Professor's Last Lecture: Part 3

Randy Pausch's Last Lecture: Really Achieving Your Childhood Dreams
Given at Carnegie Mellon University
Tuesday, September 18, 2007
For more information, see
© Copyright Randy Pausch, 2007
Note that this transcript is provided as a public service but may contain transcription errors.

So then the question becomes, how can I enable the childhood dreams of others. And again, boy am I glad I became a professor. What better place to enable childhood dreams? Eh, maybe working at EA, I don't know. That'd probably be a good close second. And this started in a very concrete realization that I could do this, because a young man named Tommy Burnett, when I was at the University of Virginia, came to me, was interested in joining my research group. And we talked about it, and he said, oh, and I have a childhood dream. It gets pretty easy to recognize them when they tell you.

And I said, yes, Tommy, what is your childhood dream? He said, I want to work on the next Star Wars film. Now you got to remember the timing on this. Where is Tommy, Tommy is here today. What year would this have been? Your sophomore year.

Tommy: It was around '93.

Randy Pausch: Are you breaking anything back there young man? OK, all right, so in 1993. And I said to Tommy, you know they're probably not going to make those next movies. [laughter] And he said, no, THEY ARE. And Tommy worked with me for a number of years as an undergraduate and then as a staff member, and then I moved to Carnegie Mellon, every single member of my team came from Virginia to Carnegie Mellon except for Tommy because he got a better offer. And he did indeed work on all three of those films.

And then I said, well that's nice, but you know, one at a time is kind of inefficient. And people who know me know that I'm an efficiency freak. So I said, can I do this in mass? Can I get people turned in such a way that they can be turned onto their childhood dreams? And I created a course, I came to Carnegie Mellon and I created a course called Building Virtual Worlds. It's a very simple course. How many people here have ever been to any of the shows?

[Some people from audience raise hands] OK, so some of you have an idea. For those of you who don't, the course is very simple. There are 50 students drawn from all the different departments of the university. There are randomly chosen teams, four people per team, and they change every project. A project only lasts two weeks, so you do something, you make something, you show something, then I shuffle the teams, you get three new playmates and you do it again. And it's every two weeks, and so you get five projects during the semester.

The first year we taught this course, it is impossible to describe how much of a tiger by the tail we had. I was just running the course because I wanted to see if we could do it. We had just learned how to do texture mapping on 3D graphics, and we could make stuff that looked half decent. But you know, we were running on really weak computers, by current standards. But I said I'll give it a try. And at my new university [Carnegie Mellon] I made a couple of phone calls, and I said I want to cross-list this course to get all these other people. And within 24 hours it was cross-listed in five departments. I love this university. I mean it's the most amazing place.

And the kids said, well what content do we make? I said, hell, I don't know. You make whatever you want. Two rules: no shooting violence and no pornography. Not because I'm opposed to those in particular, but you know, that's been done with VR, right? [laughter] And you'd be amazed how many 19-year-old boys are completely out of ideas when you take those off the table. [laughter and clapping]

Anyway, so I taught the course. The first assignment, I gave it to them, they came back in two weeks and they just blew me away. I mean the work was so beyond, literally, my imagination, because I had copied the process from Imagineering's VR lab, but I had no idea what they could or couldn't do with it as undergraduates, and their tools were weaker, and they came back on the first assignment, and they did something that was so spectacular that I literally didn't, ten years as a professor and I had no idea what to do next.

So I called up my mentor, and I called up Andy Van Dam. And I said, Andy, I just gave a two-week assignment, and they came back and did stuff that if I had given them a whole semester I would have given them all As. Sensei, what do I do? [laughter]

And Andy thought for a minute and he said, you go back into class tomorrow and you look them in the eye and you say, "Guys, that was pretty good, but I know you can do better." [laughter] And that was exactly the right advice. Because what he said was, you obviously don't know where the bar should be, and you're only going to do them a disservice by putting it anywhere.

And boy was that good advice because they just kept going. And during that semester it became this underground thing. I'd walk into a class with 50 students in it and there were 95 people in the room. Because it was the day we were showing work. And people's roommates and friends and parents -- I'd never had parents come to class before! It was flattering and somewhat scary.

