If one video can make an indelible impact on a person’s outlook towards life and if one piece of literature could change a person’s life for the better, it has to be Randy Pausch’s “The Last Lecture” and its companion piece, the book of the same title. Randy, a Carnegie Mellon Computer Science professor, succumbed to the dreaded pancreatic cancer in 2008, leaving behind his wife and three very young children. Here was a great man who, as he went deeper into the dark tunnel that is pancreatic cancer, shed a tremendous amount of light on the preciousness of the boon that is life. If you think that that’s hyperbole, let me ask you to stop reading and watch this video if you haven’t already done so. You can resume reading if you think you’d like to know how it changed my life.
Kicking self-pity and sadness out of the equation, Randy peppered his lecture and his book with plenty of stories that were primarily about how his accomplishments were rooted in his childhood dreams. How he encountered brick walls (one of his gems – “Brick walls are there for a reason: they let us prove how badly we want things”) and worked hard towards realizing his dreams. Among his dreams were to become a Disney Imagineer, which he did, and to play in the NFL, which he didn’t. Even in the case of the latter, he talks about how much he learned from just taking the game seriously and working hard at it (“Experience is what you get when you don’t get what you wanted”). To Randy, everything in life was yet another “experience” that as a scientist, he would treat with an analytical frame of mind…everything, including cancer where he went through the most brutal of treatments to “buy some more time.”
One recurring theme in his lecture and book is the importance of people in his life. His relationships with his wife (“…a person whose happiness means more than mine”), parents (“I won the parent lottery”), mentor (who changed him in his undergrad years with one terrific line about arrogance-“Randy, it’s such a shame you are perceived as being arrogant; it’s going to limit what you will be able to accomplish in life”) and even his students (he took 15 of them on a trip to Disney after he got tenure, all expenses out of his pocket) all point to a person who valued people and was ever willing to learn his life lessons from them, while subconsciously imparting a few of his own.
Making Every Day Count
One of the biggest ways in which Randy has inspired me is to focus on things that I can control. His line, “You cannot change the cards you’re dealt, just how you play the hand” is something that I have pasted on my office desk in a prominent place so that whenever I feel like things are spiraling out of control for some reason, I can block out everything else and focus on what I can work on to improve the situation. When I look at that quote, I also think of the circumstances in which he gave the lecture. A dying 47-year old man and a father of three, all of whom were less than six, exudes such positivity and says, “I’m dying and I’m having fun. And I’m going to keep having fun every day I have left. Because there’s no other way to play it.” I say to myself, “If he could find joy in life, then we all jolly well can and should.” Looking back, I feel that I’ve followed his words more in a professional setting than in my personal life and it is something that I consider as an area of personal development. But as I’ve always maintained, what matters is that we keep trying.
Another area where I sincerely feel that I’ve changed thanks to Randy is to push myself out of comfort zones and explore virgin territories. Perhaps the “brick walls” quote has found its way to my subconscious! But I’ve found myself willing to try harder to get things while giving utmost respect to people because there's a line that separates a go-getter from a selfish, persistent person. A case in point was the effort that I put in to meet Dr. Sheena Iyengar, the author of a book that has also inspired me immensely. Before reading Randy’s book, I might’ve stayed content with a letter of appreciation to Dr. Iyengar. But her book was something that had such a tremendous impact on me that I felt that I should do more than just send a nice e-mail. And I was absolutely delighted (even if a tad nervous!) when I finally got a chance to meet her in person and let her know what I thought of the book.
Speaking at the CMU graduation two months before passing away, Randy said, “You don’t beat the Grim Reaper by living longer; you beat the Grim Reaper by living well.” The best possible tribute that we can pay to a person like Randy would be to live our lives well, to treat each dawn as a new beginning, put our heart and soul into what we do and most importantly, place our loved ones above everything else. The rest of the stuff will all take care of itself. How do I know for sure? Because in Randy's case, it was the Grim Reaper that lost.