The Last Lecture

Life is a wonderful and horrifying thing.

It can hold some of the most wonderful and pleasant surprises such as working with Disney‘s infamous Imagineering group; and it can be terrifying when it throws ten malignant tumors at your liver. One moment you’re accomplishing a childhood dream, and the next, you’re facing an adversary like no other; one that you cannot possibly hope to overcome. The Last Lecture; its author, Randy Pausch; Professor at Carnegie Mellon University gave a lecture titled The Last Lecture: Achieving Your Childhood Dreams. Randy had been diagnosed with terminal cancer and had only been given six months to live. So, as a professor and a father, instead of dissipating in a realm of self-pity, he decided to put to use his personal life lessons to try and teach not only his children, but his readers and students how to achieve their childhood dreams.

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However, by depicting each of his childhood dreams, he is teaching the audience something else without them quite realizing it. He lists all of his childhood dreams in no specific order and then he delves into each one as a discussion topic and explains what he learned during his journey while striding towards that goal. He wanted to be in zero gravity at one point, he wanted to play in the NFL, he wanted to Captain Kirk, and be a Disney Imagineer. These were not all of the goals he talked about; these are just the goals that I find relevant to this particular essay. A topic that stood out to me a lot was what he called a “head fake” which is when you get someone to learn something without them actually knowing what they are learning. Randy made it clear to explain how difficult it was to be able to experience zero gravity first hand.

As a child, he never wanted to become an astronaut, it just didn’t interest him. However, the floating in zero gravity part did. NASA has a plane that they use to train astronauts as to make them familiar with it and its effects. Randy calls it the, “Vomit Comet” (31). NASA has a less dramatic and more appealing name for it, “The Weightless Wonder” (31). The plane does parabolic arcs, and at the top of each arc, the plane allows the occupants to experience the sensation of weightlessness for approximately twenty-five seconds.

Randy one day learned that NASA held a program in which college students could provide proposals for experiments on the plane. Randy had his research team at Carnegie Mellon submit a proposal using virtual reality; Nausea is often a side-effect, so Randy’s research group’s question was if “virtual reality dry-runs on the ground help?” (32). Honestly, I thought it was a bit of a stretch to try and do a comparison between the virtual reality aspect and the actual reality aspect, but NASA must have been fond of it because they were then invited to Johnson Space Center in Houston to ride the plane and test their proposal. However, for whatever reason, NASA had a rule in place which did not allow, “Under no circumstances could faculty advisors fly with their students” (32). Randy was of course crushed but he read through the literature of the program to find a loophole and he did. NASA allowed for one journalist from the student’s hometown to come along for the ride, seeking positive publicity of course.

Randy was then able to resign as the trips faculty advisor, and submit an application as the journalist. The people at NASA saw right through his little trick, but he was able to convince them to allow it because Randy promised to get information about the experiment out onto the Web, and send film with various other things to mainstream journalists around the country. That was the only reason they overlooked his little switch of roles. Randy states that there is a lesson here to be learned; “Have something to bring to the table, because that will make you more welcome” (33). That was just a little snippet of what he learned with his experience in zero gravity and his dealing in affairs with NASA.

The National Football League, a fantastic organization with A LOT of publicity. Randy always wanted to play in the NFL but was never physically gifted in that sense. He was just too scrawny and small. However, he did not always want to play football. His father had force him to start playing as a young boy, and Randy’s first coach was a bit of football junky that knew his stuff and held high expectations for his team. Coach Graham; Randy’s football coach, was a former Penn State linebacker.

He was extremely strict in making sure that each player was well conditioned and was an expert in the fundamentals of the game. One practice, Coach Graham rode Randy hard, pushed him to his limit; forcing him to reach for something more inside of himself. After that practice, Randy spoke to one of the assistant coaches and learned that if you’re doing something wrong and no one is correcting you anymore, then they’ve given up on you, and, “that’s a bad place to be” (37). However, because Coach Graham cared, Randy was able to, “do things tomorrow that he couldn’t do today” (37). Randy then talked about what parents want their children to learn from playing sports. They want their children to learn “teamwork, perseverance, sportsmanship, the value of hard work, an ability to deal with adversity” (39).

