Carnegie Mellon Professor Randy Pausch’s last lecture titled “Really Achieving Your Childhood Dreams” was delivered on September 18, 2007 in a packed McConomy Auditorium at the CMU, where he talked on his childhood dreams, enabling the dreams of others and some lessons learned in his journey of life. Below is the full transcript of the lecture by Randy…
It’s wonderful to be here. What Indira didn’t tell you is that this lecture series used to be called “The Last Lecture.”
If you had one last lecture to give before you died, what would it be? I thought, “Damn, I finally nailed the venue, and they renamed it.”
So, in case there’s anybody who wandered in and doesn’t know the backstory, my dad always taught me, when there’s an elephant in the room, introduce them. If you look at my CAT scans, there are approximately ten tumors in my liver, and the doctors told me three to six months of good health left. That was a month ago, so you can do the math. I have some of the best doctors in the world.
So that is what it is. We can’t change it, and we just have to decide how we’re going to respond to that. We cannot change the cards we are dealt, just how we play the hand.
If I don’t seem as depressed or morose as I should be, sorry to disappoint you. And I assure you, I am not in denial. It’s not like I’m not aware of what’s going on. My family, my three kids, my wife, we just decamped. We bought a lovely house in Chesapeake, Virginia, near Norfolk, and we’re doing that because that’s a better place for the family to be, down the road.
And the other thing is I am in phenomenally good health right now. I mean, it’s the greatest thing of cognitive dissonance you will ever see is the fact that I am in really good shape. In fact, I’m in better shape than most of you.
So anybody who wants to cry or pity me can come down and do a few of those, and then you may pity me.
All right, so what we’re not talking about today, we’re not talking about cancer, because I spent a lot of time talking about that, and I’m really not interested. If you have any herbal supplements or remedies, please stay away from me.
And we’re not going to talk about things that are even more important than achieving your childhood dreams. We’re not going to talk about my wife. We’re not talking about my kids, because I’m good, but I’m not good enough to talk about that without tearing up.
So we’re just going to take that off the table. That’s much more important. And we’re not going to talk about spirituality and religion. Although I will tell you that I have experienced a deathbed conversion. I just bought a Macintosh.
Now, I knew I’d get 9% of the audience with that. All right, so what is today’s talk about then?
It’s about my childhood dreams and how I have achieved them– I’ve been very fortunate that way– how I believe I’ve been able to enable the dreams– I’ve been able to enable the dreams of others, and to some degree, lessons learned– I’m a professor, here should be some lessons learned, and how you can use the stuff you hear today to achieve your dreams or enable the dreams of others. And as you get older, you may find that enabling the dreams of others thing is even more fun.
So What Were My Childhood Dreams?
Well, I had a really good childhood, I mean, no kidding around. I was going back through the family archives, and what was really amazing was, I couldn’t find any pictures of me as a kid where I wasn’t smiling, all right? And that was just a very gratifying thing.
There was our dog, right? Aw, thank you. And there i actually have a picture of me dreaming. And I did a lot of that. There was a lot of “wake ups,” you know? And it was an easy time to dream. I was born in 1960, all right? When you’re eight or nine years old and you look at the TV set and men are landing on the moon, anything is possible, and that’s something we should not lose sight of, is that the inspiration and the permission to dream is huge.
So what were my childhood dreams? You may not agree with this list, but I was there. Being in zero gravity, playing in the national football league, authoring an article in the “World Book” Encyclopedia — I guess you can tell the nerds early — being captain kirk. Anybody here have that childhood dream? Not at CMU, no.
I wanted to become one of the guys who won the big stuffed animals in the amusement park, and I wanted to be an imagineer with Disney.
These are not sorted in any particular order, although I think they do get harder, except for maybe the first one.
Dream 1: Zero Gravity
Okay so being in zero gravity. Now, it’s important to have specific dreams. I did not dream of being an astronaut, because when I was a little kid, I wore glasses, and they told me “Oh, astronauts can’t have glasses.” And I was like, “Mm, I didn’t really want the whole astronaut gig; I just wanted the floating.”
So–and as a child– prototype 0.0. But that didn’t work so well, and it turns out that NASA has something called the vomit comet that they use to train the astronauts, and this thing does parabolic arcs, and at the top of each arc, you get about 25 seconds where you’re ballistic and you get about a rough equivalent of weightlessness for about 25 seconds.
And there is a program where college students can submit proposals, and if they win the competition, they get to fly, and I thought that was really cool, and we had a team, and we put a team together, and they won, and they got to fly, and I was all excited because I was going to go with them… and then I hit the first brick wall, because they made it very clear that under no circumstances were faculty members allowed to fly with the teams.
