Sunday, May 1, 2011

The Last Lecture I give my students: You will fail.

Randy Pausch, a professor who was struggling with cancer, wrote a book called The Last Lecture that was taken from...well, his last series of lectures.

 Since then, I’ve really been thinking about the messages we send to our students, particularly the “last lecture” we give them at the end of a semester, and I wonder, what are they taking with them from our classes? We are often so unaware of the huge impact our words have on others.

I teach writing part-time at a community college. I wanted to share this, which kind of summarizes the last lecture I give my students:

“We’ve covered a lot of stuff in this class, and I’m sure there’s a lot of it you won’t remember. No problems. But please, please, if you do not remember anything else, please remember this:

Many people are going to tell you that you are going to be a success. That everything is going to be great and if you simple work hard, you will be successful. But I’m going to tell you something different. I’m going to tell you something different. You are going to fail. All of you, at some time, are going to fail at something. I have. Everyone I know –including myself—has fallen flat on his/ her face at some point.

Therefore, success has very little to do with success itself, but it has to do with whether or not you pick yourself up, learn from your mistakes, and go on.

For inspiration, please take this case in point: two men---and I doubt you’ve ever even heard of them.

The first is George Dantzig---and I’m pasting this information from You see, the story was so awesome, I wanted to be sure it wasn’t an urban legened before I posted it.


George Dantzig recounted his feat in a 1986 interview for the College Mathematics Journal:

“It happened because during my first year at Berkeley I arrived late one day at one of [Jerzy] Neyman's classes. On the blackboard there were two problems that I assumed had been assigned for homework. I copied them down. A few days later I apologized to Neyman for taking so long to do the homework theproblems seemed to be a little harder than usual. I asked him if he still wanted it. He told me to throw it on his desk. I did so reluctantly because his desk was covered with such a heap of papers that I feared my homework would be lost there forever.

About six weeks later, one Sunday morning about eight o'clock, [my wife] Anne and I were awakened by someone banging on our front door. It was Neyman. He rushed in with papers in hand, all excited: "I've just written an introduction to one of your papers. Read it so I can send it out right away for publication." For a minute I had no idea what he was talking about. To make a long story short, the problems on the blackboard that I had solved thinking they were homework were in fact two famous unsolved problems in statistics. That was the first inkling I had that there was anything special about them.”

Dantzig wonders if he would have even attempted the problems had he known that they were “unsolvable.”

The second is a poet called William Cowper. You may study some of his work in later classes. An English poet, he is perhaps best known for a well-known hymn, “There is a Fountain Filled with Blood” that is still sung in some churches.

What many do NOT know about Cowper is that he went through a serious, debilitating period of depression. In fact, in one night, he tried to kill himself several times. After his recovery, he wrote that hymn, and several other well-known poems. More information on him can be found out at (a useful site if you take some of the upcoming literature classes.)

So that’s what I want you to take from this class: that throughout life, ALL of us are going to fail. It is a certainty. What makes the difference is HOW we fail. Do we allow failure to extinguish our spirit? Do we allow failure to determine how we see ourselves? Do we allow failure to deaden our dreams?

Here’s a nifty link to some of these success stories, courtesy of Emory University:

Baseball fans know of Hank Aaron. Not only did he break Babe Ruth’s homerun record, but he stood as a voice and inspiration for African-Americans during a time that America was locked in a severe struggle of the Civil Rights movement. Hank Aaron’s record of 714 home runs stayed a record until fairly recently.

Want to know one reason he was able to hit 714 homeruns?

He didn’t dwell on the 1,330 times he struck out.

Good luck and Godspeed, guys. The world is waiting.

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