Thursday, April 10, 2008

'Oh Ralph.... Who sent the fire?'

This was a very difficult post to write. Very. Rarely have I been as conflicted about a topic as I am about this one. I dare say, since I first decided to write something on this late last night, after watching Primetime's tribute to Randy Pausch and his by-now-immortal "last lecture," I've even been rethinking a lot of what I've already written about self-help to date.

If you don't know the story, the 47-year-old Pausch, a professor of computer science at Carnegie-Mellon University, is dying of pancreatic cancer. The doctors say it's just a matter of months, now. Last September, Pausch, a wildly popular prof to begin with, made an in-class video of a special lecture he'd intended not just as an inspirational message to students, but a bequest to his three young kids, who would watch it when they're old enough to fully understand. Someone uploaded the video to YouTube, it went crazily viral, and the rest is history. Part of that history was a bidding war among publishers for the rights to his "last book," which in fact formalized the name, The Last Lecture, and which reportedly got Pausch a $7 million advance. Released this week, the book is, of course, No. 1 on Amazon as I write this, dislodging Eckhart Tolle's A New Earth. I expect it to hold that position for a while. (Here, by the way, is a link to Pausch's web page. Good luck. The bandwidth has been overwhelmed all morning.)

The general tenor of SHAMblog notwithstanding, I'm a softie at heart, and I love kids, so it's fair to say I was deeply moved by Primetime's images of Pausch at home with his pretty wife, Jai, and his three tow-headed children. In particular, the "tender insanity," if you will, of Pausch's interactions with his kids, who are very bright, brought a tear to my eye. It's almost as difficult not to be touched by the impact Pausch and his video have had on millions of people worldwide; certainly he was able to produce scores of emails for Diane Sawyer attesting to the life-changing effect he's had on strangers who randomly encountered his lecture online. Some of them embraced an entirely new outlook on life because of him. At least one person decided not to commit suicide because of him.

Which makes it all the more difficult for me—emotionally as well as rationally—to nitpick what Pausch preaches. It must be said, however, that the problems are right there for the nitpicking. Those problems begin with a serious and possibly crippling weakness in the very spine of his inspirational creed: the easy, offhand distinction he makes between (a) "the hand life deals you" and (b) "how you react to it." Pausch says that while there's nothing you can do about the former, the key to success is the latter. But the distinction between (a) and (b) is at best murky and at worst may be altogether false. The way you react to things may be part of the hand life deals you; depressed people would tell you as much. And if science one day proves thought processes to be as determined as physical processes (which I believe them to be), then there is no distinction at all between the cards you get and the way you play them. Further, as we've noted many times on this blog, it's absurd to imply that by sheer act of will, we can right a ship that's run aground.

Similarly, and like many motivational gurus before him, Pausch says that "brick walls were put there for other people." You and I can choose to climb them or knock them down. That's his clever way of saying that there are no obstacles in life that can't be overcome, if you really put your mind to it.

Folks...forgive me for what I'm about to say, but I can only assume, then, that Randy Pausch will not be dying of pancreatic cancer after all, because his mental motivation will carry him over that brick wall. I don't mean to be snide or cruel in saying that, and please remember that I'm ardently rooting for Pausch in human-to-human terms. I'm simply making a point that cries out to be made when you're talking about so-called inspiration; it's the same point I made (and that provoked a fair amount of vitriol) when I took on Lynn Redgrave and her insipid "I'm not going to die of breast cancer" spots. You see, the reason why motivational gurus are so successful is that they dwell in the realm of abstractions. They teach you how to conquer the likes of fear, hopelessness, unhappiness, etc. It's only when they come up against a concrete limitation—like death—that they suddenly find themselves without an answer. Alas, many of the limitations we face as human beings are every bit as fixed and unbeatable as death; but they're not as tangible, as conclusive, as death. Thus they more easily lend themselves to circumlocution and rationalization. If I persuade you that by applying my new system of thought you can become happier, then you can easily persuade yourself that you are, indeed, happier (even if, by every objective measure, your life remains unchanged from what it was...and/or in the process of becoming "happier," you hurt the people who depend on you).

But you can't persuade yourself that you're not dead. Death is measurable. Death is absolute. Death is final.

Pausch also says that his three top words to live by are "tell the truth," and he quickly adds that if he were allowed three more words, they'd be "all the time." Tell the truth all the time. Yet he hasn't told his kids about his condition or his imminent death, and he cautions people who may encounter his family on the street to be sensitive to that fact. (And let's eliminate the wiggle room right here and now: A lie of omission is still a lie. Failure to volunteer key facts is lying.) That is a contradiction, and not a small one. A man who makes a point of saying "tell the truth all the time" cannot carve himself an exemption, claiming sensitivity to the feelings of his children. (I guess to Pausch, truth is like brick walls in that regard: put there for other people.) In effect, that is saying "you tell the truth all the time, but I don't have to" and/or "tell the truth all the time, but not when innocent people will be hurt" or even "what people don't know won't hurt them." That latter rationale could be used to justify lies about things ranging from infidelity to the real reason why a country went to war. During the Primetime broadcast, I caught a number of other small but important exceptions Pausch made to his truth-telling motto. Nor do I want to hear anyone rebut me with, "Come on, Steve. They're just kids..." He's the one who added "all the time." They're his words. And I stand by what I said above about the dangers of paternalism in a wider setting. Throughout history, how many lies have been justified by the same thinking Pausch uses in keeping the truth from his kids?


I keep coming back to the effect Pausch so clearly has on people. I keep remembering the almost-beatific gleam that remained in Sawyer's eye throughout the hour-long broadcast. I saw that same gleam in the eyes of Pausch's students. For that matter, I saw that same gleam in the eyes of Oprah's audience the other day, when she devoted her show to Tolle and his teachings.

So I guess at a certain point, we have to consider: If false hope provides us with a better outlook on life than acting on the basis of what we know to be provably and logically true, then maybe we're best served in the end by throwing proof and logic out the window and surrendering to that hope. At a certain point each of us must decide: Do we stand for common sense—and bear the psychic costs of taking that stand? Or do we go with what "feels good"?

Do we do what my wife does in her approach to religious faith: celebrating its joys while ignoring, denying or even alibiing for its failures?

Here I'm reminded of a line from The Thorn Birds, a 1980s-vintage miniseries based on a novel that was banned by the Catholic Church.* The miniseries follows the lives of the Cleary family, multigenerational ranchers in the Australian outback. At one point, most of the family's spread, Drogheda, succumbs to a cataclysmic brush fire...but just as the conflagration is about to reach the main house, the skies open up and a downpour douses the flames.

The male lead, a priest named Father Ralph, looks skyward and says something like, "Isn't God merciful, to have sent us the rains?"

To which the main female character, Meggie, replies with the line I quote in the title of this post.

I guess those are the types of questions we're not supposed to ask if we want to be happy and feel fully actualized. Rejoice in the rain, don't ask about the fire.

* The Church disliked the book for many reasons, not the least of which was the fact that it had Father Ralph (who ultimately becomes a cardinal) falling in love with Meggie, whom he'd known, and obviously had a "special affection" for, since she was a little girl. They end up consummating that love, and of course are cosmically punished for it. Seems pretty tame by today's standards...and given what's happened to the Church in real life.


Elizabeth said...

Well, it had to come to Pausch, didn't it. Seems all roads nowadays lead to Pausch (and Tolle). It must mean that the Baby Boomers have discovered death. Finally. But not quite yet.

I'm sorry to be so harsh, but Pausch's popularity leaves me cold and distant. I have nothing against the man personally -- he seems to be a nice enough fella. And I do "get" pancreatic (and other forms of) cancer -- it's hell, my mother-in-law passed away last year because of it -- a vibrant, energetic woman reduced to a helpless heap of ashes even before her untimely death. Almost half of my family has been decimated by cancer; my first job (by choice) in the US was working with dying cancer patients.

But I'm with you, Steve, in your uncomfortable objections to Pausch's message -- and his sudden fame. And I particularly dislike the media's shameless use of his story and scratch my head (though I shouldn't) over his complicity in this, which, to me, pretty much invalidates his message. (I warned you I'll be harsh here.)

