Randy Pausch: The Last Lecture – Part One

Randy Pausch: The Last Lecture - Part One
Randy Pausch: The Last Lecture – Part One

By Anubhav Srivastava ( Register for his Workshop – Build Super Confidence For Super Success!)

Randy Pausch was a professor of Computer Science At Carnegie Mellon University. Diagnosed with Terminal Pancreatic cancer in 2007, Pausch was only given a few months to live. That year he delivered an  outstanding speech to the students and staff at the Carnegie Mellon University which became hugely popular. The speech was titled the Last Lecture and are the words of a man at the edge of death who taught us how to live life.  Pausch passed away in 2008 but not before he made an indelible impact on the world through his great wisdom. As the speech is extremely long it will be broken down into 2 parts. Here is Part 1. Read Part Two Here.



It’s wonderful to be here. What Indira didn’t tell you is that this lecture series used to be called “The Last Lecture.”

If you had one last lecture to give before you died, what would it be? I thought, “Damn, I finally nailed the venue, and they renamed it.”

So, in case there’s anybody who wandered in and doesn’t know the backstory, my dad always taught me, when there’s an elephant in the room, introduce them. If you look at my CAT scans, there are approximately ten tumors in my liver, and the doctors told me three to six months of good health left. That was a month ago, so you can do the math. I have some of the best doctors in the world.

So that is what it is. We can’t change it, and we just have to decide how we’re going to respond to that. We cannot change the cards we are dealt, just how we play the hand.

If I don’t seem as depressed or morose as I should be, sorry to disappoint you. And I assure you, I am not in denial. It’s not like I’m not aware of what’s going on. My family, my three kids, my wife, we just decamped. We bought a lovely house in Chesapeake, Virginia, near Norfolk, and we’re doing that because that’s a better place for the family to be, down the road.

And the other thing is I am in phenomenally good health right now. I mean, it’s the greatest thing of cognitive dissonance you will ever see is the fact that I am in really good shape. In fact, I’m in better shape than most of you.

So anybody who wants to cry or pity me can come down and do a few of those, and then you may pity me.

All right, so what we’re not talking about today, we’re not talking about cancer, because I spent a lot of time talking about that, and I’m really not interested. If you have any herbal supplements or remedies, please stay away from me.

And we’re not going to talk about things that are even more important than achieving your childhood dreams. We’re not going to talk about my wife. We’re not talking about my kids, because I’m good, but I’m not good enough to talk about that without tearing up.

So we’re just going to take that off the table. That’s much more important. And we’re not going to talk about spirituality and religion. Although I will tell you that I have experienced a deathbed conversion. I just bought a Macintosh.

Now, I knew I’d get 9% of the audience with that. All right, so what is today’s talk about then?

It’s about my childhood dreams and how I have achieved them– I’ve been very fortunate that way– how I believe I’ve been able to enable the dreams– I’ve been able to enable the dreams of others, and to some degree, lessons learned– I’m a professor, here should be some lessons learned, and how you can use the stuff you hear today to achieve your dreams or enable the dreams of others. And as you get older, you may find that enabling the dreams of others thing is even more fun.

So What Were My Childhood Dreams?

Well, I had a really good childhood, I mean, no kidding around. I was going back through the family archives, and what was really amazing was, I couldn’t find any pictures of me as a kid where I wasn’t smiling, all right? And that was just a very gratifying thing.

There was our dog, right? Aw, thank you. And there i actually have a picture of me dreaming. And I did a lot of that. There was a lot of “wake ups,” you know? And it was an easy time to dream. I was born in 1960, all right? When you’re eight or nine years old and you look at the TV set and men are landing on the moon, anything is possible, and that’s something we should not lose sight of, is that the inspiration and the permission to dream is huge.

So what were my childhood dreams? You may not agree with this list, but I was there.Being in zero gravity, playing in the national football league, authoring an article in the “World Book” Encyclopedia — I guess you can tell the nerds early — being captain kirk. Anybody here have that childhood dream? Not at CMU, no.

I wanted to become one of the guys who won the big stuffed animals in the amusement park, and I wanted to be an imagineer with Disney.

These are not sorted in any particular order, although I think they do get harder, except for maybe the first one.

