The late Randy Pausch, a computer scientist and college professor who died in 2008 of pancreatic cancer at the age of 48, left one of the great memorials a terminally-ill individual could conceive. Known to history as “The Last Lecture,” it is about the importance of maintaining the proper perspectives in life and allowing oneself to dream or visualize a more emotionally-satisfying life. An integral component of Pausch’s philosophy, articulated on September 18, 2007, before a crowd of colleagues and students at Carnegie Mellon University, is the role of money and its proper place in one’s life. One would assume that Pausch’s speech would represent a stirring indictment against materialism. While he certainly emphasized, as will be seen, the importance of ranking emotional health above material considerations, he was not so unrealistic as to suggest that money never mattered. It does matter. It’s a part of life, and its presence in your pocket on a regular basis is a wise investment of time. Describing a childhood encounter in a grocery store with a cashier while his mother had gone back to the aisles for additional items, he recalled the embarrassment he felt at having no money to pay the bill (he acknowledges in his lecture that the cashier had been toying with him, knowing his mother would return with the money to pay for the groceries). As he noted in the lecture:
“Now that I'm an adult, you'll never catch me with less 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.”
That said, Pausch’s lecture, and his message to his own children, is principally about the importance of vision, of having a sense of the life they want to live, not the life they have to live. And that, he suggested, required a plan:
“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.”
Perhaps the most important passage from Pausch’s lecture regarding the relative value of money was when he noted the importance to human and societal development of inspiration. Pausch was smart-enough to know – in fact, he was a great deal smarter than this educator – that realizing a vision usually requires money. His point, however, was that, just as with the old adage about teaching a man to fish vice giving him a fish, the vision to achieve should precede the financial consideration, not the other way around:
“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 to achieve the maximum of human potential, which is how our greatest problems will eventually be solved.”
The importance of emotional health is the priority Dr. Pausch wanted to convey to his children. Money is important, but it cannot substitute for the value of human relationships and for having a sense of one’s rightful place in the cosmos. Describing a conversation he had with his minister after receiving the news that his illness was terminal, Pausch told his audience the following anecdote:
“He [the minister] 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.”
What Randy Pausch told his children about money is that, while important to one’s ability to function in life, and while it can provide peace of mind under the right conditions, it is not a substitute for passion and for the willingness to both have a vision and to pursue it.