Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Randy Pausch is really dead

So I finally read Randy Pausch's book, The Last Lecture. It was last week, they were working in my office and I got kicked out for the afternoon; I went over the the library, found it on the shelves, went to a study carol amidst the students studying for their finals, put on the headphones and went through it in one sitting. It's not that long. Bottom line: for about the first 15 minutes I was skeptical, but after that I found myself actually feeling better. Obviously maybe just a simple "I'm not dead" kind of thing :) but it seemed more than that. I had not been expecting it.

It has been almost a year and a half since I looked at the "Last Lecture" either the video or the book. It had been very painful to me when I first encountered it. It was spring of 2008, I was in the middle of my appeal. For some reason I Googled the term "last lecture" or something like that. At that time, I was often thinking about my upcoming last lecture. All of that spring is kind of a blur to me, so perhaps it was after I had applied for the job I currently have, because I was definitely thinking that the end of the semester would be the last time I would be in the classroom.

Back then, it was very painful to look at. I was struggling with my own issues, and along comes the Last Lecture phenomena. Here I am brooding over my upcoming last lecture and this guy has it all over me. He's dying (making my pain seem stupid in comparison) and he's fabulously successful in the field in which I'm about to transition out of via failure mode. I didn't watch the whole thing back then, I probably got through about a third of it, just enough to discover what a tremendously successful guy he was and that his Last Lecture concept was completely unrelated to mine. My last lecture symbolized a final defeat. My last participation in the arena that I so desperately strived to succeed. And when it came to that, it was a complete anticlimax. Not that I expected or planned for otherwise. Having gone through the denial process once already, I knew that you have to hide it all, you can't broadcast any of it. I knew I could not attract attention to myself by announcing my last lecure or planning some unusual event. So the lower level class had the usual depressing last minute review for the final. The upper division class was a little better. I had saved a particularly pleasurable problem to work through, so at least I had some final memory of that wonderful experience of being in front of the class and getting to share with them some gem and try to get them into it.

But back to Randy Paush. He was a YouTube superstar, he was all over the net and he was dying. It was just umbearable. So I put it out of my mind.  Now, about a year and a half later, I finally came back to it. So that was partly why I was surprised to actually feel good after reading the book. And it is so sobering to think, he was alive back then, in late spring of 2008. He's dead now. The real dead professor. [For the record, I meant that term--dead professor--to be ironic and humorous. Not dead in the real sense but dead in the sense of no longer a professor. An ex-professor, no longer to ever be again.] If you google "dead professor" you get "Dr. Randy Pausch, Carnegie Mellon CS professor, Dead at 47" from TechCrunch.

So, finally, what to think about the Last Lecture phenomena?  Well, first, I feel nothing but gratitude for Randy Pausch.  His book, which reads like a kind of a terminal version of "Surely You Must Be Joking" is not only entertaining but of real value.  It certainly helped ME, when I finally read it.  He makes clear--and I would have understood this if I had made it to the end of the YouTube lecture the first time--his main motivation for doing it was for his kids.  And he clearly did not seek the notoriety that came his way.

But let's think about it.  The guy was absolutely fabulously successful.  (As an aside, I think viewing the Last Lecture one should remember just how incredibly competitive faculty positions are, especially at large, well respected universities.  You have to be hitting home runs across the board to succeed in a position like that.)  While I can unequivocally agree that being alive is infinitely better than being dead, he at least had the experience of feeling professionally satisfied before he died.  Is having your career die--and not being able to talk about it to anyone--worse than actual death?  We all are going to die.  What kind of place do we want to get to before we die?  I firmly believe that the old adage:  "No man on his deathbed ever regretted not working at the office more," is NOT true.  Lot's of us pursue careers that are a big chunk of our hopes and dreams, and a lot of us, maybe most of us, don't succeed, or don't get to terms where we feel satisfied with our satisfaction.

I don't know.  The one strong feeling I had after my second denial (after I had a few months to reflect upon it) was that I felt bad that I was not more generous personally to my colleagues.  I knew what it felt like to be in horrible pain emotionally and have no one at your workplace even think to ask how you are doing.  One thing that I have tried to do going forward is to be a better colleague to my coworkers.  Being a science/tech. nerd it is easy to get absorbed into one's own technical problems.  But the real life's problems of those around you (and your family of course) are more important.

So I don't know.  It is horrible that Randy Pausch never got to see his kids grow up, I know that for sure.

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