Randy Pausch Answers Your Questions

Carnegie Mellon professor Randy Pausch's last lecture has become something of an Internet sensation -- more than half a million people viewed it at ABCNEWS.com, and more than 600,000 read the story about him. Pausch has cancer and has been told by doctors he has only three to six months left to live.

Nearly 2,000 people wrote in to ask Pausch questions after watching the segment on "Good Morning America" or reading about him at ABCNEWS.com. Below are a few of the questions viewers asked him, and his answers.

For more information, see www.randypausch.com.

Question: With your passion for life and positive attitude, have you thought about the idea that the math may be wrong? -- Vicky, Oakland Park, Fla.

Randy Pausch: Oh, I certainly am not opposed to a miracle. I would love for my doctors to be saying to me, boy, this -- we can't explain this at all, right. I'd love that and certainly I've considered that, and I never give up hope. But having, having hope for something that you think is really, really unlikely to happen is not inconsistent with confronting the reality and doing the things you need to do with what is presumably a very small amount of time left. And I don't view those as being contradictory at all.

Q: If you could ask a question to your lecture audience and Web site audience 30 years from now, what would it be? -- Christian, Sydney, Australia

R.P.: Have you found a way to bring me back? How are the cyber implants going? Dang it, have you cured cancer? How are my kids doing? Are human beings still squabbling over the same stuff? I mean, I guess given the history 30 years isn't very much delta to expect us to stop. ...Oh, and how many more Super Bowls have the Steelers won?

Q: What would you do with the rest of your time on Earth if, in fact, your final curtain were delayed, let's say, 60 years. -- Gitana, Winter Park, Fla.

R.P.: Wow, first off, what a wonderfully optimistic question, and I thank you for that. What would I do with the rest of my time on Earth? Well, to some degree, I already had what I thought was a pretty good game plan. So to some degree, I would go back and continue executing that, you know, family first and foremost.

I have the best job in the world, which I managed to pull off, I mean being on the faculty at Carnegie-Mellon gives me access to brilliant kids of all flavors, you know, and the thing I chose to make hay out of there was to put the technologist and the artist together ….

I think I would have probably changed in the sense of -- the last year has made me really, really, really appreciate how silly it is to get mad about things. I mean, I was never one for anger, but over the last year, I've just realized, you know, getting mad because somebody cuts you off in traffic, you know, OK, so they cut you off in traffic. You know, you're gonna be mad about that and you know, do 10 times much more stress to yourself for the rest of the day. No. So that kind of stuff would probably change.

Q: If you could have chosen years ago to have known the knowledge that you would get this disease with its predicted outcome, would you have elected to be told? -- Sandy, Farmingham, Mich.

R.P.: As an academic, I'm always inclined to say that, you know, information is better than not having it. Answering this question in real time, I'm not quite sure -- the question that really begs is, if you roll the clock back far enough and I knew I was gonna die, I'd be really questioning, you know, would I have had children if I'd known that they were going to be at their current ages and I was gonna die.

I think that would be a responsible question that any thinking person would stare hard in the mirror.

The thing that's related to this that I will absolutely say is that, you know, would you rather get hit by a bus or get, you know, a couple of months' notice? I don't like the physical pain part of this that comes at the tail end, but there's no doubt in my mind, speaking only for myself, that having a couple of months' notice is infinitely better than getting hit by the proverbial bus.

And that's because it allows you time to sort of lessen the impact on others who are going to suffer consequences and do everything you can to make their lives easier. And I saw my father, who also died of cancer do that for my mother and use his remaining time very, very effectively and I knew she was very grateful for that.

Q: My mom passed away from pancreatic cancer in 1985. Her death is still painful to me. I'm crying now just thinking about it. I can't seem to move on past her death. I was a freshman in college when she died. What will you tell your kids to do in order to go forward and move on without you? It seems impossible. I don't want to move on without her. I wish she had left me a videotape of all of her favorite sayings. I want to see her alive sometimes, and I can't. It's hard. -- Helen

R.P.: First off, boy, I really feel for this person and don't think there's anything more top of mind than what I can do with my limited time to help my kids. You know, that's an ongoing process. The thing I will say to anybody who finds themselves in these kinds of circumstances is talking to people who provide professional counsel is absolutely essential, no matter who you are.

