Randy Pausch was a professor of computer science, human-computer interaction and design at Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. In September 2006 he learned he had pancreatic cancer. Feeling the need to spend as much time as possible with his family, Randy cleared his desk and moved his wife, Jai, and their three young children, Dylan, Logan and Chloe, to another state. Here, he rationalized, the children might be better able to receive the wisdom of their grandparents and begin a life without their dad.
A cheerful, optimistic and innately curious chap from the get-go, Randy seemed to accept his fate with more equanimity than his friends and colleagues gave him. As was the tradition with retiring faculty at CMU, he was asked to give a last lecture, a mix of summing up and parting advice to any students or others who might be interested. Just as knowing when the date and time of the end of a vacation determines how one might take advantage of the last days, such a lecture might be particularly cogent. Four hundred people showed up. Videos were made. A book came out if it. Among other things, Randy gave some straightforward advice to anyone who might be running out of time.
Time must be explicitly managed, like money.
You can always change your plan, but only if you have one.
Break big tasks into small ones and put them on lists.
Ask yourself if you’re spending time on the right stuff.
Develop a good filing system and stick with it.
Get yourself a speakerphone so your hands can stay busy.
Learn to delegate, and especially empower younger people.
Make occasional time for a genuine time out.
To those who heard Randy’s reminders, and those who have read The Last Lecture in book form, it seems incredible that such straightforward suggestions can come from a terminally ill person. Running out of time, Randy’s remaining days were joyful — not that he was going to receive some special dispensation, but he was empowered with the idea that people can be simple bridges to one another. Life itself will go on after we depart, and there will be others eager to keep the faith of trying to figure things out and pass on their findings. Our world is a moldable, improvable place.
Randy Pausch died on July 25, 2008. He was 47 years old.
PS: “Time is all you have. And you may find one day that you have less than you think.” (Randy Pausch)
Esoterica: Randy was upbeat and witty during his lecture, alternating between wisecracks and insights on computer science and engineering education. After doing a few push-ups on stage, he gave advice on building multi-disciplinary collaborations, working in groups and interacting with others, and offered inspirational life lessons. Speakers who followed up were in tears. CMU will celebrate Pausch’s impact on the world with a raised pedestrian bridge to connect the new Computer Science Building and the Center for the Arts, symbolizing the way Pausch linked disciplines.
by Edna Hildebrandt, Toronto, ON, Canada
The advice he listed is probably very effective and planning is really good. I don’t know if he removed himself completely from his family and if he did I don’t agree. I think bringing the family with the grandparents is excellent but not being with them is depriving them of their time together with the last moments of his life. We try to protect children from the harsh realities of life but I think it is misplaced. It is sad that he had a short lease in life and the plan is well thought out. I think the experience that they would have sharing and experiencing what their father goes through would give them time to adjust to his passing. It will build strength in their character.
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by Sandee Hazelbaker
The letter about Randy Pausch this morning really hit home for me. My husband of 43 years also lost his life to Pancreatic Cancer this March. Diagnosed in December just 3 months before he passed away we were given no warning of what was to be a life changing world for both of us. He was the best husband anyone could have ever wished for, doing everything I ever asked of him and he was a huge factor in the community volunteering and giving of his time. He was able to manage his time so perfectly, accomplishing mountains of work by taking little steps. I always admired this about him because I am a go-full-out kind of girl and then collapse before the task at hand is finished. When time does allow for me to pick up my brushes now I feel pressured to turn something out that is a masterpiece and will make it to the Gallery but my last two attempts at this have ended up making their way to the trash bin. So the letter this morning helped me to reinforce what I saw in my husband. Baby steps make for giant gains. This may be easier said than done but I will try to become a better master at this. The past few months have been terribly painful but thankfully my art will continue to aid in my ability to survive alone. I just wanted you to know how much your letters mean to me and especially this one today. Pancreatic cancer has to be the worst, giving no mercy at all for its victims. Thankfully many wonderful supporters have surrounded my family and myself and with their help and Gods grace I will survive.
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by Bill Smith, Duluth, GA, USA
Randy was a special individual that showed us all how to live when we are destined to die. It is not that we will succumb to a disease as he had but how we leave this world that makes a difference. He has shepherded many in his journey and for that we should be thankful. As he said, for those who are left behind, we can build nets to catch them as they fall. He built nets for more than he knows.
