Michael J. Fox’s Life Lessons on Work, Optimism, and Choice

by Jennifer Miller on May 17, 2016

in Workplace Issues, Zen of Jen

life is about circumstance and choice

“I’m going to a conference next month and the keynote speaker is Michael J. Fox.”

“Cool! Although, I just saw on Facebook that his health isn’t very good. I hope he’s able to make the event.”

Such was the conversation I had several weeks ago with a friend. I’d seen the post about Michael J. Fox on Facebook as well and hoped it wasn’t true. A bit of investigative work on my part revealed nothing reported (besides the “news” on Facebook) so I was hopeful it was just a rumor.

I’m happy to report that Mike Fox is healthy and still wowing audiences wherever he goes.

And, he’s taking on those scurrilous reports to ensure that people know he’s just fine, thank you. Apparently, the Globe magazine had to retract their reports of his failing health and Mike took to Twitter to announce it:

Michael J. Fox tweet

Don’t mess with Marty McFly.

As for the conference where I saw Michael J. Fox?  It was Globoforce’s WorkHuman event in Orlando, Florida. Fox spent 45 minutes talking with moderator Julie Zadow about optimism, hope and gratitude. Regrettably, we weren’t allowed to take photos. But I did take copious notes, which I want to share with you. Because his talk was beyond inspiring; it was transforming.

First of all, you need to know that the conference was about “bringing humanity back to the workplace.” The conference organizers talked a lot about helping people “do the best work of their lives.” The majority of the conference attendees were either in a management role or a human resources capacity. In that context, it might be difficult to connect the dots between an actor/author/activist and the lofty goal of making work more human. Because I was there, I can make the connection for you. So here goes. Here are four life lessons Fox shared with the audience, and a food-for-thought question from me to help you consider your life as it relates to Mike’s message (Yeah, I kinda feel like we’re on a first-name basis now.)

How a tree helped him frame his optimistic viewpoint.

Fox told the following story: Years ago, he went on a hike. The tour guide pointed out some very poisonous plants along the trail, saying, “This tree has red sap, don’t touch it. It burns.” Several paces down the trail, the guide pointed to a different tree. “See that tree? It has black sap. It heals burns.” Fox said that this story was a good metaphor for a person with an optimistic point of view: there’s always another tree down the road to help you with your challenges.

Food for thought: Think about challenges you’ve encountered that initially stymied you. What did you find, “further down the road” that helped you overcome that challenge? How has the “black sap tree” shaped who you are today?

Choice and circumstance.

Fox said when he was diagnosed with early onset Parkinson’s disease in 1991, he had a choice. He could choose to go down a “dark path.” But he chose not to. “Whether it was optimism or self-preservation, that’s just what I chose.” Life, he said, is about circumstance and choice. If you make the right choices, given your circumstance, you’ll be fine. “I’ve accepted what my life is and then moved on” he said.

Food for thought: Under what circumstances do you make the choices that work out best for you? Is there a pattern?

On doing your best life’s work.

Fox talked about his acting, saying that when he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s, his doctors gave him ten years (“tops”) to continue acting. He mused, “But you know, what I love about the ‘work’ of acting is that after those 10 years – that’s when I got really good. I couldn’t rely on my old acting tricks, like ‘shocked expression #365.’ My acting now relies on my humanity and it’s some of the best work of my life.”

Food for thought: When have you done the best work of your life? If you’re not doing it right now, then how can you bring a little bit of your “best” self today? Not for your employer, but for you?

There’s always a way to find gratitude.

When asked to share some of his life lessons, Fox pointed to gratitude. “Just be grateful,” he said. And then, with the sly wit that we’ve loved for so many years, he added, “If there’s things you don’t like about someone, just be grateful that you’re not them.”

Food for thought: Think about people that have been bugging you. Is there a way you can use Fox’s suggestion to, at a minimum, be grateful that you aren’t “that person”?


{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Jennifer Miller May 19, 2016 at 9:36 pm

Here’s the amazing thing, Chery. As wonderful as Mike Fox’s talk was, the other speakers were equally as inspiring and informative. An all-around good conference experience.

Ed May 25, 2016 at 12:32 pm

Thanks for sharing this Jennifer. As an attendee of the conference myself I couldn’t so eloquently share how impactful MJ Fox’s keynote was, but I agree that the entire conference was unique and special in terms of the conferences I’ve attended in the past.

Jennifer Miller May 25, 2016 at 4:34 pm


Thanks for stopping by. Sorry we didn’t meet at WorkHuman, but I’ll definitely attend next year. Maybe our paths will cross then.

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