January 2018

Line in the Sand: The Last Lecture

Author: Barry Kaufman & Courtney Hampson | Photographer: M.Kat Photography

Opinion 1: Barry Kaufman

As we enter 2018, a year I always assumed would have more flying cars and fewer alarming presidential tweets, it came upon Courtney that she and I should set aside our differences for a month and present our own “Last Lecture.”

Inspired by Randy Pausch’s book The Last Lecture, we will both attempt to put into words those final most crucial pieces of advice we would give if we knew this column was to be our last. And if the presidential Tweets of 2018 are anything like the presidential tweets of 2017, they might be.

The problem I’m running into is this: Who am I to give you advice?

I don’t know that anyone out there is thinking, “Boy, I really wish that guy who wrote the column about killing all of the cats would share his profound wisdom with me. After reading about how he uses slices of quesadilla as sandwich bread, I can’t help but dream of the vast untapped ocean of knowledge beneath these hints of his genius.”
The fact is, you’re more than likely just as wise as I am. Probably more so, as I chose to pursue writing as a career and you chose something that makes money and doesn’t involve constant self-loathing. But nonetheless, what wisdom I have to give, I’ll gladly give it to you.

You ready? Here goes: Try not to be a jerk, unless it’s funny. What does that mean? Ultimately, we as a civilization have built ourselves on a series of rules. From Hammurabi’s code to the Ten Commandments, right up to the modern era of legislating via handwritten notes hastily scribbled on a tax plan at 2 a.m., the ultimate basis of every rule of law we’ve ever written boiled down to, “Try not to be a jerk.”

Okay, so maybe the new tax code is a bad example. It may have actually incentivized being a jerk, but then I’m only on page 285, and I can’t read the handwriting.

But let’s look at Hammurabi’s code. You know what was a jerk move back in those days? Pointing your finger at a nun. (What can I tell you, Mesopotamians were easily triggered.) For that simple act of jerkiness, you’d be taken before the judges where they would bestow a Tarantino-style forehead carving on you. (This is law 127, by which point you get the feeling Hammurabi was forgetting to edit sober.)

By the time Moses rolled around, we were far less into forehead carving and more into the whole eternal damnation thing, but the basic “don’ts” remained the same: Murder, theft, lying, adultery, coveting things thou shouldn’tst covet; these are all classic jerk moves. And any one of them would earn you just the worst smiting.

So, if I can’t come up with my own wisdom, I can still pull a Steve Jobs and repackage the wisdom of others underneath an easier-to-use interface. Put simply, if you want to be a good person and avoid any disfiguring forehead injuries or eternal smiting, don’t be a jerk.

Or at least try not to be a jerk. No one’s going to cut you for pointing fingers, but don’t forget that when you’re a jerk to someone, whatever schadenfreude you feel comes at the expense of their happiness. And just as I’m not entirely qualified to dispense wisdom, you’re sure as shooting not qualified to disrupt anyone else’s good day. If the knowledge that you’re harming another human being for no reason than your own selfishness isn’t going to stop you, nothing will.

So, don’t be a jerk. Or at least try not to be a jerk.

Unless it’s funny, which is one critical caveat I’ll add for myself, because people being jerks to other people for laughs is what fuels 99 percent of the YouTube videos I watch. You can question the wisdom of that amendment all you want, but keep in mind I’m the guy that invented the quesadillawich.

Opinion 2: Courtney Hampson

On July 25, 2008, Randy Pausch died at home. Pausch was a professor at Carnegie Mellon University, who a year earlier was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and given just six months to live.

Professors are sometimes asked to give lectures on what wisdom they would impart if they knew it was their last chance. Soon after Dr. Pausch accepted that challenge, he learned he had months to live. He hesitated, then went ahead with the lecture, on September 18, 2007. He said he intended to have fun and advised others to do the same. His one-hour-and-16-minute speech didn’t mention cancer; he chose not to speak of his wife or children (saying, “I’m good, but I’m not good enough to do that without tearing up…”); he didn’t tackle religion or politics, but instead used his lofty childhood dreams (astronaut, NFL player, winning stuffed animals, contributing to the World Book Encyclopedia, etc.) to define how he led his life. He did it with humor and kept the audience laughing. (Google it. Please.)

It was as I was doing some research to reinvigorate my public communication syllabus that I came across Dr. Pausch’s book, The Last Lecture, and his story was the idea that inspired this column.

Am I making a difference? Is anyone listening? That made sense, right? Is she asleep?
These are the questions that run through my head every semester I teach. Even after 15 years, I take it personally when I feel like I am not connecting with a student. I wonder what I am doing wrong. And, I assume the answers to the above questions are: No. No. No. Yes.

So, as I pondered my last chance to impart some wisdom, I thought about the more than one thousand students who have sat in front of me. If I could go off script, ignore the syllabus, the textbook and the required learning outcomes, I would say this:
• Trust your heart, because your mind will always play tricks on you. Don’t lie awake with worry; instead make decisions, make plans, take adventures.

• Never settle. It’s okay to be a little selfish and put yourself first. After all, you must live with yourself forever. When you find the person, the place, the situation that makes you better, and makes you, you—choose it. Nurture it. Love it.

• Allow second chances, but not third or fourth. It’s okay to make mistakes, but learn from them and don’t make the same one twice.

• Pay attention to the small things. Not just those things that you come across, but the things you can do for other people. Hold the door. Say, “Good morning.” Buy their cup of coffee.

• Be honest. Surround yourself with people who are true to themselves and to you. It’s okay to end a relationship that doesn’t make you happy, no matter who that relationship is with. I promise.

• Smile. It may change someone’s day. It will certainly change yours.
• In the end, you choose. You decide what’s next.

• So be humble. Be kind. And know that sometimes you may not have the words, but there are a lot of good words out there.

To whomever will deliver my eulogy and order my headstone, these are the words I chose to live by; they belong to Maya Angelou. She said, “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

(Oh, and always cite your sources.)

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