I’ve taken on the task of grocery shopping. I’m not asking for a medal. I just want to start with that. For years this has been a chore that neither of us enjoyed.
In doing the shopping, I’ve come to be one of those milk maids. The person who tries to find the gallon of milk with the latest expiration date. It reminded me of an episode of Seinfeld. It’s not so hard to come to define your existence by the expiration date on the milk. Consider it a life line. From Sunday to Sunday you know that you can extend your life (extend the game) when you collect more tokens (buy more milk). If you’re lucky, you can get 12 days out the weekly visit, and then you’re sitting plush. Rest assured that you can not only rely on the fact that you have guaranteed 7 days, but you’ve earned a bit extra. Five…more…days.
In this way, grocery shopping is no longer a chore; it’s a life line. These are the little things that I tell myself to make the mundane seem less so. Now who’s ready to go grocery shopping?
We took a nice long drive. When everyone was enthralled in their activity of choice (sleeping or watching a movie), I found The Last Lecture on my iPod and decided to have another listen. I’ve probably listened to this audiobook 5 times, and with every new exposure, I’m crushed under the enormous weight of my own mortality and the very idea that sharing your wisdom, or at minimum, one’s final thoughts, can be the best gift one leaves behind.
As he begins, he suggests that every academic has given some thought—at least a passing consideration— of doing their own Last Lecture. And as far as I’m concerned, he is correct—I have had this thought. I learned of these lectures when I held my first academic position in California. Although I have yet to see one, this is an annual (I believe) event held at the Western Psychological Association. In principle, the professor should be a senior in his or her domain. The nature of the lecture suggests that it is only with many years of experiences, blunders, and successes that one is qualified to deliver such an address. Or, perhaps when one’s hour glass takes on the hyper speed characteristics that come along with a terminal disease. As was the case for Randy Pausch. But for most of us, the view is only as good as where we stand. That is, we’ll only understand our circumstances in the here and now. Perhaps there is a modest handful of people who have the benefit of seeing from another’s perspective. In part this is what Randy Paush has accomplished with The Last Lecture. Perhaps there are even fewer who can envision themselves at another point in time—where will you be in 20 years. We might often consider the latter, but only in the most superficial ways. I will retire at 64. I will visit Peru before I die. But I’m not sure that we consider what we might know at those later points in time. What will I know then, that I don’t know now? Academics have this unfortunate and burning yearning to leave some sort of meaningful professional legacy to their discipline, to their peers. Perhaps the rest of the world feels this way too. I don’t know. I struggle to place myself in the shoes of others.
But here’s the thing—Maybe this exercise, The Last Lecture needs to happen in two waves. In Wave 1, you take a look at your world, as you know it, right now, and attempt to leave your family, friends, and colleagues with the meager wisdom you’ve acquired—to that point. I suggest that there may be considerable benefit to mid-life self-evaluation. In Wave 2, a pointed and critical re-evaluation of lessons professed in Wave 1 are considered. The latter comes with many more years under one’s belt. How might these comport? What has changed? Has anything changed?
My evaluation of The Last Lecture is not unique. What I value is the central thesis that, “luck is where hard work meets opportunity.” This, I believe whole heartedly. And the suggestion that being a good person, and guiding others to be good people, will ultimately lead to a more fulfilling experience on this tiny blue speck.
Of the many anecdotes that tackle these two themes, somewhat deceptively, there are two that stand out for me.
Always pack a spare lightbulb. When recounting a student’s presentation, Paush describes a young man who was using an overhead projector. At some point during the presentation, the light bulb of the projector burned out. Under such circumstances a presenter might lose his mettle. But for this young man, there was no concern. He had a spare lightbulb. I’ve never been a Boy Scout, but it seems like they’ve got it quite right: Be Prepared.
Material items are functional, first and foremost. When recounting his experiences with his niece and nephew, Paush describes his sister’s anxiousness of having her children defile Uncle Randy’s new car. To ease the tension, Paush recounts taking an entire can of soda and pouring it onto the seat of his brand new car. I wish I could say I could go to similar lengths to make a point, but I’m afraid I cannot—at least not right now. But the message is clear: (a) Material items are functional, above all else, (b) Find what makes people tense or anxious, and remove it from consideration.
I’ve resigned myself to revisit this audiobook once every 3 months or so. It’s a lofty goal, but one I intend to keep. It’s far too easy to become lost in the trials and tribulations of the mundane. For some, the perspective shift that Paush provides for me, may come more easily, and without the need to have Paush hold one’s hand to experience it. For me, I think I need this book to help me shift my world view—if only for a few weeks at a time.
I’ll consider the content of my Last Lecture from time to time. And maybe one day I’ll have occasion to share these thoughts.