The Last Lecture

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Themes and Colors
Dreams in Reality Theme Icon
Teaching, Learning, and Feedback Loops Theme Icon
Obstacles as Opportunities Theme Icon
Attitude and Positive Behavior Theme Icon
Entitlement vs. Earning Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in The Last Lecture, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Dreams in Reality Theme Icon

When Randy Pausch, a professor and computer scientist at Carnegie Mellon University, learns that he’s terminally ill, he delivers a final public lecture, which he titles “Really Achieving Your Childhood Dreams.” The lecture, and the book that quickly emerged from it, focus on the best strategies for turning childhood dreams into adult realities and, through that prism, the best ways in which to live a life.

More specifically, Randy urges his readers to do two things. First, he urges them to stay in touch with childhood dreams as adults, and to keep in mind the things about which they are most passionate. Second, Randy underscores the importance of understanding that dreams don’t come true just by dreaming them—hard work and continued effort are needed to make dreams into realities.

Randy uses his own life to illustrate his points, explaining how as a kid he dreamt of floating in zero gravity, becoming a Disney Imagineer, and playing in the NFL. He then shows how he continued to pursue those dreams as an adult: despite myriad obstacles, Randy is able to float in NASA’s zero gravity machine with his students by masquerading as a journalist, and his work in virtual reality allows him to take a sabbatical from teaching and work with the Imagineers. In these two examples, Randy’s behavior embodies his motif in the book about brick walls—that obstacles exist to keep other people out, people who don’t want something badly enough. Making dreams into realities isn’t about things falling into your lap—it’s about having a concrete goal, and scaling every brick wall that stands up between you and that goal.

Randy never achieves his dream of playing in the NFL, but he uses this failure to illustrate what he considers a more important fact: that chasing and failing to achieve a dream will also serve a purpose. In Randy’s case, by chasing the dream of playing pro football, he came to understand the value of mastering fundamental skills, as well as the necessity of simple hard work. Randy calls this concept the “head fake”: in pursuing one thing, you can learn skills necessary for other things.

So, even as he fails to reach the NFL, the very act of chasing the dream taught Randy things that allowed him to accomplish many of his other dreams, to discover new dreams, and to help other people chase their dreams. Ultimately, Randy believes that keeping childhood dreams in mind and trying to accomplish as many as possible will make adults happier and more fulfilled. Further, he believes that children should be encouraged to dream as big as they want, and adults should support children in their dreaming. In Randy’s view, working hard to achieve your own dreams, and enabling others to chase their dreams, is what life is all about—and he sees his last lecture, and this book, as leaving a piece of himself so others might follow the same path.

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Dreams in Reality Quotes in The Last Lecture

Below you will find the important quotes in The Last Lecture related to the theme of Dreams in Reality.
Chapter 1 Quotes

…all of the things I loved were rooted in the dreams and goals I had as a child… despite the cancer, I truly believed I was a lucky man because I had lived out these dreams. And I had lived out my dreams, in great measure, because of things I was taught by all sorts of extraordinary people along the way. If I was able to tell my story with passion, I felt, my lecture might help others find a path to fulfilling their own dreams.

Related Characters: Randy Pausch (speaker)
Page Number: 10
Explanation and Analysis:

This quote occurs soon after Randy has been told that his cancer is terminal and he is prompted by organizers at Carnegie Mellon to give a title and topic for his last lecture. Forced to confront what matters most to him, Randy lands on the topic of childhood dreams, since many of his accomplishments are rooted in his childhood hopes.

Also, rather than focus on the negative aspects of his cancer, Randy spins it in a positive light and sees himself as lucky because his last lecture has the potential to “help others find a path to fulfilling their own dreams.” Randy also feels lucky to able to show gratitude towards many mentors in his life through his last lecture, using their stories and feedback to, in turn, teach others the many lessons Randy learned throughout his life. This makes his lecture into a kind of feedback loop for the reader/viewer in which the reader/viewer uses Randy’s advice and beliefs to take a hard look at the way in which they’re living their own lives.

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Chapter 5 Quotes

Jack and I painted a large silver elevator door… we painted a panel with floor numbers one through six. The number “three” was illuminated. We lived in a ranch house—it was just one level—so I was doing a bit of fantasizing to imagine six floors. But looking back, why didn’t I paint eighty or ninety floors? If I was such a big-shot dreamer, why did my elevator stop at three? I don’t know. Maybe it was a symbol of the balance in my life between aspiration and pragmatism.

Related Characters: Randy Pausch (speaker), Tammy, Jack Sheriff
Page Number: 29
Explanation and Analysis:

This quote occurs after Randy, halfway through high school, asks his parents if he can paint some images that he has imagined in his head (things “that matter” to him) on the walls of his room. His mom is skeptical but his dad gives permission, and after painting many images, Randy decides he wants to paint an elevator on the wall of his ranch house. But, Randy notes, he decided it would only be a six-floor elevator. While Randy does not understand why that was his desire at the time, he thinks (in retrospect) that choosing an elevator with only six floors epitomizes his balance between dreams and reality. Randy allows himself to dream big dreams, but he always makes them specific enough that he can imagine the concrete steps he can take to achieve them.

Chapter 6 Quotes

Have something to bring to the table, because that will make you more welcome.

