The Last Lecture by Randy Pausch

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Background Information

The Last Lecture, a memoir by Randy Pausch, professor at Carnegie Mellon in the computer science field, tells the life story of the author and the importance of making your childhood dreams reality. He developed terminal pancreatic cancer, leading him to give his last lecture before his impending death. His lecture was a summary of all the things he had learned throughout his life and intends to leave his legacy behind for students, as well as his children.

Randy Pausch tells the listeners about his childhood and growing up in a blue collar family. His parents always allowed him to dream big and encouraged his dreams. He dreamed of floating in zero gravity, which he did as an adult, he dreamed of being Captain Kirk from Star Trek, which, although unachievable, he somewhat fulfilled by meeting William Shatner, who plays the aforementioned character. He always wanted to be a ‘Disney Imagineer’, and was able to help create the Aladdin virtual reality ride. He goes to Brown University to major in computer science where he received his bachelor’s degree in 1982.

In 1988, he got his PhD in computer science at Carnegie Mellon University where he later became a professor. He earned two awards in 2007 from the Association for Computing Machinery for his achievements in computer science. Randy Pausch eventually meets his future wife, Jai, and moves her to Pittsburgh with him where they eventually get married. In 2006, he tragically gets diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and begins treatment. In 2008, his cancer returns and is now terminal, leaving him with little time to live. He passed away in mid 2008, but not before giving his final lecture at Carnegie Mellon, “Really Achieving Your Childhood Dreams”.


The Last Lecture explores the theme of using obstacles in a positive way and using them as opportunities to do better and try harder. He believes obstacles are there for a reason, “The brick walls are there to give us a chance to show how badly we want something. Because the brick walls are there to stop the people who don’t want it badly enough.” (Pausch 51-52). He displays his belief of turning obstacles into opportunities when he goes on a student trip to NASA, once he’s there, he learns the chaperones are not allowed to float in zero gravity, only the students, he learns that journalists accompanying the trip, however, are allowed to go in the zero gravity chamber. He then applies for journalistic credentials and is able to go in the chamber, 'We cannot change the cards we are dealt, just how we play the hand.' (Pausch 17). He definitely displays that belief at NASA when he sneakily applied for journalistic credentials just to achieve his childhood dream.


Randy Pausch uses brick walls as a symbol for obstacles in life and the desire, as well as the need, to get over them. When Pausch went to the University of North Carolina to do a guest lecture, a woman named Jai was assigned to host him, he “pretty aggressively” flirted with the woman who later became his wife, even in such a professional setting. He sees the professional setting as a brick wall which he will need to climb over. His persistence with Jai blossoms into a great relationship and allows him to court her.

It starts out pretty poorly with Jai, as she does not want a long distance relationship and she divorced her college sweetheart, leaving her, “gun-shy about getting serious again.” (Pausch 75). His outlook on life convinced her about him, “No matter how bad things are, you can always make things worse. At the same time, it is often within your power to make them better” (Pausch 88). He knew that it was within his power to make a negative; Jai not desiring a relationship, into a positive; Jai agreeing to go out with him from his romantic gestures of flowers and cards. His drive to get what he wants is what led Jai and Randy to be together.

The “head fake” can also be seen as a symbol in The Last Lecture. The head fake is a scenario in which someone believes they are learning about one thing, when in reality there’s a deeper message beneath the surface. Pausch believes that sports are somewhat of a head fake, the player is learning about the sport and how to play, but they also learn about teamwork and responsibility. The lecture he gives is titled, “How to Achieve Your Childhood Dreams”, but the lecture is less about childhood dreams and more about the things he learned throughout his life, becoming symbolic of itself. He explained the title was a head fake in the introduction to his book, “ Under the ruse of giving an academic lecture, I was trying to put myself in a bottle that would one day wash up on the beach for my children.” (Pausch V). He uses the lecture as a ruse, but his real intention was to leave a legacy behind, as well as a guide for his children and others about how to live life.

Pausch created a computer software, ‘Alice’, in which people can create video games, but in reality, ‘Alice, is intended to teach people about computer programming and create an interest in that field. When Pausch is putting together a research team at the University of Virginia, a young student tells him that, “he learned not just about virtual reality programming from me, but also about how work colleagues need to be like a family of sorts.” (Pausch 118). His young student telling him that shows that he has mastered the head fake and one of his students has caught onto his methods.

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The Last Lecture by Randy Pausch. (2021, Apr 05). Retrieved July 25, 2024 , from

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