Books: The Last Lecture

I heard of Randy Pausch’s “The Last Lecture” at some point and knew that the video was available through the internet, but I never watched it. Back then, bandwidth was more of an issue and I never tried to watch videos on the internet.

I still don’t watch them, even though bandwidth is not longer such a problem.Perhaps it’s the habit of feeling I have to be frugal in my use of bandwidth. Or perhaps it’s my way of refusing to feel that I’m missing out on something so important by not watching the same videos that millions of other people seem to find so necessary to watch.

I came across a copy of The Last Lecture at a used book sale this summer, and decided a quarter was a pretty good deal for a book that would fill me in on whatever I had missed by passing up the video version of the lecture. I like books better anyway.

It’s certainly an interesting read, and an easy one. But I have to admit that I just didn’t find it all that inspiring. Perhaps Randy came across better in person; he was, after all, a professor and a lecturer, not a writer. Perhaps what was inspiring to so many people was his personality and his optimism in the face of death, more than what he actually said.

As he acknowledges in the book, he really did it more for his children than for the actual audience in the lecture hall. Knowing death would take him away while they were too young to remember much of him, and that he would never have the chance to teach them in person all that he wanted to, he used the lecture as a way to preserve something of himself for them.

He certainly says a number of things that are important principles to live by.

  • People are more important than things.
  • Tell the truth.
  • Show gratitude.
  • Never give up.

He talks about the importance of how we relate to other people, not just friends and family but fellow students, co-workers, people we happen to meet. His field was computers but he taught his students the importance of working together, not just the technical aspects of computer engineering. He was the kind of teacher I would have liked to have – and would have liked to be.

But while all that is good advice, I wouldn’t call it inspiring. He titled his lecture “Really Achieving Your Childhood Dreams.” But not everyone will achieve their childhood dreams, even if they follow his good advice. He does have a chapter on what he learned from his football coach, and how in some ways it was more important – even though he didn’t achieve his dream of playing NFL football – than what he learned in those areas where he did achieve his dreams. But he has more chapters on the dreams he did achieve.

I try to think what childhood dreams I had. The only one I can remember is wanting to be a writer. As I grew up, though, I read the blurbs about writers on the covers of the books I read, and realized that they didn’t start out writing books. If they wrote for a living, it was usually as journalists, and I had no interest in journalism. Others were doctors or scientists or some other profession and writing was just something on the side, until they were successful enough to be able to devote all their time to writing.

Even aside from not knowing what to do for a career besides write, I also realized, when I started high school and we started reading great works of literature, that those great were a tiny fraction of all the ones that were written. The world didn’t need more mediocre books, I decided. While I still wanted to write, I didn’t want to get something published just so I could be a writer, if it wasn’t really worth reading.

I did get two poems published in a literary quarterly some years back. I earned two dollars for that, so I guess I can consider myself a published writer. But the circulation of that quarterly was less than that of the church newsletter in which I also had a poem printed around that same time. I don’t know that I can say I achieved that childhood dream. But I also don’t know that I see it as all that important to have done so.

Unlike a lot of girls, I did not have a childhood dream of having children. But once I did have them, I came to see my role in raising them well as a lot more important than being a writer. Does that mean I gave up on my dream?

Randy Pausch talks about persistence and not giving up. “Brick walls are there for a reason. They give us a chance to show how badly we want something.” But what if you come not to want something as badly anymore? Is that so bad? Or what if you try and try, as I did with teaching, and realize that all you’re doing is bruising yourself a whole lot by running at the brick wall over and over?

I also had some trouble with the chapter in which he talks about deciding whether to be “a fun-loving Tigger” or “a sad-sack Eeyore.” I don’t think of myself as an Eeyore. My mother did identify with Eeyore, always feeling unhappy, and I never wanted to be like that. But I never thought of Tigger as the ideal either. He has lots of fun, but seems unaware of how his fun sometimes bothers people around him.

I identified mostly with timid Piglet when I was little, so much so that my nickname within my family was Piglet Moon. (I have no idea where the Moon part came from.) Sometimes I have felt a bit like Owl, proud of how much I (think I) know, and sometimes worried that I might be somewhat like Rabbit (thinking I know better than others how things should be done). But I have never felt like Tigger.

I have trouble thinking that it is really a choice, whether to be a fun-loving Tigger or not. I enjoy things sometimes, but “fun-loving” feels so foreign to me that I have trouble thinking that it’s something I could decide to be. I don’t think I’m gloomy, but I certainly tend more toward melancholy than bounciness.

Who we are is a mix of our personality traits and our decisions on how to deal with our circumstances. I can choose not to give in to my Piglet-like timidity, and not to wallow in Eeyore-like gloom. Perhaps I’ve made choices I’m not even aware of, to settle for life without a Tigger-like bounce. But to me if feels more like being willing to accept life as the person I am, rather than the Tigger I might wish I were.

On a different note, one interesting aspect of Pausch’s book was learning about his role in developing Alice, a tool for teaching computer programming. I took an online course in Alice a few years ago in order to learn the basics of object-oriented programming. (When I studied computers in college we were taught structured programming, and it is difficult for me to switch to the object-oriented way of thinking.)

I enjoyed the course, though I decided I didn’t have funds to pursue more advance – and more expensive – courses in object-oriented programming. It was very interesting to learn more about the professor behind the program. I am glad that he found others who would continue to develop Alice after he was gone.


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