Sunday, June 15, 2008

The Last Lecture: Randy Pausch

The concept of the last lecture is as interesting as it is doomed to fail. It is all very well to ask professors: What wisdom would we want to impart to the world if we knew it was our last chance? If we had to vanish tomorrow, what would we want as our legacy? But if a professor is faced with such a question, what are the odds (s)he would not get maudlin and sound like a badly written motivational book full of such gems as “speak the truth”, “get your priorities right” and “be humble”?

In the case of Professor Randy Pausch, a computer science professor at Carnegie Mellon University, the situation is even more poignant than the last lecture just being a hypothetical “last”: he had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and had been given just a few more months to live. So he treats the last lecture as his opportunity to download everything from his head; it is his “how to” guide for the world. This book is serves as a companion volume for the actual lecture, put together by Professor Pausch himself through Jeffrey Zaslow.

When you are faced with a lecture title like “Really Achieving Your Childhood Dreams,” you know what to expect. And Professor Pausch does not disappoint. A collection of poignant childhood stories, a series of courageous statements about why he wants to live on not for himself but for his children, some cries for honesty and truthfulness, and glowing tributes to his wife, his children and his colleagues.

Well, to be honest, the professor makes a clear disclosure in the book itself, when he suggests: If at first you don’t succeed, try a cliché. And he certainly walks the talk. It may not always be a cliché in expression, but it almost invariably is in thought.

Professor Randy Pausch is known to be one of the best in the field of computer programming and virtual reality, and his greatest contribution to mankind is well likely to be Alice, an educational software that teaches 3D computer programming to kids – it a non-profit project from CMU that he has pioneered from the beginning. This book, as Pausch himself admits, is his legacy to his children. So it’s not fair for anyone else to judge it but his children. May be it shouldn’t have been made commercially available.

The actual lecture can be found at the end of this post, but considering it lasts more than one hour, you really need to have a lot of time to view it. The book, on the other hand, because it has been written as 61 semi-independent pieces, enables you to dip and dip out whenever you get small time slots.

Tailpiece: Randy Pausch was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer some time in October 2006. In August 2007, he was told that he had about 3-6 months of relatively good health. But the good news is that as recent as 10 June 2008, he seems to be fit enough to even blog about his latest success – a letter from none other than George W. Bush. You can access the professor's blog here.

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