Dream 1: Zero Gravity

Okay so being in zero gravity. Now, it’s important to have specific dreams. I did not dream of being an astronaut, because when I was a little kid, I wore glasses, and they told me “Oh, astronauts can’t have glasses.” And I was like, “Mm, I didn’t really want the whole astronaut gig; I just wanted the floating.”

So–and as a child– prototype 0.0. But that didn’t work so well, and it turns out that NASA has something called the vomit comet that they use to train the astronauts, and this thing does parabolic arcs, and at the top of each arc, you get about 25 seconds where you’re ballistic and you get about a rough equivalent of weightlessness for about 25 seconds.
And there is a program where college students can submit proposals, and if they win the competition, they get to fly, and I thought that was really cool, and we had a team, and we put a team together, and they won, and they got to fly, and I was all excited because I was going to go with them… and then I hit the first brick wall, because they made it very clear that under no circumstances were faculty members allowed to fly with the teams.

I know. I was heartbroken, right. I was like, “But I worked so hard.” And so I read the literature very carefully, and it turns out that NASA– it’s part of their outreach and publicity program, and it turns out that the students were allowed to bring a local media journalist from their hometown.

Randy Pausch, web journalist. It’s really easy to get a press pass. So I called up the guys at NASA, and I said, “I need to know where to fax some documents.” And they said, “What documents are you going to fax us?”

I said, “My resignation as the faculty advisor and my application as the journalist.”

And he said, “That’s a little transparent, don’t you think?”

And I said, “Yeah, but our project is virtual reality, and we’re going to bring down a whole bunch of VR headsets, and all the students from all the teams are going to experience it and all those other real journalists are going to get to film it.”

Jim foley’s going, “Oh, you bastard, yes.”

And the guy said, “Here’s the fax number.”

And indeed, we kept our end of the bargain, and that’s one of the themes that you’ll hear later on in the talk is have something to bring to the table, right, because that will make you more welcomed.

And if you’re curious about what zero gravity looks like, hopefully the sound will be working here.

[Video Presentation]

You do pay the piper at the bottom. So childhood dream number one, check.

Dream 2: National Football League

All right, let’s talk about football. My dream was to play in the National Football League, and most of you don’t know that I actually played–no. No, I did not make it to the National Football League, but I probably got more from that dream and not accomplishing it than I got from any of the ones that I did accomplish.

I had a coach. I signed up when I was nine years old. I was the smallest kid in the league by far, and I had a coach, Jim Graham, who was 6’4″. He had played linebacker at Penn State. He was just this hulk of a guy, and he was old school, I mean, really old school. Like, he thought the forward pass was a trick play.

And he showed up for practice the first day, and, you know, he’s this big hulking guy. We were all scared to death of him, and he hadn’t brought any footballs.

How are we going to have practice without any footballs? And one of the other kids said, “Excuse me, coach, but there’s no football.”

And coach Graham said, “Right, how many men are on a football field at a time?”

“11 on a team, 22.”

And coach Graham said, “All right, and how many people are touching the football at any given time?”

“One of them.”

And he said, “Right, so we’re going to work on what those other 21 guys are doing.”

And that’s a really good story, because it’s all about fundamentals, fundamentals, fundamentals, fundamentals. You’ve got to get the fundamentals down, because otherwise the fancy stuff isn’t going to work.

And the other Jim Graham story I have is, there was one practice where he just rode me all practice. Just, “You’re doing this wrong. You’re doing this wrong. Go back and do it again. You owe me. You’re doing push-ups after practice.”

And when it was all over, one of the other assistant coaches came over and said, “Yeah, coach Graham rode you pretty hard, didn’t he?”

I said, “Yeah.”

He said, “That’s a good thing.” He said, “When you’re screwing up and nobody’s saying anything to you anymore, that means they gave up.” And that’s a lesson that stuck with me my whole life is that when you see yourself doing something badly and nobody’s bothering to tell you anymore, that’s a very bad place to be. Your critics are your ones telling you they still love you and care.

