The Last Lecture recounts the life of Randy Pausch, from childhood until just before his death, which occurs a few months after the book’s publication. It opens with Randy stating that he has only a few months left to live, and he is a father to three young kids. Before learning that his cancer is terminal, Randy is asked to give a “Last Lecture” at Carnegie Mellon University. Once he learns that he is definitely dying, Randy considers cancelling the talk, largely thanks to prodding from his wife Jai. In the end, he decides it is important that he give one final lecture, in order to leave both a personal and professional legacy. He eventually lands on the topic of “Really Achieving Your Childhood Dreams,” because being in touch with his dreams is largely what makes Randy unique and successful.
Randy goes back in time to discuss his upbringing, with his encouraging working class father and pragmatic mom. Randy played football (learning discipline from Coach Graham), was a science dork, and was allowed to paint his dreams onto the walls of his bedroom. One of Randy’s dreams was to float in zero gravity, which he was able to accomplish as an adult. Another was to make it to the NFL, and, though Randy never played football professionally, he learned the “head fake” through his attempt to do so. Randy’s family was obsessed with the World Book Encyclopedia, so it was a dream-come-true when the editors one day asked him to write up their new Virtual Reality entry. Randy also dreamed of becoming Captain Kirk, and, though Randy never gets to run the Enterprise, he does meet William Shatner in person and is wowed by his presence.
Randy was obsessed with winning giant stuffed animals as a kid, and he also loved Disneyland. He dreamed of growing up to become a Disney Imagineer (one of the people who design the rides). Though Randy’s application to work at Disney is initially rejected after grad school, he is eventually able to work on a virtual reality Aladdin ride with the Imagineers during a sabbatical as a professor.
In college, Randy goes to Brown University to study computer science, getting mentorship from Professor Andy Van Dam, who teaches him about feedback loops and gives Randy advice that makes him less of an arrogant jerk.
As an adult, Randy takes his sister Tammy’s kids, Chris and Laura, under his wing, escorting them on adventures and teaching them valuable life lessons. He eventually asks them to do the same thing for his kids that he did for them. In his late 30’s, Randy meets Jai, his future wife. Though she is initially reluctant to enter a relationship with Randy, he succeeds in “Romancing the Brick Wall” and gets Jai to move to Pittsburgh and then marry him. Randy recalls funny anecdotes of their relationship, like when he and Jai got swept away in a hot air balloon after their wedding, or when Jai backed her car into Randy’s car. Randy then delves into an intense episode in which Jai began bleeding during the seventh month of her first pregnancy. Randy keeps Jai calm while she has an emergency C-section, and both Dylan (the baby) and Jai end up being fine.
In 2006, Randy is diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, and he treats his disease as analytically as possible, undergoing any medical procedure the doctors recommend. However, in 2008 when Randy’s cancer returns, he receives a terminal diagnosis of three-to-six months to live.
Randy delves into advice he has for enabling the dreams of others (including his readers)—managing time as if it’s money, delegating responsibilities, taking time to get in touch with your inner thoughts, and listening to feedback from others. In regards to that last point, Randy recounts an anecdote in which an Obnoxious Student was unable to accept statistical feedback that he was a bad group member, so Randy had to tell the kid point-blank that he had a serious issue. This causes the kid to change his behavior, much like Randy did after Andy Van Dam spoke with him.
Randy discusses his work as a professor, like training a student (Tommy Burnett) who ended up working on Star Wars films. He explains how he co-created The Entertainment Technology Center, a two-year cross-disciplinary master’s degree at Carnegie Mellon focusing on interactive storytelling, virtual reality, transformational games, and innovation by design. Randy’s most ambitious project was Alice, a computer programming software that aims to teach kids how to code through making movies or creating video games (an example of the “head fake”). His former students have taken this project over in order to continue it after Randy’s death. Randy gives more advice about how to live life, which includes: be earnest instead of hip, learn to compromise, don’t complain (just work harder), don’t obsess over what other people think, watch what people do (and not what they say), embrace clichés, learn to apologize, be honest, be humble, never give up, be positive, listen to feedback, take time to show gratitude, and don’t be afraid to be the first one to try something.
Finally, Randy concludes the book by discussing his dream for his children, which is that they have dreams of their own and feel passionate about chasing them. Randy takes the opportunity to tell his kids and Jai what he loves about each of them. Randy discusses his and Jai’s relationship, saying that he has faith in her to find her way in the future without him. Randy then tells of the end of his last lecture—he had a birthday cake rolled out for Jai, and the crowd sang happy birthday. Randy then asked the crowd whether they figured out the head-fake of his lecture, which is that it’s not about how to achieve your dreams, but rather about how to live your life. Then he asks if they noticed the second head-fake: this lecture (and the book) isn’t just for the audience—it’s for Randy’s kids, so he can pass this piece of himself onto them.