Thursday, May 29, 2008

Randy Pausch: Dare I Call Him a Hero?

I picked up Randy Pausch's The Last Lecture on a whim this past weekend. I started reading it last night and got halfway through. I would have read the whole thing if it weren't for the fact that my keratoconic eyes can only take so much. I want to call Randy my new hero, but he admits in his book that he has suffered from being too self-praising in the past, so dare I say it? :)

The idea behind this book is centered on the fact that Randy, a computer science professor at Carnegie Mellon, is dying of pancreatic cancer. He had been asked to give a lecture at Carnegie Mellon's "Journeys" series, once named the "Last Lecture Series." He had accepted, being optimistic about his latest treatments, but when he learned that these had not worked, he had to consider very carefully his course of action. If he had only months to live, should he be spending every last second with his wife and three children? Or would giving this lecture leave just the sort of legacy he wanted for those kids?

Needless to say, he ended up giving the lecture, focusing it not on his dying, but on how he fulfilled all of his childhood dreams. You can learn all about this lecture, and even watch it, on Carnegie Mellon's web page about it.

I actually haven't watched the lecture yet. I am saving it for when I finish the book, and when I know I have a contiguous chunk of time to devote to watching it. The book isn't a transcription of the lecture, as I first assumed it would be. Instead, it's a collection of stories and advice from Randy, from what it was like to growing up to how he wooed the woman who eventually became his wife.

One of my favorite stories was about how much he admired Captain Kirk, and how he always dreamed of actually being Kirk. That didn't exactly come true, but something better happened. William Shatner visited Randy's virtual reality lab in the 90's when he (Shatner) was co-authoring a book about the now-realized technologies first imagined on Star Trek. Shatner was thrilled to find a virtual recreation of the bridge of the Enterprise, turbolift doors and all. Randy was so impressed that Shatner asked so many questions about it, completely willing to admit exactly what he didn't know, and not willing to leave until he understood it. I can only imagine how much it meant to Randy to receive a signed photo of Shatner as Kirk that read "I don't believe in the no-win scenario." Shatner had sent it when he learned of Randy's cancer.

There are so many stories like this that you have to wonder how one person could be so lucky (for fulfilling so many dreams and having such success, not for getting cancer!). But it's important to notice that luck had nothing to do with it. Randy always persisted, never giving up on those childhood dreams. Granted, his upbringing likely had something to do with it, but through these stories it's clear that we are all capable of doing the same. If you aren't inspired by Randy, then I hate to inform you, but you probably have no hope!

One of Randy's projects had touched and inspired me before I even knew he was responsible for it. I first found Alice while putting together my mini-course. I didn't end up using it because I didn't think one week was long enough (and of that week, less than half was used for lab time anyway). But I did tell my students about it, should they be interested in giving it a try. I showed them the promotional video on the web page. I know at least a few of them were pretty excited by the prospect of programming something in 3D and probably played with it a bit at home. The whole concept of Alice as a way to get underrepresented students succeeding in computer science is so exciting, falling exactly in line with one of my greatest passions.

I know I'm not the only one inspired by this funny and charming computer scientist, but if you haven't been yet, then what are you waiting for? Go buy The Last Lecture and get reading! You won't regret it. Just be careful about how much you praise him in case his ego gets too big. ;)


ARBaboon said...

Is this different from watching it?
Video is Here

Gail Carmichael said...

Hey arbaboon, I hate to admit, I don't really understand your question... :S

Anonymous said...

How inspiring Randy Pausch is! If you liked "The Last Lecture", another fantastic memoir I just read and highly recommend is "My Stroke of Insight" by Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor. Her TEDTalk video ( has been seen as many times as The Last Lecture I think, and Oprah did 4 shows on her book, so there are a lot of similarities. In My Stroke of Insight, there's a happy ending though. It's an incredible story! I hear they're making it into a movie.

Gail Carmichael said...

Very cool! I will definitely check that out.

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