After coach Graham, I had another coach, coach Setliff, and he taught me a lot about the power of enthusiasm. He did this one thing where only for one play at a time, he would put people in at, like, the most horrifically wrong position for them. Like, all the short guys would become receivers, right? It was just laughable. But we only went in for one play, right? And, boy, the other team just never knew what hit ’em, because when you’re only doing it for one play and you’re just not where you’re supposed to be and freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose, boy, are you going to clean somebody’s clock for that one play.
And that kind of enthusiasm was great, and to this day, I am most comfortable on a football field. I mean, it’s just one of those things where, you know, if I’m working a hard problem, people will see me wandering the halls with one of these things, and that’s just because, when you do something young enough and you train for it, it just becomes a part of you, and I’m very glad that football was a part of my life, and if I didn’t get the dream of playing in the NFL, that’s okay. I probably got stuff more valuable, because looking at what’s going on in the NFL, I’m not sure those guys are doing so great right now.

And so one of the expressions I learned at Electronic Arts, which I love, which pertains to this is, “Experience is what you get when you didn’t get what you wanted.

And I think that’s absolutely lovely. And the other thing about football is, we send our kids out to play football or soccer or swimming or whatever it is, and it’s the first example of what I’m going to call a head fake or indirect learning. We actually don’t want our kids to learn football. I mean, yeah, it’s really nice that I have a wonderful three-point stance and that I know how to do a chop block and all this kind of stuff.

But we send our kids out to learn much more important things: teamwork, sportsmanship, perseverance, et cetera, et cetera. And these kinds of head fake learnings are absolutely important, and you should keep your eye out for them, because they’re everywhere.

Dream 3: World Book Encyclopedia

All right, a simple one, being an author in the World Book Encyclopedia. When I was a kid, we had the World Book Encyclopedia on the shelf. For the freshmen, this is paper. We used to have these things called books. And after I had become somewhat of an authority on virtual reality, but not, like, a really important one– so I was at the level of people the World Book would badger– they called me up, and I wrote an article, and this is Caitlin Kelleher. And there’s an article if you go to your local library where they still have copies of the “World Book.” look under “V” for virtual reality, and there it is.

And all I have to say is that, having been selected to be an author in the World Book Encyclopedia, I now believe that Wikipedia is a perfectly fine source for your information because I know what the quality control is for real encyclopedias. They let me in.

All right, next one.

Dream 4: Captain Kirk

At a certain point, you just realize there are some things you are not going to do, so maybe you just want to stand close to the people.

I mean, my god, what a role model for young people.

I mean, this is everything you want to be, and what I learned that carried me forward in leadership later is that, he wasn’t the smartest guy on the ship. I mean, Spock was pretty smart, and Mccoy was the doctor, and Scotty was the engineer, and you sort of go, “And what skill set did he have to get on this damn thing and run it?”

And, you know, clearly there is this skill set called leadership, and whether or not you like the series, there’s no doubt that there was a lot to be learned about how to lead people by watching this guy in action, and he just had the coolest damn toys. I mean, my god, he, you know– I just thought it was fascinating as a kid that he had this thing and he could talk to the ship with it.

[electronic beeping]

I just thought that was just spectacular, and of course now I own one, and it’s smaller. So that’s kind of cool. So I got to achieve this dream. James T. Kirk–his alter ego William Shatner wrote a book, which I think was actually a pretty cool book. It was with Chip Walter, who is a Pittsburgh-based author who is quite good, and they wrote a book on basically the science of Star Trek, what has come true, and they went around to the top places around the country and looked at various things, and they came here to study our virtual reality setup, and so we built a virtual reality for him. It looks something like that. We put it in, put it to red alert. He was a very good sport. It’s not like he saw that one coming.

And it’s really cool to meet your boyhood idol, but it’s even cooler when he comes to you to see what cool stuff you’re doing in your lab, and that was just a great moment.

Dream 5: Winning Stuffed Animals

All right, winning stuffed animals. This may seem mundane to you, but when you’re a little kid and you see the big buff guys walking around an amusement park and they’ve got all these big stuffed animals, right? And this is my lovely wife, and I have a lot of pictures of stuffed animals I’ve won. That’s my dad posing with one that I won. I’ve won a lot of these animals. There’s my dad. He did win that one to his credit.

