This appeared in today's The Kathmandu Post.
What would you do if you learned you have only a few months to survive? What wisdom would you share if you knew it was your last chance? What legacy would you like to leave?
Randy Pausch, a computer science professor at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, mulled over these questions. At age 47, he was diagnosed with terminal pancreatic cancer. He was going through the treatment of chemotherapy and his most recent treatment hadn't worked. He had just months to live. He was asked by the University to give a last lecture as per the US tradition in which professors give talks titled "The Last Lecture". Randy writes in the introduction of the book by the same title: "If I were a painter, I would have painted. If I were a musician, I would have composed music. But I am a lecturer. So I lectured."
What would a dying man talk about? Death, you may think. But the audience which consisted of his wife, friends, journalists, colleagues and students were pleasantly surprised when he gave a highly motivating and life assertive lecture assisted by PowerPoint, titled "Really Achieving Your Childhood Dreams." He listed his childhood dreams: being in the zero gravity, playing in the NFL, authoring an article in the World Book Encyclopaedia, being captain Kirk, winning stuffed animal, and being a Disney imagineer. Surprisingly, he had been able to fulfil all of his childhood dreams. The slideshows and the follow up book talk about how he succeeded in fulfilling them. In the first chapter, he writes: "I won a parent lottery. I was born with the winning ticket, a major reason I was able to live out my childhood dreams."
One of the audiences in the Carnegie Mellon hall was a Wall Street Journal columnist. When Jeffrey Zaslow heard about Randy's last lecture, he knew there was a good story behind it. So, he asked WSJ to fund for his travel to Pittsburgh. It rejected the idea citing lack of budget. But Jeffrey was undeterred. He drove 286 miles from Detroit to Pittsburgh to cover the event on Sept. 18, 2007. The event featured in the WSJ under the title: "A Beloved Professor Delivers the Lecture of a Lifetime." He not only wrote the story but also collaborated with Randy on a book. Jeffrey talked to Randy when he rode his bike around his neighbourhood in south-eastern Virginia. He turned those conversations to the stories that were published as a book, making it to the bestseller's list. Apart from Randy's heart-warming story that defies death, there was also a story of journalistic dedication that surfaced from the last lecture.
I was in Pittsburgh when Randy lost his battle to cancer on July 25, 2008. I was working at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette under a six-month fellowship programme. In course of exploring the city, I visited Carnegie Mellon University in Oakland, Pittsburgh. But I came to know about Randy only after his death. Mark Roth, a staff writer at Post-Gazette wrote a moving obituary on Randy, an award winning teacher and researcher who had worked with Adobe, Google, Electronics Arts (EA) and Walt Disney. So did Jeffrey Zaslow.
When I returned home in early September last year, I made sure that The Last Lecture was one of the dozen books I brought along with me. Back in Nepal, I would discover Jagdish Ghimire, a seasoned author who has almost become a Nepali version of Randy Pausch. After knowing that Ghimire is diagnosed with terminal cancer, I borrowed Antarmanko Yatra, a memoir-cum-autobiography that won prestigious Madan Puraskar, from a book-loving friend. While reading the book, I could not help but compare Ghimire with Pausch: though oceans apart, the zeal of life, positive thinking and enthusiasm are the hallmark of both individuals. Listening to Ghimire's lecture in several literary gatherings, I realised that he too was full of life, humorous; there was no hint of his imminent death. He has even remarked in a recent programme organised by American Embassy that he has defied death.
At one point in the book, Randy says: "Time is all you have. And you may find one day that you have less than you think." This coming from a person who knew he was soon going to die. The book is full of anecdotes, motivational tips, and life-lessons that Randy hoped would illuminate his children's life in his absence. Randy had married his sweetheart Jai (pronounced "Jay"). They had three kids: Logan, Chloe and Dylan. In his final days, he made sure that he devoted his time for his family. He left no stone unturned to secure a good future for them.
The Last Lecture combines humour, inspiration and intelligence. It forces you to pause and ruminate over your own life. The anecdotes and vignettes linger long after the final sentence is read. Schedule your time with this book.