Friday, September 12, 2008

The Last Lecture and Life Lessons

Sorry for the long silence, though this may actually explain some of it :).

As some of you may know, I spent the past year under a knife, figurative, but possibly literal, with a severe medical condition that no one could explain. It's made me think about things a lot, though most of that pondering got swallowed up by the pain/pain med-induced amnesia :p.

Now with that context, you might think the fact that both my sisters recommended The Last Lecture by Randy Pausch to be particularly ominous, but it's actually a coincidence. I had heard about the last lecture and stuck it in my head under physicists saying fascinating things. Yes, I know now that Randy Pausch is not a physicist, nor is he talking much about science. But that was enough to make me interested when, at a family reunion, I noticed my older sister was reading this book. She'd borrowed it from my younger sister, who then both recommended I read The Last Lecture and allowed me to borrow her copy as well.

So I got back from the reunion to discover that what we'd thought had resolved (in three wonderful, mostly symptom-free weeks) was back. The upshot of it was that I now faced a surgery to cure me instead of either being already cured or under a death sentence. Still, my frame of mind over the course of this past year had certain similarities to Randy Pausch.

Anyway, between preparing for the surgery and after, a small book with little chapters seemed the perfect read. I knew my focus could be measured in minutes, not hours, so a normal book would take too long. Except that I didn't read just a page at a time.

The Last Lecture is neither about physics (or virtual reality, his actual area of expertise ;)) nor so much about dying. It's a collection of thoughts and stories about how Randy Pausch lived his life, what he learned about people along the way, and what lessons he wants to pass on to his children, along with anyone else interested enough to listen. The book is surprisingly optimistic while being very grounded in the reality of his timeline. He focuses on the people whom he's met in his life, not to be maudlin, but to celebrate the wonderful things these people are doing, and to appreciate the chance to be part of their lives, to help them achieve what they truly wanted.

This is a book about childhood dreams. About striving toward them and about what you can gain whether or not you end up achieving those goals. It's a book about being aware of your life and how you interact with others.

And now that I've made it sound like a boring, Hallmark moment, let me tell you Randy Pausch is incredibly articulate and talented at choosing the right illustrations from his own life or from those around him to prove his point. For example, he talks about how he initiated the "First Penguin" award in his labs, not for the group that succeeded, but for the group that fails spectacularly. This example really speaks to me because I'm a largely self-taught programmer, database analyst, systems analyst, and process analyst. Okay, anything logical I'll tackle and enjoy ;). Sure, in the end I'll get things to work, but the way I come to the understanding is by first putting together something that does not. It might not produce any result, might be the wrong result, or maybe it's just a resource hog. The reality is that with each attempt to accomplish something that fails, I've gained a better understanding of the process and how I need to go forward. Each time I think I know the answer and the path leads me to a dead end, I learn about that section of the process and get clues about the overall process so I can set off on another path.

Okay, before I go too far on this tangent, I'll get to the point. I once worked with a project manager who I enjoyed talking to because he was an interesting man. Out of all our discussions though, the thing that stuck with me so many years later was one time when he mentioned that early in his career he'd been the system administrator for a Novell server. His comment? He'd been responsible for that system for something like five years and still knew little to nothing about it.

At the time, I was hip deep in an aging system that had been pushed well beyond its limits, was leaking data from every crack, and which my team was plastering together with duct tape in the hopes of keeping production rolling long enough for the new system to come into being (which would of course be 10 times better ;)). What I realized was, rather than cursing the old system under my breath, I should be hugging it. I came out of supporting that system with a clear understanding and direct experience with Unix, Oracle, Unix-Novell bridge solutions, and half a dozen other things. I became a successful programmer and data analyst because of that old system. And when the new one started dribbling data, I didn't have to learn everything from scratch because those skills I'd honed on the old system were globally applicable. Heck, I still use them in the systems I work with today.

To get back to the book though, that's only one of the many life lessons he offers that really clicked with me. Randy Pausch's analysis, in his final months on this Earth, made me sit back and appreciate some of the things I hadn't given much thought to, people things, computer things, life things. As it turned out, I wasn't under a death sentence this time at least, and I have more than four months to enjoy the world he's reminding me of, time he wasn't given. A lot of what he said wasn't new to me. I'm prone to self-analysis and so had already come to many of the same conclusions. But this book is a good reminder of things, of making choices and decisions, of not accepting the easy road when your heart craves the harder one, of being there for other people and making their way a bit smoother, and most of all, of seeing the brick walls we face in life not as barriers but as challenges to be conquered.

I have no doubt why this book is a national bestseller, and though it needs no help from me, I suggest you go out and get a copy, whether you buy one, borrow from a friend, or get it from the library. Me? I read my sister's copy, and there's a high probability that, when I return it to her, my own copy will nestle in my shelves.


Jean said...

We lost Randy a couple of weeks ago. He lived a little longer than the four months he was given, but that lecture was fantastic. I imagine the book is too. What a phenomenal guy.

Margaret said...

Yeah, he certainly sounds like one. I would have loved to have met him in person, but what he left can be shared with everyone.