Right, and this was just a big part of my life and my family’s life, but, you know, I can hear the cynics. You know, in this age of digitally manipulated things, maybe those bears really aren’t in the pictures with me, or maybe I paid somebody five bucks to take a picture in the theme park next to the bear. And I said, “How, in this age of cynicism, can I convince people?” And I said, “I know. I can show them the bears.”

Bring them out. [Applause]

So here are some bears. We didn’t have quite enough room in the moving truck down to Chesapeake, and anybody who would like a little piece of me at the end of this, feel free to come up. First come, first serve.

Dream 6: Being an Imagineer

All right, my next one, being an Imagineer. This was the hard one. Believe me, getting to zero gravity is easier than becoming an imagineer. When I was a kid, I was eight years old and our family took a trip cross-country to see Disneyland, and if you’ve ever seen the movie National Lampoon’s Vacation, it was a lot like that. It was a quest.

And these are real vintage photographs, and there I am in front of the castle, and there I am– and for those of you who are into foreshadowing, this is the Alice ride. And I just thought this was just the coolest environment I had ever been in, and instead of saying, “Gee, I want to experience this,” I said, “I want to make stuff like this.”

And so I bided my time, and then i graduated with my Ph.D from Carnegie Mellon, thinking that meant me infinitely qualified to do anything, and I dashed off my letters of application to Walt Disney Imagineering, and they sent me some of the damned nicest go-to-hell letters I have ever gotten.

I mean it was just– “We have carefully reviewed your application, and presently we do not have any positions available which require your particular qualifications.”

Now, think about the fact that you’re getting this from a place that’s famous for guys who sweep the street. So that was a bit of a setback.

But remember, the brick walls are there for a reason. All right, the brick walls are not there to keep us out. The brick walls are there to give us a chance to show how badly we want something, because the brick walls are there to stop the people who don’t want it badly enough. They’re there to stop the other people.

All right, fast forward to 1991. We did a system back at the University of Virginia called virtual reality on $5 a day, just one of those unbelievable spectacular things. I was so scared back in those days as a junior academic. Jim Foley’s here, and I just love to tell this story. He knew my undergraduate advisor, Andy Van Dam, and I’m at my first conference, and I’m just scared to death, and this icon in the user interface community walks up to me and just out of nowhere just gives me this huge bear hug, and he says, “That was from Andy.”

And that was when I thought, “Okay, maybe I can make it. All right, you know, maybe I do belong.”

And a similar story is that this was just this unbelievable hit because at the time, everybody needed $0.5 million to do virtual reality, and everybody felt frustrated, and we literally hacked together a system for about $5,000 in parts and made a working VR system, and people were just like, “Oh my god, this is like, the Hewlett-Packard garage thing. This is so awesome.”

And so I’m giving this talk, and the room has just gone wild, and during the Q&A, a guy named Tom Furness, who was one of the big names in virtual reality at the time, he goes up to the microphone, and he introduces himself. I didn’t know what he looked like, but I sure as hell knew the name.

And he asked a question, and I was like, “I’m sorry, did you say you’re Tom Furness?”

And he said, “Yes.”

I said, “Then I would love to answer your question, but first, will you have lunch with me tomorrow?”


And there’s a lot in that little moment. Right, there’s a lot of humility but also asking a person where he can’t possibly say no.


And so imagineering a couple of years later was working on a virtual reality project. This was top secret. They were denying the existence of a virtual reality attraction after the time that the publicity department was running the TV commercials. So imagineering really had nailed this one tight.

And it was the Aladdin attraction where you would fly a magic carpet, and the head-mounted display, sometimes known as gator vision. And so I had an in. As soon as the project had just– they started running the TV commercials, and I had been asked to brief the Secretary of Defense on the state of virtual reality.

Okay, Fred Brooks and I had been asked to brief the Secretary of Defense, and that gave me an excuse. So I called them up. I called imagineering, and I said, “Look, I’m briefing the Secretary of Defense. I’d like some materials on what you have, because it’s one of the best VR systems in the world.”

And they kind of pushed back and I said, “Look, is all this patriotism stuff in the parks a farce?”

