Armen Chakmakjian

The Last Lecture

In career, Literature, Random on September 21, 2016 at 2:22 am

This book has sat on my nightstand for a few years. Not sure who bought it for me — either one of the boys, or my wife. I thought it would be interesting, but over that time I kept putting it off because the concept was so morose.

Anyway, over the last 8 months I’ve plowed through books that I had on my nightstand or in my small bookcase near my bed that I had put off, and got through many of them. Actually a couple of them were on my kindle also. I read Baudolino, finished Destiny of the Republic (about the murder of McKinley), then I finished a bio on Andrew Carnegie that I had started a few years ago. I worked my way through a book on the constitutional convention of 1787, which was fun. I read the David McCullough’s Wright brother’s book with much interest which I received as a gift just as I finished the Andrew Carnegie book bio. I read a book called the Seventh Sense (on my Kindle), which was all about how networking got us here, and what happens after the social media craze. I was in the making my way through a compendium of knowledge on the Tolkien universe, I was in letter “D” and that’s when I saw this small book again.

A lot of what he said in the book made sense and his description of himself was a familiar person to me. I felt I knew Randy Pausch, or 50 people like him. When he was talking about school, or about programming, or about technology, or about characters involved in those endeavors, I knew exactly what he was referring to. We were about the same age when he delivered his lecture and it went viral, and I was just about to embark on an MBA when he published the book. I knew academics like him on the computer science side of my brain. Unlike him, half of my formal undergraduate training was electrical or computer engineering classes, so I had both – a not-same-but-co-conspiratorial-training and a familiar same logic tribe thing going on.

Several things stuck out in the book that I completely agreed with. The crack about his football coach giving him a hard time because he hadn’t given up on him yet. The comments about how knowledge will never replace hard work are something that I say all the time to my kids.

I kinda felt sorry for him because he achieved a lot of success and did meet his professional goals, only to run out of time with his last dream, his family. I thought his quest to leave a record of himself for his young kids was very admirable, many of us do that for our eventual grand-kids. Upon reflection, I would not have traded his success with starting my family at 26 instead of 37 (like he did), so that I could create some really interesting algorithms in those 11 years…and I certainly don’t think he got karma-ed. It’s all a game of chance…

I think the seminal point that I walked away with from his book was something a bit more mundane. Because I mostly understood his normal thinking process (both in my head and observed in others in my field) I was struck by how many times I also try to view the positive or at least the achievable mitigation in most things. Trained-to-be (or maybe born-to-be ) technical problem solvers have a lot of positive wick and wax burn off before they let the light go out on a problem. What impressed me was that he had turned his demise into a mission to solve another problem…that being preparing his family for his departure and leaving a legacy for them to understand him. He had turned his limited time into a mission that he could control with his capabilities and not succumbing to the fact that there was no solution to his health issue.

When my father was going down with lung cancer 16 years ago, that same logic train sparked something in me as I looked at my kids playing in his yard. They were 5 and 8. They would not see him at their graduations or parties as they achieved their goals. I could see that I could not help him with his struggle, especially the day-to-day things that my sisters and my mother were helping him with being close by (I was living 150 miles away).

So, on one of my trips down in the summer, I said to him bluntly, “Baba, you have all these stories you’ve told us whenever your memory was triggered by some event – but they are a jumble. I need you to tell me everything in order and I will type it as fast as I can. I want the kids to know who you are”. My father and I were not so dissimilar in our thinking patterns, and he could see the logic in what I was saying. So we started, he dictating and I typing.

Over the next few visits that summer, I’d start by re-reading what we had already achieved, he’d add a thing here or there, correct something, and then we’d continue adding to the story until he tired or he needed to deal with his pain. We recorded everything that he knew about his grandfather (who was killed before he was born), his father as an orphan in the middle east, and then things about himself and his family until they arrived in the United States in 1956. It’s only 11 pages, but adding that to the black and white pictures from those days, completes a historical record and a personal vignette for future generations of our family.

So I guess what I am saying is that what I learned (or maybe relearned) by reading this book is that rather than focusing on “things” you can leave for future generations (like money or things purchased with money), leave a record of who you are, how you got here, your thinking and who your motivators and what your motivations were. Randy Pausch did that. His kids will always have the videos and pictures of him playing with them and his book, The Last Lecture.

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