Randy called this an indirect learning, a “head fake” (39). He said that a head fake is where you teach people things they don’t realize they’re learning until after the process. Most are familiar with the T.V. series Star Trek, and even more familiar with the latest movies of Star Trek, and Star Trek: Into Darkness. Growing up, the original Star Trek series was kind of a big deal for Randy.

Thus, as a child, he would often fantasize about being Captain James T. Kirk. Randy honestly believes that he has become “a better teacher and colleague–maybe even a better husband—by watching Kirk run the Enterprise” (43). Captain Kirk had a particular skill set that set him apart from the rest of the crew on the Enterprise and that gave him the ability to “climb on the Enterprise and run it” (44). Kirk wasn’t the smartest guy on the ship, you had Spock who might as well been a walking calculator, dictionary, and encyclopedia all in one body.

Then you had Scotty, the tech engineer who kept the ship up and running. However, Kirk had what these two did not, he held the skill set we call “leadership” (44). He understood what needed to be done when the time was appropriate and knew how to delegate work between the crew members and most importantly, he knew how to inspire them to reach for new goals and broaden their horizons. From the Star Trek movie The Wrath of Khan, Kirk is put into a simulated training scenario where no matter what he does, his entire crew dies. Kirk cheated, and famously reprogrammed the simulation because “he didn’t believe in the no-win scenario” (45). Randy remembered this particular scene when he was informed that only 4 percent of pancreatic cancer patients live five years.

When William Shatner (Kirk) heard of Randy’s diagnosis, Shatner sent Randy a photo of himself as Kirk, signed, “I don’t believe in the no-win scenario” (46). Randy was inspired by Kirk and his leadership abilities, and truly believes that he is a better person today because of Captain James T. Kirk; Commander of the starship, The Enterprise. When Randy was a child, his family and him took a cross-country trip to Disneyland. He was in awe with all of the amazing things there. Unlike other children who just wanted to keep experiencing the cool things that Disney came up, he was one of the few who wanted and couldn’t wait for the chance to “make stuff like this!” (51).

Twenty years later, after receiving a PhD in computer science from Carnegie Mellon, he then thought that he was capable to do anything and work anywhere; Walt Disney Imagineering brought him back to reality after replying to his letters of application with what Randy would call, “go-to-hellletters” (51). This was a setback that left Randy extremely disappointed. However, he always referred back to his mantra during times like these, “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” (52). A few years later, while a professor at the University of Virginia, he was given a sabbatical of six months and after meeting with Jon Snoddy; an Imagineer and a big name in virtual reality at the time, Randy was given the opportunity to go and work with Disney Imagineering on a virtual reality project that was being made into an Aladdin project.

Now, all he needed to do was consult the dean to make sure that he had permission to do this. When speaking to the dean, Randy asked the dean if he thought this was a good idea; the dean replied by saying “I have no idea if it is a good idea” (53). Randy became frustrated by this and decided to consult the dean of sponsored research, who when asked if he thought this was a good idea; replied “I don’t have enough information to say. But I do know that one of my star faculty members is in my office and he’s really excited. So tell me more.

“(54). Randy took notice of the differences in their responses to his question, and made sure to take a more positive stance in trying to learn something new instead of turning it down and arguing against right away. Randy is an interesting individual. In a moment when most people would cave in and pity themselves, Randy did something different. He thought not of himself (just a little), but of his children, wife, family, friends, colleagues, students, and strangely enough; strangers. He published this book mainly for his children so that they might get to know a small part of him and his beliefs, but, he indirectly (head fake) helped so many others.

He made so many realize that their troubles aren’t always the worst, or that they needed to understand that there is an upside in almost all negative situations. Randy is an inspirational individual, who in a time of chaos and destruction, thought not of himself, but of those around him and yet still, he affected so many others without trying.