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by Daniel DuBois, Toronto, ON, Canada
It’s amazing how clear things get when you start running out of something. Priorities seem to establish themselves: obsessions that earlier in life hogged all kinds of think-space melt away, and suddenly holding a grudge takes too much time. As far as I know, I am not dying but in my late fifties I am pointedly aware that things are coming to an end. At this point in my life, the years accelerate, like sliding down a greased shuttle. It is, paradoxically, a happy time, a time of clarity and love and of incredible focus. A time of dreams and observation.
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Life is a rehearsal
by Robert Head
When you talk about someone running out of time, it is almost as if there is an inference that they should have had more — that 47 years was too short. True, it was not a long time, but then and again neither is 97 years, in the general history of the cosmos. We all live an allotted time. Many terminally ill people are said to “be at peace” when their time comes. It is in the knowing, and accepting.
Dying suddenly, unexpectedly, with at best a few moments to realize what is happening, is likely much more difficult, at any age. Foresight is a gift. I do not live my life like every today is my last, rather, I live my life like every tomorrow might be my last. I look forward to my tomorrows. One day, I will not realize my plans for the next day, and so be it, I will have lived as many days as possible as well as possible. Long term plans are there, but they are kind of wishful thinking on my part, and hopes for those who may survive me. I do not treat life like a retirement budget. I do not sacrifice today for a tomorrow that is years away, if at all. I do not buy in to “retirement” in the modern sense. My retirement will be my passing, and until that time, I have much to do. As an artist, I know some people have less regard for one’s work until the artist has died, but I do not care a whit what they think. I care about the art as art, not investment for others. Let the vultures hover, and outlive them as best you can. I just cannot believe death is the end, rather I think we have it wrong — I believe life only starts in death, and this thing we call life is the rehearsal. And there is nothing wrong with a good rehearsal. Just don’t get your knickers in a knot if you blow your lines a bit.
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Maturing as an artist
by Linda Blondheim, Gainesville, FL, USA
As I mature as an artist I come to understand that time does indeed run out. I know not when, but I am much more aware of wanting to make my time valuable and useful for important things to me. I am far less willing to waste it doing mindless things that someone else wants me to do. I think I have become focused more on my painting time and less on social time as I have matured. I do not go to meetings for any reason. I never call anyone for more than a few minutes, preferring email, which is far more efficient. My basic rule is yes, if I wish to do it, and no if I don’t. It is easy to be drained dry by social and charitable commitments.
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Finding the fine balance
by Elsha Leventis, Toronto, ON, Canada
Randy Pausch inspired and awed with his courage despite his terrible disease and impending death. His story reminds us, too, that as Lennon said, “Life is what happens when we are busy making other plans.” It’s important to remember that we are human beings, and not just human doings. We have to find the fine balance between being and doing everyday. We need to make plans and lists, yes, but we also need to know when to put them aside to watch a baby sleep or a sunset spread its glow across buildings, to listen to music or our children or parents or partners, or just sit awhile in awe of being alive. I am guessing that no one on their last breath wishes he or she had worked harder — the trick is to figure out the things that we would regret not having experienced, and then do them. Before time runs out.
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Rest and relaxation
by Eleanor Blair, Gainesville, FL, USA
My maternal grandmother just passed away at 99. My other three grandparents died when they were in their mid-sixties. I’m 62. I like to think that I take after my grandmother, but statistically perhaps not. None of us knows how much time we have, and I may have decades left, but I find it very useful to consider that perhaps I don’t. It makes it easier to decide what’s important, and what’s not so important. Lately I’ve been trying to design more rest and relaxation into every day. Paradoxically, I’ve been getting a lot more painting done.
Attitude and Art
by Hazel Robinson, CA, USA
It’s all about attitude! Everyone has limited time. Dwelling on “how much” stops me cold. I’ve lost several months of time since I was told that my time is running out and I can’t get those back but the next few months should be fairly productive since I’ve decided that what time I have is mine. I’m old – don’t have to go to work in the morning, don’t have to be anywhere on time, can paint at two in the morning without disturbing anyone except the cat, and painting at two in the morning is sure better than tossing and turning and fussing about what can’t be helped. Besides, who knows, maybe I’ll beat this “thing” and live another few years more than the doctors predict. If so I’d like to be getting better and better at what I love. ART! Go for it with the best attitude you can manage and your attitude improves right along with your art.
