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...
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