By Karyn Strickler
In his mega-million selling country hit, Live Like You Were Dying, Tim McGraw sang, "I was in my early forties with a lot of life before me when a moment came that stopped me on a dime. I spent most of the next days looking at the x-rays, talking 'bout the options and talking 'bout sweet time. I asked him when it sank in that this might really be the real end, how's it hit you when you get that kinda news? Man what'd you do?"
Instead of skydiving, Rocky Mountain climbing or going 2.7 seconds on a bull named Fu Manchu, Carnegie Mellon University Professor Randy Pausch accepted an invitation to give the first in a series of lectures asking speakers to assume that they are giving their last lecture. The not-so-funny coincidence is that Professor Pausch is dying of pancreatic cancer and has 3-6 months of good health left. So it was perhaps easier than most, for Pausch to get into the intended mind frame of the lecture series.
Armed with his power point presentation, props and a powerful sense of humor, you'd never have known that this vibrant, 47 year-old Professor and founder of the Entertainment Technology Center (ETC), was terminally ill. As the handsome professor took the podium on September 18, 2007, to a standing ovation, Pausch motioned the audience to be seated and said, "Make me earn it."
"If I don't seem as depressed or morose as I should be, sorry to disappoint you," said Professor Pausch. With that he spoke briefly about his illness, introducing the elephant in the room, as he put it. He dropped and did a few push-ups to demonstrate that, despite his illness, he was as he told the audience, "in better shape than most of you."
Professor Pausch confessed one death bed conversion -- he had just bought a MacIntosh. He proceeded to give his talk called, "Really Achieving Your Childhood Dreams." His childhood dreams were pretty simple: He wanted to experience zero gravity; play in the NFL; author an article in World Book Encyclopedia; be Captain Kirk; be the guy who wins the stuffed animals at the fair and be an Imagineer at Disney.
Experience Zero Gravity
Dr. Pausch said he believes it's important to have specific dreams. So for example, he did not want to be an astronaut, just to experience zero gravity, since he realized at a young age that his bad eyesight would preclude the astronaut thing. He got close to that dream when his students submitted the winning proposal to NASA to get into the Vomit Comet.
He was so close, he almost taste it, when he discovered that Professors were explicitly prohibited from participation. But students could bring a local journalist from their hometown to write about the journey. Pausch scored some press credentials and, one dream was realized.
Playing in the National Football League
Playing in the National Football League was not in the cards, but that was OK. Randy Pausch learned more from not accomplishing that goal than he did from some he did accomplish. His hulking coach Jim Graham asked the players to show up for practice without a football. When questioned, the coach said that only one person at a time had the football, he wanted to focus on the 21 of 22 players who don't have the ball at any given moment.
One day the coach was constantly crawling Pausch's skinny frame. Coach approached the exhausted player after practice and explained that it was OK to be ridden so hard explaining, "When you're screwing up and no one is bothering to tell you anymore, that's a really bad place to be."
Throughout the lecture, Pausch threw many head fakes, as he called them. The first head fake: Learning is everywhere, even if you don't learn it in the NFL. Today he carries a football with him which he tosses as he thinks through tough problems.
World Book Encyclopedia
"I guess you can tell the nerds early," said Pausch who did get to write an article for World Book Encyclopedia on virtual reality. Since his World Book article was so minimally vetted, he now believes that Wikipedia, a publically edited, internet-based encyclopedia is a perfectly fine source of information.
Being Captain Kirk
He had to change being Captain Kirk, to meeting Captain Kirk. Upon meeting Kirk, Pausch realized that Kirk wasn't the smartest on the Star Ship Enterprise, that honor probably went to Spock. Kirk was not the doctor or the engineer, like McCoy or Scottie. Captain Kirk did have something special though -- unique, leadership abilities.
"It's cool to meet your boyhood idol, but it's even cooler when he comes to you to see what cool stuff you're doing," said Pausch, as William Shatner, who played Captain Kirk, came to his Entertainment Technology Center to see which of the Sci Fi gadgets predicted in Star Wars had actually come to our planet.
In addition to head fakes, Pausch made frequent references to the brick wall, which he said is erected in everyone's path in order to give us a chance to show how badly we want something by getting around it.
