Friday, August 1, 2008

T.G.I.F.: Living a good life--lessons of Randy Pausch

When I started this series, I thought it might be a sporadic event--occasional Fridays I'd try to acknowledge an organization or individual who was doing something remarkable--hence T.G.I.F.: The Great Impossible Feat.

Of course for the last four Fridays I seem to have found something to write about that I thought was a T.G.I.F. And last week Friday, when I was writing about Berea college, I probably should have acknowledged the passing of Randy Pausch, a professor of computer science at Carnegie Mellon university.

The facts of Randy Pausch's life aren't really that remarkable or exceptional. He was born into a working-class, middle-class family, he earned degrees from Brown University and Carnegie Mellon and was mentored by extraordinary people who took time to encourage and help him. He got a job at University of Virginia and then was hired by his alma mater, where he discovered he had pancreatic cancer (one of the worst forms of cancer you can get). He spent the remaining time he had with his family and died at the age of 47 leaving behind a wife and three young children.

I'm sure many of us know of someone whose profile closely fits that of Randy Pausch. But what is remarkable about Pausch is that he's a teacher--a really good one with a lot of natural talent and charisma, and he gained national attention when The Wall Street Journal reporter Jeffrey Zaslow wrote about a lecture that Pausch gave to a standing-room-only audience at Carnegie Mellon titled "Journeys" but that had previously been named "Last Lecture"--the premise being that professors would impart words of wisdom as if this was their very last lecture on earth--as if they knew they were going to die.

In Pausch's case, it was true. In September 2007 when he gave the lecture, his doctors gave him 3-4 months to live (he defied their odds by about 6 months). He was literally dying, and he gave a lecture that was, in my opinion, truly remarkable.

Because he focused on the lessons he had learned in life--thanking the many people in his life who helped him to achieve his goals and dreams--and dealing with the many obstacles he faced with humor and as teaching tools rather than moments of failure or defeat.

I read about Pausch's death in The New York Times last week and then I clicked on the video link and spent an hour being amazed by his rhetorical skills, his charisma, his natural teaching ability. But most of all, amazed that he had accomplished something so simple that it really is a Great Impossible Feat: he lived a good life and appreciated that fact.

Of course, maybe what got to me about Randy Pausch was that he was a teacher (and as a fellow teacher I'm always over-identified with others in this profession) and that he left this last lecture for his kids--and the audience and rest of the world who watched the video were an afterthought. Still, it made me think, profoundly, about how I want to approach my own last days, whenever they come. I hope I am able to do it with as much grace and humor and humility and appreciation as Randy Pausch. And for that, I think Professor Pausch has achieved a Great Impossible Feat.

[To read Jeffrey Zaslow's remembrances of Pausch and to see a video by The Wall Street Journal remembering Pausch, click here]

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