A Positive Man: Randy Pausch and the Last Lecture

universities, professors retire invited give a Last Lecture. Dr. Randy Pausch tradition. What made story, dying pancreatic cancer, knew . His lecture featured Good Morning America television show, millions readers bought copies book form.

A Positive Man: Randy Pausch and the Last Lecture

Randy Pausch’s “Last Lecture” is a great example of the power of communication. It is simply a college professor’s speech — albeit one with great gravitas, as the deliverer is suffering from a terminal illness — but it has made a worldwide impact due to the frank, humorous, and inspirational story it tells. Pausch’s wisdom reverberates in the mind of the viewer long after watching. In delivering this last lecture, he manages to educate his audience about a myriad of topics, not the least of which is the human condition.

One of the most revelatory ideas in Pausch’s speech is the notion of the “head fake;” Pausch alternately defines the term as “indirect learning.” (Pausch, 2007). The head fake is, in essence, the art of subverting the true purpose of education by layering it with something the audience will find more palatable or superficially entertaining. The first example he gives of a head fake in his life is learning football. Encouraging a child to play the sport, Pausch says, is not for the purposes of making them a great football player and the relative merits of that exercise. Rather, parents want children to learn football to “learn much more important things. Teamwork, sportsmanship, perseverance” (Pausch, 2007). He also offers the example of the Alice project, the crowning achievement of his career, which was an elaborate head fake to get kids interested in computer programming by making it into a game (Pausch, 2007). A skill for head faking seems like a useful tool for any rhetorical speaker to possess. Pausch seems to know that, as he later reveals that his entire lecture has been a vehicle for two head fakes: a) that the lecture has actually been about “how to lead your life,” and b) that the “talk’s not for you [the audience], it’s for my kids” (Pausch, 2007). These messages make the already incredibly personal speech even more meaningful.

Another thing that was educational in the lecture was its focus on how the contributions of other people played a role in Pausch’s career. There are over a dozen occasions in the speech where Pausch stops to mention the name of a colleague, a mentor, a student, a coworker, or a family member who has influenced his life and work. It is notable because, at the close of his life, Pausch is acknowledging that the accomplishments and knowledge that he has amassed has come from the community he built up around himself. This is an important lesson for everyone, in any discipline. Pausch is certainly a people person and an optimist; one refrain is “find the best in everybody” (Pausch, 2007). Nevertheless, his heartfelt recognition of the people who got him to such a satisfying place in life is important.

The third lesson that stood out from Pausch’s lecture was how closely tied his humor was to the use of candid honesty. Pausch opens the lecture by addressing the “elephant in the room… there are approximately 10 tumors in [his] liver, and the doctors told [him] 3-6 months of good health left” (Pausch, 2007). It is a disarming way to start a lengthy lecture. But Pausch almost immediately capitalizes on the awkwardness of the moment, going on to boast, “I am in better shape than most of you” and doing several push ups (Pausch, 2007). Pausch also uses a great number of comical props (stuffed animals, a vest with arrows sticking out, a mad hatter’s hat) and a PowerPoint presentation with humorous and touching photos. All of these techniques amount to an entertaining speech, in spite of its dark undercurrent. But this is in keeping with Pausch’s life philosophy, namely that “I don’t know how to not have fun” (Pausch, 2007). Pausch’s aim is to make the lecture thought-provoking without being dull or morose.

Christopher Peterson argues, in his article on “The Last Lecture,” that the speech should be used as an example for the field of positive psychology, in that it features a man who “has scored the hat trick of happiness. He is wickedly funny; he loves his work; and he contributes mightily to the larger world” (Peterson, 2008). He further states that psychology already uses specific individuals to illustrate theories and principles, but he advocates that “instructors should teach the ‘case’ of Professor Pausch” (Peterson, 2008). He is correct, in that Pausch’s carefully constructed lecture demonstrates not only concrete examples of how Pausch has achieved happiness, but also offers a road map for how others should achieve it. As a case study, it is compelling, offering a historical survey of the subject’s life and career. As a scholarly text, it is invaluable, because it proves its argument (namely that if one lives the way that Pausch prescribes, happiness will be achieved) with ample evidence.

Everyone would benefit from adding Pausch’s lecture to their life curriculum. While Pausch’s lecture was his last, it is an enduring record of one man’s ability to reach out and influence the lives of others. Thus his legacy will live on in the words of the speech.


Pausch, R. (2007). The last lecture: Really achieving your childhood dreams. Lecture. Retrieved on 11 Apr 2011 from Randy Pausch’s website, at http://www.cs.cmu.edu/~pausch / Randy/pauschlastlecturetranscript.pdf

Peterson, C. (2008). The last lecture: A positive case study. Retrieved on 11 Apr 2011 from the Psychology Today website, at http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-good-life/200806/the-last-lecture-positive-psychology-case-study

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