I do understand suffering; but I am repulsed by its exploitation, which includes prettifying it and turning it into an uplifting story of overcoming odds, surmounting obstacles, augmenting love, and other fairy tales. Not that any of it does not apply -- on the contrary (especially the love part); but when one starts banging the publicity drums to spread this message, it just turns into something else altogether.

There are certain experiences, imo, that are meant to be and remain private, because only then they retain their meaning and value. I'm sorry to say that in my eyes, Pausch's story is proof that the American media can turn a person's confrontation with mortality and ultimate death into a for-profit circus. A middle-classy, feel-good circus, complete with cheap sentimentality and half-baked attempts at empathy. I'm not surprised, just repulsed.

And, indeed, who the hell sends the damn fires? (Please do not answer. I get it, I really do. I just don't buy it.)

Anonymous said...

My uncle died of pancreatic cancer last month, after about a year of enduring every standard and every experimental treatment his fellow surgeons could throw at him. My aunt implied that he was miserable for almost all of that year, not because of the disease per se, but because of the side effects of the treatments.

As a woman, I am absolutely terrified of breast cancer. Like a man's penis, a woman's breasts (in this culture, anyway) are the physical embodiment of her sexuality. The thought of having them ravaged by cancer, of potentially dying of that cancer, is horrifying to me.

And let me say that I love life, love being alive, more than most, from what I hear and read. If I could pull it off, I'd gladly live forever, and would rejoice in the dawning of each glorious new day. Yet I wonder if we find our own lives so precious that we overrate the value of remaining alive, in any state, at any price. Really, would it be so bad to be dead?

Anonymous said...

I have a problem with all of the showboating that Pausch is making of his terminal illness. 7 million!!! Tours, talks, playing with the steelers, swimming with the dolphins for free and it goes on and on. Is he really focusing on his family or is he grasping on to his last breath of fame. HE needs to tell those kids so that they aren't in denial about reality the rest of their lives. I hope I don't sound bitter but I have 3 young sons, a 47 year old husband with terminal cancer, lots of bills and I am working because my husband can't fly big jets anymore and I focus on the real not the make beleive like Randy. Hey, I hope he lives but I sure hope he pays off his house takes care of college for the kids and sets aside grocery money and gives a huge chunk to all the other Randy's and Jai's that don't have a publicist and the ability to make millions while they are paying the light and water bill the way the "real" world is!

Steve Salerno said...

I have to admit, I'm somewhat surprised by the "early returns" on this one. I'd expected to be taken to task here for being too "skeptical" in my post. Don't get me wrong...I've harbored some of the same feelings as are being expressed here--about the showboating, the "marketing" of a terminal illness. But I guess you could say I'm plagued by a form of self-doubt of my own: I wondered if maybe I wasn't having those thoughts for the wrong reasons. Or if my reservations about Pausch revealed some weakness in my own character.

Anyway, keep it coming, in whatever form.

Cal said...

I wondered if you were going to comment on this. I remember seeing a story about him on the CBS Evening News some time back. He was also on the cover of Parade Magazine this week. I also recall seeing him on Oprah.

I really didn't know he hasn't told his kids. One thing I heard that he said that I agree with is to let your kids grow up to be what they want to be, not what you want to them too. But in just listening a little bit to other things, it sounded a little SHAMish.

My younger sister was diagnosed with colon cancer last fall. Luckily, it was caught in an early stage. But I told her some of the things that I know about. African-Americans in the northern climes of the U.S. are more susceptible because of various reasons. I've given her what the medical community recommends so she reduces the possiblity of it recurring. But that's all I can do. She can either take my advice or reject it. Anything else to me is just hope.

roger o'keefe said...

Ahh yes, the Thorn Birds. Such pleasant memories. A great miniseries. And has a woman ever looked more desirable than Rachel Ward did coming down the staircase in that first scene where you see Meggie as a grown woman? Va-va-va-voom!

But I digress. I saw most of the show last night and I cringed, no exaggeration, when they did that mawkish "Make a Wish" style segment with the Pittsburgh Steelers. I just couldn't believe they were doing that. It had no place in that show thematically. I almost expected them to say, "Randy Pausch, you've got terminal cancer and Primetime just patronized you by setting it up for you to pretend to play football with the Steelers! What are you doing next!" And he'd say, "I'm going to Disneyland!"

You know me, I'm an unapologetic capitalist, and if the guy can make $7 million, more power to him. And Steve, I don't think I'm buying your argument about why he shouldn't "lie" to his kids. I do, however, question the sincerity of his drumming up a whole metaphysic out of that speech he gave in class, just to justify the 7 mill.

Elizabeth said...

Both Anons, thank you for your candid posts. You provide a more realistic perspective here.

Steve, you wrote: At a certain point each of us must decide: Do we stand for common sense—and bear the psychic costs of taking that stand? Or do we go with what "feels good"?

I'd say, to each his/her own. Because even with this, the choice may not be fully *ours,* since it depends a lot on our (largely hard-wired) psychological make-up. We all bear costs of our "chosen" stance: the uber-rationals as much (if not more) than the feel-gooders (or, more respectfully, the religious types). I think we may need to learn, at some point, to forgive each other our psychological type -- and not to begrudge each other for our beliefs (or lack of those), which, as you noted, are not necessarily chosen out of our "free will."

However, the Pausch media phenomenon is a sorry one (and it does pain me to say this). Weren't "Tuesdays with Morrie" enough already? But you touched again on a sensitive subject, Steve -- death -- and that's one that keeps on giving, in SHAMland and beyond, so you should expect early and many responses. In addition, your own doubts here will keep the readers coming.

Elizabeth said...

Steve, your reactions are completely understandable, imo. Especially since Pausch's story has many false tones to it.

I, for one, did not find anything uplifting or interesting in his lecture. In fact, it made me somewhat nauseous and annoyed. (And "tell the truth all the time?" Please, oh please -- don't. (Can you imagine...?))

Let's face it, if Pausch were not terminally ill no one would pay attention to his "life lessons" -- no one other than his children and his students, his original audience, who indeed should pay attention to him. But the big deal is that he is dying. And, yes, it is a big deal; and yet, it is a "no distinction" distinction in our human scale of things.

And to rub in my cynicism a bit more: doesn't the fact that his wife is so cute and children so smart make it all so much more "painful" for us to watch -- and so much easier to "empathize"? That is, painful to watch for the middle-class well-groomed American TV audience, who can identify with *this kind* of pain. But how come we do not go out with cameras to show other people dying and hear their final messages and lessons they may share? You know, those others who are less well dressed, less well spoken, less good looking, maybe not so white and successful middle-class, with, yeah, you guessed it, no access to the same great medical care Pausch is getting? Maybe we could learn something about reality then, rather than about "walls" and other comfortable middle-class platitudes.

Pausch's story, as we know it via media, is a lesson in how we manage to sanitize and prettify the most difficult of human experiences. It is sad, but for the wrong reasons.

Wendy said...

You are all missing the point... he didn't seek out this fame, it found him because of who he is. People want to hear what he has to say because they HOPE it's contagious... they hope to learn from him. They offered him $7 million to share his story because the publisher knew the public wants what he has... not cancer.. the other stuff. He would be a fool not to take the $7 mill and use it to enjoy the last few months of his life with his family doing whatever they damn well want to do. Get over yourselves.

The Crack Emcee said...


This is exactly why I think you're so important to me - to all of us:

Who else will say it?

I didn't see the show but I'm glad I didn't: I don't need the strain. I'm just not cut out for that crap any more.

Don Gerard said...

Pie dropping that gork in the top of the 15th to finally wrap that thing up was all the inspiration I needed via the Keystone State last night.

Anonymous said...

Hi, Steve.

Seligman's "Learned Optimism" research shows that yes, false hope produces a better quality of life than pessimism, even though pessimism correlates more closely with subsequent reality.

But what's wrong with "false hope?" I don't think there is any such thing. "False hope" means "*I* don't think the situation is going to work out for you, so your hope is false." Have you never been wrong? Doctors are wrong a lot. Labs are wrong. No one I know can predict the future with great accuracy, so I let people have their hope. I've known several diagnosed-terminal cancer patients who are still alive and doing great 10 years later. I've also known some who died. Why deprive any of them of hope?

