Book notes: The Last Lecture by Randy Pausch

The Last Lecture by Randy Pausch book summary review and key ideas.

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The Last Lecture by Randy Pausch


“‘We cannot change the cards we are dealt, just how we play the hand.’ ( Randy Pausch)

A lot of professors give talks entitled “The Last Lecture”. Professors are asked to consider their demise and to ruminate on what matters most to them. And while they speak, audiences can’t help but mull the same question: What wisdom would we impart to the world if we knew it was our last chance? If we had to vanish tomorrow, what would we want as our legacy?

When Randy Pausch, a computer science professor at Carnegie Mellon, was asked to give such a lecture, he didn’t have to imagine it as his last, since he had recently been diagnosed with terminal cancer. But the lecture he gave – “Really Achieving Your Childhood Dreams” – wasn’t about dying. It was about the importance of overcoming obstacles, of enabling the dreams of others, of seizing every moment (because “time is all you have…and you may find one day that you have less than you think”). It was a summation of everything Randy had come to believe. It was about living.

In this book, Randy Pausch has combined the humor, inspiration and intelligence that made his lecture such a phenomenon and given it an indelible form. It is a book that will be shared for generations to come.” -Audible

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Opening thoughts:

I forgot where I got this recommendation from, but I might have been from another book or podcast. The synopsis sounded good, and it also seems like a shorter read, so we’ll see. I am looking forward to the perspectives and insights the book will give.

Key notes:

  • Since he’s a lecturer, his attempt to pass on his life and legacy to his children was through his last lectures
    • This book is a continuation of those lectures

Part 1: The Last Lecture

Chapter 1: am injured Lion still wants to roar

Chapter 2: my life in a laptop

Chapter 3: the elephant in the room

Part 2: Really Achieving Your Childhood Dreams

Chapter 4: the parent lottery

Chapter 5: the elevator in the ranch house

  • As a parent, if your kids want to paint their bedrooms, let them do it

Chapter 6: getting to zero G 

  • Lesson: Have something to bring to the table because that will make you more welcomed

Chapter 7: I never made it to the NFL

  • Lesson from football: You’ve got to work on the fundamentals, others wise the fancy stuff is never going to work

Chapter 8: you’ll find me under “V”

Chapter 9: a skill set called leadership

  • Captain Kirk taught him about dynamic leadership
    • It’s important to delegate to those who knew better, and have the passion to inspire
    • He established the vision, the tone, and in charge of morale

Chapter 10: winning big

Chapter 11: the happiest place on earth

  • He got an opportunity to work with Disney imagineers on a VR project

Part 3: Adventures and Lessons Learned

Chapter 12: the park is open until 8pm

  • He was amazed at how skilled his oncology doctor was at giving the news to them and comforting them

Chapter 13: the man in the convertible

Chapter 14: the Dutch uncle

  • A Dutch Uncle refers to a person who gives your honest feedback
    • The way you tell someone something will determine how open they are to hearing your criticism

Chapter 15: pouring soda in the backseat

  • He spent a lot of time with his niece and nephew Chris and Laura and askd them to also spend time with his kids here and there when he’s gone
  • He asked them to pass along the message that he tried his best to stay alive for as long as he could to be with them

Chapter 16: romancing the brick wall

  • He told people in his lecture that the brick walls in our lives are meant to stop the people who don’t want it badly enough

Chapter 17: not all fairy tales end smoothly

  • They narrowly escaped a hot air balloon accident on their wedding day

Chapter 18: Lucy, I’m home

  • He’s utilitarian, and driving around in their dented cars became a statement in their marriage that not everything needs to be fixed

Chapter 19: a New Years story – NO MATTER HOW BAD THINGS ARE you can always make things worse

Chapter 20: “in fifty years, it never came up”

  • He learned from his dad, weeks after his death, the power of sacrifice and humility after discovering he had been awarded a bronze star for his courage in the battlefield

Chapter 21: Jai

Chapter 22: the truth can set you free

  • He got out of a speeding ticket by telling the cop he was terminal

Part 4: Enabling the Dreams of Others

Chapter 23: I’m on my honeymoon, but if you need me

  • Time must be explicitly managed, like finances

Chapter 24: a recovering jerk

  • The best educators teach students how to be more self-reflective

Chapter 25: Training a Jedi

  • Fulfilling your dreams is a thrill, but enabling the dreams of others is even more fun

Chapter 26: they just bore blew me away

  • His students blew him away with their creativity and hard work
  • The program eventually led to a 2-year course that helped students make their dreams come to life

Chapter 27: the promised land

  • Everyone loves stories and storytelling

Part 5: It’s About How to Live Your Life 

Chapter 28: Dream big

  • He’s a scientist who sees inspiration as the ultimate tool for doing good
  • Even though the money could have been spent fighting poverty (many times at the margins), putting someone on the moon inspires all of us to achieve the maximum of human potential
  • Give yourself permission to dream
    • Fuel your kids’ dreams too

