Small Business

Business Lessons from Randy Pausch's Last Lecture


The Carnegie Mellon professor's book and talk were meant as life lessons for his children, but the advice applies to business as well

Like millions of people, I watched the video of Randy Pausch giving his "last lecture" at Carnegie Mellon. Pausch, who is dying of cancer, created a lecture that offered life lessons (BusinessWeek.com, 11/21/07) as a guide for his children when they grow older. I developed an even greater appreciation for Pausch's wisdom after reading his book, The Last Lecture, and realizing many of the lessons can be applied to business leaders, entrepreneurs, small business owners, and managers in how they interact with customers and employees.

Encourage creativity. Pausch recalled how he liked to paint things on the wall of his bedroom. His parents were dismayed at first but soon relented after they saw how excited he became when he was painting. Pausch said he's lucky to have had parents who encouraged creativity and allowed him to express himself in unconventional ways. This reminds me of a recent article I came across about Google's (GOOG) Zurich offices. The office space is intended to inspire creativity with slides, aquariums, cable car shells that serve as conference rooms, even igloo-shaped work spaces. Google understands that to be creative, you can't always be sitting in a cubicle. Encourage creativity in your company's workplace.

Learn from Captain Kirk. Pausch was a fan of the Star Trek series growing up. He found a role model in Enterprise Captain James T. Kirk, who, according to Pausch, had the essence of a dynamic manager: He knew how to delegate, had the passion to inspire, and looked good in what he wore to work. "He never professed to have skills greater than his subordinates…but he established the vision, the tone."

Celebrate brick walls. "Brick walls are there for a reason," writes Pausch. "They give us a chance to show how badly we want something." Entrepreneurs and small business owners are faced with hurdles every day, some seemingly insurmountable. But if you're passionate about what you do, those brick walls are easier to scale and you have more fun on the climb.

Dream big. Pausch was attending camp in the summer of 1969 when men first walked on the moon. He remembers his camp counselors sending everyone back to their tents before the big event because it was getting late. Pausch thought to himself, "My species has gotten off of our planet and landed in a new world for the first time, and you people think bedtime matters?" When you put people on the moon, argues Pausch, you're inspiring everyone to achieve to their maximum potential. "Give yourself permission to dream. Fuel your kids' dreams, too. Once in a while, that might even mean letting them stay up past their bedtimes."

The same goes for your employees. People want more than a paycheck. They want to know their work is adding up to something meaningful. No, you may not be working on a project as exciting as sending a man to the moon, but in some small way, you are making the world a better place. Help your employees see the big picture and, more important, fuel their dreams of career and personal success.

Be the first penguin. Create a culture that celebrates risk. Pausch writes: "[I] encouraged students to attempt hard things and not to worry about failing…failure is not just acceptable, it's often essential." To encourage this way of thinking, Pausch would reward the group of students who took the biggest gamble with a stuffed animal—a penguin. The idea came to him when he realized that when penguins jump into the water where there are predators, one has to go first. According to Pausch, "Experience is what you get when you didn't get what you wanted."

Rediscover the lost art of thank-you notes. In business I have received just a couple of handwritten thank-you notes. But because they are so unusual, and so personal, I was left with a strong impression of the individuals who sent them. So it didn't surprise me that one chapter in The Last Lecture is dedicated to "the simplest yet most powerful things humans can do for each other…showing gratitude." Pausch shows that magical things happen when you send old fashioned thank-you notes. "If you are a B+ student, your handwritten thank-you note will raise you at least a half-grade in the eyes of a future boss or admissions officer. You'll become an 'A' to them."

Have fun. Pausch's colleagues say they will remember him as a person who had fun. Pausch writes: "I don't know how not to have fun. I'm dying and I'm having fun. And I'm going to keep having fun every day I have left. Because there's no other way to play it."

In business we often get caught up in our daily projects and hurdles. Give yourself and your employees permission to dream and, above all, have fun while you're at it. There's no other way to play it.

Click here to see the slide show.

Carmine Gallo is a communications coach for some of the world's most admired brands. He is a speaker and author of the new book Fire Them Up!

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