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Throughout my academic career, I'd given some pretty good talks. But being considered the best speaker in a computer science department is like being known as the tallest of the Seven Dwarfs. And right then, I had the feeling that I had more in me, that if I gave it my all, I might be able to offer people something special. "Wisdom" is a strong word, but maybe that was it.

Source - The Last Lecture by Randy Pausch

What is the meaning of "that was it"? And why it is "was" instead of "is"?

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It means "That was the answer", or "that was the explanation".

"Was" anchors the narrative at the point in time that he is speaking about. "That is it" would be equally grammatical, and the meaning would be essentially the same; but it would take the reader out of the narrative and bring them to the present.

  • But thought was that it means "wisdom is a strong word, but it is merely that, nothing more than that". – Man_From_India Apr 13 '18 at 16:02
  • Can you explain a bit more about it? – Man_From_India Apr 13 '18 at 16:03
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    I'm not sure that I can, @Man_From_India. His precise meaning is not clear to me. But I'm sure that whatever he means it does not have "merely" in it. There is a sense of surprise or even pride in what he is saying. It might be that he is actually saying he is wise, but modestly avoiding saying it clearly ("That was what it was that I realised I had: wisdom"). I'm not certain, though – Colin Fine Apr 13 '18 at 16:13
  • he mentioned that he had something special. And that was wisdom? – Man_From_India Apr 13 '18 at 16:19
  • Perhaps, yes, @Man_From_India – Colin Fine Apr 13 '18 at 16:22
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"That was it" or "this is it" are often used in a very informal way by native English speakers.

"It", as a singular pronoun, denotes one thing, and in a discussion, or any written or spoken text there is usually one main topic, or answer being sought. When you hear or read "it" and it seems out of context, it normally refers to what the writer or speaker feels is the main point.

In this example "it" is the elusive thing that the writer has to offer as a speaker. He initially dismisses that he has "wisdom" to offer, but then he reasons and he concludes "that [wisdom] IS it".

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That was it = wisdom was it

And it refers back to the something special he had to offer.

I don't believe that the meaning here is that was all there was to it:

We closed the shutters and put the cars in the garage, and that was it. We were ready for the storm.

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