Chapter 29: Earnest is better than hip

  • Fashion is just commerce masquerading as hip

Chapter 30: raising the white flag

  • Life is too short to fight people on certain things, and sometimes it’s best to just surrender

Chapter 31: let’s make a deal 

  • He made a deal with his mom about her dining furniture that stopped their arguing about him leaning back on the chair

Chapter 32: don’t complain, just work harder

  • Complaining does not work as a strategy
    • It’s just a waste of time and energy and happiness

Chapter 33: treat the disease, not the symptom

Chapter 34: don’t obsess over what people think

Chapter 35: start by sitting together

Chapter 36: Look for the best in everybody

  • Almost everybody has a good side
    • Just keep waiting and have patience

Chapter 37: watch what they do, not what they say

  • When it comes to men who are romantically interested in you, watch what they do, not what they say

Chapter 38: if at first you don’t succeed

  • Cliches work because they’re typically right on the money
    • Plus, kids don’t know most of them, so educators should use them
    • They’re a new audience and they’re inspired by cliches

Chapter 39: be the first penguin

  • Those who have failed often know better on how to avoid future failures

Chapter 40: get peoples attention

  • Don’t create technology that is frustrating

Chapter 41: The lost art of thank-you notes

  • Showing gratitude is one of the simplest yet most powerful things humans can do for each other

Chapter 42: loyalty is a two-way street

Chapter 43: the Friday night solution

  • A lot of people want a shortcut. He finds the best shortcut is the long way
    • In other words, hard work

Chapter 44: show gratitude

  • Go out and do for others what somebody did for you

Chapter 45: send out thin mints

Chapter 46: all you have is what you bring with you

  • Be prepared and have contingency plans in place

Chapter 47: A bad apology is worse than no apology

  • Apologies aren’t pass/fail
    • Anything less than an “A” won’t cut it
  • Apologies have 3 parts:
    1. What I did was wrong?
    2. I feel badly that I hurt you?
    3. How do I make this better?

Chapter 48: Tell The Truth

  • If he could give only 3 words of advice they would be: tell the truth
    • If 3 more, he would add “all the time” 

Chapter 49: get in touch with your crayon box

Chapter 50: the $100k salt and pepper shaker

  • On every level, institutions can and should have a heart

Chapter 51: no job is beneath you

Chapter 52: know where you are

  • If you can find your footing between two cultures, sometimes you can have the best of both worlds

Chapter 53: never give up

  • Brick walls are there for a reason
    • And once you get over them, it can be helpful to others to tell them how you did it

Chapter 54: be a communitarian

  • Everyone has to contribute to the common good
    • To not do so it’s selfish
  • When we are connected to others, we become better people

Chapter 55: all you have to do is ask

Chapter 56: make a decision

  • Be a Tigger and have as much fun as you can

Chapter 57: a way to understand optimism

  • Optimism as a mental state can enable you to do tangible things to improve your physical state

Chapter 58: the input of others

  • He heard someone say that the most appropriate thing to tell a friend before he dies is that a part of you will also die with him:
    • “Wherever he goes a part of you will go”

Part Six: Final Remarks

Chapter 59: dreams for my children

  • What eats and most up inside is that his kids will grow up without a father
    • He also mentioned that he thought the father-daughter thing was over stated that he can attest that it’s real
    • He likes knowing that he was the first man to fawn over her and when she looks at him he turns into a puddle
  • He wants his kids to find their own path with enthusiasm and passion

Chapter 60: Jai and Me

Chapter 61: the dreams will come to you

Closing thoughts:

I really enjoyed this book! It was everything I was expecting after reading the premise of the book. It’s pretty straightforward: a terminal man recounts major events in his life and the lessons learned along his way. The main purpose is to pass along this information as his legacy to his children in a way that’s truly authentic to who he is: a lecturer/teacher.

The life lessons are profound and very insightful. It reminds me of that Stephen Covey quote “begin with the end in mind” in that he shows how one would live and prioritize their life if they had a short time to live.

I think this book is great for almost everyone. It’ll give you a perspective on life that will really motivate you and put your priorities into perspective. I think if we all lived our life like we were dying (sooner than later), then we’d probably live a lot differently.

One Takeaway / Putting into practice:

Like any good book, this book has at least half a dozen solid nuggets of wisdom. Any of them could change someone’s life if implemented fully. However, since I have to choose one for this section, my choice will be:

  • Inspiration is the ultimate tool for doing good – when you put someone on the moon, it inspires all of us to achieve the maximum of human potential

I thought this was one of the more insightful and unique takeaways I’ve heard. He makes a good point too. You can donate a bunch of money to causes and make a difference. However, when you inspire a generation of people to achieve more than what we thought was possible, you do a greater amount of good.

I think this emphasizes the power of doing things that inspire others. If we want to make the world a better place, the best way is to come an inspiration to others.


Professor Randy Pausch uses his series of last lectures to pass on his life and legacy to his children before he succumbs to his terminal illness.

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Rating: 3.5 out of 5.


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