LAS VEGAS—“The script of your life is not yet written. Life changes, and you change with it,” said Michael J. Fox, the Emmy Award-winning actor, author and advocate, during the June 29, 2011, closing keynote speech of the Society for Human Resource Management’s (SHRM) 63rd Annual Conference & Exposition.
Fox, well-known for his award-winning roles on the television series “Family Ties” and “Spin City,” and in numerous movies such as the “Back to the Future” trilogy, “Doc Hollywood” and “The American President,” said that one of the most valuable life lessons he has learned from a career of acting is not to play the result; that is, you can’t act as if you know what’s coming, as if you know how the scene is going to end, he said. “You have to behave as if you don’t know what’s going to happen. You have to live in that moment.”
“ 'Don’t play the result’ is really about possibilities,” he said. “The outcome of your life is uncertain.” Fox’s own life has undoubtedly been one of uncertainty and change. “I was so small, people wondered what I was going to do when I grew up—if I grew up,” he quipped. “As a child, I was considered sort of a flake. I was an oddball.”
After dabbling in hockey and rock music, he dropped out of high school to pursue a career in acting. Though Fox’s teachers and family worried about his choice, his grandmother “Nana”—who had an uncanny knack for predicting the future, said he would be famous one day.
But being successful in Hollywood was its own new problem, according to Fox. “Early success ... money ... fame is like having Miracle-Gro [fertilizer] thrown on your character defects,” he said. “The fun house sounds great, but it can quickly turn into a carnival house of mirrors and warp your perspective.
“I was so caught up being the prince of Hollywood. I got away with whatever I wanted to get away with,” he said.
He said he was in need of a dose of reality. That reality came to him in the form of fellow “Family Ties” actor, Tracy Pollan, who later became his wife. “That was the best decision I ever made,” he noted.
But he was still living “in the funhouse” he said, staying in penthouse suites while working and partying all night with fellow actors.
It was during the filming of the movie “Doc Hollywood,” he said, that he “got the message.
“I woke up to find it in my left hand. It wasn’t a fax or a telegraph or a memo,” he said. “My hand held nothing at all. I was just trembling. That was the message. It was a slight but constant tremor in my pinky finger.”
After a battery of tests, multiple opinions and a journey through Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’s five stages of grief, Fox finally had to face the reality that at the age of 29 he had early onset Parkinson’s—a disorder of the brain that leads to body tremors as well as difficulties with walking, movement and coordination.
But he chose not to disclose his condition to the public for seven years. “I hid it by acting,” he said, because he didn’t think audiences could laugh at someone who was sick.
Though the resulting publicity that followed his announcement first led Fox to think he had made a terrible mistake, he eventually began to study the disease and realized there was a need for an organization that would focus on advancing research in hopes of one day finding a cure.
“By the time I saw the twitch in my pinky, 80 percent of the dopamine producing cells in my body were already dead,” Fox noted. That’s why his organization—the Michael J. Fox Foundation—is working on research to identify Parkinson’s early.
But he made it clear that he wanted his foundation to go into business to eventually go out of business. “I’m grateful to be a part of this work,” he said. “It’s a fulfilling job, but I’m looking forward to being unemployed.
“I often say that Parkinson’s is a gift—the gift that keeps on taking,” he said. Yet he acknowledged that having Parkinson’s has helped form his philosophy on life: “The more complicated it gets, the more it seems to bring out the best in us.
“I still have a choice. Life comes down to a series of choices. The only choice not available to me is whether or not to have Parkinson’s. Everything else is my call.”
In conclusion, Fox said, “I ask you to mine the present moment for its hidden possibilities and allow those around you at work and at home to do the same. And whatever you do, never ever play the result.”
Fox is the bestselling author of three books, including A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Future (Hyperion, 2010), a compendium of wisdom for graduates.
To learn more about the Michael J. Fox Foundation, visit www.michaeljfox.org.
Rebecca R. Hastings, SPHR, is an online editor/manager for SHRM.