Regarding Pausch making $7mm off a book, where's the problem, other than jealousy? Would it be better if he were only making $15,000? Good for him! If he can make $7mm telling people to be optimistic, I'd rather see $7mm spent for that than see, say, $1 billion spent on presidential election advertising that's mainly just mud-slinging.

But wait, this evil sinner is grasping at a last breath of fame! So? Are we jealous? We're talking about him, so we must want famous people to talk about.

Again: what's wrong with that? Don't call it fame. Call it "building his personal brand" and maybe you'll like it better.

We've created a culture where fame and fortune are considered the highest pinnacles of life. He's found a way to get them. He's breaking no laws and making a bunch of people feel good. His advice is sophomoric and likely wrong for most people, but no one's going to listen to him and run out and buy into a pyramid scheme selling vitamins.

... and he's not spending enough time with his family? Says who? Right now, we're sitting typing (or reading), not spending time with our own families. We know nothing about his family dynamics. Maybe they feel perfectly fulfilled with the current arrangement.

And finally, he said the advice he'd give is to "tell the truth all the time." He didn't say he lives that way. It may be the very stress caused by his not living that way that inspires him to advise others to do as he says, not as he does.

All that said, I happen to agree that his message is naive, simplistic, and wrong. "The right attitude will overcome anything" can only be believed by someone who has never thought deeply about the reasons for their own success.

Steve Salerno said...

Don: Not sure I get the reference beyond the fact that you're talking about the Pirates' 15-inning win. Other than that....?

Anon: What's wrong with false hope? I'm assuming you haven't read my book, or even Barbara Ehrenreich's masterful treatment of the subject in the January 2007 Harper's. I'll tell you a quick story about my mother. She used to actually compose major elements of her budget based on her PMA-based assumptions about the money she would win in Laughlin, NV. (She'd actually become angry with me if I tried to get her to be more realistic.) Mom was not a stupid woman, let me add; in fact, she was the first female department supervisor in the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, of all things. Anyway, if my mother hadn't wasted all of that money in Laughlin, she could've accumulated enough to buy some of the things she planned to buy with her winnings. That's irony--and that's false hope in action. False hope is also what keeps the marginally abused woman in a destructive marriage. Why should we provide someone like that with the "coping skills" that enable them to rationalize poor choices?

But let's even assume that false hope "works." That's the question I pose: Reduced to extremes, would you rather be a deliriously happy moron, or an intelligent, right-thinking curmudgeon? That's what this whole post was about. I'm guessing that many people today would rather be the happy morons, and that's fine--for them. I'm not so sure it's fine for society or "the human condition," if you will.

Elizabeth said...

Wendy, no one begrudges Pausch for cashing in on his misfortune -- by all means, let him get as much as he can (I'm with Roger on this one) -- and why stop at 7 mil when he can probably get twice as much if he allows the media to follow him to the very end. Why the heck not, if that's what works for him. At least his family will be financially secure when he's gone.

But what exactly is it that people "hope to learn from him"? What's that contagious message the public wants that the public has not heard before? And why does the hungry public pay attention to Pausch saying platitudes, while they conveniently ignore the same truths (or truisms, if you will) coming from their aunt Helen (who is not dying yet, btw)?

OK, off to get over myself now.;)

RevRon's Rants said...

"That's the question I pose: Reduced to extremes, would you rather be a deliriously happy moron, or an intelligent, right-thinking curmudgeon?"

Life needn't be limited to an "either/or," where one must choose between blathering joy and toxic pessimism and bitterness, and the most curmudgeonly people are no closer to being "right thinking" than the brainless bobble-heads who follow every fad philosophy that comes along. Do the dedicated pessimists feel that their pessimism makes them appear astute?

I've gotta go with Wendy on this one.

Steven Sashen said...

Let's not forget that Pausch didn't read self-help books or go to workshops to develop the ways with which he handles the hand that he was dealt. That's just the way the guy is built.

And, while it may be heart-warming to see how he plays the hand, to suggest that there's something to be "learned" from it is kind of like suggesting that by watching Tiger Woods on TV, you'll be in the Masters next year.

Highlighting the RARE person who hears Pausch and makes an about-face in their life compounds the problem, especially for the millions who seem unable to turn on a dime the way they're told that they can simply by reading a list of "how to behave" rules.

I agree, Pausch seems like a nice guy, probably the kind I'd have fun hanging out with. And I wish him and his family the best. And now, thanks to his book, we know what the unplanned, unexpected follow-up to "The Secret" is ;-)

Steve Salerno said...

Steven: Lots of goods point, made in typically lively, punchline-at-the-end style. Thanks.

Ron: You and I have been down this road before. I think you know that I'm not arguing literally that the choice is between being a grinning moron and a dour-faced intellectual. I'm simply saying that I think taking arguments to their end points is often clarifying. And what I'm really asking, at bottom, is this: How much do we value the search for truth and knowledge? Do we value it enough that we're willing to take our lumps when we find out things we didn't want to know? That's all I'm asking. And it's not rhetorical, because clearly, to many people today, the answer is, "No, I don't want to be enlightened at the price of losing my 'serenity'."

RevRon's Rants said...

I believe that serenity can best (only) be achieved by looking clearly at the challenges life has to offer, then countering what might seem to be a bleak picture with the *hope* - and belief - that there is more than the harshness that is immediately perceived. We accept what *is,* while striving for what might be. Balance, once again.

In so doing, we deal with reality, yet are not plundered by it. Neither dour nor gullible. Neither bitching about our suffering, nor denying that some things in life cause pain, walking with our feet planted firmly on the ground, yet still feeling almost childlike joy. That just seems to make more sense to me. Sure makes for a happier existence (with fewer skinned knees).

Obviously, such an approach to life would never be acceptable to anyone who is devoted to either extreme, for whatever reason. So be it.

Elizabeth said...

RevRon, you say: "Life needn't be limited to an "either/or," where one must choose between blathering joy and toxic pessimism and bitterness, and the most curmudgeonly people are no closer to being "right thinking" than the brainless bobble-heads who follow every fad philosophy that comes along."

You're right about it, except this is not the choice we are talking about (as Steve's already pointed out himself, I see).

There are levels of human experience that apply to both pessimism and hope. So, for example, there is a primitive version of both, as well as the more sophisticated, more nuanced and enriched one. This applies to all human experience, btw.

The brand of hope (optimism, etc.) sold by SHAMsters (and Pausch, sorry) is of the uni-level, flat, one-size-fits-all kind that cheapens and invalidates life experience of many (I'd say most) people. And it is un-truthful. Using your own phrase here, RevRon, I could say that this kind of uni-level hope (optimism, positive feeling, etc.) *diminishes* us. Same goes for pessimism, which can be a knee-jerked, all-encompassing and rather primitive (habitual) response to any and all life situations, or it could be a well-thought out and emotionally rich attitude that does not preclude joy, happiness and hope -- of the genuine, not the flat kind.

If I understand correctly -- and I think I do -- this is the kind of realism that Steve is talking about (correct me if I'm wrong), and not the dour nay-sayism for the sake of naysaying. We are not in the "either-or" land here -- and, dare I say, we(?) have never been there. But this is, unfortunately, how this debate is perceived sometimes. Which, frankly, surprises me on this forum, for anyone who has read SHAM can see that this particular message there (i.e. it's not about "either-or") is loud and clear.

Case said...

I think hope makes life easier for many people that live with persistent challenges, even terminal illness. Dan lives in my building. He has three children and for the last 20+ years he has had MS. For 10 years he has been in a wheelchair. Now, he can barely breath on his own. But when I talk with him he is certain that he will live long enough for a cure to be discovered. I think that belief more than anything else keeps him going.

Does it matter if his belief is likely, or true? I don't think so. It has the same effect. Hope helps.

We all know someone who has lost hope, questioned belief, and fallen away. But after a fall, some come back because people encourage them to do so, or they find hope again on their own.

On the other side, no matter how much one hopes, the physical realities of life and advances of science should not be ignored. For example, think of sleeping disorders such as sleep apnea. No amount of will power or hope will solve the fact that the disorder causes the body to stop breathing in its sleep. Until the problem is diagnosed and the patient gets a breathing machine, the person will continue to have the symptoms including exhaustion, memory loss, depression, and weight gain.

