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The Last Lecture

by Randy Pausch

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The Last Lecture Summary

The Last Lecture is a book by professor Randy Pausch that expands on a lecture Pausch gave encouraging children and adults to pursue their dreams.

  • Pausch’s original lecture was titled “Really Achieving Your Childhood Dreams” and was directed at young adults. He stresses the importance of taking the time to dream and of having parents who encourage creativity, emotion, and intellectual exploration.

  • Pausch and Jeffrey Zaslow cowrote the book, expanding upon ideas and aphorisms that Pausch first explored in his speech. Pausch includes many personal anecdotes, including some about his time working as an Imagineer at Walt Disney World.

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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.


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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 forty-seven, 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.

Extended Summary

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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 paint his room. Although his mother was skeptical of the experiment, his father was enthusiastic. Pausch and his friend went on to paint quadratic equations, an elevator door, and messages on the roof. It was a room of imagination that his mother now shows off to people when they visit the home.

He also credits his childhood football coach, Jim Graham. Although Pausch did not realize his childhood dream of playing in the National Football League, he did learn a lot from the attempt. Pausch was not a very athletic kid growing up, but he learned to overcome obstacles from his coach. Because he was pushed, he learned how to pursue his childhood dreams. This lesson is important, Pausch argues, because it is not often easy to achieve one’s dreams. People will often hit against what Pausch refers to as the “brick wall.” Always the optimist, Pausch explains that the wall is there so determined people can find a way around it or over it.

For example, one of Pausch’s dreams was to float in space. He and his research team of graduate students worked with virtual reality. Many people experience nausea when they enter zero-gravity environments because the balance provided by their inner ear is affected. Pausch’s team suggested that training in virtual reality environments could help offset this nausea. When their proposal was accepted, it seemed that Pausch would finally get to achieve his dream. Unfortunately, faculty advisers were not allowed to enter the zero-gravity simulators. Undaunted, Pausch looked for a loophole and found it: journalists could accompany students into zero gravity. So Pausch tendered his resignation and filled in an application to take part in the project as a journalist. His application was accepted and he got to live out a childhood dream because he knew how to strive to overcome brick walls.

Pausch also credits this ability to overcome brick walls with other accomplishments in his life. Over the course of his life, he dreamed of being Captain Kirk from Star Trek. Although this did not happen, he did lead a research team that worked on virtual reality technology and even met William Shatner. He spent one sabbatical as an Imagineer for Disney World. Finally, it took all of his persistence and optimism to win the love of his wife, Jai. Jai, who had already married and divorced her college sweetheart, was reluctant to enter into another serious relationship. However, Pausch’s persistence won out in the end.

What also allowed Pausch to convince Jai to marry him was his ability to overcome his own shortcomings in his relationships with others. Pausch had been a bachelor for a long time when he met Jai. As a university student, Pausch had been an independent and hard-working student, but many people found him arrogant and difficult to work with. Pausch credits his mentor, or his “Dutch Uncle,” Andy van Demand, with helping him to realize how he behaved:

It’s such a shame that people perceive you as being so arrogant, because it’s going to limit what you’re going to be able to accomplish in life.

Andy’s phrasing helped Pausch learn to acknowledge his shortcomings and work more effectively with others. Pausch admits that he has benefited from those who “cared enough to tell me the tough-love things that I needed to hear.” As he grew older, Pausch would go on to take his college mentor’s advice as he took on a new role: helping others to achieve their childhood dreams. Pausch explains some of the techniques that he has used to help his students learn to work as part of a team, including peer assessments that are expressed in charts and graphs. He has also taught his students how to apologize. He credits these skills with helping one student to go on to work on the Star Wars prequel trilogy. He helped another young woman to become an Imagineer at Disney World. Pausch also offers time management tips and mental habits like “treat the disease, not the symptom” to help others “enable” their dreams.

In his final remarks, Pausch explains the aftermath of his life since giving his last lecture. He went on to be interviewed by Diane Sawyer. His lecture, which was posted online, earned national attention. He explains the advice people have given him, much of it related to how he should prepare for his death so his children will be taken care of. For example, Pausch has taken out life insurance, but one person suggested that he take out “emotional insurance,” which means ensuring that he says everything he needs to say while he is still healthy enough to say it. Otherwise, he will worry that he has left things unfinished when he gets really sick. Pausch expresses his gratitude and love for Jai and explains how he had his audience at his last lecture sing “Happy Birthday” for her.

In the conclusion of his lecture and his book, Pausch explains that his talk has been about achieving childhood dreams. However, there were two “head fakes.” The first was that the talk was not really about how to achieve childhood dreams but rather how to lead one’s life. He argues:

If you lead your life the right way, the karma will take care of itself. The dreams will come to you.

The second head fake is that the entire lecture was for his children. Pausch ends his lecture with a photo of him with his children.

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