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Life Lessons from The Last Lecture of Randy Pausch

Life Lessons from The Last Lecture of Randy Pausch

This was the title of the last lecture delivered by Randy Pausch at the Carnegie Mellon University lecture hall. He was terminally ill and only had a few days to live.

If you have not watched this video, I would strongly encourage you to spend the hour and 15 mins that it takes to watch the video and while you do so, please do have a notebook close to you and take notes. In his humorous talk, he shares some great wisdom on life and how to live a life worth living.

You can watch the video here.

Randy Pausch – The Last Lecture

When there is an elephant in the room, acknowledge it:

He doesn’t shirk away or avoid talking about his mortality. He deals with it head-on, right at the start of his lecture. Not not acknowledging the elephant in the room does not lead to any good. It only creates an environment of denial and any decision made from that perspective is never good for the person making the decision or for the people around him/her.

Do not live in denial.

It is critical for us to be accepting and pragmatic about the cards that we are dealt with and play along. It is ok to find out that we are going to die (who isn’t). It is important to think about our legacy {who and what we leave behind} and how are we going to take care of our families after we pass.

It is ok to dream {as children and even as adults}.

It is also okay to go after these dreams and make them come alive, irrespective of how silly or big they appear to you and your friends and family. It is important for the dreams to be specific. The more specific the dreams are, the easier it is for you to go after them and make them real.

Find a way.

When he shares his first dream, he talks about how he read the fine print and brought his dream alive. When he was told that faculty can’t join the team in zero gravity, he could’ve given up. But he didn’t. He was really invested in his dream and wanted it to come true. So, he found a way.

Most of the time in our lives, when we face obstacles in our path to making our dream come alive, it is to test our resolve and to check how badly do we want it. When we are constantly looking for ways to make something happen, more often than not, we will always find a way to make it happen. Brick walls are there for a reason; they let us prove how badly we want something.

Bring something of value to every table you get to sit on:

In our life time, there will be many instances when we will be invited to sit on a table with others. This could be at work {as part of team or as a leader} or at home {as a husband, parent or sibling} or in the society {as a contributing member of the society}.

We need to find a way to understand what we are trying to accomplish as a group on the table and be creative and find ways that we can bring or add value and help in achieving our collective goals. This is where our ability to think creatively and apply our skills comes into play.

There is a lot to gain from our failed goals as well, if we want to:

Each and every experience we have as individuals has something to teach us. Failures have a lot more potential to teach us important things that we need to learn to go on and can be the foundations upon which we can then build the castles of our successes.

Importance of focusing on the fundamentals:

At some point in our lives, we will hit a wall. We will reach a place where nothing seems to be going our way. Everything that we do, seems to only make things worse. At these times, it is super critical to go back to focusing on the fundamentals.

It is not easy. It will not feel like the right thing to do. It will feel like too simplistic. However, go back to the fundamentals. There are hardly any situations which can’t be fixed by clearly focusing on the fundamentals.

When we screw up and no one says anything, that means that they’ve given up on us:

We never succeed in vacuum or by ourselves. Everyone needs a team who back you, who take care of you, provide feedback, encouragement, a pat on the back and a kick in the butt {when we deserve one}. So, we need to be intentional about who we have as part of our team and the kind of feedback we get from the team.

If we get the occasional kick in the butt and the harsh feedback, you are doing well as a team. If you never get this, beware! If we never get any harsh feedback when you screwup, it can only mean one thing – our team has given up on us and the result can only be one thing – inevitable decline and irrelevance.

The power of enthusiasm:

There is nothing worthwhile that can be achieved without the power of enthusiasm. Enthusiasm is the energy that drives the world around. So, if you want to do anything worthwhile, it is critical that we are enthusiastic. Enthusiasm is also infectious, so our enthusiasm not only helps us with the energy we need to make things happen, but it also spreads to people around us.

Experience is what you get, when you didn’t get what you wanted:

If we are enthusiastic and are willing to do what it takes to make our dreams (and others’ dreams) come true, it is quite likely that we will fail at some of them. It is to be expected that not all the dreams will not come to fruition. However, as long as we did everything we could do to make them a reality, we can accept the reality. Just like Randy realised that he could not play professional football and was ok with it.

However, it is important to introspect, reflect and bring to light everything that we learnt as a result of us going after the dream. Then abstract it to the right level to make it a learning for life. What we experienced as a result of our efforts can be easily turned into wisdom, if we put in a bit of effort. And looking at the results from this lens allows us to move on and go after our next dream.

The concept of “head fake”. Most of what we learn, we learn indirectly:

One of the most fascinating thing that I learnt from the talk is the concept of a head fake. He shares that most of what we learn in our lives, we learn indirectly.

When I was growing up, I used to love to play Cricket. When I was about 15 years old, I was identified as one of the potential players to be groomed and so invited to attend a camp with an experienced coach. At the end of the camp, two things happened.