>> The way you react to things may be part of the hand life deals you ...

It's hard to say with any confidence, but if I were to guess, 70% or more of life experience may be determined by a person's varied circumstances including environmental and physical. Maybe we will continue to invent drugs that will help us overcome our physical limitations, or even advance our physical construction to artificially evolve performance.

>>would you rather be a deliriously happy moron, or an intelligent, right-thinking curmudgeon?

Curmudgeon, but I would guess that I'm part of less than 10% of the population.

As I already said, my experience is that hope, true or false, makes life easier. But in the end, I would rather know truth in terms of my odds of success, and accept them before deciding whether to march on anyway, rather than live a life of delusion.

It seems to me that there are two main approaches people take to life, that is for the small percentage of people that do such strange things as think about life approaches.

1. Seek to know when to follow intuition and feelings.

2. Set a vision and a make it happen, no matter what.

I like to think of these two life approaches in terms of happiness vs. duty.

It is very popular right now to seek happiness. Duty doesn't get much airplay outside of the military. If you really want to get your mind wrapped up, think of the two approaches in terms of marriage and children.


I'm going to call you out on your post. The guy's overall message is that it's important to appreciate life and time. How can you know that and still pick out the logical problems?

It seems that you are making quite a stretch to categorize what's going on with Randy as SHAM, even though he is essentially giving advice. This is a dying man sharing life wisdom. It's a one time deal. Randy did not seek out any adulation, it sought him. In my opinion, that context, especially the fact that it's a one-time deal, excludes him from the SHAM category where the goal is to sell you a drink, and then another, and then another.

Yes, evaluating life advice in terms of absolutes can be valuable to surface logical weaknesses and hypocrisy, but life is much more than two primary colors, or the logical yes or no. Truth vs. Lie. Good vs. Bad. Happy Moron vs. Intelligent Curmudgeon.

The firm stance of shamblog, and please correct me if I am wrong, is that life is complex, that there are no easy solutions, and the solutions that are sold actually do more harm than good.

The fact is that there are some solutions or ideas that do help people, and maybe even do more good than harm. But you have a firm stance of not evaluating a work as good and focus on the negative aspects.

There are few exceptions to this rule. The one I know of is this:

Stop the presses, he found something he didn't hate.

In this situation with Randy, I do not think his talk does any harm and it might actually do some good.

RevRon's Rants said...

Elizabeth, I fully agree that much of the self-help movement has gone overboard in the attempt to present unrealistic hope while ignoring the harsh realities. Yet in cases like Pausch's, I see someone who has fully accepted the reality, yet chooses not to be so devastated by it that his hope - and happiness - is destroyed.

I have read (and, I think, understood) SHAM, and found it had much of value to offer us. Frankly, I feel as much for those who would deny the possibilities of hope as for those who would deny the painful realities in their lives. Both "sides" are missing out on an opportunity to grow beyond the bubble in which they've placed themselves, mapping the landscape of their reality with the demarcation that "beyond here, there be dragons." While it's not a clear-cut case of either/or, some of us merely determine where to place the line beyond which we must not venture, rather than look for the value beyond that line, thereby removing it. I doubt that anyone alive has "made it" to that place of perfect understanding, but as long as we're trying, rather than aggressively defending our choice of where to place the line, we have the potential for growth, intellectually, emotionally, and (for those who choose) spiritually.

That the public - with encouragement from a ratings-hungry media - has taken Pausch's message to heart apparently happened beyond any effort or even intent on his part. The backlash to that widespread embrace was, of course, predictable.

I wonder how much of the backlash is borne of jealousy or even resentment that his message has been so readily embraced, while the more cynical message is, for the greater part, ignored. Perhaps it is because, given the choice, most humans would prefer to embrace reality, yet have that reality enhanced - even expanded - by hope, an attitude summarily rejected and resented by those for whom that hope simply doesn't exist.

And I'd bet that the $7 million book deal added significant steam to the resentment some feel toward Pausch. Not necessarily Steve's, but I'd bet it sticks in his craw, at least a little bit.

You're right about it not being a "one size fits all" situation. We must each make our own choice, no matter how enthusiastically we are encouraged to embrace someone else's definition of what is right.

Steve Salerno said...

Ron, let me elbow my way in here for a few observations.

First of all, you could hook me up to a polygraph and ask me about the issue of "pancreas envy," if you will, and the machine would bear me out: I harbor no (conscious, specific) resentment over the $7 mill this guy collected. Clearly the market was there--supposedly his YouTube lecture has garnered over 10 million hits--and we live in a market-based society. And look, I'm glad his wife and kids are provided for...though I do wince a little bit when people like Pausch make remarks that suggest that it takes $7 mill, or more, to provide that posthumous safety net.

My real resentment is much broader, and has to do with the fact that there's so little reverence anymore for the craft of writing (and the good thinking on which good writing is premised). Once upon a time, and with only rare exceptions, a best-selling nonfiction book had to be reasonably well written; it made some demands on the reader. Today, that level of writing--the kind that makes you stop and think every few paragraphs--is almost a drawback. Which also explains why so little best-selling writing is done by writers. Today, people with zero talent or experience in our craft, who have almost nothing new to say, can land blockbuster deals for books--which, then, are usually put together by a ghost (as you above all are aware, Ron), who often is uncredited and almost always is underpaid, at least in Randy Pausch terms.

If you think about it, the actual writing has become the least important/valuable part of the book. So yes, that does, at times, sadden and infuriate me.

RevRon's Rants said...

Couldn't agree more on the sad state of affairs in the publishing industry, which is, as you know, is guided by accountants and attorneys with little - if any - interest in literary merit. Books are commodities to all but the readers, and the readers frequently cast their votes for books which reinforce the consumer's preconceived notions, rather than challenging and stretching them.

It's no different than television, where the Jerry Springers of the industry always draw larger audiences than do the Bill Moyers and Ed Murrows. The cynical viewer/reader tends to seek out the "products" that reflect their cynicism, while the extreme optimist tunes out anything that might challenge their notion that the universe exists to make them giggle. Thankfully, there are still a few thoughtful offerings hidden among the extremes. I honestly consider SHAM to be one of the thoughtful offerings, even as I tease the author about his curmudgeon-ness. :-)

As ghostwriters, we have to deal with frequently conflicting desires: to make a client's book the absolute best read it can be, or to make it as marketable as possible. We also have to struggle with the bane of any ghostwriter/editor: whether to write the most compelling prose of which we are capable, or to accurately represent the author's unique "voice," even when, as has sometimes been the case, that voice is unclear, convoluted, or - in a couple of cases - obviously illiterate.

We are delighted when a book that we feel to be really worthwhile achieves significant sales numbers, and amused when one that has little special to offer does so. We're fortunate that we have the freedom to turn away projects that we find distasteful and clients with whom we would find it unpleasant to work. Obviously, the author has a more deep-seated interest in the sales of his/her book than does the ghost/editor, whose concerns are pretty much limited to skillfully plying the craft and getting the check for services rendered.

Steve Salerno said...

Rev, I hear ya. I went in a slightly different direction--filling in with PR between "real" writing projects (freelance PR being almost obscenely well compensated at major-corporate levels, as I'm sure you know). That allows me to hold the line on quality (or at least what I perceive as quality, which is another story) in the writing I do under my own byline. Still, the tension you describe between art and commerce is omnipresent. I've often said, some of the best things I write may never see the light of day in a commercially published medium. And there's no question that, with the exception of a couple of pieces I did some years back for Harper's, my most artistically pleasing work has also been my most poorly compensated work. It pains me to say that I was actually paid in copies for the essay that I consider my single greatest achievement as a writer to date. I shouldn't have agreed to that; I should've let the damn thing sit unsold rather than go that ignominious route. But I guess I just had to see it in black and white, in a tactile format.

And that is precisely the compulsion that publishers have always counted on, as they abused our writerly ancestors through the centuries.

Anonymous said...


Is there any difference between the professor and Coach Jim Valvano of 15 years ago? Both gave passionate, stem-winding speeches full of all sorts of over-the-top tripe to inspire others to get off their asses. And both men will have died early of cancer that can't be cured. This isn't a pessimistic outlook; rather it's an objective analysis.