You know, if I can do any good with this interview, if you look at me and say, hey, that guy seems to be handling this well, OK, we've talked to counselors, so you can too and it's OK. It doesn't make you a weak person or a bad person. And we found it to be incredibly helpful.

You know, there are a lot of things -- obviously trying to capture myself in video and writing letters to them and things like that. Making things for them. Some of the most useful e-mails that I have gotten are from people who have said to me, you know, I lost my father at a young age and here's what's helped me because who, who better would have an insight than somebody who went through that.

You know, I took one of my kids down and we did a dolphin swim together recently 'cause that's a very visceral thing, building memory. It's backed up by video and photographs to help reinforce the memory.

Q: Why is a liver transplant ruled out in your case? -- Leslie

R.P.: Yeah, I asked the question about a liver transplant but I kind of knew the answer going in. Which is that first off, a liver transplant is hardly lightweight surgery. And to be perfectly crass about it, if you've got a finite supply of good livers, I would be the first one to say, I'm not the one to waste one on.

Because you know, the cancer has also already spread to my spleen and as much as I want to live, I don't want to live so much that I want to take a liver that had a good chance of saving somebody else's life on this incredibly long short odd on me. I want to live, but I'm not that self-centered.

And it would just be so unlikely that it would work and it would devastate whatever time I have left with the surgery and recovery. So as much as the idea of well, just do a liver transplant you know, and whoever asked that question, good thinking. I like to see that kind of thinking. It just, it just isn't a practical alternative at this point.

Q: If you could study any new subject you haven't pursued yet, what would it be? -- Jack, Galveston, Texas

R.P.: Oh man! You didn't tell me the questions were gonna be this hard! One of my great regrets is that I never forced myself, and I won't say I never had the time or made the time -- I never forced myself to really learn a musical instrument. And so, particularly now that I have children, I would have really liked to have forced myself to do that so that I could put music into their lives. So I think that that would be, you know, if that's a fair answer to the question, the topic would be, you know, playing music.

Q: Hello Randy, I just watched online your interview with Diane Sawyer and then your last lecture. Writing this to you feels like a brick wall because I don't know if you'll be the person who really reads this e-mail, and feel it unlikely that you'll be the one to actually answer my question, but here goes. Because our past is tied so intricately to our future, do you feel that one's worth, even legacy, includes the regrets, brick walls succumbed to, or does it matter at all in the scheme of things in this universe, in this life. -- Mark from Coarsegold, Calif.

R.P.: Well, Mark, first off, here's your first brick wall lesson. I'm readin' your question, I'm answering your question, and apparently millions of people will get to hear your question get answered.

Absolutely, somebody's legacy includes all the brick walls, the ones they got over and the ones they didn't. Right? I didn't get into the NFL, and I talked about that in the lecture, as you know. But again, at Electronic Arts I learned this wonderful expression, "Experience is what we get when we don't get what we wanted."

And, you know, of course part of our legacy is all the things we failed at, because failure is where most of the learning occurs. And so, I like to tell my students, you know, if you're failing a lot, you're probably learning more per time unit than most of your peers, so don't get discouraged.

Q: When you fully embraced the significant implications of your illness, what was the easiest concern for you to let go? -- Phyllis, Fresno, Calif.

R.P.: Oh, wow, that spending a lot of time at faculty meetings was something I could give up. And every faculty member in America is laughing very hard right now. … It was a lot easier for me to focus on the things I had to do right away. Everything that wasn't involved in saving my life or caring for my wife and three kids, everything else instantly became not only unimportant but irrelevant. Who is it that said, there's nothing that focuses the mind like the hangman's noose?

