Achieving Your Childhood Dreams

The “last lecture” is common with a lot of professors on college campuses. Professors are asked to consider what matters most to them. If you’ve ever sat in the audience for one of these lectures you can’t help but wonder what wisdom you’d want to impart to the world if it was your last chance?

Randy Pausch, a computer science professor at Carnegie Mellon, gave such a lecture. Only he didn’t have to imagine it was his last act because he had recently been diagnosed with terminal cancer.

“That is what it is. We can’t change it. We just have to decide how we’ll respond. We cannot change the cards we are dealt, just how we play the hand.”

The Last Lecture is a summary of all Pausch had learned and all he wanted to pass along to his children. The lecture, entitled “Really Achieving Your Childhood Dreams,” wasn’t about dying rather just the opposite. It was about dreams, moments and overcoming obstacles because “time is all you have…and you may find one day that you have less than you think.”

I was trying to put myself in a bottle that would one day wash up on the beach for my children. If I were a painter, I would have painted for them. If I were a musician, I would have composed music. But I am a lecturer. So I lectured.

I lectured about the joy of life, about how much I appreciated life, even with so little of my own left. I talked about honesty, integrity, gratitude, and other things I hold dear. And I tried very hard not to be boring.

On his childhood:if you have a question then find the answer.

[M]y dad had this infectious inquisitiveness about current events, history, our lives.

In fact, growing up, I thought there were two types of families:

1) Those who need a dictionary to get through dinner.
2) Those who don’t.

We were No. 1. Most every night, we’d end up consulting the dictionary, which we kept on a shelf just six steps from the table. “If you have a question,” my folks would say, “then find the answer.”

The instinct in our house was never to sit around like slobs and wonder. We knew a better way: Open the encyclopedia. Open the dictionary. Open your mind.

On his father’s advice:

My dad gave me advice on how to negotiate my way through life. He’d say things like: “Never make a decision until you have to.” He’d also warn me that even if I was in a position of strength, whether at work or in relationships, I had to play fair. “Just because you’re in the driver’s seat,” he’d say, “doesn’t mean you have to run people over.”

Echoing one of the Five Habits of Effective Thinking, Pausch writes:

As a college professor, I’ve seen this as one lesson so many kids ignore, always to their detriment: You’ve got to get the fundamentals down, because otherwise the fancy stuff is not going to work.

“Experience is what you get when you didn’t get what you wanted.”

That’s an expression I learned when I took a sabbatical at Electronic Arts, the video-game maker. It just stuck with me, and I’ve ended up repeating it again and again to students. It’s a phrase worth considering at every brick wall we encounter, and at every disappointment. It’s also a reminder that failure is not just acceptable, it’s often essential.

On encountering obstacles:

The brick walls are there for a reason. They’re not there to keep us out. The brick walls are there to give us a chance to show how badly we want something.

Complaining doesn’t work.

Complaining does not work as a strategy. We all have finite time and energy. Any time we spend whining is unlikely to help us achieve our goals. And it won’t make us happier.

We’re all aware that time is finite but few of us live our lives as if we know this simple truth. Pausch put a lot of effort into managing his time well and because of that he was able to pack a whole lot of life in. Here is what he says about time management:

Time must be explicitly managed, like money. My students would sometimes roll their eyes at what they called “Pauschisms,” but I stand by them. Urging students not to invest time on irrelevant details, I’d tell them: “It doesn’t matter how well you polish the underside of the banister.”

You can always change your plan, but only if you have one. I’m a big believer in to-do lists. It helps us break life into small steps. I once put “get tenure” on my to-do list. That was naïve. The most useful to-do list breaks tasks into small steps. It’s like when I encourage Logan to clean his room by picking up one thing at a time.

Ask yourself: Are you spending your time on the right things? You may have causes, goals, interests. Are they even worth pursuing? I’ve long held on to a clipping from a newspaper in Roanoke, Virginia. It featured a photo of a pregnant woman who had lodged a protest against a local construction site. She worried that the sound of jackhammers was injuring her unborn child. But get this: In the photo, the woman is holding a cigarette. If she cared about her unborn child, the time she spent railing against jackhammers would have been better spent putting out that cigarette.

Develop a good filing system. When I told Jai I wanted to have a place in the house where we could file everything in alphabetical order, she said I sounded way too compulsive for her tastes. I told her: “Filing in alphabetical order is better than running around and saying, ‘I know it was blue and I know I was eating something when I had it.’”

Rethink the telephone. I live in a culture where I spend a lot of time on hold, listening to “Your call is very important to us.” Yeah, right. That’s like a guy slapping a girl in the face on a first date and saying, “I actually do love you.” Yet that’s how modern customer service works. And I reject that. I make sure I am never on hold with a phone against my ear. I always use a speaker phone, so my hands are free to do something else.

Delegate. As a professor, I learned early on that I could trust bright, nineteen-year-old students with the keys to my kingdom, and most of the time, they were responsible and impressive. It’s never too early to delegate. My daughter, Chloe, is just eighteen months old, but two of my favorite photos are of her in my arms. In the first, I’m giving her a bottle. In the second, I’ve delegated the task to her. She looks satisfied. Me, too.

Take a time out. It’s not a real vacation if you’re reading email or calling in for messages. When Jai and I went on our honeymoon, we wanted to be left alone. My boss, however, felt I needed to provide a way for people to contact me. So I came up with the perfect phone message:

“Hi, this is Randy. I waited until I was thirty-nine to get married, so my wife and I are going away for a month. I hope you don’t have a problem with that, but my boss does. Apparently, I have to be reachable.” I then gave the names of Jai’s parents and the city where they live. “If you call directory assistance, you can get their number. And then, if you can convince my new in-laws that your emergency merits interrupting their only daughter’s honeymoon, they have our number.”

We didn’t get any calls.

In the end, “time is all you have,” writes Pausch. “And you may find one day that you have less than you think.”

The Last Lecture is a wonderful and heartfelt book, and one that you’ll want to revisit regularly.