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Beautiful and peaceful ending
by Jacelyn Simonski, Seal Rock, OR, USA
It reminded me of my husband, Phil, who passed away on July 13th, 2009 of melanoma. He lived his life in the outdoors; as a lifeguard during the summers of his high school and college years; a 28 yr. career as a professional forester in eastern Oregon; 18 yrs. as a fishing guide; then another 6 years on the Oregon coast fishing and gardening; doing the things he loved until 5 weeks before his death. His years in the sun took their toll and he was diagnosed with melanoma (a 1/2″ black spot on the bottom of his foot) in 2005, but already a stage 3 cancer. After 2 surgeries the disease spread slowly at first but then 6 months ago began to spread rapidly until his entire leg and hip were totally involved and very painful, making it more difficult to get around. He continued to haul himself in and out of his boat to go fishing and was still gardening at our home on the coast until 5 weeks before his death. He kept a very positive and brave attitude throughout. We had only shared 5 years together but he told me often they were the best of his life.
His encouragement of my endeavors with my art was his greatest gift to me and I will continue to pursue that interest. I liked Randy’s list of things to keep in mind if one was running out of time, especially the one, “Ask yourself if you’re spending time on the right stuff.”
What can I do?
by David Oleski, West Chester, PA, USA
So I try to share my struggles and challenges and shortcomings with my audience with this journal. Aside from revisiting the same yellow apples against a yellow background today, things have a way of being brought right back into perspective when you least expect it. Ever since a good friend of mine was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) about a year ago, life has become so much more fragile for me. It started with slurred speech, and when he accompanied me to a concert on New Year’s Eve he had trouble walking, or holding a fork. I don’t blame him for not answering his phone, or returning calls or emails, and today I got an email back from his sister. He can no longer drive, and he just sits and watches TV all day. He avoids talking on the phone because of his difficulty speaking, and can’t control his fingers enough to text or type. His desire to avoid being a burden to anyone has him spending his days alone.
Maybe someone out there can help me; I’m trying to figure out what I can do. At one time I believed I could help anyone do anything, in some way I wanted to be like a hero. I’ve had some mentors whose lessons have continued to guide me years later, and I’ve done my best to do the same for so many others. To be the good man, the guide, the inspiration, the motivation, or just the pugnacious challenge to step up and do one better. When I’ve been at some of my lowest points, I’ve shown others how to embrace adversity as a challenge, or as a measure of perseverance. This is beyond anything I’ve ever wanted to know about. There’s nothing I can say about this, I don’t even remember how life was before I knew a whole lot about ALS. Now I know so much, and all I can do is want to know that my friend is ready for this. Or maybe I need to be ready for this, to accept that he will slip away, and none of us will find anything good in any part of it.
One way or another I’ll be visiting him soon, maybe dragging him out and trying to find something to say about what comes next. We define each day by what we’re enjoying today, and what we’re building for tomorrow. We are all on this same path, only the rest of us believe we have time to see our efforts add up to something bigger. I always talk about what comes next, it seems as though I’m hardwired to believe that no matter what happens next, it will be an adventure of some sort. Even stepping through that great final door has a certain odd attraction. I’ve been pretty willful throughout my entire life, and I’d like to think at that moment I’d take a deep breath and just jump through. I cannot imagine what advice or input I could give someone who is facing this. This is a challenge as defined only on his own terms, and for once I can’t use my own perspective as any sort of comforting reference for what comes next. I guess “comfort” is the thing that I can’t find what that comfort could be, for him, for me, for any of us that are close to him. In every one of these entries, I refer to the unknown as the possibility of adventure, yet I can’t bring myself to believe that I don’t fear for the unknown for others. In my own heart, I can find stillness, and as much as I’d try to embrace the Buddhist sensibility of being one with the emptiness, with each day my actions describe that I rally against the passing of the light of each day, racing to lay down one more aspect of my view of the light of one day before another darkness. In my own way, I’m raging against the dying of the light, and for now, I have the energy to do this, and there’s nothing I can do to share this energy with my friend. The nerves that control his muscles are failing, what started at his fingertips will eventually reach the involuntary muscles of breathing, and then of a heartbeat. My eyes are burning and I can’t see very clearly now. There’s nothing I can do, and I can’t stand it.
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5-colour stone lithograph, 20 x 26.5 inches
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That includes Pene Horton of Sidney, BC, Canada, who wrote, “When your time is used up, you are used up. Dead, some call it.”
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