The Last Lecture Articles 03: The Elephant in the Room
“My dad always taught me if there is an elephant in the room, introduce it.”
Q: How do you show an audience how close you are to death?
A: “Just watch!” was Randy Pausch’s idea. Here’s what he did to prove it.
He stood before his audience, not in a leather tweed jacket with elbow patches to embellish the last words of his dying wisdom, but in a short-sleeve polo. Why? His polo was to commemorate his sabbatical as an Imagineer at Disney and to pay homage to Walt Disney himself. With his polo on, he began the lecture by showing images to the audience of his multiple tumors within his body. By introducing the elephant in the room, he was showing exactly just how close he was to death. He then shared one of his most famous phrases:
“We cannot change the cards we are dealt, just how we play the hand.”
Or, as Charles Bukowski liked to phrase it,
“What matters is how you walk through the fire.”
The metaphors are synonymous: You have to make do with what you got.
Randy assured he was not in denial. In fact, he was in full acceptance. Despite the degrading effects of chemotherapy and radiation, he felt “emboldened and potent.” To put his money where his mouth was and make a statement he dropped down to the floor and started doing push-ups. Imagine that! How’s that for “Just Watch!” The audience was surprised. They laughed. Their anxiety eased. Randy’s anxiety eased too. As he put it from that point on, “It wasn’t just some dying man. It was just me. I could begin.”
Note to self: In order to begin working towards something, you must first introduce the elephant in the room. You must not deny it. You must play your hand. You must walk through the fire. Only then have you given yourself permission to begin your journey.
“Just Watch” pairs well with Walt Disney’s famous phrase, “If you can dream, you can do it.” Walt believed that Disney was a project designed to never be completed. This is similar to Antoni Gaudí’s Basílica de la Sagrada Família in Barcelona, Spain, and also to Hằng Nga’s Crazy House in Da Lat, Vietnam.
The goal is to never stop creating. If you stop, the project has failed.
Disney, Basílica de la Sagrada Família, and the Crazy House are not ‘places’ like we think of them in the traditional sense. Amusement parks, churches, or guest houses are places. They aren’t alive. They don’t adapt. They don’t transform. Disney, Gaudí, and Nga created ideas. Even decades after dying their ideas are alive. They continue to adapt. They continue to transform. That’s why millions of people continue to return to experience them decade after decade. The people that do are transformed because of it.
If you never stop imagining the possibilities in life, the work never stops.
The biggest companies in the world know this. Microsoft, Amazon, Apple, and Google are not competing with other companies. In my opinion, the only thing that could ever disrupt their dominance, outside of external regulations, is a loss of imagination. Seeing that they attract the best and brightest candidates, I don’t envision that happening anytime soon.
CEO’s such as Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos, Tim Cook, and Sundar Pichai all understand what Disney, Gaudí, Nga understood. The work doesn’t stop.
The same goes for athletics. Remember Herb Brooks?
He was the former coach of the USA men’s hockey team who beat the Soviet Union in the 1980 Winter Olympics. There is a scene in the 2004 film, “Miracle,” where Kurt Russel, who plays Herb Brooks, keeps repeating the same line to his team during that historical game. “Play your game. Play your game.”
In essence, don’t worry about what others are doing, focus on making do with what you got. Focus on your fire to walk through. Imagine the possibilities of what we could create if we followed his advice. Nothing short of a miracle.
Any guesses on who produced that film? Walt Disney Pictures.
Coincidence? I think not.
In ‘Creativity Inc,’ written by Ed Catmull, the President of Pixar Animation and Disney Animation, he talks about how the greatest stories involve real choices. He says, ‘When you can feel the agony of that choice, you have a movie.’
Real choices have real consequences. Those consequences mean a great deal in the character's lives. If the audience connects with the character’s choices and consequences, they’re hooked. The same goes for your own life story. If you feel the agony of choice in your life, stay tuned. You’re on to something.
In the case of the 1980 Winter Olympics, imagine a bunch of amateur college players on the youngest team ever assembled trying to win a hockey game against a bunch of professional players on one of the most dominant hockey teams ever. Oh yeah, and on the biggest stage and in front of the entire world. Imagine trying to “play your game” and not focus on the other team. That’s agony. That is a real choice with real consequences that mean a great deal. That hooks you in until the final buzzer when we hear ABC Sportscaster, Al Michaels, make one of the greatest calls in the history of sports,
“Do you believe in miracles? Yes!”
Introducing the elephant in the room, i.e. your life is courageous and it’s worth thinking about. It is a real choice with real consequences that could mean a great deal in your life. If you make the choice to create an ideal for yourself to strive for there will be consequences. Good cards or bad cards, it’s part of the game. Alexis Carrel, a French surgeon, biologist, and winner of the Nobel Prize of Physiology or Medicine 1912 said it best,
Man cannot remake himself without suffering, for he is both the marble and the sculptor.
Imagine what your courageous decision could allow you to start sculpting.
It could allow you to feel emboldened and potent.
It could allow you to feel alive such that you adapt and transform.
It could allow you to create something designed to never be completed.
It could allow you to play your game.
It could allow you to walk through your fire.
It could allow you to play your hand no matter the card dealt.
If someone were to then ask you, “Do you believe in miracles?”
It could allow you to say, “Just Watch!”