And so it snowballed and we had this bizarre thing of, well we've got to share this. If there's anything I've been raised to do, it's to share, and I said, we've got to show this at the end of the semester. We've got to have a big show. And we booked this room, McConomy. I have a lot of good memories in this room. And we booked it not because we thought we could fill it, but because it had the only AV setup that would work, because this was a zoo. Computers and everything. And then we filled it. And we more than filled it. We had people standing in the aisle.

I will never forget the dean at the time, Jim Morris was sitting on the stage right about there. We had to kind of scoot him out of the way. And the energy in the room was like nothing I had ever experienced before. And President Cohen, Jerry Cohen was there, and he sensed the same thing. He later described it as like an Ohio State football pep rally. Except for academics. And he came over and he asked exactly the right question. He said, before you start, he said, where are these people from? He said, the audience, what departments are they from? And we polled them and it was all the departments.

And I felt very good because I had just come to campus, he had just come to campus, and my new boss had seen in a very corporal way that this is the university that puts everybody together. And that made me feel just tremendous.

So we did this campus-wide exhibition. People performed down here. They're in costume, and we projected just like this and you can see what's going on. You can see what they're seeing in the head mount. There's a lot of big props, so there's a guy white water rafting. [shows slides of a BVW show]

This is Ben in E.T. And yes, I did tell them if they didn't do the shot of the kids biking across the moon I would fail him. That is a true story. And I thought I'd show you just one world, and if we can get the lights down if that's at all possible. No, ok, that means no. All right. All right we'll just do our best then. [Shows "" world done in the BVW class, audience applauds at the end.]

It was an unusual course. With some of the most brilliant, creative students from all across the campus. It just was a joy to be involved. And they took the whole stage performance aspect of this way too seriously [shows pictures of very strange costumes students wore]. And it became this campus phenomenon every year. People would line up for it. It was very flattering. And it gave kids a sense of excitement of putting on a show for people who were excited about it. And I think that that's one of the best things you can give somebody -- the chance to show them what it feels like to make other people get excited and happy. I mean that's a tremendous gift. We always try to involve the audience. Whether it was people with glow sticks or batting a beach ball around... or driving [shows photo of audience members leaning in their seats to steer a car]. This is really cool.

This technology actually got used at the Spiderman 3 premiere in L.A., so the audience was controlling something on the screen, so that's kind of nice. And I don't have a class picture from every year, but I dredged all the ones that I do have, and all I can say is that what a privilege and an honor it was to teach that course for something like ten years.

And all good things come to an end. And I stopped teaching that course about a year ago. People always ask me what was my favorite moment. I don't know if you could have a favorite moment. But boy there is one I'll never forget. This was a world with, I believe a roller skating ninja. And one of the rules was that we perform these things live and they all had to really work. And the moment it stopped working, we went to your backup videotape. And this was very embarrassing. [Shows image of Roller Ninja world presentation]

So we have this ninja on stage and he's doing this roller skating thing and the world, it did not crash gently. Whoosh. And I come out, and I believe it was Steve, Audia, wasn't it? Where is he? OK, where is Steve? Ah, my man. Steve Audia. And talk about quick on your feet. I say, Steve, I'm sorry but your world has crashed and we're going to go to videotape. And he pulls out his ninja sword and says, I am dishonored! Whaaa! And just drops! [applause and laughter]

And so I think it's very telling that my very favorite moment in ten years of this high technology course was a brilliant ad lib. And then when the videotape is done and the lights come up, he's lying there lifeless and his teammates drag him off! [laughter] It really was a fantastic moment.

And the course was all about bonding. People used to say, you know, what's going to make for a good world? I said, I can't tell you beforehand, but right before they present it I can tell you if the world's good just by the body language. If they're standing close to each other, the world is good.

And BVW was a pioneering course [Randy puts on vest with arrows poking out of the back], and I won't bore you with all the details, but it wasn't easy to do, and I was given this when I stepped down from the ETC and I think it's emblematic. If you're going to do anything that pioneering you will get those arrows in the back, and you just have to put up with it. I mean everything that could go wrong did go wrong. But at the end of the day, a whole lot of people had a whole lot of fun.