I'm sure there will be a Pausch Foundation to raise awareness or funds for pancreatic cancer - just as there is a V Foundation for cancer research.

The truth of the matter is that cancer still kills millions of people all over the world, and progress has been pretty darn slow in coming after tens of billions of dollars in research. The-cure-is-just-around-the-corner storyline is getting a bit old.

But people still want to believe it, so they spend their time and money listening to new faces say "We can beat this thing!"

Steve Salerno said...

Anon, I'm not quite sure your line of argument "scans" for me, but it's interesting that the many casual visitors to Pausch's classes often compare the tenor of his lectures to a sports pep talk. This was specifically mentioned during the Primetime segment.

RevRon's Rants said...

I think the sportstalk factor may well be the key to where we see this whole scenario differently, Steve. In typical sportstalk, the players are pounded with encouragement that they can overcome an opponent, never mind the fact that the opponent might be more skilled or physically fit. In this kind of scenario, the pep talk is just a load of BS, and the defeated party cannot help but feel like a loser, regardless of the level of skill they exhibited.

When I studied classical aikido, the focus was not upon defeating an opponent in the dojo, but rather upon performing to the best of one's abilities in a given match. The "opponent" was viewed as a factor in one's performance, rather than as an enemy. The sensei would praise a well-executed match, even if the aikidoka was technically defeated. Not to "praise the retard," but to encourage correct action rather than a myopic focus upon the end result.

Such is the framework of what I consider a balanced perspective. The obstacles we face - on the mats or in the larger world - present us with opportunities to perform, rather than existing as malevolent entities to be vanquished. We perform according to our skill level, striving to improve. No illusions as to our invincibility, and little attachment to victory or defeat. If both contestants emerge from the "match" with the knowledge that they've performed well and even stretched the limits of their abilities, there truly are no losers.

The same approach can apply to anything in life. The reality of the "opponent" is acknowledged, but the most significant element is how the individual faces that opponent.

Steve Salerno said...

Again, Ron, I don't disagree in principle. The thing is, the nature of latter-day publishing (and the seminar industry) is such that the sort of enlightened, balanced perspective you describe here doesn't sell--or is perceived as being unsalable, which may amount to the same thing. Though balance became the big buzzword, especially in women's media, a few years back, the audience at large--including women--embraced the concept in name only. When it comes to selecting materials from the self-help menu, Americans as a culture want the bullet points that scream "no limits, no boundaries, everything is within your grasp!" Eastern concepts have managed only a small penetration of American markets, which, for all the influences of the New Age, remain steeped in manifest destiny and core-level Lombardiism: "Winning is the only thing."

Elizabeth said...

RevRon: "beyond here, there be dragons."

Love it. LOL

RevRon's Rants said...

"Eastern concepts have managed only a small penetration of American markets..."

That has been a source of frustration for a long time. Most westerners read an article by Alan Watts or watch a couple of episodes of "Kung Fu" and think they have a handle on the culture and philosophy. Or worse, they listen to - and mimic - someone who wears Eastern philosophy like a badge, when the alleged guru's life is lived completely counter to the culture's ideals. (You'll note that I didn't mention any self-proclaimed "Buddhas of the Internet" by name here! :-) )

"...which, for all the influences of the New Age, remain steeped in manifest destiny and core-level Lombardiism: "Winning is the only thing.""

Throw in a complete release from any responsibility for one's actions," and you've got it in a nutshell. As long as the affirmations sound right...

RevRon's Rants said...

Elizabeth - A phrase blatantly plagiarized from pre-Columbian seafarers' maps. Mea culpa. :-)

Elizabeth said...

Tua culpa and my pleasure. An endearing phrase -- the highlight of my weekend and possibly beyond (where there be dragons, no doubt). Thank you.

RevRon's Rants said...

You're welcome, Elizabeth. May the dragons of your weekend be toothless and without fire. Yours too, Steve.

For myself, I plan to engage in creative hermitry, "far from the things of man."*

* - From "Joe Versus The Volcano"

Jim Thompson said...

I had a girl sell me hope one time with the following line on a yahoo chat room "scarlet lips as red as a rose perfect hips in a suductive pose on the outside this is what i may be but what about looking at the heart within me"

The result... well, lets just say that I still to this day feel like a big sucker. But I guess chat room hope tinged sham is another topic.

Jim T Dumb T

Steve Salerno said...

Case, I want to apologize, because your comment got lost in the ethers somewhere and just turned up for my approval this morning. The topic means a lot to you, and you obviously took a great deal of time to compose your thoughts, and I want to acknowledge that.

In my defense, I wrote this post as a question, not an answer. I even begin (please re-read my first paragraph) by confessing that a guy like Pausch makes me rethink the critical barbs I've thrown at a lot of self-help in the past. Still, at the end of the day, we have to ask ourselves: Do we make a firm and unbending commitment to what we know to be true in life? Or do we abandon ourselves to the airier (and clearly more comforting) notions that sustain a guy like Pausch and so many others who preach hope? It's an honest question, and it isn't meant to be rhetorical. I'm also saying that people like yourself may be in the majority, and for all I know may be better off! The problem for some of us is that most of the time, we just can't shut off our rational mind. And we also know that the same thinking that supports the lunatic fringe of the PMA movement could basically be used to justify lying around the house in a narcotic haze.

RevRon's Rants said...

"Do we make a firm and unbending commitment to what we know to be true in life? Or do we abandon ourselves to the airier (and clearly more comforting) notions..."

I think most people live somewhere between the two, leaning toward one or the other according to their nature and circumstance. While we might perceive ourselves to be rooted in one extreme, we each tend to vacillate in response to our experiences.

For example, Steve, you strive to base your perspective upon that which is supported by empirical data, yet admit that Pausch's story gave you pause, even making you wonder whether his unwarranted "hope" might be a good thing. Your "rational" mind brought you back to the "yes, but..." of your personal comfort zone, yet the question lingered. Life has a way of forcing us to grow and expand by challenging our comfort zones.

While I reject the notion of strict determinism (as you well know), I do believe that everything we face offers us an opportunity for growth. Yet when I had to put my beloved dog down a couple of days ago, my outlook on life became much more cynical, and I was unable to see the inherent benevolence of existence. As each day passes, the sadness I felt diminishes a bit, and I find myself slowly returning to a more positive outlook. My cynicism and bitterness were my way of dealing with pain, but the pain wasn't enough to make me abandon my normal mindset. Well, maybe for a couple of days...

We each define ourselves, yet find that definition challenged by the experiences we encounter. My belief is that those experiences - and our responses to them - act like the opposing forces in a pendulum, pulling us to and fro, while the most powerful force draws us continually toward the center.

Wendy said...

To all:

This topic is my first visit to SHAMblog and I must say that while I do not agree with everything said, it's been very thought provoking and entertaining. I'm the veritable cynic in most conversations so I expect I'll be hanging around here quite a bit to commiserate with my brethren.


Steve Salerno said...

Wendy, thanks for checking us out; I do hope you'll stick around and become a part of the contributing masses. :)

Ron, to your point: Let me make an analogy to another pet peeve of mine, which is the state of modern journalism. I believe that journalism should strive, as much as possible, for total objectivity/neutrality. Newspeople should not be in the business of telling us what to think, or even assuming what we believe (and subscribe to). Total objectivity/neutrality means that journalism should not have an innate morality or sense of "right and wrong," since--philosophically speaking--we don't know what's right or wrong. We really don't. We may think we can commit to broad concepts ("avoid killing people"), but even that isn't true, because throughout the history of mankind, we've been waging wars for "just" purposes, each sovereign nation deciding for itself what constitutes "just." We also believe in capital punishment and abortion. All of that is a long way of saying that, e.g., American media--in the ideal world of journalism--would not have covered 9/11 as a tragic event. 9/11 certainly wasn't considered tragic in Palestinian neighborhoods--they danced in the streets--and the guys piloting those planes even believed they were doing Allah's work. How do we know we're right and they're wrong? And yet quite clearly, if a network even showed the tiniest trace of "fairness" in its coverage of 9/11, there would've been such a colossal public outcry that said network would've been shunned by every advertiser in America (and possibly would've lost its FCC license, to boot). So here again, in our pursuit of honest journalism, we're presented with a question that parallels the question I pose hear: Do we go with what "feels good" (i.e. covering 9/11 sympathetically). Or do we take a firm stand on behalf of good journalism, which would've shown no sympathy/partiality whatsoever in its coverage of the event? (And again, though I shouldn't have to say this, let me be clear: I was personally enraged at 9/11. I wanted blood. I wanted to bomb the living hell out of every nation whose name ended in "...stan." And I cried like a baby, watching the images from Ground Zero. But my personal feelings have nothing to do with--and should not affect--the way honest journalism conducts itself.)