And they’re like, “Hmm, okay,” but they said, “But the PR department doesn’t– this is so new, the PR department doesn’t have any footage for you, so I’m going to have to connect you straight through to the team who did the work.”


So I find myself on the phone with a guy named Jon Snoddy who is one of the most impressive guys I have ever met, and he was the guy running this team, and it’s not surprising they had done impressive things.

And so he sent me some stuff. We talked briefly. He sent me some stuff, and I said, “Hey, I’m going to be out in the area for a conference shortly. Would you like to get together and have lunch?”

Translation: “I’m going to lie to you and say that I have an excuse to be in the area so I don’t look too anxious, but I would go to Neptune to have lunch with you.”

And so Jon said, “Sure,” and I spent something like 80 hours talking with all the VR experts in the world, saying, “If you had access to this one unbelievable project, what would you ask?”

And then I compiled all of that, and I had to memorize it, which anybody who knows me knows that I have no memory at all, because I couldn’t go in looking like a dweeb with, you know, “Hi, question 72.”

So I went in, and this was like a two-hour lunch, and Jon must have thought he was talking to some phenomenal person, because all I was doing was channeling Fred Brooks and Ivan Sutherland and Andy Van Dam and people like that, and Henry Fuchs. So it’s pretty easy to be smart when you’re parroting smart people.

And at the end of the lunch with Jon, I sort of, as we say in the business, made “The ask.” And I said, “You know, I have a sabbatical coming up.” And he said, “What’s that?”

The beginnings of the culture clash.

And so I talked with him about the possibility of coming there and working with him. And he said, “Well, that’s really good except, you know, you’re in the business of telling people stuff, and we’re in the business of keeping secrets.”

All right, and then what made Jon Snoddy Jon Snoddy was he said, “But we’ll work it out,” which I really loved.

The other thing that I learned from Jon Snoddy– I could do easily an hour-long talk just on what have I learned from Jon Snoddy. One of the things he told me was that, “Wait long enough, and people will surprise and impress you.” He said, “When you’re pissed off at somebody and you’re angry at them, you just haven’t given them enough time. Just give them a little more time, and they’ll almost always impress you.”

And that really stuck with me. I think he’s absolutely right on that one.

So to make a long story short, we negotiated a legal contract. It was going to be the first– some people referred to it as the first and last paper ever published by Imagineering– but the deal was I go, I provide my own funding, I go for six months, I work with a project, we publish a paper.

And then we meet our villain.

I can’t be all sweetness and light, because i have no credibility. Somebody’s head’s going to go on a stick.

Turns out that the person who gets his head on the stick is a dean back at the University of Virginia. His name is not important. Let’s call him dean wormer.

And dean wormer has a meeting with me where I say, “I want to do this sabbatical thing, and I’ve actually gotten the Imagineering guys to let an academic in”, which is insane. I mean, if Jon hadn’t gone nuts this would never have been a possibility. This is a very secretive organization.

And dean wormer looks at the paperwork, and he says, “Well, it says they’re going to own your intellectual property.” And I said, “Yeah, we got the agreement to publish the paper. There is no other IP. I don’t do patentable stuff.”

And he says, “Yeah, but you might, so deal’s off. Just go and get them to change that little clause there and then come back to me.”

I’m like, “Excuse me?”

Then I said to him, “I want you to understand how important this is. If we can’t work this out, I’m going to take an unpaid leave of absence, and I’m just going to go there, and I’m going to do this thing.”

And he said, “Hey, you know, I might not even let you do that. I mean, you’ve got the IP in your head already, and maybe they’re going to suck it out of you, so that’s not going to fly either.”

It’s very important to know when you’re in a pissing match, and it’s very important to get out of it as quickly as possible.

So I said to him, “Well, let’s back off on this. Do we think this is a good idea at all?”

He said, “I have no idea if this is a good idea, you know.”

I was like, “Okay, well, we’ve got common ground there.”

Then I said, “Well, is this really your call? Isn’t this the call of the dean of sponsored research, if it’s an IP issue?”

And he said, “Yeah, that’s true.”

I said, “But so if he’s happy, you’re happy? Yeah, then I’d be fine.”

