If You Had to Give a Last Lecture…

I just finished watching Randy Pausch’s Last Lecture. If you haven’t seen it, you can watch the full video here.

For a synopsis, I’m going to be lazy and quote from Wikipedia:

“Pausch delivered his “Last Lecture,” titled Really Achieving Your Childhood Dreams, at Carnegie Mellon on September 18, 2007. This talk was modeled after an ongoing series of lectures where top academics are asked to think deeply about what matters to them, and then give a hypothetical “final talk”, i.e., “what wisdom would you try to impart to the world if you knew it was your last chance?”

Pausch died of cancer less than a year later. The lecture became a NY Times bestselling book, the youtube video alone has over ten million views, and I’m sure gallons and gallons of tears have been shed by affected viewers. There’s a good reason for this: the lecture is inspiring and funny, yet gravely serious. How many people, when facing imminent death, could crack jokes and wear silly hats?

My favorite quote from the lecture:

“The brick walls are there to make sure you really want it.”

He also talks about indirect learning; for example, we don’t play sports to learn the sport but to learn things like tenacity, perseverance,  fortitude, and other useful things.

After watching this, I was left not only moved and inspired but asking myself several questions.

Pausch, at the end of the video, says the video isn’t for the audience but for his kids. While I might not have any kids, let’s say for a minute I did. If I knew I was going to die and I had to give a last lecture, what would I want them to know? If I had to sum up everything  in a one-hour talk, what  would I want to pass along? How do you choose between practical stuff like ‘lefty loosey, righty tighty’ from timeless advice like ‘fail until you stop failing’?

While I’m young and it’s kind of a morbid (and mildly vain) thing to think about, I know I could get struck by a drunken lightning bolt at any time, and there’s not a damn thing I can do about it. The question I’m now asking myself is: what am I leaving behind? This is pretty heavy stuff, wondering what your life adds up to, but I think everyone should ask themselves this question. This isn’t exactly ‘why am I here’ but ‘what am I leaving behind.’

Not to wish misfortune on anyone, but imagine what you’d leave behind if you died within the next week. What would be your legacy? Could you be satisfied that you left the world (or at least the people you know and love) with something bigger, better than yourself? What would you leave to the world?  A mountain of photographs, anecdotes from marathon drinking sessions, a book of dirty jokes, a family history, a million wonderful memories, maybe a rabid parrot? What would it be?

This leads me to my next question. What if more people tried to sum up everything they’ve learned in one hour? I think everyone has something of value to add to the world, some little bit of knowledge, know-how, humor, or philosophy. What if more people tried to do what Pausch did, leaving a legacy not only for his kids but for the world at-large?

As of now, a select few people do it with memoirs, but so much knowledge is indirect, passed down without any thought for an actual legacy. Imagine what would happen if more people could share what they’ve learned with the world. Now, imagine that scenario five hundred years in the future.
If you find all this unsettling, good. I certainly did. While these are tough questions, they merit serious contemplation.

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