Book Review: The Last Lecture

by Randy Pausch

I first heard of Randy Pausch and The Last Lecture on a television special. I could not watch the program, so when I saw his book at our local food market I decided to buy it. Biography being one of my favorite literary genres, I began reading as soon as I arrived home and did not put it down until I read the last word.

Randy Pausch is a professor of Computer Science, Human Computer Interaction, and Design at Carnegie Mellon University. From 1988 to 1997, he taught at the University of Virginia. He is an award-winning teacher and researcher, and has worked with Adobe, Google, Electronic Arts (EA), and Walt Disney Imagineering, and pioneered the Alice project. He lives in Virginia with his wife and three children (From the book jacket).

This book was conceived when Pausch, already diagnosed with terminal pancreatic cancer, was approached about participating in Carnegie Mellon’s “Last Lecture Series.” The series is designed to give professors an opportunity to “consider their demise and to ruminate on what matters most to them…to offer reflections on their personal and professional journeys.” The interesting aspect of Pausch’s Last Lecture is that it really is his last lecture. In fact, there was some question as to whether or not he would even survive long enough to give it. With so little time left, relatively speaking, he even questioned whether to spend his last few months of life preparing to give this speech. He and his wife Jai went back and forth about doing it, evaluating his motivations, the time it would take to do it, and how he would be able to give it. Three good reasons remained: his children Dylan, Logan and Chloe. He writes,

I reminded Jai of the kids’ ages: five, two and one. ‘Look,’ I said. ‘At five, I suppose that Dylan will grow up to have a few memories of me. But how much will he really remember? What do you and I even remember from when we were five? Will Dylan remember how I played with him, or what he and I laughed about? It may be hazy at best.

And how about Logan and Chloe? They may have no memories at all. Nothing. Especially Chloe. And I can tell you this: When the kids are older, they’re going to go through this phase where they absolutely, achingly need to know: Who was my dad? What was he like? This lecture could help give them an answer to that’…And so , with Jai’s green light, I had a challenge before me. How could I turn this academic talk into something that would resonate with our kids a decade or more up the road?

While considering how to do this, Pausch realized that the things that mattered to him most came to him through accomplishing his dreams. Everyone has dreams for who they think they want to be when they grow up. As a child, Pausch had big dreams, some of them strange and some of the grand. On a slide from his talk, he lists them: being in zero gravity, playing in the NFL, authoring an article in the World Book encyclopedia, being Captain Kirk, winning stuffed animals, and being a Disney Imagineer. What makes Pausch unique is that he lived his dreams.

His last lecture wasn’t simply about achieving one’s childhood dreams, though. Pausch details special people who helped him along the way, significant events, important lessons he learned, risks he took, hard work, and all the good and bad along the way. He creatively packaged in about an hour what most parents spend a couple of decades repeatedly teaching and sharing with their kids.

The main thing that this book lacks, and Pausch realizes it, is a discussion of his relationship with God. He writes, “I was raised by parents who believed that faith was something very personal. I didn’t discuss my specific religion in my lecture because I wanted to talk about universal principles that apply to all faiths — to share things I had learned through my relationships with people.” Not only does Pausch ignore faith in this book, he does not really discuss anything of ultimate importance to life. He worked hard and fulfilled his dreams. He never gave up. He made good decisions. He stayed true to himself. And his advice centers around those themes. While there is nothing wrong with that, it seems shallow in the face of death. It left me feeling sad. Even when he wrote about something less self-centered, like the importance of investing in the lives of others, he wrote about how it benefited himself in the end.

Overall, I enjoyed reading Pausch’s story, probably mostly because I enjoy reading about people. He has lived an interesting life. I laughed a few times (this stands out to me because I read very little that makes me laugh). But as I consider the book as a whole, I have to admit that Pausch’s story is very sad. I finished it asking myself, “Is that it?” Yes, he achieved everything he ever wanted. But everything in this world is passing away. All of our accomplishments and toys will either rust out, yield to age and decay, or be forgotten.

I guess the main take-away from this book for me is that life is precious and sweet. It is important that I make the most of my time here, pouring into my children and the people nearest me all the “wisdom” and love and truth and lessons of faith that I can. Spending my life in love and service to Jesus and people will go with me to eternity. I have no idea when my time here may be up. I don’t want to waste it on myself.

7 Comments on “Book Review: The Last Lecture

  1. i’m intrigued by randy’s thoughts on life and yours. i found your blog through a friend, please read my blogging and comment. i would like to hear your view.thanks.revolverministries.blogspot.compeace be with you, .:rustin


  2. I saw that television special and thought it was sweet. But I too, like you, thought of the lack of faith mentioned in the story. I too, want to leave a legacy for my children, and my prayer is that it will be one of loving Jesus!


  3. All due respect, I think you’re missing the point. Dr. Pausch’s faith – or lack of it – is his own business. He chose not to write about that aspect of his life, and that decision is not properly something to pity or disdain by those of us looking in from the outside. And to say, or rather imply, that all he’s done is “for himself” is, pardon me, ludicrous. What more lasting gift can he give than a message of love, joy, and encouragement to millions of people, including his three children?We should all be so fortunate to have such “sad” lives!


  4. Great review. I had someone ask me about this book, so I’m glad to have a review from someone I trust.I had a feeling, from other reviews I had read, that faith wouldn’t be mentioned. I agree that it’s sad. If I had one “last lecture” to give to my children, it would be, by God’s grace, ALL about faith. Because what else matters?


  5. Thanks for the comment, lakshmi light. I agree, his faith is his own business. However, he wrote a book about his life. His faith is his business in the same way that everything else in the book is his own business. He opened himself up when he invited millions to read his story. I think when a person is writing about his life and death, faith ought to factor in there somewhere. It just made me very sad that he didn’t have more to say about it. It saddened me that his last lecture was so worldly. And, unfortunately, that says something about his life. I should not have implied that his life was sad (I’ll have to edit that). It wasn’t by most peoples’ standards. He lived an exciting life, a prosperous life. He made an impact in many areas most people will never touch.I made an effort to review the book without giving a review of his life; I understand that it is not my place to do so. It proved a difficult task since the book is about his life.


  6. Oh Leslie! I could not agree more! I came away with the same sentiment. If at the core of his fantastic wonderful doing of “things” he did not see fit to give glory to God then wasn’t it all for nothing? If there is no hope when he takes his last breath, then his legacy or “lasting gift” to his family will be the absence of Christ in his life….I have experienced that kind of loss and it is no gift at all. Being able to rest in the truth and relish in the victory for a loved one who is gone is the only peace for those of us who are left behind.At first glance it appears to be an inspirational story but based on the things that inspire the flesh rather than a life that was radically changed and saved by Jesus.


  7. So, on an unrelated note (can you do that in comments? is that incorrrect blog protocol?)–I noticed you are now “Light Came”? I like it! I liked Lux Venit too (though I never was quite sure how to pronounce it?)


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