The Last Lecture

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.
Obstacles as Opportunities Theme Icon

In much literature, walls serve as symbols of disconnection, separation, and alienation. In Randy’s view, however, brick walls (shorthand for obstacles) should be viewed as assets and opportunities. They are assets because they keep the other people out, and opportunities because they give people a chance to show just how badly they want something.

When Randy gets close to achieving his dream of floating in zero gravity by taking a team of students on a trip to NASA, he crashes into a brick wall when he learns that only the students, not the chaperones, are allowed to go into the zero gravity machine. However, always the pragmatist, Randy combs through every line of the contract and figures out that a journalist accompanying the trip is allowed to ride in the machine. So Randy applies for journalistic credentials, submits the paperwork, and (though the people at NASA find his efforts “transparent”) he convinces them he will use his connections to media members to promote NASA, so they allow him to ride the machine.

Throughout the book, Randy gives many examples of obstacles that he turned into opportunities, including his initial placement on the Brown University waitlist (he called Brown so much that they ultimately admitted him), and his wife’s initial skepticism of him when he tried to woo her. To use Randy’s words, “Brick walls are there for a reason. They give us a chance to show how badly we want something.”

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Obstacles as Opportunities Quotes in The Last Lecture

Below you will find the important quotes in The Last Lecture related to the theme of Obstacles as Opportunities.
Introduction Quotes

Under the ruse of giving an academic lecture, I was trying to put myself in a bottle that would one day wash up on the beach for my children.

Related Characters: Randy Pausch (speaker), Dylan, Logan, Chloe
Related Symbols: The Head Fake
Page Number: xiv
Explanation and Analysis:

This quote occurs in the first passage that Randy writes in the book, right after Jai’s foreword. It tips readers off to the fundamental head fake that underscores the entire narrative of The Last Lecture—that, though Randy’s lecture is supposedly about achieving your dreams (and thus how to lead your life), the deeper purpose of his book is to leave a piece of himself—of his beliefs, ideas, and personality—behind for his young children to remember him by. The notion of teaching one thing (like how to achieve your dreams) in order to actually teach another thing (like telling his children who he was and what he cared about) will recur throughout the book. This is also an example of another trick that Randy consistently teaches: using obstacles as opportunities. Randy uses the horrid obstacle of his impending death as an opportunity to do as much as he possibly can to leave behind remnants of himself for his children (and anyone else) to find.


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…engineering isn’t about perfect solutions; it’s about doing the best you can with limited resources. Both the lecture and this book are my attempts to do exactly that.

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

Doing the best you can, being practical, and having a positive attitude (no matter the cards life deals you) are fundamental, Randy believes, to a well-lived life. Randy always views life as a scientist and engineer, and so, when he finds out that his cancer diagnosis is terminal, he vows to do as much as possible to leave behind an imprint of himself for his children (and for the rest of the world, too). This book and the video recording of Randy’s last lecture serve as those imprints, which his children should be able to access through their whole lives. Though this won’t replace him in their lives, Randy’s statement that “engineering isn’t about perfect solutions” reminds readers that the book and lecture are the best he can do. They will serve as a corrective to Randy’s kids’ fuzzy memories when he’s gone, and the act of writing a book and creating a lecture are a reason for him to stay sharp and engaged while he is alive.

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.

Chapter 4 Quotes

…kids—more than anything else—need to know their parents love them. Their parents don’t have to be alive for that to happen.

Related Characters: Randy Pausch (speaker), Randy’s Dad, Dylan, Logan, Chloe
Page Number: 26
Explanation and Analysis:

This quote occurs after Randy discusses his circumstances and mindset when he began his last lecture. While it seems that this quote refers to Randy’s relationship with his own children (he wants them to know that he loves them, even though he won’t be alive to tell then), Randy then takes a step back to discuss his own lower middle-class childhood, indicating that he is also talking about how he knows his father loves him, even though his father is no longer alive to tell him so. Randy feels his parents’ love, in part, because he recognizes how lucky he is to have had parents who allowed him to dream, but were also honest with him and didn’t coddle him. In the end, Randy loops back around to his own children, and he says that he believes his dad would have approved of the ways that Randy is being proactive and positive in the wake of his impending death. Randy is doing everything he possibly can to leave behind messages to his wife and kids that he loves them and wants desperately to shape their lives.

Chapter 11 Quotes

The brick walls are there for a reason. They’re not there to keep us out. The brick walls are there to give us a chance to show how badly we want something.

Related Characters: Randy Pausch (speaker)
Related Symbols: Brick Walls
Page Number: 51-52
Explanation and Analysis:

This quote occurs after Randy tells of a cross-country trip his family took to Disneyland when he was eight years old, a trip that resulted in inspiring Randy’s childhood dream to one day become a Disney Imagineer (one of the people who designs the theme park rides).

Randy’s motto about brick walls is something he repeats as a symbol/metaphor all throughout the narrative, and the way he views brick walls, or any other obstacle, is that they are not a negative blocking force, but instead a positive opportunity to show the people who want to keep you out just how badly you want to get in.

In this example, though Randy is rejected from Disney Imagineering after receiving his PhD, he keeps his goal of working there in mind through the rest of his life. He works hard, rises up through the computer science ranks, and when he hears that Disney is working on a virtual reality ride (which was Randy’s specialty), he finds out who the head of the project is (Jon Snoddy) and proceeds to contact him and set up a meeting to impress him. Randy didn’t let the brick wall keep him out—he was patient, worked hard, bided his time, wracked up credentials and experience, and when he learned of a good opportunity to accomplish his dream, he worked relentlessly toward that goal until the gatekeepers believed he had earned his way in.

Chapter 21 Quotes

At Christmas, I had made an adventure out of putting the lights on the tree. Rather than showing Dylan and Logan the proper way to do it—carefully and meticulously—I just let them have at it haphazardly. However they wanted to throw those lights on the tree was fine by me. We got video of the whole chaotic scene, and Jai says it was a “magical moment” that will be one of her favorite memories of our family together.

Related Characters: Randy Pausch (speaker), Jai, Dylan, Logan, Chloe
Page Number: 100
Explanation and Analysis:

This quote occurs after Randy, on his last New Years eve, has taken his son Dylan to go see the movie Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium, which turns out to be a melancholy experience; Randy’s son cries on his lap during the movie when the toymaker in the film tells his apprentice that he is going to die. Afterwards, Randy is depressed, so Jai tries to cheer him up by recounting all the happy memories their family experienced over the past year.

Jai highlights this one memory in particular from a week or so earlier, and Jai telling Randy she is so glad they recorded it is, in a way, Jai’s attempt to turn an obstacle into an opportunity. Normally she might have been mad at the messiness, or she might not have recorded it at all, but because of Randy’s impending death, Jai is cognizant of the need to record as many memories with Randy and the kids as possible. Also, Randy allowing his kids to have creative freedom with the lights, rather than having the attitude that it needs to look as professional as possible, turns an often-mundane activity into a fun adventure, which is very similar to how Randy would make normal activities into adventures with his niece and nephew.