The co-author of Randy Pausch’s worldwide bestseller, The Last Lecture, on how people are now invoking the late professor to promote everything from McCain to sales rallies to sex on General Hospital.
In the last email I received from Randy Pausch, nine days before he died, he shared a note he’d just received. It was from a woman who hadn’t spoken to her mother in many years.
The woman had watched the YouTube video of Randy’s famous “last lecture” at Carnegie Mellon University. She also had read the book Randy and I wrote together titled “The Last Lecture.” She explained that Randy’s words had led her to an epiphany: Life is too short to waste time being angry. And so she thanked Randy for inspiring her to reconnect with her mother.
I responded to Randy’s email by reminding him that we also had heard from many people who had seen his talk or read the book and arrived at a different decision. Life is too short, they told us, to spend another minute in a bad marriage. “The Last Lecture” had inspired these people to file for divorce.
Not long before he died, Randy replied to one of my forwarded links by gently admonishing me. “You should stop Googling my name,” he wrote, “and go hug your kids.”
And so, in my last email exchange with Randy, I kidded him. “Yes, you’re a peacemaker,” I wrote, “but you’re also a home-wrecker.”
In the year since Randy gave his last lecture, and especially in the 12 weeks since his death from pancreatic cancer, people all over the world have been using him as a prism—a way to view their own lives.
Sales executives have used Randy’s words to rally their troops about time management. (“Time is all you have, and you may find one day you have less than you think,” Randy said.) Those contemplating suicide have written to say they’ve reconsidered after watching Randy fight so hard to stay alive for his kids. Dieters have taken his urge to “never give up” as a weight-loss mantra. Young women have embraced the advice Randy left for his 2-year-old daughter. (“When it comes to men who are romantically interested in you, it’s really simple. Just ignore everything they say and only pay attention to what they do.”)
As a teen, Randy had painted a submarine, an elevator door and the quadratic equation on the walls of his childhood bedroom. “If your kids want to paint their walls, as a favor to me, let ’em do it,” he said in the lecture. “Don’t worry about the home’s resale value.” Randy was amused when parents across the world started giving their kids paint brushes.
Randy’s words have become part of the political landscape, too. Randy never publicly discussed his preference in the 2008 election. But on the Op-Ed page of the Columbus Dispatch, a supporter of Republican John McCain wrote of how Randy had said, “I’ll take an earnest person over a hip person every time, because hip is short-term. Earnest is long-term. Earnestness comes from the core, while hip is trying to impress you with the surface.” This McCain fan argued that his candidate was earnest, unlike “hip” Barack Obama. “Just like Pausch,” he wrote, “I’ll take an earnest person over a hip person to be my president every time.”
Democrats also have been quoting Randy. While he was still alive, the satirical Web site CarbolicSmoke.com even featured a photo-shopped picture of Randy hugging Obama, with the headline “Obama Cures Randy Pausch, Names Him As Running Mate.”
But as the video of his lecture began spreading across the Internet, Randy became what he called “an accidental celebrity.” He was asked to reprise his talk on The Oprah Winfrey Show. ABC News named him one of its three “Persons of the Year.” Time magazine put him to its list of the 100 most influential people in the world. The lecture was viewed by tens of millions of people, and the book became an international bestseller, translated into 36 languages. His thoughts have been analyzed on more than 88,000 blogs tracked by Google. References to him can be found on 6.2 million Web sites, according to Yahoo.
Last month, PBS stations nationwide aired the full video of the last lecture—which Randy had left in the public domain—as part of their pledge-drive programming. The lecture, split into segments, was interrupted by fund-raising “hosts” who spoke of how the values in the lecture jibed with the values found on public television.
On the less-highbrow end of the TV spectrum, the Last Lecture was written into the script for the soap opera General Hospital. A female character gushed about Randy, and his mantra regarding brick walls: “Brick walls are there for a reason—to prove how badly you want something.” What this character wanted, badly, was to sleep with a shady mobster, and she used Randy’s lecture to woo him. I think Randy would have been amused to see his words used as foreplay.
Randy didn’t want a movie made of his life story; he wanted his kids to see him giving the lecture, not Tom Cruise. But I can picture him smiling over some of the Hollywood pitches now being turned down. One producer offered to make a TV show in which the character tries to live his entire life by following the wisdom in Randy’s lecture.
More seriously, people have used Randy as a prism to understand their own grief. Those who’ve recently lost loved ones say they’ve found solace in his words. Those with terminal illnesses say he has given them a philosophical roadmap for the months ahead.
Wired magazine did a piece about the outpouring of online mourning after Randy died, with thousands of people going online to post their feelings about him. Many said they were surprised at themselves, because they “cried for a stranger.” Wired tracked the heartfelt postings across the Web on July 25, the day Randy died, and compared this “new form of grieving” to people piling into the streets to mourn silent film star Rudolph Valentino on the day he died in 1926.
After all my time with Randy, I realize that I also view him through a kind of prism. I thought my job was just to chronicle his journey, but I was also being changed by it.
It wasn’t just that I saw his charisma, and his love of life, from a front-row seat. And it wasn’t just that he was showing me a spirited and courageous way to spend one’s final months. There was just something about Randy’s ability to frame life in specific, black-and-white ways, allowing others to provide their own shading.
For a year now, I’ve cruised the Web every morning, just to see what new postings there are about Randy. When he was alive, I’d send him links to the most intriguing, heartfelt or funniest sites. He enjoyed seeing a lot of this stuff, and retained his sense of humor. “There’s a limit to how many times you can read how great you are, and what an inspiration you are,” he told me. “But I’m not there yet.”
As he got sicker, though, he asked me to cut back on the links. He was cocooned with his wife and children, and didn’t need the crowded inbox. Not long before he died, Randy replied to one of my forwarded links by gently admonishing me. “You should stop Googling my name,” he wrote, “and go hug your kids.”
Randy had said it perfectly. Directly. I was a bit sheepish, but also grateful. I’m still addicted to Googling him—I can’t help myself—but he remains a voice in my head, reminding me of the great gift of being able to hug my three daughters.
Like so many others, I’ve reached into the professor’s bag of wisdom and found something I can hold on to.