When you've had something for ten years that you hold so precious, it's the toughest thing in the world to hand it over. And the only advice I can give you is, find somebody better than you to hand it to. And that's what I did. There was this kid at the VR studios way back when, and you didn't have to spend very long in Jesse Schell's orbit to go, the force is strong in this one. And one of my greatest -- my two greatest accomplishments I think for Carnegie Mellon was that I got Jessica Hodgins and Jesse Schell to come here and join our faculty.

And I was thrilled when I could hand this over to Jesse, and to no one's surprise, he has really taken it up to the next notch. And the course is in more than good hands -- it's in better hands. But it was just one course. And then we really took it up a notch. And we created what I would call the dream fulfillment factory. Don Marinelli and I got together and with the university's blessing and encouragement, we made this thing out of whole cloth that was absolutely insane. Should never have been tried. All the sane universities didn't go near this kind of stuff. Creating a tremendous opportunistic void.

So the Entertainment Technology Center was all about artists and technologists working in small teams to make things. It was a two year professional master's degree. And Don and I were two kindred spirits. We're very different -- anybody who knows us knows that we are very different people. And we liked to do things in a new way, and the truth of the matter is that we are both a little uncomfortable in academia.

I used to say that I am uncomfortable as an academic because I come from a long line of people who actually worked for a living, so. [Nervous laughter] I detect nervous laughter! And I want to stress, Carnegie Mellon is the only place in the world that the ETC could have happened. By far the only place.

[Shows slide of Don Marinelli in tye-dyed shirt, shades and an electric guitar, sitting on a desk next to Randy, wearing nerd glasses, button-up shirt, staring at a laptop. Above their heads were the labels "Right brain/Left brain"] [laughter] OK, this picture was Don's idea, OK? And we like to refer to this picture as Don Marinelli on guitar and Randy Pausch on keyboards. [laughter] But we really did play up the left brain, right brain and it worked out really well that way.

[Shows slide of Don looking intense] Don is an intense guy. And Don and I shared an office, and at first it was a small office. We shared an office for six years. You know, those of you who know Don know he's an intense guy. And you know, given my current condition, somebody was asking me ... this is a terrible joke, but I'm going to use it anyway. Because I know Don will forgive me. Somebody said, given your current condition, have you thought about whether you're going to go to heaven or hell? And I said, I don't know, but if I'm going to hell, I'm due six years for time served! [laughter] I kid.

Sharing an office with Don was really like sharing an office with a tornado. There was just so much energy and you never knew which trailer was next, right? But you know something exciting was going to happen. And there was so much energy, and I do believe in giving credit where credit is due. So in my typically visual way, if Don and I were to split the success for the ETC, he clearly gets the lion's share of it. [Shows image of a pie chart divided 70/30 (Don/Randy) ] He did the lion's share of the work, ok, he had the lion's share of the ideas.

It was a great teamwork. I think it was a great yin and a yang, but it was more like YIN and yang. And he deserves that credit and I give it to him because the ETC is a wonderful place. And he's now running it and he's taking it global. We'll talk about that in a second.

Describing the ETC is really hard, and I finally found a metaphor. Telling people about the ETC is like describing Cirque du Soleil if they've never seen it. Sooner or later you're going to make the mistake. You're going to say, well it's like a circus. And then you're dragged into this conversation about oh, how many tigers, how many lions, how many trapeze acts? And that misses the whole point. So when we say we're a master's degree, we're really not like any master's degree you've ever seen.

Here's the curriculum [Shows slide of ETC curriculum, listing "Project Course" as the only course each semester; audience laughs] The curriculum ended up looking like this. [shows slightly more detailed slide]. All I want to do is visually communicate to you that you do five projects in Building Virtual Worlds, then you do three more. All of your time is spent in small teams making stuff. None of that book learning thing. Don and I had no patience for the book learning thing. It's a master's degree. They already spent four years doing book learning. By now they should have read all the books.

The keys to success were that Carnegie Mellon gave us the reins. Completely gave us the reins. We had no deans to report to. We reported directly to the provost, which is great because the provost is way too busy to watch you carefully. [laughter] We were given explicit license to break the mold.