They're tough questions. And you know, it's easy to make these calls when there's relatively little at stake. It's only when we're faced with an incident like 9/11--or with the heart-rending story of a guy like Randy Pausch--that we're called upon to reach deep inside ourselves and decide whether we have the cajones to take a stand on principle.

RevRon's Rants said...

"I believe that journalism should strive, as much as possible, for total objectivity/neutrality."

Were "journalism" a mechanized function, I might well agree with you here, Steve. But journalists are human beings first and foremost, with prejudices and feelings, offering up chronicles of events to be read by other human beings who also bear prejudices and feelings. Accurate reportage of facts is an essential element of journalism, but so is the journalist's unique voice and perspective.

Those journalists whose writings are so colored by their prejudices as to render the integrity of the events they describe are typically embraced by those who share the journ's worldview, while being soundly rejected by those whose perspective differs. Each of us readers/viewers must decide which offering rings true, and which does not. We use whatever common sense, education, and intuition we possess. Kinda like life... we make our own choices.

Those journalists who outright deceive in order to further their own agendas are typically found out, disgraced, and fade from the journalism scene (usually to reemerge in a book deal!).

I find as much value in reading/listening to someone whose perspective I find unacceptable as I do reading/listening to one whom I'd consider a kindred spirit. Expecting journalists to rise completely above their human feelings and report wholly unbiased facts wouldn't really make them any more credible. We'd still tend to discard information that didn't ring true in the realm of our own biases, while accepting information that we chose to believe.

Besides... absorbing the reportage of a completely objective journalist would be about as engaging as listening to the computer-generated NOAA weather reports. Sure, we'd get the information we needed, but we'd be turning the automaton off as soon as we'd heard what we wanted to hear.

To flip-flop somewhat, I do find myself being turned off by a reporter whose offering is obviously slanted to one extreme or another. I think that each of us has to decide what to believe and what to discard, rather than establish some criteria for "truth" which journalists must be compelled to follow. Determining who would be the arbiter of that truth would be a pretty dicey affair, and ultimately, even if we could idiot-proof the system of reporting, there would arise a class of new, improved idiots. :-)

Steve Salerno said...

I hear what you're saying, Ron (or maybe I should say I "here" what you're saying, since I misspelled the word the other way in my prior comment), but the problem is that most of journalism today resolves itself into certain authorized story lines. This isn't about people showing thoroughly human emotion on a knee-jerk basis. This is about the media deliberately covering stories in the manner in which they know (or at least think) those stories must be covered in order to (a) be "acceptable" to the viewing audience and/or (b) conform to an agenda that's rampant within media circles. And though this isn't really what I meant when I made the segue to journalism earlier, it definitely applies to our friend Pausch as well. I'd be shocked to see a story in a major media outlet that raises any of the skeptical/cynical points made so far in this thread. It's simply too impolitic, too "uncaring." And it's very much out of line with an Oprah-fied media template nowadays that upholds, and unflinchingly buys into, such constructs as Boundless Hope, Positive Thinking, Human Potential, "Being a Force for Good," etc. And--though I realize that by widening the lens yet again, I risk abusing my license to make analogies--it's the same thing with the coverage of race in this presidential season. If you meaningfully attack the logic of Obama's position on race in any way, you're a racist. If you ask, "Why's it OK that 9 out of 10 Southern blacks support Obama, when it's not OK that 7 out of 10 Southern whites oppose him?," you're a racist. In fact, you can't even ask that question. I haven't heard it asked, once, since this whole primary enterprise got underway.

I do understand the common-sense points you make about media, Ron. But there are still waaay too many stories where you "just can't go there." And it shouldn't be that way in journalism. Especially in a presidential season.

Elizabeth said...

"Still, at the end of the day, we have to ask ourselves: Do we make a firm and unbending commitment to what we know to be true in life? Or do we abandon ourselves to the airier (and clearly more comforting) notions that sustain a guy like Pausch and so many others who preach hope?"

This is not exactly a choice that we *can" make, Steve. And I'm assuming you ask us as individuals (staying away from your segue into journalism and its problems). You, Steve, can no more become a happy-go-lucky believer than your wife a cynical skeptic. Even if you both tried 24/7 (and how would you do THAT, anyway? LOL).

That "choice" you mention is typically no more than just a rationalization of our deeply-held views on life, which are the effect of our psychological type determined by our genes and upbringing. I can no more make myself believe (really believe) in God than I could permanently change my hair color (and this is not for the lack of trying, God knows -- and pun intended). Even Christians acknowledge this illusion of a choice, though in a somewhat convoluted way, by saying that faith is a blessing, a gift, the result of God's grace. However, they do not go into more detailed explanations as to why God would be so cruel to deny this gift, right from the start, to so many of his suffering children.)

The short point I'm making (again, btw) is that rather than getting all hotheaded about pointing out the absurdities of each other's views and blaming them on our individual "choice," we need to, perhaps, learn to accept that this "choice" is an illusion and is no more within our decision-making powers than our height or sex* (though the latter also has been a reason for constant harping for ages, with men accusing women of, well, being women, and vice versa. LOL. Will we ever learn?)

P.S. Not that the discussions about the limitations of the others' choices are not enlightening or entertaining. So let's not stop; but let's just be more, well, forgiving perhaps? (I'm directing that last suggestion first and foremost to myself, btw.:)

*Leaving the transgendered folks out of it for now.

Elizabeth said...

It must be a devils' weekend, or else I've stumbled upon the dragons sooner than I expected (iow, life as I know it), but I'm compelled to obsess a bit more on your words, Steve, specifically the questions you have been asking here. "Do we make a firm and unbending commitment to what we know to be true in life? Or do we abandon ourselves to the airier (and clearly more comforting) notions that sustain a guy like Pausch and so many others who preach hope?"

While you appear to genuinely struggle, in this post at least, with the "choice," your language clearly shows your personal preference. A "firm and unbending commitment" to the "truth" surely sounds nobler than " abandon(ing) ourselves to the airier (and clearly more comforting) notions" and "preaching" hope, doesn't it?

My advocate's devil tells me that those from the other side of the aisle, the believers, could and do employ that very same language to justify their position. They too are convinced that they are firmly and unbendingly committed to the truth about life, as they believe it to be.

The war between the staunch rationalists and equally staunch believers goes on, with each side defending their views with the obstinacy and unforgiving relentlessness of a cultish devotion. The cult of atheism, with its gurus (Dawkins and Co.) is no less virulent than the orthodox believers, with its representatives ready for battles to the death, if need be, to defend their convictions. We humans are funny creatures this way.

You know that I share your "rational bias," and I have tasted and tested the other side, trying, for a long time in the past, to spark and cultivate religious faith that never was really there (god's grace missed me, obviously). But the intensity of these ideological battles perplexes me and suggests that perhaps we (i.e. the courageous warriors on both sides:) are not as sure of our convictions as we want to present ourselves (or believe).

For example, my uber-rational husband has never had any use for religious beliefs, but also has no use for engaging in battles about them. To him, the matter is obvious and closed, and he is secure enough in his conviction that he can tolerate and understand others' need for religious beliefs (and will go to church without complaining [too much] when occasions warrant his presence). I gotta admit that I admire his inner resolve, even though at times it infuriates me (less so as I'm getting older, LOL).

But I also want to point out, again, that he does not deserve "credit" (or "blame") for it any more than I do for not being as firm in my convictions. We are made of a different "stock," so to speak. And the same realization, I think, applies to the rest of us, so it may be time (just maybe) to start tolerating each other's beliefs without trying to diminish or condemn the others for seeing life as they do.

