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  • Today marks the fifth year[1] anniversary of Dr. Randy Pausch’s “Last Lecture.”[2]

    To most people, the lecture was likely to have been nothing but a wave of inspiration. But for me, it has a rather somber association.

    In college, Randy saved my life by giving me a reason to study computer science. For the generation when education itself was considered luxury, it is perhaps strange to think that one needs a reason to study something. But to be completely honest, without a clear reason, or a sense of purpose, retaining interest in computer science was a struggle. If there was anything that kept me going, it was a sense of pride and duty. After all, computer science was what Carnegie Mellon University was best known for, and it is what I had promised my parents I would be studying.

    That was, until I took Randy’s class.

    What I learned in Randy’s class was that I didn’t have to be interested in computer science to learn computer science. According to Randy, all I had to be interested in was sharing with others such feelings as joy, sorrow, surprise, or even fear. For him, computer science was nothing more than a means to that end. It was a medium for empathy.

    And that resonated with me. Profoundly.

    And just like that, I had finally found the reason to study computer science.

    But then I lost touch with Randy. For eight years.

    As a matter of fact, it wasn’t until a month before his last lecture, that I sent him the following e-mail:

    I don’t know if you remember me. My name is Slim from your BVW [3] class from way back in 1999. I worked on the Van Gogh project. I’ve been working at MAYA design for the past eight years!


    I now serve as the assistant director of engineering here, and we’re looking to hire some hardcore thinkers who are also genius makers.

    I thought ETC would be full of such people! Are you the right person to talk to if I want to figure out how to lure that talent over? Are there protocols for doing such a thing? (i.e., hold an informal info session at ETC)

    Any advice would be awesome.

    Thanks!

    Slim


    To which he responded:

    Slim,

    Good to hear from you, and *of course* I remember you—things like the Van Gogh world leave long memories!

    I’m sure the ETC would love to have MAYA come and recruit—and there are definitely venues for that. Unfortunately, I’m no longer involved in the day-to-day of the ETC, so I’ve CC’d Drew Davidson, who can help you out with things.

    Best wishes,

    Randy


    I don’t know if it’s obvious, but I had no idea he was terminally ill. As a matter of fact, the subtext of my e-mail is that I was trying to show off to Randy that I had made significant advancements in my career since graduation.

    Why was I showing off to Randy? Because I wanted him to be proud of me. It is one of those silly things we do to those whom we love and admire.

    Instead of just telling them that we love them or that they mean a great deal to us, we try to gain their recognition by bragging to them about something that is utterly meaningless in the grand scheme of things. And because we get so blinded by our desires to be recognized by the other, we fail to tell them what it is that we really mean to tell them, which is that we love them dearly.

    When Randy told me that he was not involved in the day-to-day activities of the etc, I was surprised, but I didn’t think much of it. As a matter of fact, it wasn’t until a couple weeks after his last lecture that I found out that he was terminally ill.

    Guess how I found out about it?

    By watching his lecture on the Web.

    On the Web.

    A lecture held just a few miles from where I worked.

    How could I have been so poor at keeping in touch with someone I considered my hero? I tried blaming it on my shyness. I tried blaming it on my busy life. I tried all sorts of excuses before giving up, and quickly writing him a long e-mail pouring my heart out. But then, as I hit the “send” button, I began to realize that at this point, his inbox was probably overflowing with e-mails in response to his last lecture. That perhaps he would never get to read my e-mail. That he may never know that he saved my life.

    Staring into the computer screen, I couldn’t help but ask "Why?" Why couldn’t I have told him sooner? How stupid does one have to be, to wait so long to say something so simple?

    I really hope you don’t make the same mistake I made.

    If you love someone, tell them. Today. No, do it now. Right now. Just a few simple words. Thank you and I love you. Do it for them. Do it for yourself. Because you deserve better. We all deserve better.

    Thank you, Randy.

    I love you.

    I dedicate this book in your name.


    Originally published in Realizing Empathy: An Inquiry Into the Meaning of Making

    Picture of Randy courtesy of Dr. Gabriel Robins

    -------
    [1] This piece was originally written on September 18, 2012

    [2] On September 18, 2007, computer science professor Randy Pausch stepped in front of an audience of 400 people at Carnegie Mellon University to deliver a last lecture called “Really Achieving Your Childhood Dreams.” With slides of his CT scans beaming out to the audience, Randy told his audience about the cancer that was devouring his pancreas and that would claim his life in a matter of months. On the stage that day, Randy was youthful, energetic, handsome, often cheerfully, darkly funny. He seemed invincible. But this was a brief moment, as he himself acknowledged. Randy’s lecture became a phenomenon, as has the book he wrote based on the same principles, celebrating the dreams we all strive to make realities. Sadly, Randy lost his battle to pancreatic cancer on July 25, 2008. His legacy will continue to inspire us all, for generations to come. (The Last Lecture)

    [3] Building Virtual Worlds (BVW) is a project-based course where interdisciplinary teams will build virtual worlds and other interactive content. The course will emphasize the technical mechanics of how to build virtual worlds, but will also cover the basics of environmental design, interactive game design, non-linear storytelling, virtual reality, and interdisciplinary teamwork. The goal of Building Virtual Worlds (BVW) is to take students with varying talents, backgrounds, and perspectives and put them together to do what they couldn’t do alone. This course has traditionally had students from art, architecture, design, drama, computer science, electrical and computer engineer-ing, human-computer interaction, music, social sciences, and a few other majors. These disciplines all have different standards for how they communicate, how they train their students, and how they evaluate the quality of work. It is extremely important that students in this course be tolerant of the different cultures that are represented. Based on experiences in the real world with these kinds of interdisciplinary teams, one of our goals is “getting through the semester without a fistfight occurring in a group.” (Klug, Schell, 2009, “The Class”)
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