The Last Lecture: Book Review

"We cannot change the cards we are dealt, just how we play the hand." - Randy Pausch (RIP 25 July 2008)

I first blogged about Carnegie Mellon Professor Randy Pausch back in 28 July 2008, 3 days after his death from pancreatic cancer. So moved was I by the video of his last lecture (do watch it if you haven't done so), that I bought the book.  Of course, this was way before the recent death of the more famous Steve Jobs of Apple.

Written in a highly personable and conversational fashion, The Last Lecture is part autobiography, part life lesson, and all heart. In the slim volume, Randy covers material from his last lecture above ("Really Achieving Your Childhood Dreams") and adds on anecdotes from his own academic career. Through a quick tour of his life and career, Randy demonstrates how one should live while being candid about his impending death.

Despite his condition, Randy's writing is light-hearted and upbeat. One can't tell from the prose that its the work of a dying man as its often peppered with deadpan and occasionally self deprecating humour.

I like how the author conveyed life philosophies through short little stories. They include pouring soda on the back seat of his own convertible (to show that vehicles are just for transportation), destroying VCRs with a sledge hammer (to demonstrate technology that frustrates), and allowing a supermarket cashier to deduct his credit card twice (because its not worth the time to make a report and get the $20 back).

One can also find many memorable quotes from the book - from Randy or others. They include the following:

- If at first you don't succeed, try try a cliché

- Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity (from Roman philosopher Seneca in 5 BC)

- The truth can set you free

- Experience is what you get when you didn't get what you wanted

- The elephant in the room (ie his pancreatic cancer)

With steely eyed determination to get over those "brick walls" in his life, Randy demonstrated how sheer hardwork and perseverance could help one to realise one's dreams regardless of one's station in life. He also acknowledges the vital importance of how others can help make all the difference - from his dad, his wife Jai, his three young kids, to his former mentors Professor Andy van Dam, and Coach Graham.

Randy with his wife and three young kids (source)

Perhaps the hardest part of the book to read are the sections where Randy writes about his family. One can feel how painful it must be for him to plan so many things ahead - writing little notes to his kids, making videos, bringing his family on various activities etc - while in the throes of death.

It is certainly admirable that Randy manages to rise above his circumstances and to continue to be a teacher even unto his death.  As the author himself has shared, the book isn't about dying but about living.  I do know for sure that it has provided me with lots of food for thought about what I should do with my own life.

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