Review of Randy Pausch’s “The Last Lecture”

When I heard that Randy Pausch had pancreatic cancer, and how he too knew that he didn’t have much time left, I wanted to know what he said in his book, The Last Lecture. But the book is less to do with how to deal with dying, and more about how to enjoy living.

Pausch was a happy and optimistic man, confident in his own idiosyncrasies and quirks. I used to be suspicious of quirks, as if they were cheap and easy ways to make oneself unique and different, as if one were compelled more by the need to distinguish oneself somehow from the rest of humanity rather than a need to find commonality with fellow human beings.

But that’s harsh. No one wants to feel as if they’re the same as everyone else. And there’s a universality here too: we all need to know that we’re us and not someone else.

Pausch admires his own quirks, and draws lessons from them. He writes about picking up his nephew and niece in his new car, a Volkswagen convertible.

“Be careful in Uncle Randy’s new car,” my sister told them. “Wipe your feet before you get in it. Don’t mess anything up. Don’t get it dirty.”

I listened to her, and thought, as only a bachelor uncle can: “That’s just the sort of admonition that sets kids up for failure. Of course they’d eventually get my car dirty. Kids can’t help it.” So I made things easy. While my sister was outlining the rules, I slowly and deliberately opened a can of soda, turned it over, and poured it on the cloth seats in the back of the convertible. My message: People are more important than things. A car, even a pristine gem like my new convertible, was just a thing.

I love this story, even though I can’t imagine doing the same thing. He draws many other lessons too.


I.

“I’ll take an earnest person over a hip person every time, because hip is short-term.

Earnest is long-term. Earnestness is highly underestimated. It comes from the core, while hip is trying to impress you with the surface.”

I’m not as down on hipness as he is, but like Pausch, I do value earnestness more. Earnest people are awesome.


II.

Advice he got from Jon Snoddy,: ‘ “If you wait long enough,” he said, “people will surprise and impress you.”*

‘As he saw things, When you’re frustrated with people, when they’ve made you angry, it just may be because you haven’t given them enough time.

‘Jon warned me that sometimes this took great patience – even years. “But in the end,” he said, “people will show you their good side. Almost everybody has a good side. Just keep waiting. It will come out.”

Following this advice means that we try to replace our hatred and anger with understanding and patience. How can that not be good advice? People come around. Eventually.


III.

‘Experience is what you get when you didn’t get what you wanted.’

We often don’t get what we want, but even then we get something — disappointment, frustration, irritation, anger, apathy, indifference, calm, relief, whatever. No matter what, we get something, and we can accept it and try to learn from it.


IV.

Show gratitude. But when someone isn’t so easily thanked, and if you cannot adequately pay someone back, pay it forward.

This advice works not just for the specific things people have done for you, but for the virtues their actions reveal. If others are kindhearted, and you have been the recipient of their kindness, you can cultivate that kindheartedness, and then you can pay it forward to others for the rest of your life. If others are good listeners, and you have been listened to, you can try to become a good listener too, and you will pay it forward for the rest of your life. If you have seen courage, strength, decency, wisdom, you can cultivate those too, and pay it forward for the rest of your life.

If I am at all a good person, it is because I have been lucky enough to be around better people.

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