Randy Pausch and My Excuses

July 26, 2008

Like a lot of people, sometimes my mind tends to make problems harder than they really are. I think we do this for problems that we’re somewhat afraid to tackle. Telling ourselves that they are really hard gives us an excuse for not solving them. Excuses are just like junk food, they make you feel better for a short while, you know you shouldn’t have them in your life and they end up hurting you over the long haul.

Lately I’ve been pretty good at keeping the junk food out of my diet but honestly I’ve allowed my brain to consume a bit too much of it. Feeding your head all those excuses only fills it with fatty thoughts which makes it harder and harder to truly solve the original problem. I was feeling kind of bummed about this situation I’ve put myself into earlier tonight, combine that with a head full of excuses and you’ve got a situation that should be avoided.

Over the years, I’ve found that distraction can be key in these situations. I distract myself long enough to stop feeling bummed, then I can work on clearing out the excuses effectively. So tonight I decided to catch up on some reading, Wired Science Blog to be exact.

I was reading through yesterdays stories when I got to this one about Randy Pausch. The blog pointed to a lecture that he gave about accomplishing your childhood dreams which seemed so wonderfully inspiring that I felt the need to watch it. The video was 85 minutes long and right from the start I knew it would be an enjoyable 85 minutes.

Randy talked about the dreams that he had as a child and then explained how he managed to accomplish them. In the course of this, I discovered that he was a professor at Carnegie Mellon University and that he’d spent a large portion of his career working in virtual reality. Being someone that worked in the virtual reality lab at Iowa State University for two years, my interest was growing.

In high school I was fortunate enough to visit the Iowa State campus and tour their virtual reality lab. The work they were doing was so spectacular that I couldn’t get my mind off of it. When it came time to decide what college to go to, my parents and I visited ISU and I made sure to stop by the virtual reality lab and see if I could talk to someone there. One of the students was kind enough to not blow me off and actually described a bit of the technology they were using. I made sure to stash this info safely in my head.

My choice to attend Iowa State was strongly motivated by my dream to work in this lab. One of the required skills was being familiar with SGI computers and during the summer of my freshman year I managed to purchase one for $225. This computer was a wonderful SGI Indigo with a R3000 CPU at 33MHz. It was the first computer that I’d ever purchased and honestly I knew nothing about how to use it. But damn, I was motivated to figure it out. By the end of my sophomore year I had become quite proficient with this machine and decided that I’d walk down to the VR lab and see if I could start to volunteer my time.

I talked to a professor there named Judy Vance and as it turns out, she had money to actually pay me for my time. I can only remember one other time in my life when I’ve felt as excited as I did at that moment, my dream had been realized.

I loved the work that they had me doing and I learned such a wide variety of skills. Then Judy asked if I could help out the Society of Women Engineers on a project. They were working with Carnegie Mellon University to setup these very inexpensive VR systems with the goal of getting kids involved in programming. My job was to help them with some hardware interfaces, something that I’d worked on for a previous project. The only difference was that this time it needed to be interfaced to this virtual reality software called Alice.

This project was kind of exciting for me, it isn’t often that geeks get to literally work with a room full of women and have some loose ties to CMU. However, to be honest, at this point my attention was shifting away from virtual reality and over to search engines and I couldn’t get myself dedicated to the project.

Now here’s the amazing part. Alice was developed at CMU… by Randy Pausch! The man that I’ve been watching give this fantastic lecture is the same guy that we were working with to setup this virtual reality program for kids and I didn’t even know it. In all likelihood, my boss Judy Vance knew Randy Pausch. I continued watching the lecture with more enthusiasm now than ever.

Overall Randy shared some truly fantastic advice. Advice like, “when there’s an elephant in the room, introduce him”, “when you’re screwing up and nobody’s saying anything to you anymore that means they gave up”, “experience is what you get when you didn’t get what you wanted”, “get a feedback loop and listen to it”, etc. It’s well worth the time to watch and it’s exactly what I needed to really motivate me to ditch the excuses that I’ve been struggling with for a while now.

Not only was it inspiring because Randy Pausch is a smart guy with good advice, it’s also inspiring because he gave this lecture after finding out that he had 4-6 months left to live due to pancreatic cancer. To see someone in this situation with such a good sense of humor (complete with quasi Jim Carry facial expressions) is a very awesome thing. I’d think that it would be so easy to fill those last 6 months with excuses but instead he did what he needed to do.

Randy Pausch died yesterday, July 25th 2008, at the age of 47.

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