Lots of professors give talks facetiously dubbed "last lectures"--neatly packaged summations of their life's work, usually given while they still have lives to live and work to do.
But for Randy Pausch, a computer science professor at Carnegie Mellon University, his last lecture was the real thing. At 46, Pausch was suffering from metastasized pancreatic cancer. He expected to live only a few months when he took the stage before 400 students and fellow faculty in Sept. 2007.
The title of his lecture: "How to Achieve Your Childhood Dreams."
"I'm dying and I'm having fun," he said, distilling what he learned in fulfilling so many of his goals--to experience zero gravity, to be a Disney Imagineer, to write a World Book Encyclopedia entry. "And I'm going to keep having fun every day, because there's no other way to play it."
Pausch died on July 25, 2008. By the time he was gone, his advice touched millions of people, many who wrote to him to say they were inspired by him to change their lives. Some wrote that he had turned them from addiction or suicide. One woman said he inspired her to leave an abusive relationship. A terminally ill man wrote that he was going to pattern the rest of his days after Pausch's.
Randy Pausch is nominated as one of Beliefnet's Most Inspiring this year because at a time when many people would have retreated into self-pity and isolation, he reached out with the best part of himself so that the rest of us could live as fully as he had.
Among the lessons Pausch imparted:
* "Brick walls are there for a reason. They let us prove how badly we want things."
* When a narrow-minded dean refused to let Pausch work for Disney during a sabbatical, he went over the man's head. In the end, Disney offered him a permanent position.
* "Don't complain, just work harder." No one ever heard Jackie Robinson complain. And Pausch began his lecture by insisting no one pity him. Then he did one-handed push-ups on the stage.
* "If your kids want to paint their bedrooms, as a favor to me, let 'em do it…. Don't worry about resale value." Pausch's parents let him paint all sorts of things on his walls--math equations, spaceships, doodles. They are still there today, he said.
Jeff Zaslow was the first to write about Pausch for the Wall Street Journal and went on to write The Last Lecture book with him. When Beliefnet asked what his association with Pausch taught him, Zaslow described how he was in the daily habit of emailing Randy links to stories and comments about him. "At one point, about six weeks before he died, he sent me an email, 'Would you stop Googling my name and go hug your kids?'" Zaslow said. "I think of that all the time. How it is a gift to be able to hug your kids. Randy was able to clearly say things like that."
Near the end of his lecture, Pausch said, "It's not about how to achieve your dreams. It is about how to lead your life. If you lead your life the right way, the karma will take care of itself. The dreams will come to you."
Then he showed his final slide: his three children, Dylan, Logan, and Chloe, now ages 6, 3, and 2, piling on Dad. His last lecture, he told the audience, was really for them.
To see the rest of "The Last Lecture" and learn more about Pausch's work, visit: http://www.cmu.edu/randyslecture/.