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PSYCHOLOGY OF SAFETY: The "Last Lecture"

February 5, 2009
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“Brick walls give us a chance to show how badly we want something.” — Randy Pausch

On September 18, 2007, Dr. Randy Pausch, an esteemed professor of computer science, human computer interaction, and design at Carnegie Mellon University, gave a “last lecture” in front of an audience of 400. Unlike other contributors to the university last-lecture series, Randy knew this would really be his last lecture, since he had been diagnosed with terminal pancreatic cancer. His lecture, entitled “Really Achieving Your Childhood Dreams,” was both instructive and inspirational.

You can experience Randy’s entire lecture by logging on to www.thelastlecture.com and/or by reading Randy’s book, “The Last Lecture” published in 2008 by Hyperion Books, N.Y. I read Randy’s book and viewed his lecture, and was moved by both. And I found human-dynamic principles of his lecture to be innovative, compelling and related to promoting safety.

1 — The elephant in the room

Randy began his lecture by introducing the elephant in the room — an unspoken topic or fact that influences people’s thoughts and perceptions. In this case, the elephant was the fact Randy was dying of pancreatic cancer and this was a primary reason many attended his last lecture. He affirmed he was not in denial of his impending death and declared, “We cannot change the cards we are dealt, just how we play the hand.”

A participant at my ASSE talk last June wrote on the evaluation sheet: “This narcissistic presentation was designed for book promotion. You pretended to be passionate but it’s just about Scott Geller.”

This evaluation reflects an elephant in the room that could be on the minds of others, and such a perception could interfere with my sincere intention to teach.

I might get more participants on board by revealing this elephant and clarifying, “I am here today to teach and share principles. What matters most to me is not whether you buy my book, but whether you ‘buy into’ my knowledge.”

2 — Suspiciousness of intent

Barriers to understanding and relationshipbuilding develop when people are suspicious of one’s intentions.

My recommendation: Put the cards on the table. State your sincere intention to help, but if relevant, acknowledge that personal achievement and/or financial gain could be a beneficial side effect.

3 — The caring of corrective feedback

Randy told the story of his frustrating experiences when learning the fundamentals of football at age 11. Once, when Randy failed to meet the coach’s standard, he was required to do push-ups for punishment. An assistant coach consoled Randy with, “When you’re screwing up and nobody says anything to you anymore that means they’ve given up on you.”

In terms of safety, the lessons here are: Repeated corrective feedback is essential for improvement; and asking a person to stop a certain at-risk behavior and/or perform a particular safe behavior is an act of caring. When people do not speak up on behalf of another person’s safety, they send an “I give up” or “I don’t care” message.

4 — The head fake

Dr. Pausch testified to the important life lessons he learned while being trained on the fundamentals of football, including “teamwork, perseverance, sportsmanship, the value of hard work, an ability to deal with adversity.” He called this indirect learning a “head fake,” whereby people learn things “they don’t realize they’re learning until well into the process.”

Effective behavior-based coaching employs the head-fake principle throughout the observation- and-feedback process. The coach does not make judgments or give directions, but merely collects relevant and objective injuryprevention information, and shares the results in a mutual learning experience. Both parties develop self-accountability to perform safetyrelated actions.

5 — Have some fun

Professor Randy Pausch lost his battle to pancreatic cancer on July 25th, 2008, at the age of 47. But his positive legacy lives on. Randy’s book and last lecture will be instructive and inspirational for generations to come. Randy’s last lecture emphasizes a most important life principle — Have fun! Indeed, Randy showed youthful energy and creative humor throughout his profound and spirited lecture. In Randy’s words, “I’m dying and I’m having fun.”

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