Randy Pausch died early today.
He was the Carnegie Mellon University computer science professor who found unusual fame last fall when his Last Lecture speech set the Internet afire. The resulting book, co-written by Jeffrey Zaslow, has been a NYT bestseller for months. I know nothing about computer science and thankfully pancreatic cancer has not touched my family or anyone close. But I'm always interested in elegantly articulated final thoughts by folks who know they are dying and continue to make a contribution by speaking about the process, and about their lives.
(Before I talk about his speech and book, I want to note that Pausch was a stellar contributor already, a star in the computer science community, cofounding the Entertainment Technology Center at CMU, inventing free software that makes it fun for kids (especially girls) to learn computer programming, and pioneering a number of other groundbreaking projects I am way too tech-challenged to even describe. So even if he never gave a last lecture, the world would still have lost a vital contributor.)
Pausch's Last Lecture was spirited, creative and informal. As a parent, a 40-something adult, and as someone who has always said I want to know when my time is winding down, I found it riveting and – well, there's no other way to say it: fun. But as a writer I also came away with something extra.
I listened to the unabridged audio version of the book a few weeks ago during the seven-plus hour drive to the final residency of my MFA program. At one point, Pausch talks about times when he did NOT accomplish a goal – a very few times, as this was a man (and formerly a child and teen) who rarely had an unrequited achievement.
"Experience is what you get when you don't get what you want," Pausch said.
On the drive, I was thinking about the presentation I would give during the residency which focused on changing writers' thinking about the submission process, so that it can feed a writer's creative work instead of being seen as a dreaded necessary evil.
When a writer doesn't get what he/she wants in the submission process, it's usually called rejection. And although at least one very successful writer I know refuses to use that word – instead saying she "offers" her work, and an editor either accepts or "declines" – the bottom line is that, when you submit, you want a yes and when the answer is no, that's not getting what you want.
In the portion of my presentation that dealt with rejection, I decided to use Pausch's line, to remind writers that not getting what we want -- getting a decline, a no, a rejection – could instead be thought of as getting (gaining?) experience. Who doesn't want more experience?
It's a stretch, maybe. But even before I heard Pausch's line, I had decided – in an attempt to create a healthy mental environment for myself when I began submitting work again after a lengthy hiatus -- that instead of dreading rejections, I would welcome them. Huh?
The math supports me on this. Even well-published folks say they still get rejections, and that for every published piece, several rejections usually precede the acceptance. It only takes one acceptance to be published. So the way I figure, the sooner I get the rejections out of the way, the sooner an acceptance may be headed my way. (Gotta kiss the frogs first, right?)
Now instead of seeing a rejection as a red light or a STOP sign, I try to think of it as a green light, as in: You are now free to submit this piece to another, perhaps more welcoming publication/editor. I now keep a special place for rejections – both in my office and in my mind. I don't wish them to disappear, I don't hate to look at them, and I don't wish they'd never come my way. We all need more experience. Who would reject experience?
When Randy Pausch got a terminal diagnosis – which he outlasted by several months – it certainly was not what he wanted.
But look what he did with the experience.