Over the holidays, I stumbled across a wonderful work that apparently much of the rest of the world had already experienced in one form or another. The Last Lecture, by Randy Pausch and Jeffrey Zaslow (Pausch, April 8, 2008) is based on the actual “last lecture” delivered by Carnegie Mellon professor Randy Pausch (October 23, 1960 – July 25, 2008), not long after learning he had terminal pancreatic cancer. If you have not read or listened to this book -- or watched the lecture on YouTube (as I did shortly after reading the book) -- you should stop reading The Patch right now and turn on some Pausch. Seriously, this blog will still be here when you return. Pausch's thoughtful and heartfelt final lecture focuses on childhood dreams, life lessons – and, in short, how to achieve a good life.
Having a mother who passed away from pancreatic cancer at age 54 and rapidly approaching that age myself, dozens of themes Pausch explores resonate with me – some big and difficult to achieve, and others small and relatively easy to execute. Since reading the book, I make a point to talk to my children about many of these ideas. One of the simplest recommendations Pausch makes – one which strikes me as invaluable both personally and in the business world, is the remarkable power of the handwritten thank-you note.
Pausch describes a graduate candidate who applied to Carnegie Mellon and --- after a full review of her packet was complete – fell slightly below the line. At the last moment, Pausch picked up the file again and began to go over the various application documents and correspondence. All of a sudden, stuck behind another document, out slipped a handwritten note. It was from the candidate to a staff member – a member of staff who was clearly outside of the decision process. The staff member had apparently been helpful along the way; and the candidate wrote a letter acknowledging this kindness. Pausch was impressed enough with this note to show it to a faculty colleague and make the case that, anyone who would take the time to send a sincere note of thanks to someone extraneous to the admissions decision, was someone of strong character -- someone who should be admitted to Carnegie Mellon. The woman was indeed admitted, performed superbly in the program and went on to garner a coveted position with Disney upon graduation.
Receiving and reading a proper message of thanks is rare in this world where texting, social media and the 140-character attention span rule. Think about it. Most of us who sit at desks all day find ourselves bombarded by electronic communication. It’s a challenge to stay caught up. We develop mailbox rules to auto-file certain messages, relegating them indefinitely to distant folders. We prioritize and focus on only the most critical messages, saving the others for later … usually much later. We leave the office and continue to sort and sift at odd hours of the day and night, thanks to our small screens. We are all victims of information overload. With this in mind, how likely is the emailed thank-you to get noticed? Indeed, standing out in the midst of this e-quagmire would seem to require super-powers!
Don’t get me wrong, no matter how you express your gratitude, it’s important. However, receiving a hand-written message of thanks is something special. How many of us receive old-fashioned letters during the daily mail drop? I get only a few at a week … at most. Moreover, I always sort these to open first. I can’t help it. I’m curious to see who is taking the time to write me by hand. If you want people to know you appreciate them – whether in the process of applying to a school, interviewing for a new position, or day-to-day business development and relationship management, consider sending the occasional note of gratitude using a pen and paper. It’s a powerful thing.
I shared this lesson from The Last Lecture right away with my daughters and have purchased each of them a small box of cards, envelopes and Forever stamps. While I was at it, I bought the same for myself. I’m not yet convinced we will use up all the stationary this year; but I’d like to try.