The Last Lecture

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The Head Fake Symbol Analysis

The Head Fake Symbol Icon

Randy learns the head fake—a situation in which someone believes that they are learning about one thing, but are really learning about something different—from his old-school youth football coach, Coach Graham. Randy believes that youth sports, in general, are an example of the head fake, as most parents don’t care so much whether their kid learns about the intricacies of the sport. Instead, they want their kids to learn about “teamwork, perseverance, sportsmanship, the value of hard work, [and] an ability to deal with adversity.” Similarly, Randy’s software project Alice is designed to teach kids how to create video games and make stop-motion animated movies. But, really, it teaches them the fundamentals of how to program computers without the kids even realizing it. Finally, Randy’s last lecture is, in itself, an example of a head fake—the title says it’s about how to achieve your dreams, but it’s really “about how to lead your life.” In Randy’s view, one of the best ways to learn something important is to believe you’re really learning about something else.

The Head Fake Quotes in The Last Lecture

The The Last Lecture quotes below all refer to the symbol of The Head Fake. For each quote, you can also see the other characters and themes related to it (each theme is indicated by its own dot and icon, like this one:
Dreams in Reality Theme Icon
). Note: all page and citation info for the quotes below refers to the Hyperion edition of The Last Lecture published in 2008.
Introduction Quotes

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.

Related Characters: Randy Pausch (speaker), Dylan, Logan, Chloe
Related Symbols: The Head Fake
Page Number: xiv
Explanation and Analysis:

This quote occurs in the first passage that Randy writes in the book, right after Jai’s foreword. It tips readers off to the fundamental head fake that underscores the entire narrative of The Last Lecture—that, though Randy’s lecture is supposedly about achieving your dreams (and thus how to lead your life), the deeper purpose of his book is to leave a piece of himself—of his beliefs, ideas, and personality—behind for his young children to remember him by. The notion of teaching one thing (like how to achieve your dreams) in order to actually teach another thing (like telling his children who he was and what he cared about) will recur throughout the book. This is also an example of another trick that Randy consistently teaches: using obstacles as opportunities. Randy uses the horrid obstacle of his impending death as an opportunity to do as much as he possibly can to leave behind remnants of himself for his children (and anyone else) to find.


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Chapter 7 Quotes

…even though I did not reach the National Football League, I sometimes think I got more from pursuing that dream, and not accomplishing it, than I did from many of the ones I did accomplish.

Related Characters: Randy Pausch (speaker), Coach Jim Graham
Related Symbols: The Head Fake
Page Number: 35
Explanation and Analysis:

How you perceive failure is all about attitude: you can view it as a negative or as a positive learning experience, and the latter is how Randy chooses to view the fact that he did not make the NFL. This quote occurs after Randy discusses his deep love of tackle football, which began during his formative experiences playing peewee football under the tutelage of Coach Jim Graham, an old-school strict disciplinarian who believed in hard work and learning the fundamentals.

Randy isn’t a good enough football player to play professionally, but his experiences on the football team taught him valuable life lessons that he passes down to his students, children and readers. Those lessons include that you can’t teach self-esteem (you can only build it through hard work), and, most importantly, the idea of the “head fake,” which is that you can think you’re learning one thing (like how to play football) while you’re really learning something far more important (like how to work with others, sportsmanship, perseverance, etc.). Randy applies the idea of the head fake to many aspects of his life, including the construction of this book and his last lecture.

The second kind of head fake is the really important one—the one that teaches people things they don’t realize they’re learning until well into the process. If you’re a head-fake specialist, your hidden objective is to get them to learn something you want them to learn.

Related Characters: Randy Pausch (speaker), Coach Jim Graham
Related Symbols: The Head Fake
Page Number: 39
Explanation and Analysis:

This quote occurs at the end of Randy’s chapter about football being a formative experience for him, as Coach Graham gave Randy a “feedback loop for life.” Up until the day Randy wrote The Last Lecture (and presumably until his death), Coach Graham would continually pop into Randy’s head to ask the question: Are you working hard enough? And then Randy would re-evaluate his strategies and time management, and often work harder.

