they should not because young people do not know most of them. They are a new audience and are generally inspired by the truths clichés present.

“Dance with the one who brung you” is a saying that is applicable on more than just prom night. This is a reminder that one should appreciate and practice loyalty. “Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity” comes from the Roman philosopher named Seneca. He was born...

(The entire section is 453 words.)

Chapter 39 Summary

Be the First Penguin

“Experience is what you get when you didn’t get what you wanted” is an expression Pausch learned while on sabbatical at Electronic Arts, a company which creates video games. It is a phrase that he remembers long after his time at the company and he uses regularly with his students. It reflects a life lesson which needs to be considered at every brick wall and disappointment people encounter: it is a reminder that failure is not only acceptable but is often essential to growth and improvement.

When he teaches his “Building Virtual Worlds” course, Pausch encourages his students to attempt difficult things without worrying about failing. He wants to find a way to...

(The entire section is 440 words.)

Chapter 40 Summary

Get People’s Attention

The majority of Pausch’s students are incredibly intelligent, and he is confident they will enter the world of work and create amazing things, including software programs, animation projects, and entertainment devices. One other thing he is confident about is the fact that they could use that same potential to cause tremendous frustration to people while they do so.

People who think about things, such as computer scientists and engineers, think a lot about how to build things; what they do not always think a lot about is building and creating things that are easy for people to use. Explaining even simple things is often difficult for them, and most of them do a...

(The entire section is 430 words.)

Chapter 41 Summary

The Lost Art of Thank-You Notes

One of the most powerful things one person can do for another is also one of the simplest things—showing gratitude. Despite Pausch’s commitment to efficiency in most areas of his life, he believes thank-you notes are best when they are done the old-fashioned way, with pen and paper.

People who read a lot of applications, such as job interviewers and college admissions officers, read a significant number of resumes from students who would all be considered successful because they have stellar grades and impressive lists of accomplishments. What these professionals do not see many of is handwritten thank-you notes.

For students with a B+ average,...

(The entire section is 500 words.)

Chapter 42 Summary

Loyalty Is a Two-Way Street

Dennis Cosgrove is an undergraduate student at the University of Virginia in the early nineties; he is an impressive research assistant in Pausch’s computer lab, is a teaching assistant in an operating systems course, is taking graduate level courses, and is an A student—in every class but one. Cosgrove is failing his calculus III class.

He is able to do the work, but he is so focused on other things that he simply stops going to his calculus class. Of course this becomes a serious problem, especially since it is not the first time in his college career that Cosgrove has earned all A’s with one F. Two weeks into the semester, one of the deans notices...

(The entire section is 513 words.)

Chapter 43 Summary

The Friday Night Solution

Pausch receives tenure a year earlier than most professors typically do, which is impressive to the other junior faculty members. When they ask him his secret, Pausch tells them it is simple. All they have to do is call him at his office at 10:00 on a Friday night and he will tell them his secret. (This was before he had a family, of course.)

Many people are looking for a shortcut to success. For Pausch the best shortcut is generally the longest way and comes down to two essential words: work hard. In his view, working longer hours than other people allows him to learn more about his craft. This, in turn, makes him more efficient, more able, and even happier. Pausch...

(The entire section is 200 words.)

Chapter 44 Summary

Show Gratitude

Shortly after gaining tenure at the University of Virginia, Pausch takes his research team (fifteen people) to Disney World as a thank-you for their hard work and commitment to his research. One of his colleagues, a fellow professor, takes him aside and asks why he would do such a thing. Clearly he and other nearly tenured professors are concerned that Pausch is setting a precedent which they are not willing to commit to as well.

Pausch tells him he has no choice: this team worked incredibly hard and was responsible for helping him get “the best job in the world for life.” A trip to Disney World is the least he can do to repay them. The sixteen of them drive a van to...

(The entire section is 261 words.)

Chapter 45 Summary

Send Out Thin Mints

One of Pausch’s responsibilities is being an academic reviewer, which means he has to ask other professors to read rather tedious research papers, a task none of them particularly enjoys doing. He discovers a practical plan that works. With each paper that needs reviewing, he sends the professor a box of Girl Scout Thin Mints. In a note, he tells them this is their reward—but they cannot eat the cookies until the paper is finished.

This makes his colleagues smile, and Pausch never has to call and nag them. They see the box on their desks and know what they have to do. If he does have to send gentle e-mail reminders, he simply asks if they have eaten their cookies yet....

(The entire section is 143 words.)

Chapter 46 Summary

All You Have Is What You Bring With You

Pausch has always believed he must be prepared for every situation. He asks himself what he might need every day before he leaves his house, and he anticipates any questions students might ask in class each day. Now, as he is preparing for his family’s future without him, he thinks about the preparations he needs to make before he goes.

