“The Last Lecture” – Final Message to Our 2017 Graduates


“The Last Lecture” – Commencement Address to the Class of 2017 by Superintendent David Britten

Good evening.

Ten years ago this September, a nondescript computer science professor at Carnegie Mellon University, walked out on a small lecture stage and caught the attention of the world.

He had been asked to present a talk in a series the university titled, “The Last Lecture.” The tradition called for the speakers to consider their demise and ruminate on matters most important to them. At the same time, it was expected the audience couldn’t help but consider the very same question: What wisdom would we impart to the world if we knew it was our last chance? If we had to vanish tomorrow, what would we want as our legacy?

This particular professor did not have to imagine it as his last. You see, he had recently been diagnosed with terminal pancreatic cancer. However, his lecture, titled “Really Achieving Your Childhood Dreams,” wasn’t necessarily about his illness. It was about the importance of overcoming obstacles, of enabling the dreams of others, of seizing every moment, because “time is all you really have…and you may find one day that you have less than you think.” His lecture wasn’t about dying. Instead, Professor Randy Pausch, who’s YouTube video of his “last lecture” and related videos have since been viewed at least 20 million times, and his best-selling book by the same title has sold 5 million copies to date, having been translated into 48 different languages, spent 70 minutes talking about living.


So tonight, as you prepare to walk through the proverbial graduation door, into a very unpredictable world, I want to share just a handful of Randy’s suggestions, quotes, and rules-to-live by:

First of all, and maybe most important, don’t complain, just work harder. You see, too many people simply go through life always complaining about their problems. It was bad enough before the Internet, but now we see it all the time on Facebook and other social media. Randy always believed that if we took one-tenth the energy we put into complaining, and applied it to solving the problem, we’d be surprised how well things can work out.

His favorite non-complainer of all time was Jackie Robinson, the first African-American to play Major League Baseball. Robinson endured a level of racism most of us today couldn’t even fathom. He knew he had to play better than the white players and to do so he had to work harder. That’s what he did. He vowed not to complain no matter how bad it got.

The next important reminder is that experience is what you get when you didn’t get what you wanted. It’s something you should remember whenever you hit a wall, and at every disappointment. And there’ll be many, so it’s also a reminder that failure is not just acceptable, but it’s often essential. You see, the person who fails often knows how to avoid future failures. The person who knows only success is usually unaware of the pitfalls. And the experience learned from failure, or from not getting what you want, may be the most valuable thing you have to offer others.

All through life, you’ll encounter obstacles. Randy called them the “brick walls” of living. Most of us tend to give up when we hit a wall. I know that for a fact having run in a number of trail races that sometimes stretched for 30, 50 and even 100 miles. Maybe you thought at one time or another that school or life itself is just too hard. You find yourself thinking, “I keep running into a brick wall all the time.” But those brick walls are there for a reason. The brick walls are not there to keep you out. The brick walls are there to see how badly we want something. Because as Randy put it, and I believe it, the brick walls are there to stop the people who don’t want something badly enough. They are there to keep the other people out. Not necessarily you.

So don’t let the next step in your life, whether it’s heading off to college, learning a trade, or going to work at a new job, be the brick walls that keep you from completing your journey.

I came across a blog post a few years back by Megan Milliken of the Town Creek Foundation, who I think said it best: “If you wave the white flag and surrender in the face of uncertain success and unrelenting challenges, than you do not deserve to succeed.  If a simple ‘no’ or a small bump in the road is enough to dissuade you, than you do not belong in the fight.  You have to have heart and passion to try something new and complete what you start; it is what will encourage you in the face of mounting brick walls.”

Professor Randy Pausch died nine months after delivering his “last lecture;” but more important than his death, he left us a gift, teaching us how to live. So let me wrap up tonight with a short but important list of some of the rest of his suggestions:

  • If you’re not there already, learn to be good at something; it makes you valuable.
  • Be willing to apologize.
  • Find the best in everybody; keep waiting no matter how long it takes.
  • Be prepared; luck is truly where preparation meets opportunity.
  • Always remember that loyalty is a two-way street.
  • Find a feedback loop and listen to it; after all, it’s telling you what you need to hear.
  • You can’t get there alone; find someone who will always tell you the truth even when the truth hurts.
  • If you want to achieve your dreams, you need to work and play well with others.
  • Borrowing from the airlines, if things along the way get really tough, grab your own oxygen mask first.
  • Tell the truth. All the time.
  • Show gratitude; it’s a simple but powerful thing.

So congratulations to each of you for what you have accomplished thus far in your young lives. You’ve conquered some brick walls, occasionally learned from experiencing less than success, and developed lasting friendships that will serve you well throughout life.

Now it’s time to go, to move on, to persevere, to be Rebel strong, and to really achieve your dreams.

Good luck!


Sources used in this speech:

Pausch, Randy with Zaslow, Jeffrey. The Last Lecture. Hyperion, 2008.

Goodreads: The Last Lecture Quotes. Retrieved from https://www.goodreads.com/work/quotes/3364076-the-last-lecture

Motivation / Inspiration : Book Summary: “The Last Lecture”, by Randy Pausch. Retrieved from http://www.jfdperfsolutions.com/modules/news/article.php?com_mode=flat&com_order=1&storyid=21

Milliken, Megan. The Brick Walls are there for a Reason. Retrieved from https://www.towncreekfdn.org/dispatches/the-brick-walls-are-there-for-a-reason/


About David Britten

Retired U.S. Army Officer, former elementary, middle and high school principal, currently serving as a public school superintendent.
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