I know. I was heartbroken, right. I was like, “But I worked so hard.” And so I read the literature very carefully, and it turns out that NASA– it’s part of their outreach and publicity program, and it turns out that the students were allowed to bring a local media journalist from their hometown.
Randy Pausch, web journalist. It’s really easy to get a press pass. So I called up the guys at NASA, and I said, “I need to know where to fax some documents.” And they said, “What documents are you going to fax us?”
I said, “My resignation as the faculty advisor and my application as the journalist.”
And he said, “That’s a little transparent, don’t you think?”
And I said, “Yeah, but our project is virtual reality, and we’re going to bring down a whole bunch of VR headsets, and all the students from all the teams are going to experience it and all those other real journalists are going to get to film it.”
Jim foley’s going, “Oh, you bastard, yes.”
And the guy said, “Here’s the fax number.”
And indeed, we kept our end of the bargain, and that’s one of the themes that you’ll hear later on in the talk is have something to bring to the table, right, because that will make you more welcomed.
And if you’re curious about what zero gravity looks like, hopefully the sound will be working here.
You do pay the piper at the bottom. So childhood dream number one, check.
Dream 2: National Football League
All right, let’s talk about football. My dream was to play in the National Football League, and most of you don’t know that I actually played–no. No, I did not make it to the National Football League, but I probably got more from that dream and not accomplishing it than I got from any of the ones that I did accomplish.
I had a coach. I signed up when I was nine years old. I was the smallest kid in the league by far, and I had a coach, Jim Graham, who was 6’4″. He had played linebacker at Penn State. He was just this hulk of a guy, and he was old school, I mean, really old school. Like, he thought the forward pass was a trick play.
And he showed up for practice the first day, and, you know, he’s this big hulking guy. We were all scared to death of him, and he hadn’t brought any footballs.
How are we going to have practice without any footballs? And one of the other kids said, “Excuse me, coach, but there’s no football.”
And coach Graham said, “Right, how many men are on a football field at a time?”
“11 on a team, 22.”
And coach Graham said, “All right, and how many people are touching the football at any given time?”
“One of them.”
And he said, “Right, so we’re going to work on what those other 21 guys are doing.”
And that’s a really good story, because it’s all about fundamentals, fundamentals, fundamentals, fundamentals. You’ve got to get the fundamentals down, because otherwise the fancy stuff isn’t going to work.
And the other Jim Graham story I have is, there was one practice where he just rode me all practice. Just, “You’re doing this wrong. You’re doing this wrong. Go back and do it again. You owe me. You’re doing push-ups after practice.”
And when it was all over, one of the other assistant coaches came over and said, “Yeah, coach Graham rode you pretty hard, didn’t he?”
I said, “Yeah.”
He said, “That’s a good thing.” He said, “When you’re screwing up and nobody’s saying anything to you anymore, that means they gave up.” And that’s a lesson that stuck with me my whole life is that when you see yourself doing something badly and nobody’s bothering to tell you anymore, that’s a very bad place to be. Your critics are your ones telling you they still love you and care.
After coach Graham, I had another coach, coach Setliff, and he taught me a lot about the power of enthusiasm. He did this one thing where only for one play at a time, he would put people in at, like, the most horrifically wrong position for them. Like, all the short guys would become receivers, right? It was just laughable. But we only went in for one play, right? And, boy, the other team just never knew what hit ’em, because when you’re only doing it for one play and you’re just not where you’re supposed to be and freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose, boy, are you going to clean somebody’s clock for that one play.
And that kind of enthusiasm was great, and to this day, I am most comfortable on a football field. I mean, it’s just one of those things where, you know, if I’m working a hard problem, people will see me wandering the halls with one of these things, and that’s just because, when you do something young enough and you train for it, it just becomes a part of you, and I’m very glad that football was a part of my life, and if I didn’t get the dream of playing in the NFL, that’s okay. I probably got stuff more valuable, because looking at what’s going on in the NFL, I’m not sure those guys are doing so great right now.
And so one of the expressions I learned at Electronic Arts, which I love, which pertains to this is, “Experience is what you get when you didn’t get what you wanted.”
And I think that’s absolutely lovely. And the other thing about football is, we send our kids out to play football or soccer or swimming or whatever it is, and it’s the first example of what I’m going to call a head fake or indirect learning. We actually don’t want our kids to learn football. I mean, yeah, it’s really nice that I have a wonderful three-point stance and that I know how to do a chop block and all this kind of stuff.
