Randy Pausch, a young, brilliant professor dying of cancer, gave his last lecture and it came to be one of the most watched Internet videos of all time. Not only that, his little book of 206 pages, The Last Lecture (Hyperion, 2008), remains a best seller. A handsome family man with wonderful speaking skills and an academic superstar, he captured a place in the hearts of millions of Americans.

            The main purpose of his last lecture seems to be to energize others to affirm life by relentlessly pursuing their dreams. In essence, achievement becomes the ultimate end. Furthermore, achieving in Pausch’s mind is all about one’s self. To be fair, he does put great value in his family and he does mention “enabling the dreams of others” to be a valid aim.

            As a whole his philosophy is good old-fashioned American individualism, blinded to the value of community or society for their own sake. All major spiritual traditions and most ethical systems argue for replacing self-centeredness with heavy doses of altruism and caring for others, but he chose to largely block them out.

            Pioneering psychologist Viktor Frankl in Man’s Search for Meaning states that “it doesn’t really matter what we expect from life, but rather what life expects from us.” Building on both the literature on psychology and bioethics, Stephen Post and Jill Neimark, in best-selling Why Good Things Happen to Good People, catalog the empirically established benefits of non-individualistic traits such compassion, listing, loyalty, forgiveness, and “doing good”.

            Sociologists also argue for a collectivistic outlook. In 1985 Robert Bellah and colleagues published the classic book, Habits of the Heart, in which they said that “Clearly, the meaning of one’s life for most Americans is to become one’s own person, almost to give birth to oneself.” Sociologists Pearl and Samuel Oliner, in Toward a Caring Society, make a strong case for the opposite of the self-centered society. They argue that in a compassionate society, care permeates all major social institutions, especially families, education, government, religion, law enforcement, courts, and business.

            People do not have to choose between individualism and a live of caring about others as their principle life’s purpose. Compassion can exist side by side with individualism, says sociologist Robert Wuthnow in Acts of Compassion.

            Professors Morsch and Nelson in The Power of Serving Others argue that service as a personal philosophy offers the greatest chances for contentment and an enriched life. In whose classroom would you rather have your child sit, one who says dream and achieve or one where the message is together we build, grow, and enjoy?

            The dream and achieve doctrine of Pausch has its limits. If you are not born a dream child (good looking, athletic, brilliant, or reared in a loving family), would not some of your dreams be delusions? And to whom should one compare oneself for a valid assessment of having achieved enough? Today I happened to read Steve Jobs’ accidentally released obituary. (As of today Steve Jobs is still very much alive.) Jobs’ list of accomplishments makes Pausch’s resume look sparse at best even though he was a very productive professor of computer science at Carnegie-Mellon.

            Individualism offers few benchmarks for knowing that you have done enough to feel truly fulfilled. The practice of collectivist or service philosophies offers community feedback as well as your own feelings of satisfaction from having helped others.

            The Last Lecture has inspired many to consider their vulnerability and to live their passing moments with greater presence and enjoyment. The author has provided a great service to these readers and viewers. Let us hope that they do not take away the hidden message that this practice and the aim of self-centered achievement are the answers to the puzzle of life’s purpose. In my opinion, the best path to that puzzle is each day to reflect on the most meaningful things you can do for others or the world.


           What do you think is the best way to repond when one becomes aware of life’s vulnerability, such as learning that you have a short time to live? What thoughts can provide the most comfort? Please share your personal thoughts and experiences by clicking on “comments.” below. You will have to create a sign-in, but it won’t take long.