The Last Lecture by Randy Pausch,

reviewed by Mary Elizabeth, M.E. Yeager, 2009

According to Randy Pausch “We cannot change the cards we are dealt, just how we play the hand” (Pausch & Zaslow, 2008). At 47 Pausch, a college professor at Carnegie Mellon University, was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. He then decided to write The Last Lecture.

In their last year professors are often asked to give a talk, their last lecture, in which they reflect on their experiences. While they speak, audiences can’t help but mull the same question: What wisdom would we impart to the world if we knew it was our last chance? What would we want as our legacy?

This text is both inspiring and powerful. Pausch tells life stories that illustrate such themes as dreaming big, hard work, perseverance, sacrifice, self-confidence, modesty, courage, a positive outlook, and dealing with adversity. All who read this book will find themselves not wanting it to end as story after story, we get a glimpse of Pausch’s life.
Pausch believed that he won the parent lottery. He was influenced by his loving and supportive parents. Early in life he painted things that mattered to him on his bedroom walls such as a large silver elevator door, geometric shapes, chess pieces, Pandora’s Box, and a quadratic formula. Among these the quadratic formula mattered most to him.
Growing up Pausch had many experiences and learned lessons from them. He recounted experiences playing football that taught him lessons about the importance of teamwork, sportsmanship, perseverance, hard work and the ability to deal with adversity.
He remembered going through his dad’s things after his dad died. Among them were a citation for heroic achievement and a bronze star for valor his dad received while in the Army. His father had never mentioned these to him. Pausch says that he learned a lesson about sacrifice and modesty that day.

As a child he loved Disney World and dreamed of becoming a Disney Imagineer. Few achieve such dreams much less get the opportunity to achieve them. He got that opportunity while teaching at Carnegie Mellon and was awarded a sabbatical so that he could take the job. He recounted that after his plane landed in Los Angles he drove to Disney World with the Lion King soundtrack blaring on his convertible’s stereo and tears of joy streaming down his face.

In a chapter entitled, “It’s About How to Live Your Life,” Pausch talks of his cancer and it’s effects on the remainder of his life. He described how he tried to live his life and offered some tips on coping saying “this is what worked for me.” He talks about giving yourself permission to dream big, and achieving your goals. He points out that we all have a finite amount of time and energy and that time spent complaining cannot help us achieve our goals.

Pausch tried to maintain a positive outlook. He enjoyed driving his convertible with the top down. One day a colleague saw him doing this. She said that the smile on his face meant that he was really taking pleasure in life and this reminded her of what life was really all about. Pausch said that this E-mail meant a great deal to him because it confirmed what he thought, “I still knew life was good. I was doing ok.”

Pausch loved his wife and children. He talked about enjoying New Year’s Eve 2001 with his wife. They were just sitting down to watch a movie when her water broke. He rushed her to the hospital. There a doctor warned him that his wife could go into shock so he needed to keep her calm. Pausch did as the doctor instructed and shortly after their first child, a son, was born. Pausch believes that overcoming challenges like this are what keeps couples together.

Pausch concludes by looking forward sharing his dreams for his children. He relates that his wife Jai is his caregiver and how much this means to him. On the last page he closes with the following sad statement: “My life will be lost to pancreatic cancer. Two organizations I have worked with that are dedicated to fighting this disease are: The Pancreatic Cancer Action Network and The Lustgarten Foundation.”

On July 25th, 2008 Randy Pausch lost his battle with cancer. It was comforting for me to read the text while Pausch was still alive. If you read this book, hopefully you, like me will be inspired. You will feel like you are there with his family, one of his supporters, championing him through his battle with cancer.


Pausch, R. & Zaslow, J. (2008). The Last Lecture. New York, NY: Hyperion.