The coach said that I had a great cricketing mind, but my body isn’t able to keep up. So, the chances are that I might not progress too much in the league and have to look at a different career.

I continued to play cricket but not professionally. However, the lessons I learnt while playing the game still serve me well in my professional life. The need to have both body and mind in sync, the ability to know the strengths of our team members and bring them out when needed, the fact that it is not always about us winning but about the team winning, that matters the most. Almost everything that I learnt on the cricket field still serves me and almost nothing that I learnt in my school serves me L. That is a bit ironic but true.

So, if you want to teach someone skills for life, find a head fake, one that they might be keen to participate in.

Wait, and people will surprise & impress you:

This insight comes from the premise that people are generally good. Usually, we want to do good, at least from our perspective. So, believing in their goodness is a good place to start. If we believe in the goodness of people around us, they usually prove us right.

In my experience, the level of interaction and growth of people close to us is not just dependent on their own level of self-worth but also depends on our expectations from them. So, always believe in the potential and the goodness of people around us and they will grow to the level we expect them to.

Importance of being prepared for the key moments:

We have all heard that “Luck is when preparation meets opportunity”. There is a lot of truth to this belief. Not all moments are created equal. For example, the moment in my life when my cricket coach told me that I probably will not make it as a professional cricketer was more crucial and important than a lot of other moments of my life.

Almost all of us can look back at our lives and tell when these pivotal moments were and if we were prepared for that moment or not. The true power is revealed when we know the importance of the moment, when we are in the moment. Then we can act in a way that can increase the impact of the moment multiple folds. That is only possible when we are prepared.

This also assumes that we know what we are looking for and are working towards getting the same.

Tell me more!

The story Randy shares about how two people reacted to his request to go work for Disney’s Imagineering team tells us a lot about leadership. One is about being interested in others and what they are looking to achieve and the other is about being interested in our own agenda.

When someone comes to you with an idea, irrespective of who that is (could be your son, wife, intern, assistant or the CEO), be interested in them and their idea. The best three words in that scenario are “TELL ME MORE”. And then truly listen and try to understand their idea and their perspective.

One of the most fundamental human needs is to be seen and heard. Once you have done that and think that the time for the idea has not yet come, you can use a “What if” phrase to explore aspects of the idea to see if we can bring it to reality.

Enabling the childhood dreams of others is immensely more satisfying than achieving our own dreams.

As Zig Ziglar used to say, “You can have everything in life you want, if you will just help other people get what they want”. Almost all the wisdom cultures share that helping others gives us more happiness than doing things that we think will give us happiness.

This is why teaching is so immensely enriching. Science is now catching up to prove that helping others achieve their dreams releases chemicals in our bodies that make us happier.

So, while it is important for us to go after our own dreams, it is equally important to find and help people whose dream we can make come true.

When you do pioneering work, you will get arrows on your back.

Pioneering work, by definition is work that is not regular and goes against the status quo. When we challenge status quo, we are bound to ruffle a few feathers, which would result in some kind of resistance. If we challenge holy cows, the stronger the reaction will be.

So, if we are in the business of challenging status quo, in order to do pioneering work, we need to accept the accompanying the reaction to that work as well.

Find someone better than you to take your work forward

The human race has been so successful in our ecology because of the simple fact that we have always learnt, not just from our own experience but also from the experiences of others around us. WE have always figured out a way to move forward and do so significantly better than every other organisms around us.

There will always come a time when the right thing for us to do is to look ahead and move forward. When this time comes, we need to find people who are better than us to hand over our work and legacy so that they can create their imprint and the work is better for it. This doesn’t happen by happenstance but only when we intentionally cultivate and surround ourselves with people who are better than us in many different ways.

Feedback is critical to learning

I have written about this many times in the past. All learning happens because of a feedback loop. We do something, assuming or expecting a reaction. The reaction could be what we expected or something totally unexpected. When we reflect about the result and why things turned out the way they did, we are creating a feedback loop. This feedback loop is how we learn and how we teach as well. So, if we want to learn or teach something, we need to figure out and ensure the existence of a feedback loop. No feedback à No learning.

Have fun along the way.

Last but not the least, we need to have fun along the way. We live once (as far as we know). So, having fun and enjoying this one life probably makes a lot of sense.

A lot of times, during the journey, we might hit periods of time, when fun is probably the last thing on our minds. It is in those moments, that we need to remember Rule No. 6 (Don’t take yourself so god damn seriously!) as posited by Benjamin Zanders in his book – “The Art of Possibility”.

Based on my personal experience, what happens to us doesn’t need to dictate our response. We can still choose to have fun, irrespective of what happens to us. I cant think of a better way to close this long blog than this.

Irrespective of our circumstances, do not forget to find some way to have fun!!!


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