Pew! Like Wile E. Coyote. And I find myself in Gene Block’s office, who is the most fantastic man in the world, and I start talking to Gene Block, and I say, “Let’s start at the high level, since I don’t want to have to back out again. So let’s start at the high level. Do you think this is a good idea?”

He said, “Well, if you’re asking me if it’s a good idea, I don’t have very much information. All I know is that one of my star faculty members is in my office, and he’s really excited, so tell me more.”

Here’s a lesson for everybody in administration. They both said the same thing, but think about how they said it, right?

“I don’t know!”

“Well, I don’t have much information, but one of my star faculty members is here, and he’s all excited, so I want to learn more.”

They’re both ways of saying I don’t know, but, boy, there’s a good way and a bad way.

So anyway, we got it all worked out. I went to Imagineering, sweetness and light, and all’s well that ends well.

Some brick walls are made of flesh.

So I worked on the Aladdin project. It was absolutely spectacular, I mean, just unbelievable. Here’s my nephew Christopher. This was the apparatus. You would sit on this sort of motorcycle-type thing, and you would steer your magic carpet, and you would put on the head-mounted display. The head-mounted display was very interesting. It had two parts, and it was a very, very clever design. To get throughput through, the only part that touched the guest’s head was this little cap, and everything else clicked onto it, all the expensive hardware. So you could replicate the caps because they were basically free to manufacture.

This is what I really did is, I was a cap cleaner during the sabbatical.

I loved Imagineering. It was just a spectacular place, just spectacular, everything that I had dreamed. I loved the model shop, people crawling around on things the size of this room that are just big physical models. It was just an incredible place to walk around and be inspired.

I’m always reminded of when I went there and people said, “Do you think the expectations are too high?”

And I said, “You ever see the movie Charlie And The Chocolate Factory — Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory” where gene wilder says to the little boy Charlie– he’s about to give him the chocolate factory.

He says, “Well, Charlie, did anybody ever tell you the story of the little boy who suddenly got everything he ever wanted?” Charlie’s eyes get like saucers, and he says, “No, what happened to him?”

Gene Wilder says, “He lived happily ever after.”

Okay, so working on the Aladdin VR, I described it as a once-in-every-five-years opportunity, and I stand by that assessment. It forever changed me. It wasn’t just that it was good work and I got to be a part of it, but it got me into the place of working with real people and real HCI user interface issues. Most HCI people live in this fantasy world of white collar laborers with Ph.Ds and Master’s degrees. You know, until you got ice cream spilled on you, you’re not doing field work, all right?

And more than anything else, from Jon Snoddy I learned how to put artists and engineers together, 8and that’s been the real legacy.

We published a paper, just a nice academic cultural scandal. When we wrote the paper, the guys at Imagineering said, “Well, let’s do a nice big picture like you would in a magazine.” And the Siggraph committee, which accepted the paper, it was like this big scandal. “Are they allowed to do that?”

There was no rule. So we published the paper, and amazingly, since then, there’s a tradition of Siggraph papers having color figures on the first page. So I’ve changed the world in a small way. And then at the end of my six months, they came to me, and they said, “You want to do it for real? You can stay.”

And I said, “No.” One of the only times in my life I have surprised my father. He was like, “You what?”

He said, “Since you were, you know, all you wanted, and now that you got it, and you’re–huh?”

There was a bottle of Maalox in my desk drawer. Be careful what you wish for. It was a particularly stressful place. Imagineering in general is actually not so Maalox-laden, but the lab I was in– oh, Jon left in the middle, and it was a lot like the Soviet Union. It was a little dicey for a while, but it worked out okay, and if they had said, “Stay here or never walk in the building again,” I would have done it. I would have walked away from tenure. I would have just done it.

But they made it easy on me. They said, “You can have your cake and eat it too,” and I basically become a day-a-week consultant for imagineering, and I did that for about 10 years, and that’s one of the reasons you should all become professors, because you can have your cake and eat it too, okay?

I went on and consulted on things like DisneyQuest. So there was the virtual jungle cruise and the best interactive experience I think ever done– and Jesse Schell gets the credit for this– Pirates Of The Caribbean, wonderful at DisneyQuest.

And so those are my childhood dreams, and that’s pretty good. I felt good about that.


End of Part One. Part Two Here

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