gandalf knows

The key question to keep asking is, “Are you spending your time on the right things?”

Time is all you have, and you may find one day that you have less than you think.


Dr. Randy Pausch (October 23, 1960 – July 25, 2008) was a professor of computer science, human–computer interaction, and design at Carnegie Mellon University. His inspirational Last Lecture touched hearts of many people. I watched the lecture almost a decade ago. At the time, I found the talk impressive both due to the strength of his character and the impact of his message. However, I did not quite fully grasp the significance of the message. Almost a decade later, I stumbled on his lectures again.

Life takes a toll on a person, but opens new doors. Being acutely aware of my own mortality helped me see more clearly than before. Now, as I turn another page in my life and think about the future, I would like to re-visit some of Randy Pausch’s talks again and share with you some of the highlights that are especially important from my current perspective.

Before we do that though, let us conduct a small thought experiment.

Thought experiment

What would you do with you life if you had 10 or 5 or one year to live?

It is not a trivial question, isn’t it?

Six months or one year mark is very realistic and can happen to anyone. In that case, the course of action is more or less clear: you would get your things in order, spend time with your family, visit some places or participate in some activity you always wanted to, if you can afford it, etc.

The five-year and ten-year marks are more difficult to think about. For some diseases, a probability of five-year survival can be low for instance. What if you are perfectly healthy now? What would induce this sense of urgency? You are in your 20s or 30s, why should you worry about death when most people live well into their 70s or 80s? Shouldn’t you just relax and take life as it is, go with the flow?

You can certainly do that. It is your life, your choice.

Yet, as Randy Pausch aptly noted, “Time management is ultimately about living a more enriching, fulfilling life. It’s about having more fun.”

Then how can you live a more enriching, fulfilling life?

“We don’t beat the reaper by living longer, but by living well, and living fully — for the reaper will come for all of us. The question is: what do we do between the time we’re born and the time he shows up. Because when he shows up, it’s too late to do all the things that you’re always gonna, kinda get around to.”

Find your passion, a useful passion

“You will need to find your passion. Many of you have already done it, many of you will later, many of you may take to your thirties or forties, but don’t give up on finding it. Right, then all you are doing is waiting for the reaper. Find your passion and follow it…. Your passion must come from the things that fuel you from the inside. Find your passion, and in my experience, no matter what you do at work or what you do in the official settings, that passion will be grounded in people.”

It took me a relatively long time to do it – late 20s, but I did it, and am very fortunate that I took the risks and made many sacrifices to find my passion. Sam Harris finished his doctorate in his early 40s, following 11 years of spiritual exploration in India and Nepal. Everyone has their own timeframe, but the key is to keep searching.

How to find your passion

As Daniel Dennett put it succinctly, “Find something greater than yourself and dedicate your life to it.” The following talk elaborates on this concept

“Altruism is one thing you’ll never regret.”

Explore. Volunteer, shadow, read, participate. The more direct the experience, the better. If you want to be a doctor, volunteer in a hospital; if you want to be a professor, learn about life in an academia. Always learn about the bad things each path may present.

“The brick walls are not there to keep us out; the brick walls are there to give us a chance to show how badly we want something.”

Know what you are getting into. Several paths exist to similar jobs, and you can accomplish similar goals, but the path you take there and the nature of the job may be vastly different: psychologist vs psychiatrist, data scientist vs statistician, programmer vs software engineer, lecturer vs professor.

The most important problems

You may wonder, “What are the most important problems in the world right now?”

Pablo Stafforini kindly compiled a list of lists: the most important questions and problems

80000 Hours is a particularly interesting website, and you can even take a quiz to help you make a decision on the area to focus on.

Personally, I think one of the biggest issues is climate change. At the current rate, the forecast does not look good for 2100. How much you can do as an individual about it, is a different question, but several paths exist.

Find your vision

Where do you see the world in the future? Clearly define what you want to see on a global scale. Vision, not goals.

“The only thing worse than being blind, is having sight, but no vision

How to get things done

The notes below are from the Time Management lecture. The first two points highlighted in italics below are especially important. This is the key to everything. A part of it is self-understanding. Overtime, I learned to recognize why I want the things I want. It is an extremely useful skill. For example, I might think that I want to play that video game, but what I really want is to boost my self-efficacy. Can I accomplish the same thing by doing something more productive? Sure I can, and the result will be much more rewarding than shiny pixels. Be aware of what you are doing and why you are doing it. Of course, it might be easy to over-analyze things – it is another trap. Sometimes a pineapple is just a pineapple.

Every time you are about to spend time doing something, ask yourself:

  • Why am I doing this? What is the goal?
  • Why will I succeed?
  • What happens if I chose not to do it?

Keep a list of the things you want to accomplish, and whenever you catch yourself not doing something that will get you closer to one of those goals, ask yourself why you are doing it.

Don’t focus on doing things right. Focus instead on doing the right things.

Complaining does not work as a strategy. We all have finite time and energy. Any time we spend whining is unlikely to help us achieve our goals.

Being successful doesn’t make you manage your time well. Managing your time well makes you successful!

Touch each piece of paper only once. Apply this same principle to email.

Identify the underlying psychological reason why you are procrastinating about something.

  • Fear of embarrassment.
  • Fear of failure.
  • Anxiety about asking someone for something

General advice:

  • Kill your television.
  • Turn money into time. (e.g. pay someone to mow your lawn)
  • Above all else, make sure you eat, sleep and exercise enough.
  • Never break a promise, but renegotiate it if need be.
  • Recognize that most things are pass/fail.
  • Get feedback.

Consider the opportunity cost of doing things. Every time you do something unimportant, you are not doing something important instead.

Good judgment comes from experience. Experience comes from bad judgment.

Failing to plan is planning to fail. Plan Each Day, Each Week, Each Semester. You can always change your plan, but only once you have one!

You don’t find time for important things, you make it.

Everything you do is an opportunity cost. Learn to say “No”

Everyone has Good and Bad Times. Find your creative/thinking time. Defend it ruthlessly, spend it alone, maybe at home. Find your dead time. Schedule meetings, phone calls, and mundane stuff during it.


Please consider taking some time to pause, think about your life, the future of the world and your role in it. What would you do with your time?


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