Q: So often for the people left behind, and particularly for young children, it's the smaller details of life that they wish they could have -- asked you, or they wish they would have known. What was your least favorite food, or how old were you when you got braces? What was your favorite cartoon growing up? Have you thought about how to let them know these things, or who they can ask as they grow up, and inevitably wonder about who you were down to the smallest and most human detail?

R.P.: Right. And that's a, an absolutely brilliant and insightful question, and at the end of the day, like anything else in life, you throw your hands up and you say, yeah, I'm not gonna get this 100 percent right....

I know that my ace in the hole is that I have a lot of friends and a lot of family, and they will tell the stories and the wonderful part is, they're not gonna sugar coat it, they're not gonna deify me, they're going to say, oh yeah, you know, your dad, he was a character. Let me tell you about the time that -- and, and that's really important, because the kids need to know that stuff.

And my wife and I have an incredible marriage, and she is an incredible woman, and we talk and we talk and we talk. So my hope is that the first line of defense, as it were, is that so many of the things and the little minutiae, and I think it's right --the minutiae sometimes are what people really want to know -- my wife will tell them. So that's my solace on that one. My wife knows me really well, and she will tell them.

Q: I have a 15-year-old son who has Asperger's syndrome [which is a form of autism.] We have faced many challenges. ...My son is interested in designing video games. How would I suggest I light his fire and try to help him see that his dreams are possible? -- Donna, Hawaii

R.P.: So, speaking directly to Donna's son, what I would say is there are places you can go and get schooled and learn how to make video games. Carnegie Mellon happens to have a really good center. If you've seen my lecture it got talked about a little but the Entertainment Technology Center at Carnegie Mellon is a place where you can go and learn how to do this in an academic setting. And it's on the Web at etc.cmu.edu.

And to her son I would say, you have Asperger's, and that's something that you're going to deal with. I taught a course called "Building Virtual Worlds." One of my favorite students in that course had Asperger's and managed to get through that course and be part of some really cool projects.

And one of the things she learned during that course was that trying to hide what she had to cope with wasn't her best strategy, and being open with other people for in that context did work. I'm not necessarily sure that's advice I would give everybody. That's not my place to give. But the message I want to send to you is that you know, I had a student with Asperger's and that student did just fine. And, you know, you should go out and do what you want to do, too.

Q: What do you feel the difference is between heading in the wrong direction versus heading in the right direction by hunkering down through the brick walls? To clarify, how do you know which brick walls you are really supposed to break through? -- Bob, Oswego, N.Y.

R.P.: That is a really great question, and it boils down to the essence of how do you spend your time and effort, because yes, sometimes the right thing to do is to realize that there is this thing that I'm not going to be able to bust through, and how do I modify where I'm going to go after next.

And part of the answer is it's so circumstance-specific, but one of the ways you know is when you say, I have really tried to break through this brick wall. I have really given an effort. I've done more than kinda lean against it and, you know, kinda hang out there for five minutes, seeing if the weight of my body is enough to topple it over.

You know, if you banged into that brick wall to the point where you got bruises all over your head and shoulder, and some of the finest people you know are pulling you aside and saying, what is exactly on the other side of this brick wall, 'cause I know another thing that might bring you exactly the same happiness and satisfaction, and you know, that brick wall's got some cracks in the mortar. That's a good time for that discussion.

But it's, it's clearly a tough balance. But, you know, if you don't hurt, you may not have tried enough. And if you do hurt, you may have learned a lot by the attempt, so your time may not have been in vain.

...I've gotten that a lot, and I'm so glad my parents let me do that. I mean, it was you know, it was such a wonderful thing. And I don't know if I would have given myself the permission to do a bunch of the crazy things that I did later on in life if my parents hadn't given me the permission to paint those walls.

And you know that's the best gift you can give to your kids, is, you know, something that lets them build their confidence you know, that and loving them, I guess, unconditionally, 'cause these are the things that provide the context for all the other things they're going to go on and do.