3 Smart Career Lessons from Randy Pausch's Last Lecture

U.S.News & World Report

Years ago, Carnegie Mellon University developed the concept for a "Last Lecture Series" that challenged presenters to deliver a talk as if it were their last chance to impart wisdom on others. Ironically, not long after, Randy Pausch, a lauded computer science professor at the university with terminal cancer, did indeed give what would be one of his final lectures through the platform in September 2007. Its legacy continues to inspire countless people today.

The entire 75-minute presentation doesn't disappoint, but this article will extract three lessons from Pausch's speech that are essential to your career success.

1. Fundamentals before flash. Roughly eight minutes into his presentation, Pausch describes his youthful experiences playing football. At his first practice, he mentions that his coach arrived with no footballs, intent on developing skills for the 21 players on the field at a given time without a ball in their hands. "That's a really good story because it's all about fundamentals," Pausch concludes. "Fundamentals, fundamentals, fundamentals. You've got to get the fundamentals down, otherwise the fancy stuff isn't going to work."

This idea is so critical in your career as big ideas couldn't come to fruition without a solid foundation. For example, working in the marketing industry, it's easy to develop grandiose plans ... interviews with top influencers, an award-winning blog, integrated campaigns that generate an ocean of leads and followers. All great ideas.

However, before these big ideas can be launched successfully, it's crucial to first set goals, conduct market research, define your pipeline and develop key metrics for reporting.

That way, when it's time to do something big, you already have the right people listening and can demonstrate tangible impact.

2. Your critics can be a driving force. Pausch describes another football practice during which his coach was particularly hard on him. Afterward, an assistant coach approached and in reference to the harsh criticism, said "That's a good thing. When you're screwing up and nobody is saying anything to you anymore, that means they gave up."

This is a vital lesson to remember in the wake of a critical professional interaction. Assuming that criticism is passed down in a constructive way, it's important for any professional to take that information in stride and use it as fuel for improvement rather than letting it bruise your ego.

As social psychologist Heidi Grant Halvorson notes in a recent blog post for Harvard Business Review, while positive feedback is useful for professionals of any experience, negative feedback can help more experienced professionals better focus their energy and provide the kick-in-the-butt to fix shortcomings and elevate performance.

Consequently, remember that when a superior approaches you with reasonable criticism, it is often because he or she expects a certain caliber of performance based on your prior success, and cares enough to point out a deficiency so it can be remedied. Though it may hurt temporarily to hear you didn't live up to expectation, remember that the alternative response is far worse: apathy.

3. Get out of your comfort zone. Pausch goes on to explain another experience on the field in which, for one play, his coach would put players into "the most horrifically wrong" position for them. As a result of their lack of experience in a strange position though, players ultimately compensated with a wide-eyed enthusiasm that led them to clean someone else's clock for that one play. This highlights the importance of stepping outside your comfort zone to foster renewed enthusiasm in your career.

While it's pleasant to get into a professional routine and master the core of your job description, that comfort could lead to complacency; an understanding of how to fly under the radar, put your skills on auto pilot and dim the internal fire that makes great business people great.

Juxtapose that perspective with the feeling of starting a new job. While it may be uncomfortable to be in a new environment with new expectations, fresh employees are generally on their toes, always looking for opportunities to create impact and illustrate why they were the right hire.

To replicate this feeling and avoid complacency, it's wise to break out of a comfortable routine by learning new, relevant skills. If you're an expert writer, you can do so by learning graphic design or user experience (UX) so that you can express your ideas through written word and appealing aesthetics. By contrast, if you're highly technical, then taking a public speaking or business development course can help you more clearly communicate and connect with clients and management.

The bottom line is that the Bill Gates- and Steve Jobs-types stoked their internal fire through continuous learning and striving for possibilities that aren't cemented today but that could be tomorrow. If you keep doing the same things in the same bubble repeatedly, those possibilities may never become a reality.

Ben Weiss is the digital marketing strategist for Infusive Solutions--an NYC-based IT staffing firm in the Microsoft Partner Network that specializes in the placement of .NET, SharePoint and SQL Server developers as well as Windows Systems Engineers, DBAs and help desk support professionals in verticals such as legal, finance, fashion and media. Connect with him on Twitter: @InfusiveInc.

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