Before his life drew to a close, Randy Pausch revealed in an interview and a book excerpt what matters most.
A note from the editors of Reader’s Digest:
Early on Friday morning, July 25, 2008, Randy Pausch passed away in Virginia after a valiant battle with pancreatic cancer. He was 47.
He leaves a wife and three young children.
Earlier this year, Pausch spoke with Reader’s Digest about what matters most in life — making memories with his wife and three children.
Dealing with Bad News
Many colleges ask beloved professors to give their version of a “last lecture”-what they’d say if they were summing up a lifetime of learning and teaching. But at Carnegie Mellon University on September 18, 2007, Randy Pausch gave a last lecture unlike any other. A year earlier, he had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, a deadly, fast-moving disease. And just weeks before the lecture, he’d learned that cancer had attacked his liver and spleen. The prognosis: Randy Pausch had less than six months to live.
For most people with three children under six, that death sentence would have killed all optimism. But in his talk, the distinguished professor of computer science, human-computer interaction, and design touched only briefly on his achievements, most notably as founder of the Alice Project, which lets young students tell their stories in three dimensions (it’s named for Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland).
Pausch acknowledged his disease but refused to dwell on it. Instead, he delivered a stunningly upbeat, joke-filled lecture about the importance of achieving your childhood dreams, managing time, and, above all, loving every minute of life.
Millions have watched his lecture on the Web or television. Now Pausch has written a new book, The Last Lecture, which expands on those thoughts (see our excerpt, page 197). In a revealing interview with Reader’s Digest in mid-February, while he was still feeling well, Pausch talked about that book, his three kids-Dylan, Logan, and Chloe-and his unflagging spirit.
RD: On August 15, 2007, your doctors told you that you had three to six months to live. Six months later, you’re still here. How are you feeling?
Pausch: Quite good, thanks. I’ve lived a year and a half after my original diagnosis. In the world of pancreatic cancer, that makes me a rock star.
RD: What about the ten tumors you have?
Pausch: My doctors and I have managed to keep them the same size for six months. That’s not unheard-of, but it’s lucky.
RD: “Managed” tells me that “lucky” isn’t the only explanation. You are, after all, a scientist-a believer in experimentation.
Pausch: Right. I started with surgery, then I went to Houston for a brutal protocol of chemotherapy and daily radiation. I was part of a clinical trial at M. D. Anderson that was based on work done at Virginia Mason in Seattle. By the end, I could barely walk.
RD: So what’s the revised prognosis?
Pausch: About a month ago, the new treatment started to fail. I am, not metaphorically, living on borrowed time. Success is measured in months for me. When my health fails, it will fail quickly. Tumors grow on an exponential curve.
RD: Do you have a “typical day”?
Pausch: Not anymore. I have three small children. I play with them as much as I can. Chemo days make me tired, though it’s hard to say that’s because of the chemo when you have kids who have inherited their dad’s usual energy level. Right now, me walking at sea level is like you walking at 5,000 feet. But that’s a small price to pay.
RD: What have you told the kids?
Pausch: Nothing. The experts have been vehement about this point: Until I’m very ill, not a word. We’ve been told, “Adults can’t handle that you look great and will die soon-how can kids?” But this cancer isn’t a pretty way to go. Eventually I’ll get jaundiced, and then it will be apparent to my oldest child [Dylan]. My two youngest children [Logan and Chloe] won’t understand. But there’s no dancing around the fact that Daddy’s going. I haven’t figured out how I’m going to minimize that.
RD: You’ve had an amazing career, yet you don’t seem to be thinking at all about your work.
Pausch: Yes and no. One thing [my wife] Jai and I learned is that the right amount for me to work wasn’t zero. An hour a day at work makes the other hours better.
RD: Why would you use that hour to write a book?
Pausch: My wife really wanted me to do it. She saw it as something from me to the kids. And it took no time away from them.
RD: How so?
Pausch: I had to ride my bike for an hour every day. As I rode, I would talk on my helmet-mounted cell phone to [co-author] Jeffrey Zaslow and tell him stories of my life. Fifty-three bike rides and I was done.
RD: What are your hopes for the book?
Pausch: I only care about the first three copies. But I’m pleased to do what good I can on the way out of the building. It’s hard to raise awareness of pancreatic cancer-people who get it don’t live long enough.
RD: You’re obsessive about time management. Learned any new tricks?
Pausch: When I was diagnosed, we decided to move from Pittsburgh to Virginia, where my wife has family. We could have afforded professional packers. But all these people wanted to help us. We thought, We’ll save a few thousand dollars, but beyond that, it’s a tangible thing that will be good for people who’d find it hard to say goodbye. Forty people showed up. And they all had something to do. So let people help you.
RD: Any other lessons along the way?
Pausch: Make clear that people understand what your circumstances are. And looking for pity-that’s a mistake.
RD: How important is humor?
Pausch: Everybody makes their own choices. When we got the news that the cancer had metastasized, Jai and I cried and held each other. Then we made a pact: We’re going to laugh. And we do laugh. A lot. We joke about the cancer. And everything else.
RD: In your book, it’s striking how your friends treat you. “Saint Randy” gets no respect.
Pausch: When I went scuba diving with old friends, one of them said, “Don’t bother putting sunscreen on Randy.” Humor is one of the greatest gifts our species has been given. To lose it would be terrible.
RD: You’ve written, “If you live your life right, the dreams will come to you.” Any new dreams?
Pausch: More like short-term goals: making memories. The first thing I did, as we were buying the house, was to take our son Dylan to Florida for a swim with dolphins. I thought, I don’t remember much when I was five, so swimming with a dolphin was my best shot. I try to do many things like that. And to be savvy that way.
RD: What are your thoughts about your last lecture?
Pausch: It was a magical experience. Afterward I felt, Now I can go in peace. Then some jerk from local TV pushed a mike in my wife’s face and asked, “Your husband will die soon-how do you feel?” A good thing there was a crowd between him and me.
RD: William Wordsworth wrote, “Our souls have sight of that immortal sea/which brought us hither.” Do you have any intimations of immortality?
Pausch: Not in a personal or existential sense. In a professional capacity, through the Alice Project, millions of kids will learn to program computers and have fun. That’s what my career was all about-doing hard things and having fun doing them. Alice can be a legacy. And it was nice to get 10,000 e-mails saying, “Your lecture bettered my life.”
RD: I was telling a friend about you. She asked, “Where do people find the courage?” I felt her answer was contained in her question: People don’t have the courage, they find it. What do you think?
Pausch: I don’t get that what I’ve done has been in any way courageous. I have met people who were so much braver. Sometimes I’m struck by the fact that I’m leaving three kids-and then I see a guy down the hall with five. As for what I said in the last lecture at Carnegie Mellon, a lot of people would have said that. They just didn’t have the good fortune to be a professional lecturer.
RD: You sound like the dying Lou Gehrig, when he said farewell to his fans and fellow players in Yankee Stadium and called himself the luckiest man on the face of the earth.
Pausch: I am the luckiest. It rips my heart that my kids won’t have a dad. But it’s not the years. It’s the mileage. I wouldn’t choose to die at 47, but I’ve had a hell of a life.