His mother took him to the grocery store when he was seven. When she got to the checkout lane, she realized she had forgotten several items on her shopping list. She left the cart with her son and went to grab the final items on her list. In the short time she was gone, Pausch had loaded everything from the cart onto...

(The entire section is 500 words.)

Chapter 47 Summary

A Bad Apology Is Worse Than No Apology

An apology should not be thought of as pass/fail. Pausch tells his students that any apology which receives less than an A is not really an apology. A halfhearted or insincere apology is often worse than no apology at all because it is seen as insulting. Doing something wrong to another person is like having an infection in the relationship. An effective apology serves as an antibiotic, but a bad apology is like rubbing salt into an open wound.

Most of Pausch’s classes involve considerable group work, and it is inevitable that friction between group members will occur. Some students do not do their share of the work, while others are arrogant and...

(The entire section is 426 words.)

Chapter 48 Summary

Tell the Truth

If Pausch only gets to offer three words of advice for everyone, they would be “tell the truth.” If he gets to add three more words, he will add “all the time.” His parents taught him that a person is only as good as his word, and that is the best way Pausch knows how to say it.

Not only is honesty a moral imperative, it is also efficient. In an environment where everyone tells the truth, no one has to spend time double-checking or verifying claims of truth. Pausch loves the University of Virginia honor code. If a student has been sick and needs to make up an exam, Pausch does not have to create a second exam because the student “pledges” that he has not spoken to...

(The entire section is 224 words.)

Chapter 49 Summary

Get in Touch With Your Crayon Box

Pausch is often accused of seeing things only in black and white. Some of them even say that if someone wants clear-cut advice, he should go talk to Professor Pausch. If, however, someone wants advice which is gray, Pausch is not their best option.

Even as a young child, Pausch used to say his crayon box only had two colors in it— black and white. This is probably why he loves computer science, a field where almost everything is either true or false. With time, though, Pausch has come to appreciate that a good crayon box may actually have more than two colors in it; however, an effective life will wear out the black and white crayons long before the rest....

(The entire section is 262 words.)

Chapter 50 Summary

The $100,000 Salt and Pepper Shaker

When Pausch is twelve and his sister Tammy is fourteen, their parents take them to Disney World. For the first time, the two are old enough to roam around a bit on their own. Their parents arrange a meeting place, and the kids have ninety minutes of virtually complete freedom.

As an expression of their gratefulness at being allowed such extraordinary freedom, Pausch and his sister want to buy their parents a thank-you gift. They pool their allowance and find what they consider to be the perfect gift for such an occasion: a ceramic salt and pepper shaker set. The gift costs them ten dollars, all of their allowance money, and after they purchase it the...

(The entire section is 493 words.)

Chapter 51 Summary

No Job Is Beneath You

There is plenty of evidence to prove that young people today feel an increasing sense of entitlement, and that trend is evident in classrooms as well. Pausch sees it first-hand in his classroom. Unfortunately, a large group of seniors have the attitude that they should be hired simply because they have some kind of creative brilliance. The idea of starting at the bottom in the workplace is not appealing to them; they believe they deserve more.

Pausch always tells his students that they should be thrilled to be hired for a job in someplace as modest as a mailroom. They should take the job and, when they get there, they should get really great at sorting mail. It is so...

(The entire section is 417 words.)

Chapter 52 Summary

Know Where You Are

When Pausch arrives at Disney, he is greeted by Mk Haley, a twenty-seven-year-old Imagineer who has been given the task of supervising him during his sabbatical at Disney Imagineering. Haley is not impressed by academic credentials and asks Pausch what he has to offer the company.

For the first time, Pausch is in a place where his qualifications as a tenured professor mean nothing to anyone around him, and he feels as if he is traveling through a foreign country and has to find a way to earn some local currency. He has been trying to teach his students this lesson for years, and now he has to follow his own advice.

Though he has achieved his primary childhood...

(The entire section is 415 words.)

Chapter 53 Summary

Never Give Up

Pausch applied to Brown University but was placed on a waiting list; he called the admissions office so often they eventually admitted him. They saw how badly he wanted to be there, and his tenacity hurled him over the brick wall which was obstructing his goal.

Pausch had absolutely no intention of going to graduate school; in his family, people went to college and then got jobs. However, his mentor Andy van Dam told Pausch he should get his PhD and become a professor: he said Pausch was a great salesman; if he began working for a company, they would use him as a salesman. If Pausch were going to be a salesman, he might as well sell something worth having, like an education....

(The entire section is 503 words.)

