One Inspiring Professor

Posted by Judy Anne Cavey on Jan 9, 2012 in , , | No Comments

Last lectures are common on many college campuses. For one professor, it literally was his last.

Chosen professors are asked to put themselves in a hypothetical situation–they are dying and must give a final lecture to students and faculty. Often, their topic revolves around the questions: what is most important to me and what legacy would I like to leave behind? These lectures may serve as inspiration to students who can learn a great deal from academic mentors reflecting on their lives.

One professor, Randy Pausch of Carnegie Mellon University, (see Fundamentals Matter blog post) was literally dying when asked to deliver his last lecture. Maybe you saw him interviewed, read his book, viewed his lecture online, or caught clips of it on the news. Recently, I read his book, The Last Lecture, having previously seen him interviewed and clips from his lecture before his death. There was so much in his lecture and book which resonated with me, especially his choice of topic–”Really Achieving Your Childhood Dreams.”

I often ask college students, grads, career changers and the unemployed what, as a child, did they want to be when they grew up? It’s a telling question, an important one, which gives a glimpse into a person’s innate life path. They have to choose to follow their path. If they don’t, I believe there will be a void inside, possibly leading a person down a frustrating road.

Professor Pausch discussed what it took to achieve his dreams. I hope you’ll find his words of wisdom useful.

Overcoming Obstacles

Professor Pausch was sitting in his doctors waiting room when the topic for his lecture came to him “in a flash”. His accomplishments and all of what he loved culminated out of the dreams and goals he possessed as a child. The dreams he had, and how they were ultimately fulfilled, left me in awe of this man. No, he didn’t come from a privileged family, nor was he a “scary smart” student in high school or college. But he had dreams and worked towards them.

Additionally, he believed if students worked hard for something, and realized they could achieve it, that would build their self-esteem. This process allowed them to reach their goals.

Captain James T. Kirk

You’re probably wondering what Captain James T. Kirk, a fictional character on Star Trek, would have to do with this post. He actually influenced Professor Pausch’s life. If you’ve every watched the original show with William Shatner (the real “Captain Kirk”), no doubt you saw a man in charge–not just a leader–but a great leader. And yes, some overacting on Mr. Shatner’s part too!

Great leaders have certain characteristics. In a previous blog post, Leaders Made, Not Born, I touched on some of the important ingredients needed, at a time when the world is overthrowing many of the tyrants leading countries and corporations. Captain Kirk had all of those characteristics I listed and more.

In a chapter of his book, Professor Pausch recounts actually meeting his idol, Captain Kirk, who requested a visit to his classroom to see a virtual reality world built to resemble the bridge of the Enterprise. When Mr. Shatner learned of the professors terminal illness, he sent a head shot of himself (in character) with the inscription: “To Randy, I don’t believe in the no-win scenario.” Always strive for the win, even in the toughest situations you face. Don’t give up on your long-held dreams, even when the situation may look impossible. To quote the professor, “The brick walls are there to give us a chance to show how badly we want something.”

Remember what the visionary of “the happiest place on earth” once said…”If you can dream it, you can do it” -Walt Disney

The Educator

What made me respect Professor Pausch as an exemplary educator? How he approached teaching his students. Needless to say, he wasn’t the average academic, in a very refreshing way. He believed that learning could be fun. To me, if you aren’t enjoying it, an important element is missing. Usually, in my classes, I told a joke, funny story, or assigned enjoyable tasks. It broke the tension. I once read that humor actually helps students to learn better. If your professors don’t have a sense of humor, you can always think of something funny about the topic, their personal attire (I know too many professors who wear bow ties!), or enjoy tongue-in-cheek questions asked by the comedians in the class. Make the time upbeat, even if it’s in your own mind!

The professor handed out advice about life to his students too, what they’d call “Pauschisms.” Here are a few:

  • Time must be explicitly managed. Don’t waste time on irrelevant details.
  • You can change your plan, if you have one. Have a to-do list which breaks down tasks into small steps.
  • Are you spending your time on the right things? I’ll add: are you spending time with the right people?

Some professors mentor through their “professorisms”, write those down. At specific times in your life, dig them out. Read and memorize. Those words may shine a light on a new direction, or give much-needed encouragement. One of my college professors stated, “Go in the opposite direction fear wants you to go.” I’ve never forgotten that statement and try to live it daily.

If you’d like to know more about Professor Pausch, log onto TheLastLecture.


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