On the brighter(?) side, some of the greatest works of art and philosophy, as well as the most compelling life stories, have grown from our *inner* battles between reason and faith. So there is something positive to be said (again:) about the value of this particular struggle itself.

mikecane2008 said...


I read Steve's post. I actually made sure to go see the special online (because I couldn't see it when it aired) before reading Steve's post.

I had to stop reading the Comments halfway through because as wrong as I thought Steve's post was, the rest of you were just even more wrong.

I could sit here and do a refutation of where and how and why I think the entire point of Pausch has been missed, but I've been in these kind of Comment Courts before. They serve no purpose other than to fling stuff back and forth.

I've got to stop typing now. It's just upsetting me. No good can come from more words.

mikecane2008 said...

Ach, OK, there is *one* thing I must attack because it really did make me go WTF? This:

>>>And let's eliminate the wiggle room right here and now: A lie of omission is still a lie. Failure to volunteer key facts is lying.




That is just so absolutely ridiculous that I can't believe you typed it intellectually -- it's something you typed *emotionally*.

ARGH! Screaming and fleeing the keyboard ...

Steve Salerno said...

Mike, I don't see what could be so wrong about merely asking a question. Do we take a stand for intellect and reason--no matter how depressing the fruits of that endeavor? Or do we check our brains at the door and say, Nah, I'd rather subscribe to hope-springs-eternal, despite the evidence. That's all I'm asking here. And I'm not asking rhetorically. It's an honest question.

Elizabeth said...

Mike, I wish you told us your POV.

So Pausch is a delightful man dying of cancer who wants to share his lessons on life with others. And nothing wrong with that in itself, imo, other than the whole hoopla that has developed around him.

I must be missing the point of it, because I do not see how his message differs from that of, say, J. Osteen (other than the religious bend -- and the fact that Pausch is dying). Same truisms about life, of the flat one-fits-all category (imo).

Is it the dying thing that makes it so special? (I'm not facetious here *at all*; I honestly do not understand the uproar over his story. In fact, I am profoundly turned off by it -- but I said that already.)

mikecane2008 said...

I left a second comment about a specific point. Did it get lost in the electron stream? I'd rather have that pop up first and you address it, and then bundle my reply to both in one go.

Steve Salerno said...

This may be the place for me to add that at one time, the most sought-after motivational speaker in America, by far, was none other than Orenthal James Simpson, better known simply as O.J. I don't know why it is that we lionize the people who catch our eye in some way, to the extent that we think they have all sorts of other epiphanies to share with us about life, living and proper behavior. What makes us think that because a guy gained 2000 yards in a season as an NFL rushing back (and later made us laugh in a series of loopy satirical films), he has the character, temperament and brilliance to instruct us on "being successful"? Why do we assume that because some professor has a pretty cool attitude about dying, he's worthy of teaching the rest of us about living? (And Eliz's point is well-taken: Would we pay attention at all if he didn't have terminal cancer? Isn't that really the maguffin here?) Do we even really know who Pausch is? OK, maybe now we know a bit more about him--but what did we know when the nation first embraced him to its bosom? For all we knew, he could've been a homicidal maniac, too, just like someone else we once idolized and queued up to hear...

The funny thing is, I'm not sure that even that would've mattered. Not when you consider that O.J. still gets marriage proposals from strangers, and women send their panties to serial killers on death row.

RevRon's Rants said...

"Do we take a stand for intellect and reason--no matter how depressing the fruits of that endeavor? Or do we check our brains at the door and say, Nah, I'd rather subscribe to hope-springs-eternal, despite the evidence."

Steve... In keeping with the journalistic integrity and freedom from bias to which you strive to adhere, you might consider rephrasing the "alternatives" you offer. Believe it or not, there are at least one or two people on the planet have not "checked their brains at the door," who study the evidence and stand for intellect and reason, and yet still find it within themselves to hope. The two aren't mutually exclusive, except in the extremes.

Elizabeth said...

So what's O.J.'s address...?

Seriously now, yes, Steve, indeed to all above. As someone who is allergic to gurus (and I mean it literally -- perhaps more about it some other time), I've learned to trust my body's (allergic) reactions to those who offer "wisdom" in its many variants. And I gotta say that I have *that* reaction when faced with Pausch (whom, again, I consider a decent and delightful man). What I hear from him are wholesale platitudes that sound good and truthful -- and make us feel good -- but are flat and likely not applicable to a majority of situations we, as unique individuals, face daily in our lives.

Indeed, why are we so ready to give up our discerning judgment, and sometimes even our dignity (as these fountains of wisdom are patronizing, more often than not, in their eagerness to bestow their truisms on us, Pausch *perhaps* an exception) in order to, I dunno, feel good? Or feel a (pretend, let's face it) connection with someone? Or get a shot of hope that will evaporate the next day when we are again faced with the unique reality of our own life with its unique limitations?

It eludes me; i.e. I do "get" it, in the sociological sense (as in why people do this), but cannot share it (that guru allergy, no doubt, partially to blame here). I wish, privately -- and naively, no doubt -- people realized that asking questions is more important than finding answers -- and certainly much more important than getting answers from somebody else, no matter how wise they appear to be.

P.S. Thank god for poets -- Szymborska specifically (the one of the Nobel, rapture and despair:), who said this once:

"How to live--someone asked me this in a letter,
someone I had wanted
to ask that very thing.

Again and as always,
and as seen above
there are no questions more urgent
than the naive ones."

Steve Salerno said...

Ron, yanno, as this thread evolves, I'm starting to feel a bit like the deputy in Cool Hand Luke: "What we have here...." Do I need to finish the quote? (You young'uns in the audience: Ask someone who's over 40.)

I am not "anti-hope," as you portray me, or at least imply. I have said--repeatedly--that I am an optimist by nature. (Stop laughing.) In fact, I think you and I are more alike in our approach to life than you'd ever imagine. (I mean it: Stop laughing!) What I recoil against is hope to the exclusion of common sense, which I think is increasingly rampant in society, and which is, in fact, the explicit proposition given us by so many among the New Wage crowd, as your beloved likes to put it. I think I have a good handle on my hope, as it were--to the extent that I think I am capable of leavening it with, or balancing it against, rational thought. But it occurs to me that there's a sizable (and growing) contingent of Americans who are (manifestly) incapable of that balancing act: The only way they know how to hope is to do it in some mindless, rote manner that negates the validity of reason and science. ("You just have to trust it...") Ergo, that's increasingly the way we have to frame the debate, I think: Are we prepared to give in to that mindlessness? Or do we take a stand on behalf of reason--maybe even a more strident stand than is really warranted--just to make the point clear?

Anonymous said...

This thread reminds me of the phrase "shoot the messenger." I have not read Pausch's story, but I did see him on the Parade cover. I do not believe Pausch is saying anything I have not read before in some form or fashion. I just overlooked him in my reading.

I hope you can follow this analogy. Let’s say your best friend’s wife is cheating on your best friend and you witness it. You’re kind of stuck. On one hand you want your friend to know his wife is cheating. On the other hand, you know your best friend is not going to appreciate the information. What do you do?

Whatever you do will cause a rift in the friendship on some level. If he finds out you knew about the cheating and did not tell him, he will be angry. If you do tell him, he will accuse you of a host of things and probably not believe you.

That’s how I see this whole debate about Pausch. Steve’s dammed if he mentions the “false hope” concept in light of Pausch’s “likeability” factor. Yet that one of the major tenets of SHAM and he would be remiss if he does not point this out.

Steve, you cannot make everyone happy.

Steve Salerno said...

I can't??

Anonymous said...

In my view, Pausch and people with terminal illness, are a bit luckier than others. If one has a terminal illness and knows it, he or she has a chance to put their affairs in order and do whatever it is they need to do to gain some closure. That’s how I see Pausch’s story, but his is public. He is luckier than the 35-year-old father of three who has a sudden heart attack and dies on the subway or the mother of four who dies in a car accident. Their families must live with these sudden deaths. Most people never know when their number is going to be called.

RevRon's Rants said...

Steve, I don't really think you are that mired in the need for absolutes, especially not extreme absolutes. But read your quote that I pasted in my comment, and see if it doesn't clearly convey a bias. The clear (to me, anyway) implication is that one who is guided by hope must have abandoned reason.

