Chapter 1: The Last Lecture
The novel opens with Randy Pausch attempting to explain why he even agreed to give a "last lecture" in the first place. His beloved wife Jai, whom he has always regarded as his biggest "cheerleader," was initially opposed. Why, with so little time left, would he decide to devote so much of it to an academic pursuit rather than to his beloved wife and children?
Pausch explains that it was not despite his children, but rather for them that he has agreed to give to this lecture. He is dying. His eldest child Dylan is only five years old. He will grow up with very few memories of his father. His two year old son Logan and one year old daughter Chloe will have no memories of him at all. Pausch hopes that this lecture, which will be recorded on video tape for posterity, will one day give his children some idea of who their father was and what he stood for. Long after he's gone, this lecture will remain. “An injured lion,” he says, “still wants to roar.” Having won over his wife, Pausch dedicates himself to crafting his last lecture.
Despite his condition, Pausch decides that he doesn't want to talk about dying. Rather, he wants his final work to be about living. He wants to center the lecture around his childhood dreams, how he managed to achieve most of them, and advice which he hopes might help others to achieve their aspirations as well. He titles his last lecture “Really Achieving Your Childhood Dreams.”
Being a visual thinker, Pausch bases the speech on images rather than words. He compiles hundreds of photographs which chronicle his life from youth to present day. The speech takes him 4 days to assemble, during which he takes regular breaks to interact with his family. On September 17th, 2008, the day before he is due to speak at Carnegie Mellon, Pausch flies to Pittsburgh. He works late into the night, still struggling to condense the story of his entire life into a one hour talk. He continues to tweak his slideshow of images throughout the next day, and is still rearranging slides when he takes the stage that evening. The audience is comprised of over 400 students and fellow faculty of Carnegie Mellon as well as his wife Jai. He is nervous and sick. He begins. The first slide is an image of a recent CT scan showing ten tumors growing in his liver. He then drops to the stage and begins doing pushups. Thus begins his last lecture.
Chapter 2: Really Achieving Your Childhood Dreams
This chapter comprises the bulk of Pausch’s lecture. He speaks firstly about his happy childhood. He thanks his parents for always supporting his dreams and imparting values such as a strong work ethic and level head. He grew up with big dreams. His first dream was to experience zero gravity. This he achieved by pioneering a research group to study the bodily effects of weightlessness in NASA’s “vomit comet,” a plane which simulates zero gravity. The experience, he says, was incredible. His next dream was to play in the NFL. This he never achieved. But through football he learned the important values of dedication and hard work, so he doesn’t regard the endeavor as a waste. His third dream was to author a section of the World Book encyclopedia. He was flabbergasted when editors from the encyclopedia asked him to write a section on virtual reality, owing to his expertise in the field. His article remains in the encyclopedia to this day. His next childhood dream was to be Captain Kirk. Here he pauses to laugh at his childhood self. Despite never becoming Captain Kirk, his admiration of the fictional character taught him the value of effective leadership. During his painful chemotherapy years later a Kirk quote comes to mind: “I don’t believe in the no-win scenario.” Another childhood dream was to win large stuffed animals at carnivals and amusement parks. This he did time and time again. He practiced and won and never cheated. At this point he has friends bring onto stage the many stuffed animals he’s won over the years and invites anybody wanting a token to remember him by to take one after his speech. His final and perhaps most difficult dream was to be a Disney creator or “Imagineer.” Through perseverance and good luck he managed to get on board the team of Imagineers employed by Disneyland to create their first ever virtual reality experience, and ranks the experience amongst his best in life.
Chapter 3: Adventures… And Lessons Learned
In this next chapter, Pausch gives a broader overview of his life and its more critical moments. He describes how he met and fell in love with his wife. Their relationship was turbulent to begin but they eventually found a good rhythm. She is, he says, the woman of his dreams. He tells the story of their wedding, during which they had a harrowing experience when their celebratory hot air balloon was blown dangerously off course. They laughed it off together as they have done with all the roadblocks in their lives ever since. He thanks Jai for her steadfast support and companionship throughout his battle with cancer. He goes on to describe the birth of his children and the overwhelming love he feels for them. Pausch then honors his father, who passed away in 2006.
Chapter 4: Enabling the Dreams of Others
In this next section, Pausch gives a wealth of advice which he hopes will help others achieve their dreams and lead meaningful lives just as he has. Among the keys to success, he argues, are time management, effective planning and preparation, proper ordering of priorities, organization, delegation, and knowing when to take a break. “Time,” he says, “is all you have. And you may find one day that you have less than you think.” He tells the audience that although he is very happy to have achieved so many of his own childhood dreams, he finds enabling the dreams of others much more fulfilling. He once took a student under his wing and worked tirelessly to help him fulfill his dream of working on a Star Wars film. The student went on to join the team of not one but three Star Wars films, thanks to Pausch’s guidance. He says that he feels every bit as accomplished as if the student’s dream had been his own.
Chapter 5: It’s About How You Live Your Life
This final section is in essence an overview of the primary themes of Pausch’s life, or as he calls it a summary of “what worked for me.” He recalls his philosophy that it is important to allow oneself to dream big. Your life is molded by your dreams. He says that he values being earnest, knowing when to surrender, and being able to compromise. He says that complaining is a waste of time and that time would be better spent working through a problem rather than whining about it. He says that it’s important to be both true to oneself and supportive of others. Always, he says, “look for the best in others.” Be daring, dedicated, original, loyal, grateful, honest, humble, and above all optimistic, and happiness will come.
Chapter 6: Final Remarks
Pausch closes his speech by telling each of his children how much he loves them and how badly he wishes that he didn’t have to leave them. He tells his three children to dream big and become whatever it is they want to be, not what they think he would have wanted them to be. All he wants them to be, he says, is happy. He then asks the audience to join him in singing Happy Birthday to his wife Jai, which they do to his delight. She comes to stand beside him on stage as he delivers the final lines of his speech. He emotionally admits to the audience that entire speech they’d just heard wasn’t really for them at all. It was for his children all along. The final slide is an image of Pausch at the family’s home, with Logan and Chloe in his arms and Dylan happily perched on his shoulders.
Randy Pausch passed away from pancreatic cancer on July 25, 2008.