Chapter 54 Summary

Be a Communitarian

Americans place a lot of emphasis on the idea of personal rights, and that is how it should be. However, no discussion of rights should be held without a discussion of responsibilities as well. Rights have an origin, and in America Pausch believes they come from the community. In return, each citizen has a responsibility to his community. While some people call this being a “communitarian,” he simply calls it common sense.

Unfortunately, this is a concept which is no longer common. In his twenty years of teaching, Pausch has observed that more and more students are completely unaware of the reality that rights come only with responsibilities. At the beginning of each...

(The entire section is 452 words.)

Chapter 55 Summary

All You Have to Do Is Ask

During his dad’s last trip to Disney World, he is surprised. Pausch, his son Dylan, and his father are waiting to ride the monorail. Dylan is only four years old and wants to sit in the really cool nose-cone with the driver. Pausch’s dad is a theme park lover and thinks that would be a real treat as well. He is dismayed that regular people do not get to sit in such a special place. As an Imagineer, Pausch knows more about Disney than his father or his son, and he believes he knows the trick to make their wishes come true.

Pausch walks over to the monorail attendant and asks if the three of them can sit in the front car with the driver. The young man immediately...

(The entire section is 501 words.)

Chapter 56 Summary

Make a Decision: Tigger or Eeyore

When Pausch tells Jared Cohen, Carnegie Mellon’s president, that he is going to give a last lecture, Cohen tells him to be sure to talk about having fun, because that is what he will most remember about Pausch. He agrees to do so but says it is one of those obvious things in life, like a fish talking about how important water is.

Pausch does not know how not to have fun. Even as he is dying, he is having fun, and he plans to keep doing so until the end of his life because there is no other option for him. He learned this very early in his life and sees it as a choice everyone must make. The two choices everyone has can be seen most obviously in...

(The entire section is 443 words.)

Chapter 57 Summary

A Way to Understand Optimism

Right after Pausch was diagnosed with cancer, one of his doctors gave him an excellent piece of advice. He told Pausch it is important for him to behave as if he were going to be around for a while, something the dying man had already determined to do. Pausch joked that he just bought a new convertible and got a vasectomy and wonders what more he needs to do to prove he plans to live a rich and fulfilling life—short or not.

There is no chance that Pausch is in any kind of denial about his condition; on the contrary, he is well aware of the inevitable end which will come. While he is living as if he is dying, he is also living very much like he is still living....

(The entire section is 436 words.)

Chapter 58 Summary

The Input of Others

Since his last lecture, Pausch has heard from many people he has known over the years, and he is grateful for their words of kindness. A former colleague appreciates the advice Pausch once gave him about paying more attention to the “suggestions” of department heads, and a former student credits him with inspiring him to begin a personal-development website. And, to keep things in balance, he hears from a girl on whom he had an unrequited crush; she tells him (gently, of course) that he been too much of a nerd for her to date in high school and that she ended up marrying a real doctor.

More than anything, though, the messages are from strangers wishing him...

(The entire section is 502 words.)

Chapter 59 Summary

Dreams for My Children

A few months before the worst is to come, Pausch still appears healthy. The kids do not know their father is sick, and yet he must find ways to make sure they know who he is and what he believes in despite their young ages. Though he knows he will miss all the major growing-up events of his children’s lives, his heart hurts more when he thinks of his children growing up without a father. While he grieves his own losses, he grieves more for theirs.

He wants all their memories of time spent with him to be sharp, clear, and unforgettable rather than fuzzy and forgettable. He wants his daughter Chloe to know he was the first man who ever fell in love with her. Jai is...

(The entire section is 499 words.)

Chapter 60 Summary

Jai and Me

In a family with cancer, the caregiver is generally forced into the background while the patient is allowed to focus on himself and receive the adulation and sympathy of others. Jai has a cancer patient and three little kids, and Pausch decides he will use a few moments of his last lecture to show everyone how much he appreciates his wife.

Near the end of his lecture, Pausch talks about how vital it is to focus on other people, not just himself. He looks offstage and asks someone in the wings to bring in the tangible example of his point. Jai’s birthday was the day before, so he has arranged for her friend to wheel a large birthday cake onto the stage. He explains to...

(The entire section is 499 words.)

Chapter 61 Summary

The Dreams Will Come to You

Days before his last lecture, Pausch is worried about making it through the final lines of his talk without getting too emotional, so he makes a contingency plan. The last few sentences of his speech are written on four slides. If, at the final moment, he cannot speak them, he will simply show the slides and thank his audience for coming.

He has been on stage for just over an hour, and he is exhausted from the chemo, from the long stretch of standing, and from the emotional energy he has spent. At the same time he is content, satisfied, and fulfilled. His life has come full circle; the list of childhood dreams he made at eight years old helped him frame his final...

(The entire section is 415 words.)

Lori Steinbach, Ed. Scott Locklear