But we send our kids out to learn much more important things: teamwork, sportsmanship, perseverance, et cetera, et cetera. And these kinds of head fake learnings are absolutely important, and you should keep your eye out for them, because they’re everywhere.
Dream 3: World Book Encyclopedia
All right, a simple one, being an author in the World Book Encyclopedia. When I was a kid, we had the World Book Encyclopedia on the shelf. For the freshmen, this is paper. We used to have these things called books. And after I had become somewhat of an authority on virtual reality, but not, like, a really important one– so I was at the level of people the World Book would badger– they called me up, and I wrote an article, and this is Caitlin Kelleher. And there’s an article if you go to your local library where they still have copies of the “World Book.” look under “V” for virtual reality, and there it is.
And all I have to say is that, having been selected to be an author in the World Book Encyclopedia, I now believe that Wikipedia is a perfectly fine source for your information because I know what the quality control is for real encyclopedias. They let me in.
All right, next one.
Dream 4: Captain Kirk
At a certain point, you just realize there are some things you are not going to do, so maybe you just want to stand close to the people.
I mean, my god, what a role model for young people.
I mean, this is everything you want to be, and what I learned that carried me forward in leadership later is that, he wasn’t the smartest guy on the ship. I mean, Spock was pretty smart, and Mccoy was the doctor, and Scotty was the engineer, and you sort of go, “And what skill set did he have to get on this damn thing and run it?”
And, you know, clearly there is this skill set called leadership, and whether or not you like the series, there’s no doubt that there was a lot to be learned about how to lead people by watching this guy in action, and he just had the coolest damn toys. I mean, my god, he, you know– I just thought it was fascinating as a kid that he had this thing and he could talk to the ship with it.
I just thought that was just spectacular, and of course now I own one, and it’s smaller. So that’s kind of cool. So I got to achieve this dream. James T. Kirk–his alter ego William Shatner wrote a book, which I think was actually a pretty cool book. It was with Chip Walter, who is a Pittsburgh-based author who is quite good, and they wrote a book on basically the science of Star Trek, what has come true, and they went around to the top places around the country and looked at various things, and they came here to study our virtual reality setup, and so we built a virtual reality for him. It looks something like that. We put it in, put it to red alert. He was a very good sport. It’s not like he saw that one coming.
And it’s really cool to meet your boyhood idol, but it’s even cooler when he comes to you to see what cool stuff you’re doing in your lab, and that was just a great moment.
Dream 5: Winning Stuffed Animals
All right, winning stuffed animals. This may seem mundane to you, but when you’re a little kid and you see the big buff guys walking around an amusement park and they’ve got all these big stuffed animals, right? And this is my lovely wife, and I have a lot of pictures of stuffed animals I’ve won. That’s my dad posing with one that I won. I’ve won a lot of these animals. There’s my dad. He did win that one to his credit.
Right, and this was just a big part of my life and my family’s life, but, you know, I can hear the cynics. You know, in this age of digitally manipulated things, maybe those bears really aren’t in the pictures with me, or maybe I paid somebody five bucks to take a picture in the theme park next to the bear. And I said, “How, in this age of cynicism, can I convince people?” And I said, “I know. I can show them the bears.”
Bring them out. [Applause]
So here are some bears. We didn’t have quite enough room in the moving truck down to Chesapeake, and anybody who would like a little piece of me at the end of this, feel free to come up. First come, first serve.
Dream 6: Being an Imagineer
All right, my next one, being an Imagineer. This was the hard one. Believe me, getting to zero gravity is easier than becoming an imagineer. When I was a kid, I was eight years old and our family took a trip cross-country to see Disneyland, and if you’ve ever seen the movie National Lampoon’s Vacation, it was a lot like that. It was a quest.
And these are real vintage photographs, and there I am in front of the castle, and there I am– and for those of you who are into foreshadowing, this is the Alice ride. And I just thought this was just the coolest environment I had ever been in, and instead of saying, “Gee, I want to experience this,” I said, “I want to make stuff like this.”
And so I bided my time, and then i graduated with my Ph.D from Carnegie Mellon, thinking that meant me infinitely qualified to do anything, and I dashed off my letters of application to Walt Disney Imagineering, and they sent me some of the damned nicest go-to-hell letters I have ever gotten.
I mean it was just– “We have carefully reviewed your application, and presently we do not have any positions available which require your particular qualifications.”
Now, think about the fact that you’re getting this from a place that’s famous for guys who sweep the street. So that was a bit of a setback.
But remember, the brick walls are there for a reason. All right, the brick walls are not there to keep us out. 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. They’re there to stop the other people.
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