It was all project based. It was intense, it was fun, and we took field trips! Every spring semester in January, we took all 50 students in the first year class and we'd take them out to Pixar, Industrial Light and Magic, and of course when you've got guys like Tommy there acting as host, right, it's pretty easy to get entrée to these places. So we did things very, very differently. The kind of projects students would do, we did a lot of what we'd call edutainment.

We developed a bunch of things with the Fire Department of New York, a network simulator for training firefighters, using video game-ish type technology to teach people useful things. That's not bad. Companies did this strange thing. They put in writing, we promise to hire your students. I've got the EA and Activision ones here. I think there are now, how many, five? Drew knows I bet.

[Drew Davison, head of ETC-Pittsburgh, gestures with five fingers]. So there are five written agreements. I don't know of any other school that has this kind of written agreement with any company. And so that's a real statement. And these are multiple year things, so they're agreeing to hire people for summer internships that we have not admitted yet. That's a pretty strong statement about the quality of the program.

And Don, as I said, he's now, he's crazy. In a wonderful complimentary way. He's doing these things where I'm like, oh my god. He's not here tonight because he's in Singapore because there's going to be an ETC campus in Singapore. There's already one in Australia and there's going to be on in Korea. So this is becoming a global phenomenon. So I think this really speaks volumes about all the other universities. It's really true that Carnegie Mellon is the only university that can do this. We just have to do it all over the world now.

One other big success about the ETC is teaching people about feedback [puts up bar chart where students are (anonymous) listed on a scale labeled "how easy to work with" ] -- oh I hear the nervous laughter from the students. I had forgotten the delayed shock therapy effect of these bar charts. When you're taking Building Virtual Worlds, every two weeks we get peer feedback. We put that all into a big spreadsheet and at the end of the semester, you had three teammates per project, five projects, that's 15 data points, that's statistically valid.

And you get a bar chart telling you on a ranking of how easy you are to work with, where you stacked up against your peers. Boy that's hard feedback to ignore. Some still managed. [laughter] But for the most part, people looked at that and went, wow, I've got to take it up a notch. I better start thinking about what I'm saying to people in these meetings. And that is the best gift an educator can give is to get somebody to become self reflective.

So the ETC was wonderful, but even the ETC and even as Don scales it around the globe, it's still very labor intensive, you know. It's not Tommy one-at-a-time. It's not a research group ten at a time. It's 50 or 100 at a time per campus times four campuses. But I wanted something infinitely scalable. Scalable to the point where millions or tens of millions of people could chase their dreams with something. And you know, I guess that kind of a goal really does make me the Mad Hatter. [Puts on a Mad Hatter's green top hat].

So Alice is a project that we worked on for a long, long time. It's a novel way to teach computer programming. Kids make movies and games. The head fake -- again, we're back to the head fakes. The best way to teach somebody something is to have them think they're learning something else. I've done it my whole career. And the head fake here is that they're learning to program but they just think they're making movies and video games.

This thing has already been downloaded well over a million times. There are eight textbooks that have been written about it. Ten percent of U.S. colleges are using it now. And it's not the good stuff yet. The good stuff is coming in the next version. I, like Moses, get to see the promised land, but I won't get to set foot in it. And that's OK, because I can see it. And the vision is clear. Millions of kids having fun while learning something hard. That's pretty cool. I can deal with that as a legacy.

The next version's going to come out in 2008. It's going to be teaching the Java language if you want them to know they're learning Java. Otherwise they'll just think that they're writing movie scripts. And we're getting the characters from the bestselling PC video game in history, The Sims. And this is already working in the lab, so there's no real technological risk. I don't have time to thank and mention everybody in the Alice team, but I just want to say that Dennis Cosgrove is going to be building this, has been building this. He is the designer. This is his baby. And for those of you who are wondering, well, in some number of months who should I be emailing about the Alice project, where's Wanda Dann? Oh, there you are. Stand up, let them all see you. Everybody say, Hi Wanda.

Audience: Hi, Wanda.

Randy Pausch: Send her the email. And I'll talk a little bit more about Caitlin Kelleher, but she's graduated with her Ph.D., and she's at Washington University, and she's going to be taking this up a notch and going to middle schools with it. So, grand vision and to the extent that you can live on in something, I will live on in Alice.

Click here to continue reading the lecture.