Randy Pausch: Childlike Wonder in the Face of Death

Randy Pausch, the Carnegie Melon professor dying of pancreatic cancer, gained immediate fame when his taped lecture made it to YouTube. In his “last lecture,” he was thinking of his own three children, all under 6, as he talked about dreaming big, taking risks, expressing gratitude, staying positive. The message resonated with millions.

Pausch’s points were especially meaningful for teens and young adults—the predominant YouTube demographic. “Pausch combines the wisdom of an older person with childlike interests in Disney World, virtual reality and other such things beloved by young people,” says sociology professor Richard Lachmann of the University of Albany.

But the underlying somber theme of his lecture and Pausch’s mortality were not lost on younger viewers. “Young people always have been somewhat refl ective. They are aware they will die. They are at the age where they are making decisions about careers, relationships that will shape the rest of their lives. They are aware of that and want advice on how to make such decisions,” Lachmann says.

With his taped lecture, Pausch said he hoped to capture himself in a bottle “to one day wash up on the beach for my children.”

He encouraged viewers to maintain their childlike wonder, to keep a crayon in their pockets as a tangible reminder of childhood. Using Winnie the Pooh characters as examples, he said positive attitude is a choice: “Each of us must make a decision to be a funloving Tigger or a sad-sack Eeyore.”

As many as 6 million people have watched Pausch’s video. The popularity led to appearances on Oprah, Good Morning Ameri ca and a Primetime special on ABC, as well as The Last Lecture, a book cowritten with Wall Street Journal columnist Jeffrey Zaslow. One viewer moved by Pausch’s message was Becca Hallock, whose sister had terminal cancer.

“We can only hope to go with some dignity and Randy’s speech leads us to thinking about that dignity before we’re finally confronted. Hopefully, his story will lead more of us to figuring out, before it’s too late, what we each have to do before we shed this mortal coil.”

Pausch rejects self-pity and takes pleasure in little moments of joy, like holding his wife’s hand, playing with his children or reading the newspaper. “Time is all you have,” he says, “and one day you may have less time than you think.”

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