Randy Pausch’s Passing, & What I Envied About Him

When I learned yesterday that Randy Pausch died, I found my thoughts and emotions going through a strange mix of sadness and empathy, as well as anger and envy. I realized that in failing to acknowledge how I truly felt about Randy and his death – going deeper than the “safe” material usually included in an obituary or memorial statement – I risked missing much of the value of his message.

The negative emotions started not too long after I learned who Randy Pausch even was – the Sunday morning he stood before Pittsburgh’s First Unitarian Church congregation and announced that he was moving away to enjoy the last few months of his life with his family.

I began writing Naked Idealism just before Randy became an international sensation. In fact, on the very same evening I gave my first-ever public talk on the topics that would become the book, Randy gave his “Last Lecture.” I wasn’t aware of this coincidence at the time, but later reasoned that my own talk attracted only a small audience at First Unitarian because many congregation members were packed into a Carnegie Mellon auditorium just up the street to hear Randy’s lecture.

Randy Pausch Last Lecture: Achieving Your Childhood Dreams

That’s where the envy – and the excuses – began.

I watched with amazement as Randy’s popularity soared on the internet, with his lecture video eventually getting over several million views in just a few months. Following an article by Jeffrey Zaslow in the Wall Street Journal, Randy and Jeffrey landed a major book deal. Randy appeared on a number of national talk shows.

A few months later I discovered another odd coincidence: Randy posted a “happy birthday” message to one of his sons on his website. His birthday was the same as mine.

I knew that time was very precious to Randy, but I couldn’t get over the coincidences that seemed to link us. And in researching my own book, I had frequently encountered the message that we mustn’t be afraid to ask for things. I decided that in some way, Randy was meant to be included in my book.

I excitedly emailed Randy on a few occasions, briefly outlining some of these coincidences and asking him if he’d be willing to author a foreword or even pen a brief endorsement. His name, I explained, could help my book’s complementary messages reach many more people. He did respond to each of my emails, although each was a polite “no.” He was practicing what he preached in his lesser-known time management lecture, noting that time with his family was his highest priority. There was no way I could argue with that!

However, I still wanted him to lend just a tiny bit of time to my project, and to share just a little bit of the influence that he had rapidly obtained with the assistance of others – to “pay it along.” On a deeper level, I was disappointed and I had a mix of sympathy and envy – yes, I envied a dying man who had been given only a few months to live.

Many thoughts, some very irrational, ran through my head:

  • Randy’s background wasn’t in psychology, while I had spent years studying psychology before authoring a self-empowerment book. Why should his ideas get so much attention in such a relatively short time?
  • If Randy really did care that much about others’ self-development, why couldn’t he lend just a few minutes of time to my project? Perhaps his presentation truly was, as he noted, just for his kids. That didn’t seem fair.
  • His book was written by speaking with someone over the phone while riding an exercise bike, while I spent months at the computer. That didn’t seem fair, either.
  • A major publisher purchased rights to his book for more than $6 million before it was even written, while I had forfeited money and other potential opportunities to write mine.
  • While Randy’s book addressed many important topics, it didn’t touch many of the controversial and often-ignored areas that my book addressed. My book, I thought, deserved at least as much attention.

Basically, I was feeling sorry for myself, making excuses and trying to explain away unfairness – to the point where I had envy for someone who had been dealt a far more unfair hand of cards than I!

Randy Pausch was meant to be involved with Naked Idealism, just not in the way I had originally thought.

Over the several months since I last communicated with him, I’ve met many additional inspiring people I wouldn’t have connected with if he had lent a hand – if he had helped me too soon in removing my “brick wall,” to borrow an analogy from his lecture. Randy’s way of being also made me feel uneasy because he continued to live an exceptional life despite his limitations.

Randy didn’t seem to make excuses, forcing me into the uncomfortable position of questioning the validity of my own excuses. This reminds me of how we often treat anyone with a physical disability or serious illness. Because we can’t possibly imagine how we could have their strength to survive, let alone have a high quality of life, it’s easier to pity them. And when they don’t allow us to pity them, they deny us permission to pity ourselves. This call for personal accountability can feel threatening at first. I thank Randy for this wake-up call.

I still sent Randy and his family a copy of the final version of Naked Idealism, explaining that I knew he probably wouldn’t have time to read it, but that I wanted him to see one of the works that he helped to inspire. I hope he at least had a chance to see the parts where I mentioned his name, and I wish the very best for his family. Randy’s valuable ideas, and the unique manner in which he expressed them, will live on for a very long time.


Dave welcomes phone-based life, career, and transition coaching clients from around the world.

2 thoughts on “Randy Pausch’s Passing, & What I Envied About Him”

  1. That’s really powerful, Dave. The power of excuses is so strong that few of us ever break free from it. Your post reminds me of the Alanis Morrisette song “Excuses”. Have you heard it?

  2. Thanks for the comment, Pace.

    I just looked over the lyrics of the song you reference, and particularly like the phrase, “Now my imagination is the only thing that limits the bar that is raised to the heights.” This is, of course, something I’m still working on fully understanding myself, but the thing I have recognized is the danger of comparing ourselves to others, and judging our own current situation based upon that. We’re likely to selectively perceive what we see in the other person to support our tendency to adopt the safe and easy way out–e.g., lack of action accompanied by feelings of self-pity or unfairness. (I’ve heard this called “self-serving bias.” Of course, it’s not really serving us or anyone else that well…) Some of this probably ties into what you mention on your website re: how we often assume other people are just like us. The reality is that if someone else has something that we envy, chances are they’ve adopted very different strategies than we have, or they may have had to pay a price to get it–and that path or price may or may not be something we envy and wish to have in our own lives.

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