Winning Stuffed Animals at the Fair
Suffice it to say, Pausch won many stuffed animals of all shapes and sizes, most of which he had on stage. He also had pictures of himself and his families with a multitude of such trophies, a testament to another dream achieved.
Being an Imagineer
When Pausch was 8, he went to Disneyland and decided he wanted to make the kind of things he saw. He dedicated the rest of his too-short career to this achievement. After several rejections from Disney upon finishing his PhD, with many other obstacles standing in his way, he ultimately got the opportunity to help create Aladdin virtual reality.
From this "once in 5 careers opportunity," he learned that "some brick walls are made of flesh, like the Dean who temporarily prevented Pausch from working at Disney when he finally got the chance. But he says, "Wait long enough and people will surprise and impress you. If you don't like someone, you haven't given them enough time."
To top it off, the Disney-owned publisher, Hyperion paid $6.7 million for the rights to publish a book about Randy Pausch called "The Last Lecture," co-authored by Randy and a Wall Street Journal reporter.
Enabling the Dreams of Others & Lessons Learned
"I don't know how to not have fun. I'm dying and I'm having fun, because there's no other way to live. I'm going to keep having fun." Pausch advises to help others and never lose child-like wonder.
After donning his goofy vest with imbedded, faux arrows he said, "If you're going to do anything pioneering, you're going to get those arrows in the back. You just have to put up with it," says Pausch.
When Pausch was working on his Theory Qualifier, which he described as second in difficulty only to chemotherapy, he was complaining to his mother. She commiserated for a moment and then said, "Just remember, when your father was your age he was fighting the Germans," referring to Pausch's dad who was awarded the Bronze Star in World War II.
Andy van Dam, his first boss said to the cocky, young student, Randy Pausch, "It is such a shame that people perceive you as so arrogant, because it's going to limit what you're going to be able to accomplish." This was the kindest way in which anyone ever told Pausch he was being a jerk.
Pausch said that he got to see the Promised Land in his ALICE project. It is a novel way to teach computer programming. Pausch will never get to set foot in the Promised Land, but that's alright with him. ALICE is his all-time-best head fake, since it presents programming as a storytelling activity, especially to young girls. "I get to teach kids something really hard, but the kids are just having fun."
You get other people to help you, according to Pausch, by telling the truth, apologizing when you screw-up and focusing on other people. Be good at something, it makes you valuable. Don't complain, just work harder. Get a feedback loop and listen to it. Show gratitude. Don't bail, since the best of the gold is at the bottom of the barrel of crap. And know that when you do something right, good things have a way of happening.
Then Pausch hit us with his last 2 head fakes: "Life is not about achieving your dreams; it's about how you live your life." And finally, "This [lecture] is not for you, it's for my kids [Dylan, Logan and Chloe]."
Health Status Report, February 6, 2008
On Pausch's website, he gives daily updates on his status and fight in his own words, here are excerpts from a recent entry:
My CT scan in the first week of January showed the beginning of "creeping growth" of the tumors in my liver. This indicated that my palliative chemo had begun to fail. A huge bummer.
Our counter-measure was to add the drug Avastin (making my regimen Gemcitabine+Tarceva+Avastin). This was a long shot, but since Avastin doesn't have bad side effects, we figured we'd try that first.
And it worked!
My February 5 scans showed no growth (and maybe even a little shrinkage) in the preceding month. I and my docs were all giddy that the long shot worked.
The only downside is that my kidney function seems to be weakening; not dangerous yet, but moving in a bad direction. It's possible the Avastin is the culprit, but it may be a combination of Avastin, gemcitabine, and the IV contrast in all the monthly CT scans (most people are only scanned every two months). So we'll be watching my kidneys carefully.
But yesterday was a *great* day. Any day you have tumors in your liver and they don't get bigger is a good day!
Tim McGraw's country sensation ends with the refrain, "Someday I hope you get the chance to live like you were dying. Like tomorrow was a gift and you got eternity to think about what you'd do with it, what did you do with it, what did I do with it, what would I do with it?"
What would you do with it?
Copyright © 2008 Karyn Strickler, All Rights Reserved
Karyn is a political activist and a writer.