Book Review: The Last Lecture

The Last Lecture is a book by Randy Pausch, a computer science professor at Carnegie Mellon. It is based on a lecture he gave – Really Achieving Your Childhood Dreams – after being diagnosed with terminal cancer. The book is about advice on living a full life delivered in the form of anecdotes.

Here are some excerpts from the book that stayed with me

About spending time on preparing for a lecture when he had only a few months to live

Why was this talk so important to me? Was it a way to remind me and everyone else that I was still very much alive? To prove I still had the fortitude to perform? Was it a limelight-lover’s urge to show off one last time? The answer was yes on all fronts. “An injured lion wants to know if he can still roar,” I told Jai. “It’s about dignity and self-esteem, which isn’t quite the same as vanity.”

Describing what he learnt from a strict football coach

There’s a lot of talk these days about giving children self-esteem. It’s not something you can give; it’s something they have to build.

Describing his liking for the character of Captain Kirk in Star Trek

During my cancer treatment, when I was told that only 4 percent of pancreatic cancer patients live five years, a line from the Star Trek movie The Wrath of Khan came into my head. In the film, Starfleet cadets are faced with a simulated training scenario where, no matter what they do, their entire crew is killed. The film explains that when Kirk was a cadet, he reprogrammed the simulation because “he didn’t believe in the no-win scenario.”

Describing the time when he learnt of the terminal nature of his cancer with his wife in a doctor’s room

I had just learned I would soon die, and in my inability to stop being rationally focused, I found myself thinking: “Shouldn’t a room like this, at a time like this, have a box of Kleenex? Wow, that’s a glaring operational flaw.”

Describing the time when his to-be wife had just rejected him

If it’s possible to be arrogant, optimistic and totally miserable all at the same time, I think I might have pulled it off: “Look, I’m going to find a way to be happy, and I’d really love to be happy with you, but if I can’t be happy with you, then I’ll find a way to be happy without you.”

Giving some tips on time management

You can always change your plan, but only if you have one.


Time is all you have. And you may find one day that you have less than you think.

Describing how he got tenure an year earlier than usual

“Wow, you got tenure early,” they’d say to me. “What was your secret?”
I said, “It’s pretty simple. Call me any Friday night in my office at ten o’clock and I’ll tell you.” (Of course, this was before I had a family.)

Describing how people sometimes complain that he sees things in black and white

OK. I stand guilty as charged, especially when I was younger. I used to say that my crayon box had only two colors in it: black and white. I guess that’s why I love computer science, because most everything is true or false.
As I’ve gotten older, though, I’ve learned to appreciate that a good crayon box might have more than two colors. But I still think that if you run your life the right way, you’ll wear out the black and the white before the more nuanced colors.

In the final chapter,

Many cancer patients say their illness gives them a new and deeper appreciation for life. Some even say they are grateful for their disease. I have no such gratitude for my cancer, although I’m certainly grateful for having advance notice of my death. In addition to allowing me to prepare my family for the future, that time gave me the chance to go to Carnegie Mellon and give my last lecture. In a sense, it allowed me to “leave the field under my own power”

I don’t usually like reading autobiographical books, but this book is different. Usually the people whose lives are interesting enough for a record of their life to be readable have no time and no inclination to write autobiographies. But this is a book that would never have been written if Prof. Pausch had not been so unfortunate. And it is certainly worth reading. Reading the book, the thought that comes into my mind is: That was a life well lived. And thanks to Prof. Pausch for sharing it and for the inspiration which it provides.


One Response

  1. Seems interesting and poignant. It has been added to my future read list. Thanks for posting about it.

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