However, the most important thing Coach Graham taught Randy is “the second kind of head fake” (as opposed to the first kind, which is literal misdirection, like when a football player moves one way but goes the other). The second kind of head fake is teaching people one thing (like football, or making video games) so that they actually, without realizing it, learn another thing (like teamwork, or computer programming skills). This is a lesson Randy uses throughout his whole life as a teacher and parent, which is why he thinks he may have learned more from not accomplishing his dream of playing in the NFL than from many of the dreams he did accomplish.

Chapter 27 Quotes

…if it is presented as a storytelling activity, girls become perfectly willing to learn how to write software. In fact, they love it… Everybody loves telling stories. It’s one of the truly universal things about our species. So in my mind, Caitlin wins the All-Time Best Head-Fake Award.

Related Characters: Randy Pausch (speaker), Caitlin Kelleher
Related Symbols: The Head Fake
Page Number: 128
Explanation and Analysis:

This quote occurs after Randy tells of his creation of the Alice software project, which is software designed to get people of all ages (but especially kids) to make animated videos as well as video games, while at the same time teaching them real computer programming skills.

One of Randy’s students, Caitlin Kelleher, sees that the program doesn’t seem to be as effective or enjoyable for girls as it is for boys, so she sets out to remedy that problem. Her solution isn’t to change the software much, but instead to frame it in a different way. Rather than ‘programming software,’ Caitlin presents Alice as a ‘storytelling activity,’ leading girls to enjoy it just as much as boys. This makes Randy decide to give Caitlin the metaphorical All-Time Best Head-Fake Award, as many more girls are now making their dreams into realities through the Alice program and learning valuable programming skills they can use throughout their lives. In the guise of simply telling stories, these girls will now learn skills they’re not even necessarily aware of, which is the whole idea behind the head fake.

Chapter 61 Quotes

“It’s not about how to achieve your dreams. It’s about how to lead your life. If you lead your life the right way, the karma will take care of itself. The dreams will come to you.”

Related Characters: Randy Pausch (speaker)
Related Symbols: The Head Fake
Page Number: 205-206
Explanation and Analysis:

This quote occurs on the very last page of the book, where Randy explains that he ended his last lecture by revealing the fundamental head fake that underscores the lecture. This quote explains how Randy’s last lecture, and the book The Last Lecture itself, are examples of the “head fake” because, although the lecture purported to be about achieving childhood dreams, it is really about how Randy believes people should live their lives. So, Randy believes, if people lead their lives in the proper way, always keeping their childhood dreams in mind, then the dreams will come to them.

In no way is Randy advocating for simply being entitled to achieving dreams and waiting for them to show up—instead, he is arguing that if you live your life in such a way that you consciously work hard to improve yourself and seek dream-fulfilling opportunities, then when those opportunities do arise you will be ready and able to seize them.

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The Head Fake Symbol Timeline in The Last Lecture

The timeline below shows where the symbol The Head Fake appears in The Last Lecture. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Chapter 7: I Never Made It to the NFL
Teaching, Learning, and Feedback Loops Theme Icon
Attitude and Positive Behavior Theme Icon
Entitlement vs. Earning Theme Icon deal with adversity.” This kind of indirect learning is what Randy calls a “ head fake ”. Randy says that there are two kinds of head fakes—literal ones, like when a... (full context)
Chapter 27: The Promised Land
Dreams in Reality Theme Icon
Teaching, Learning, and Feedback Loops Theme Icon to chase their dreams. He sees Alice as a prime example of the “ head fake ,” because students think they’re using Alice to make movies or create video games, but... (full context)
Teaching, Learning, and Feedback Loops Theme Icon
Attitude and Positive Behavior Theme Icon write software—everybody loves telling stories, and, in Randy’s mind, Caitlin wins the “All-Time Best Head-Fake Award.” (full context)
Chapter 61: The Dreams Will Come to You
Dreams in Reality Theme Icon
Teaching, Learning, and Feedback Loops Theme Icon
Attitude and Positive Behavior Theme Icon
...told the audience that the talk was about achieving childhood dreams, but there was a head fake —the talk isn’t “about how to achieve your dreams. It’s about how to lead your... (full context)
Teaching, Learning, and Feedback Loops Theme Icon
Lastly, Randy goes to a slide that reads, “Have you figured out the second head fake ?” Randy then tells them—“The talk wasn’t just for this in the room.” It was... (full context)