I personally have made a firm and unbending commitment to the awareness that I don't know everything. Some things, I cannot accept without proof, because the preponderance of evidence points to their falsehood. Other things, I choose to embrace because they make sense to me, even though there's no preponderance of evidence to prove (or disprove) their veracity. Still others, I can only say, "hell if I know."

And to the last anonymous - I must have missed the part where Steve was damned (or even shot). Hell... I disagree with even my dearest friends on *something.* But I love them anyway... even if they are wrong. :-)

Elizabeth said...

Anon at 6:37 pm: Steve’s dammed if he mentions the “false hope” concept in light of Pausch’s “likeability” factor.

And the dying factor. Because, c'mon, what kind of SOB rains on a dying man's parade, right?

Everybody's eyes are gleaming, and here comes Steve with his stubborn questions again...

And let's not even get started on some of those brutal commenters. No heart, no shame, no conscience.

(But irony intended.)

Steve Salerno said...

Mike, the weird delay in the appearance of comments is still with us, so I just now got the one where you vehemently dispute my stance on lies of omission.

Sorry, Mike, I am unbending on that point. Omitting the truth is the same as an outright lie. That is, in fact, one of the greatest foibles and rationalizations of modern society: people (or governments) attempting to wriggle off the hook for a very bad deception by saying something like, "Well, nobody asked the right questions...."

Bull. You have a moral obligation to disclose, voluntarily, anything and everything that's in the interest of the other party or parties. (And let's be clear on something else, too: I say that as someone who has violated that oath too many times in my life.)

Anonymous said...

"Omitting the truth is the same as an outright lie."

The courts see it that way too.

Anonymous said...

What a mind-f**K:

Going public on national media about having pancreatic cancer and at the same time telling people 'Dont tell my children, they're little and I want to protect them.'

That includes all of us in the lie.

My parents kept major secrets from me for decades, and after they died, their best friend also maintained the cover up.

I kept having weird feelings, and no validating information.

Eventually, I found out.

Lies, including lies of ommission will eventually come out. Either you discover the lie, or you will, unconsciously act out the very thing being hidden.'

How will Pausch's kids sort all this out?

And, years later, if his kids conceal stuff they are doing as teenagers and Dad finds out, how can Dad have any moral authority when trying to tell the kids that its not right to lie?


Anonymous said...

Most people with serious terminal illness wouldnt have the energy to clean the kitchen floor, let alone do all the media juggling that Pausch is doing.

A highly energetic pal of mine who battled Stage 3 breast cancer (in remission, crossing fingers) worked all through her chemo, radiation treatments, but still had to stay home after having surgery, and still had to request, from time to time, assitance from her pals in getting her house cleaned.

Steve Salerno said...

Hey, I gotta give credit where credit is due; the guy can do a series of "immortal push-ups," I think they're called. That's in Stallone territory (from late-stage Rocky, the original). Haven't you seen his press kit?

Anonymous said...

Here is a test for any verbal teaching, a test taken from AA and the 12 Traditions:

'Principles before personalities'.

Does a teaching retain its impact if we know nothing about its author, and know nothing about its author's personality, personal history, etc?

Would the said and written by Pausch, Tolle and B Katie retain its impact if presented on a stand alone basis, with zero information about the authors?

If the material retains its usefulness when presented anonymously, then you've got gold.

Steve Salerno said...

Anon 12:21 (which makes it sound vaguely like I'm quoting scripture or some such, but anyway), you know, I agree with you, and I think that's a good test, in principle. But--and though I viscerally hate to take a stand on behalf of the SHAMscape--you know what gives me pause? I can think of many scenarios in which I've been inspired by someone/something where there weren't even any words involved. I felt inspired just by someone's presence, or by watching someone do something that seemed "heroic" to me. Now, I don't know if that inspiration has any real-life value--which is to say, I don't know that it would actually help me do anything meaningful (and that's where I very definitely part company with the gurus). But it did bring a lump to my throat and maybe make me feel a little bit better about life. And that--to return to the way I began this post--that is what sometimes, late at night, makes me wonder about my general "intellectual" opposition to certain aspects of self-help. That's why I kept repeating that Core Question (about commonsense cynicism vs. mindless hope) throughout this thread.

mikecane2008 said...

I'm going to come back to this at one point, I will!


You've all been warned.

No, uh, omission!

Anonymous said...

I am a latecomer to this thread, and this is my first time posting.

I was extremely put off by Randy Pausch. I wish the man no harm, but I hated, hated, hated his lecture.

He gave an example of wanting to be Captain Kirk from Star Trek. Well, he couldn't do that, but guess what? William Shatner just happened to come to his workplace to discuss advances in technology.

He gave another example of wanting to be an astronaut. He couldn't do that, but guess what? He pulled some strings and got to ride in the "vomit comet."

And so forth.

My take on Randy Pausch is that he is supremely skilled and gifted, far more so than the average. Most of us do not have the skills or the clout to achieve these high-level types of dreams.

He gives "examples" and encourages us to follow our own dreams. He fails to mention that he is probably in the top 0.05% of high achievers. What would the Average Joe do if Average Joe wanted to be an astronaut or Captain Kirk? Buy a DVD of Star Trek? That's about as close as most of us could get.

As an average person, I was insulted by his lecture, which I found misleading and trivializing.

Lafe said...

A lot of you, including the author, I beieve would benefit from some compassionate talk therapy.
"The Last Lecture" doesn't have anything to do with external reactions. How the media responded, or how the world responded, is moot.
How Pausch responded to the death we all face is admirable, albeit naive.
He did good, better than most I would wager, and that is worth a nod and a bitter-sweet smile, not a "I'm smarter than him" quip.

Steve Salerno said...

Lafe, that is true. But the point is, Pausch himself didn't leave it at that. He decided to turn himself into a metaphor, an instructive episode (aided and abetted by the media and his publisher). And in so doing, he made himself, finally, into something of a cartoon character.

Anytime you broaden the message of achievement--from "I can do this" to "anyone can do this, and here's how!"--you have bastardized and subverted your original intent. And correct me if I'm wrong, but the guy died, didn't he? So I guess that was a "brick wall" he couldn't overcome, huh?

Ryan L. Johnson-Toledo,OH said...

Why are most of you so offended by the advice he offers? Also, I think you missed the point. His advice was given to help you be successful in life; as in being happy or feeling you haven't wasted life and have no regrets. Thats all. He seems to have done just that in his life. Also, how many of all of you have actually read his book and not just looked up the summary or spark notes? Just curious... Oh, and what is he going to do with that 7 million dollars that is bothering you all so very much...oh yeah, nothing for himself since he is now dead. Someone offers advice because he wants to see others truly live and be happy and you call this a sham? I beleive the same cynicsim can be sen in the 18 Chinese citizens who passed the body of the dead 2 year old girl because they were afraid of being sued. How sad...I'm not saying all of his ideas are right or that he doesn't contradict himself at times. Grow some tact... this world has so little of it already.

Steve Salerno said...

Ryan: You raise good points and I don't want to just blow them off in a few words. And a few words are all I have time for right now. Let me just say that I'm offended on behalf of Thinking America by anyone who puts out simplistic messages about personal empowerment, because that just contributes to the ongoing erosion of standards that has crippled this nation in recent decades. We are raising a generation of shameless solipsists who seem to work from the premise that they are fully entitled to redefine the world (at least their perception of it) to meet their own needs and expectations. This has very severe psychic consequences, in my view. (I outline them at length in my book, which I don't expect you to read.)

As for the $7 million, it's not about the fact that Pausch himself is prevented by death from enjoying's about the fact that he got the deal simply because the publisher had reason to believe that the message would sell like the proverbial hotcakes. There was no consideration of inherent merit, "literary quality," etc. Pausch fed into the cultural cycle alluded to above--he fed into the prevalent mood of self-empowerment--and all the publisher cared about was the notion, "Hey, we can make a buck with this!"

Forgive my language, but if Randy Pausch (or anyone else) took a shit that American consumers for some reason craved, publishers and marketers would fall all over themselves trying to "package" it and rush it to market. This would be true even if the shit were disease-laden and posed real danger to the buyers--which is the case with Pausch and his ilk.