Monday Morning, May 19, 2008
Randy Pausch is dying. The first time his name appeared in my world was in an e-mail from a colleague and friend who called his YouTube video a must see. I trust the sender. He’s a smart, discriminating guy. So I clicked.
The University of Virginia, a place saturated with tradition, celebrates a professorial custom called “The Last Lecture.” Many universities recognize it. It’s a kind of farewell. The best loved lecturers – and you just don’t get hired at UVa if you are not a skilled rhetorician – will generally find their auditoriums packed out for the grand departing. After Professor Pauch had some time to digest his dire prognosis, delivered by a physician who could be trusted, he put together his “Last Lecture” in the tradition of the University founded in 1819 by none other than Thomas Jefferson. He gave the talk at Carnegie Mellon University where he was teaching at the time.
Since that e-mail, Dr. Pausch’s life and work have permeated the new media. There are several YouTube videos to choose from now, including a wonderful talk on of all things, “Time Management.” (That lecture was given before he knew about the illness.) ABC did a full hour on him. He made an appearance on Oprah, I’m told. He delivered a message to the United States Congress. And he’s written a book entitled, The Last Lecture, which Carolyn has nearly read through (she reads passages to me almost every night).
Maybe his story is special to us because we walked the campus of the University of Virginia some years ago. Thanks to a good friend who at the time was a candidate for PhD, we took the tour. We walked the Lawn of the Adademical Village from New Cabell Hall all the way down to Jefferson’s Rotunda, the centerpiece of the original grounds and the third President’s crowning achievement. It is a hallowed hall, revered by anyone ambitious enough to think he or she might achieve academic excellence in the rigorous context of this historic landmark. Sandy showed us the West Oval Room where candidates for one gruelling session lasting several hours on perhaps the hottest academic seat of all defend their dissertations. She shivered as we entered. For years, Dr. Pausch taught there and grilled doctoral candidates.
Whether you consider Randy’s life as the result of amazingly focused work or charm will depend largely, I suppose, on your world view. Was it luck or hard work? He was born in 1960. The years since, as a PhD in computer science, he has lived at the epicenter of the creation of virtual worlds. Not only has his journey taken him to the University of Virginia where he mentored and trained graduate level innovators, he’s been tapped as a consultant to theme park attractions by Disney and others. Familiar names like Alladin’s Magic Carpet Ride, Buzz Lightyear’s AstroBlaster, Cyberspace Mountain, Virtual Jungle Cruise, Virtual Pirates of the Caribbean, well, you get the idea.
And then came the prognosis: pancreatic cancer. It’s about the worst of the worst. His wife, Jai, and their three small children took the news hard. Randy grieved, and then rallied.
Maybe the difference between Randy Pausch and the rest of us is that he knows more keenly than we do the number of his days. Yes, we think, Dr. Pausch has a greater sensitivity to life because he knows full well now that his time remaining is finite. Today is one day that he owns. When it’s gone it’s gone. How will he fill it meaningfully? How will his choices reflect his values? What will his children remember? His wife? His colleagues? His clients? His students? His friends?
You and me, we also know that our time is finite. (Come to think of it, I’ve alreadyhad a few more years than Randy Pausch.) But we don’t think about it much. Apart from a doomsday prognosis from an oncologist, we just go on thinking about something else. And that this is just another day.
But on this Monday morning – as a fellow leader – let’s contemplate for a few moments the lessons we’re learning from Dr. Randy Pausch. He’s a man who’s got it all, we’d say. (Check out his Vitae.) I’m not clear about the source of what is clearly for him a faith walk.
But I do know this: today is a gift.
Let’s live it.
Copyright Kenneth E Kemp 2008