Related Characters: Randy Pausch (speaker)
Related Symbols: Brick Walls
Page Number: 33
Explanation and Analysis:

This quote occurs after Randy has told the audience, “It’s important to have specific dreams.” What he means is that, as a kid obsessed with science, Randy didn’t want to be a NASA astronaut because he knew his glasses prohibited him from interstellar travel; instead, Randy simply dreamed of being able to float in zero gravity, which is a more achievable dream that he fulfills when a research team of his wins a competition to do experiments in one of NASA’s zero gravity acclimation planes.

However, Randy finds out that only the students, and not their chaperone, are allowed to ride in the zero gravity plane. Never one to let a brick wall stop him, Randy combs through the contract for loopholes, and finds one: an adult journalist can accompany the students into the machine. So, Randy calls NASA, faxes them the paperwork to apply as a journalist, and though they find his efforts “transparent,” Randy convinces them that he will use his actual connections to journalists to get the story of his team’s visit to NASA published in the press. NASA agrees, and Randy is able to earn his way to achieving his dream by being hard-working, optimistic, and not giving up until he gets what he wants. Randy’s point in this quote, though, is that simply asking for the thing you want without being able offer something in return can be ineffective and, at worst, entitled. By pointing to his genuine media connections, Randy is able to offer something in return for NASA helping him achieve his dream, which makes him a more welcome guest at NASA.

Chapter 27 Quotes

…if it is presented as a storytelling activity, girls become perfectly willing to learn how to write software. In fact, they love it… Everybody loves telling stories. It’s one of the truly universal things about our species. So in my mind, Caitlin wins the All-Time Best Head-Fake Award.

Related Characters: Randy Pausch (speaker), Caitlin Kelleher
Related Symbols: The Head Fake
Page Number: 128
Explanation and Analysis:

This quote occurs after Randy tells of his creation of the Alice software project, which is software designed to get people of all ages (but especially kids) to make animated videos as well as video games, while at the same time teaching them real computer programming skills.

One of Randy’s students, Caitlin Kelleher, sees that the program doesn’t seem to be as effective or enjoyable for girls as it is for boys, so she sets out to remedy that problem. Her solution isn’t to change the software much, but instead to frame it in a different way. Rather than ‘programming software,’ Caitlin presents Alice as a ‘storytelling activity,’ leading girls to enjoy it just as much as boys. This makes Randy decide to give Caitlin the metaphorical All-Time Best Head-Fake Award, as many more girls are now making their dreams into realities through the Alice program and learning valuable programming skills they can use throughout their lives. In the guise of simply telling stories, these girls will now learn skills they’re not even necessarily aware of, which is the whole idea behind the head fake.

Chapter 28 Quotes

…my dad had taken a photo of our TV set the second Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon. He had preserved the moment for me, knowing it could help trigger big dreams.

Related Characters: Randy Pausch (speaker), Randy’s Dad
Page Number: 132
Explanation and Analysis:

This quote is situated after Randy says the moon landing is what made him first realize that pretty much anything is possible. At summer camp, the counselors intended to show the kids the moon landing, but because the landing was delayed, they made the kids go to bed. This is something that still disappoints Randy.

However, Randy’s dad took a photo of the TV during the moment of Neil Armstrong’s famous leap for mankind, and when Randy gets home from camp he is elated by the photo, as it helps to trigger huge dreams for his future. In Randy’s view, the camp counselors should have had a more positive attitude and realized that seeing your species get off of the planet for the first time was far more important than missing their scheduled bed time. Inspiration, to Randy, is the ultimate tool for spreading optimism, hope and dreams, and if the counselors had prioritized that more and had been a little more positive, dozens more kids might have become inspired to have big dreams of their own.

Chapter 59 Quotes

…my dreams for my kids are very exact: I want them to follow their own path to fulfillment. And given that I won’t be there, I want to make this clear: Kids, don’t try to figure out what I wanted you to become. I want you to become what you want to become.

Related Characters: Randy Pausch (speaker), Dylan, Logan, Chloe
Page Number: 198
Explanation and Analysis:

This quote occurs in the final section of the book, where Randy writes directly to his kids about his hopes and dreams for their lives. Randy’s dreams for his kids amount to exactly this: he wants them to have dreams of their own, and to chase them passionately and enthusiastically, just like their old man did. Randy doesn’t believe in parents prescribing dreams for their kids: he thinks that everyone should discover what it is they’re passionate about, and then chase that with everything they have. Childhood dreams are so powerful because of the unadulterated enthusiasm surrounding them. Chasing someone else’s dreams will not be nearly as exciting or fulfilling a chasing your own, and the kind of enthusiasm that propels a person to do great things cannot be forced on them.

Chapter 61 Quotes

“It’s not about how to achieve your dreams. It’s about how to lead your life. If you lead your life the right way, the karma will take care of itself. The dreams will come to you.”

Related Characters: Randy Pausch (speaker)
Related Symbols: The Head Fake
Page Number: 205-206
Explanation and Analysis:

This quote occurs on the very last page of the book, where Randy explains that he ended his last lecture by revealing the fundamental head fake that underscores the lecture. This quote explains how Randy’s last lecture, and the book The Last Lecture itself, are examples of the “head fake” because, although the lecture purported to be about achieving childhood dreams, it is really about how Randy believes people should live their lives. So, Randy believes, if people lead their lives in the proper way, always keeping their childhood dreams in mind, then the dreams will come to them.

In no way is Randy advocating for simply being entitled to achieving dreams and waiting for them to show up—instead, he is arguing that if you live your life in such a way that you consciously work hard to improve yourself and seek dream-fulfilling opportunities, then when those opportunities do arise you will be ready and able to seize them.