In 2007, a man named Randy Pausch delivered his “Last Lecture” at Carnegie Mellon University. Often, a lecture like this is given by a professor either right before or after their retirement. Usually, it’s a collection of thoughts and lessons they wish to deliver as a farewell. Randy’s lecture, “Really Achieving Your Childhood Dreams”, was a guide on how to live, a personal journey through his life, and how he managed to accomplish the bulk of his childhood dreams. The Last Lecture is a compilation of stories from his lecture, as well as a few other lessons and fill-ins. It is exactly the sort of structure you’d expect from a typical self-help book... with a small twist.
Randy Pausch passed away on July 2008, about nine months after his last lecture and only three months after publishing this novel. The cause was pancreatic cancer, diagnosed only a few weeks before giving the talk. His last lecture was quite literal in every respect. For what it’s worth, none of this necessarily makes any of his lessons more or less true or believable, but it does add a certain degree of weight to everything he mentions. After all, anyone could write 200 pages on how to live their life. But trying to fit one’s entire life, and all its value in the same amount of pages, is a far tougher task and it shows. The Last Lecture is nearly Zolaesque in presentation, attempting to display ethical and social values through its telling of small narrative vignettes. It feels like a collection of real life fables, all stark and richly detailed.
The book itself is organized into four main categories. The events and stories are not chronologically sound, but I can believe that all of them happened; this account holds an air of honesty, or as Pausch puts it: “earnestness”. He starts by talking about his childhood dreams and how he fulfilled them, then moves on to various adventures throughout his life and the lessons he carried away from them. Afterward, there’s a small section about the idea of fulfilling one’s dreams by enabling the dreams of others. Finally, it closes with some general advice pulled from real life examples, as well as a Final Remarks section. That last section was a lot more impactful than I expected, probably on account of the circumstances with which it was written.
Unfortunately, the book isn’t without fault. Believe me when I say that nothing feels worse than effectively criticizing a man’s dying words. The Last Lecture is...very hit and miss. Every single story or section averages about two to four pages. This account of lessons is ultimately quite psalm-like in execution; which is totally fine except there isn’t much consistency between them, at least in terms of impact. In one section, the book delivers three chapters in a row of information that feels fairly obvious, before reaching the fourth chapter with a new and meaningful message. It is impactful, but it is a little frustrating piercing through each chapter for tidbits of wisdom.
The other thing that slightly distorted the experience wasn’t really a criticism so much as an observation. From the description he gave, Randy Pausch sounded like an incredibly fortunate man, probably more than most. He was married to the love of his life, had nearly perfect parents, just the right friends with just the right advice, and managed to fulfill all of his dreams. I don’t bring these things forward to undermine Randy or his family, but it left an unintended interpretation of his words: that you need to be pretty lucky, and carry a somewhat privileged position, to guarantee this level of success in life. It’s not necessarily wrong, but it’s also not the sort of feeling you want to walk away with when reading an inspirational life story. This underlying feeling is not a criticism of Randy himself, but a criticism of his book, and a message that could easily be misconstrued because of its framing.
The Last Lecture is still a book that I would recommend to most; especially, those that might be looking for insight from a creative mind. Although its impact was perhaps a bit dulled for me, it may be a complete game changer for someone else. If there’s even a chance that someone’s potential could unfold by reading this, I’d be remiss not to offer the chance. It’s not full of hip advice, but it’s certainly earnest and will be well received for many years to come.
And my deepest respect for Randy Pausch and his family. Dream on.