I have an engineering problem. While for the most part I'm in terrific physical shape,
I have ten tumors in my liver and I have only a few months left to live. I am a father of three young children, and married to the woman of my dreams.
While I could easily feel sorry for myself, that wouldn't do them, or me, any good. So, how to spend my very limited time?
The obvious part is being with, and taking care of, my family. While I still can, I embrace every moment with them, and do the logistical things necessary to ease their path into a life without me.
The less obvious part is how to teach my children what I would have taught them over the next 20 years. They are too young now to have those conversations.
All parents want to teach their children right from wrong, what we think is important, and how to deal with the challenges life will bring.
We also want them to know some stories from our own lives, often as a way to teach them how to lead theirs.
My desire to do that led me to give a " last lecture" at Carnegie Mellon University.
These lectures are routinely videotaped. I knew what I was doing that day.
Under the ruse of giving an academic lecture, I was trying to put myself in a bottle that would one day wash up on the beach for my children.
If I were a painter, I would have painted for them. If I were a musician, I would have composed music.
But I am a lecturer. So I lectured. I lectured about the joy of life, about how much I appreciated life,
even with so little of my own left. I talked about honesty, integrity, gratitude, and other things I hold dear.
And I tried very hard not to be boring. This book is a way for me to continue what I began on stage.
Because time is precious, and I want to spend all that I can with my kids, I asked Jeffrey Zaslow for help. Each day, I ride my bike around my neighborhood, getting exercise crucial for my health.
On fifty-three long bike rides, I spoke to Jeff on my cell-phone headset. He then spent countless hours helping to turn my stories
– I suppose we could call them fifty-three " lectures" – into the book that follows. We knew right from the start:
None of this is a replacement for a living parent. But engineering isn't about perfect solutions; it's about doing the best you can with limited resources.
Both the lecture and this book are my attempts to do exactly that.
I live in the computer age and I love it here! I have long embraced pixels, multi-screen work stations and the information superhighway. I really can picture a paperless world.
And yet, I grew up in a very different place. When I was born in 1960, paper was where great knowledge was recorded.
In my house, all through the 1960s and 1970s, our family worshipped the World Book Encyclopedia – the photos, the maps, the flags of different countries, the handy sidebars revealing each state's population, motto and average elevation. I didn't read every word of every volume of the World Book, but I gave it a shot.
I was fascinated by how it all came together. Who wrote that section on the aardvark?
How that must have been, to have the World Book editors call and say, " You know aardvarks better than anyone. Would you write an entry for us? " Then there was the Z volume. Who was the person deemed enough of a Zulu expert to create that entry?
Was he or she a Zulu?
My parents were frugal. Unlike many Americans, they would never buy anything for the purposes of impressing other people, or as any kind of luxury for themselves. But they happily bought the World Book, spending a princely sum of the time, because by doing so, they were giving the gift of knowledge to me and my sister.
They also ordered the annual companion volumes. Each year, a new volume of breakthroughs and current events would arrive – labeled 1970, 1971, 1972, 1973 – and I couldn't wait to read them.
These annual volumes came with stickers, referencing entries in the original, alphabetical World Books. My job was to attach those stickers on the appropriate pages, and I took that responsibility seriously.
I was helping to chronicle history and science for anyone who opened those encyclopedias in the future. Given how I cherished the World Book, one of my childhood dreams was be a contributor.
But it's not like you can call World Book headquarters in Chicago and suggest yourself. The World Book has to find you. A few years ago, believe it or not, the call finally came.
It turned out that somehow, my career up to that time had turned me into exactly the sort of expert that World Book felt comfortable badgering. They didn't think I was the most important virtual reality expert in the world.
That person was too busy for them to approach. But me, I was in that midrange level – just respectable enough … but not so famous that I'd turn them down.
" Would you like to write our new entry on virtual reality? " they asked. I couldn't tell them that I'd been waiting all my life for this call.
All I could say was, " Yes, of course! " I wrote the entry. And I included a photo of my student Caitlin Kelleher wearing a virtual reality headset.
No editor ever questioned what I wrote, but I assume that's the World Book way. They pick an expert and trust that the expert won't abuse the privilege.
I have not bought the latest set of World Books. In fact, having been selected to be an author in the World Book, I now believe that Wikipedia is a perfectly fine source for your information, because I know what the quality control is for real encyclopedias.
But sometimes when I'm in a library with the kids, I still can't resist looking under " V" (" Virtual Reality" by yours truly) and letting them have a look. Their dad made it.