Last Lecture put into print

Carnegie Mellon alumnus and Wall Street Journal columnist Jeffrey Zaslow lectured at the Philip Chosky Theater last Monday to discuss his experiences writing The Last Lecture with Randy Pausch. A computer science professor, Pausch became well-known last September for his lecture “Really Achieving Your Childhood Dreams” when he addressed a packed McConomy on his unique life, and his optimistic attitude on living with pancreatic cancer. In the lecture, Pausch encouraged his listeners to let their children express themselves and not be deterred by obstacles — “brick walls,” as he calls them.

“The 400 of us in the room — we saw something amazing,” Zaslow said, speaking of the lecture. Though Pausch’s lecture was successful from the beginning, Zaslow’s coverage of the event helped it spread. The latter’s decision to request a WSJ cameraman to film the event — inspired by an e-mail reminder he’d happened to receive from his boss — resulted in the moving footage that helped Pausch’s lecture explode in the media.

Although a book might seem like a logical next step for Pausch, following a successful lecture and numerous television appearances, Zaslow explained that Pausch’s primary motivation was the future of his children. Pausch wanted to use the lecture to give his three young children an enduring collection of the things he’s learned and loved in life.

“He was engaged, Randy, in every sentence and every comma,” Zaslow said. “We were thinking not only of the comma, we were thinking of his kids.”

The Last Lecture elaborates on this idea; “None of this is a replacement for a living parent,” Pausch writes. “But engineering isn’t about perfect solutions; it’s about doing the best you can with limited resources.”

Zaslow gathered information for the book over 53 days. Every day, Zaslow he would call Pausch for an hour-long dose of his life story, which Pausch would divulge on a headset while riding a bicycle; his doctor recommended the exercise. This arrangement also allowed Pausch to spend a maximum amount of time with his family, something that was very important to him.

“I was privy to 53 extra lectures, in a way,” Zaslow said. “He’s one of the most quotable guys I’ve ever known. It just pours out.”

Pausch’s talks to Zaslow covered a variety of subjects, from significant life memories — childhood visits to Disneyland, for example — to more mundane daily activities. Zaslow recalled one moment when Pausch, during the time he was working on the book, accidentally paid twice at a self-serve grocery store, but walked out instead of taking the time to speak to the manager. “He said, ‘I’d rather have 15 minutes of my life than $15,’ ” Zaslow said.

“I’m his ‘with’ guy,” Zaslow said, joking about how The Last Lecture’s cover labels the book as “by Randy Pausch, with Jeffrey Zaslow.” But the relationship between Pausch and Zaslow goes deeper than semantics.

“I feel forever changed by my time with Randy because I saw his love of life from a front-row seat,” Zaslow said.

Zaslow also discussed his time at Carnegie Mellon, where he was a member of former campus fraternity Pi Lamba Phi and editor-in-chief of The Tartan. Zaslow remembered his undergraduate years fondly — except for the one memory of when he cut his chin during Buggy.
During his sophomore year, Zaslow transferred to Columbia in the hopes of better preparing himself for a career in journalism. He transferred back after only two weeks, though — so quickly, in fact, that his fraternity had yet to clean up the bottles from his going-away party.

“It didn’t have that warm feeling, at least for me, that Carnegie Mellon had,” Zaslow said.