The last day of a conference is always a little rough. You’ve seen a lot of sessions and they all start to blur together. At some point you hear, “yada yada yada” and think it’s insight.
And then you see a keynote that stops the conference cold and hits everyone on a gut level.
That keynote was Michael J. Fox.
In case you have been living under a rock, Michael J. Fox was THE guy for awhile – Back to the Future, Family Ties, Spin City. What we didn’t know is that in 1991, at the age of 29, he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease and told he would only have about 10 years left to work.
Can you imagine how limiting that must have been? Most of us would have ranted and raved, felt sorry for ourselves, been paralyzed by fear, or some other “end of world” reaction I assume we’ve all imagined at one time or another.
Michael J. Fox went out and starred in Spin City. He continued to act. He wrote 3 best-selling books.
He lives every single day. And he is happy.
On the last day of the Work Human conference in Orlando, there was a lot of anticipation to see him speak. Recent reports were that his disease was progressing quickly. Would he be okay onstage? Would he speak at all?
Lucky for us, he did speak. You could tell the disease had progressed. His speech was a little slurred, you saw the tremors. But you also saw the glint in his eye, the quick wit, the humor – the PERSON. He never shied away from talking about Parkinson’s and how it impacted his life and the lives of those around him. He talked about the challenges of hearing his time to work was limited. He shared the frustrations of not having early detection for Parkinson’s (by the time he had the tremor that led him to the doctor, 80% of his dopamine-producing cells were already dead).
But most of all, he shared the joy he finds in life.
He shared it by the way he talked about his family – his parents, his wife, his 4 children. He shared it in the way he focused on what he CAN do, not what he can’t. There were people who cried throughout his entire talk because despite the fact you could see the disease had affected him physically, you saw he chose to see the disease progression as a gift – it gave him focus, honesty and clarity.
I can’t possibly capture the impact Michael J. Fox had on the audience. Nor can I capture all the incredible quotes. Here is a taste of what the crowd experienced:
- On his father: “My father was in the military. When you had a problem, he was the first person you wanted to call and the last person you wanted to talk to.”
- On hearing the doctor tell him he had 10 years left to work: “It was after 10 years that I finally got good. Parkinson’s stripped away all the tricks and forced me to be honest.”
- On his disease: “I accept things. That doesn’t mean I’m resigned to them, but I can accept them them as they are and move on.”
- On caregivers of those living with disabilities: “There are no rules for people with a disease or disability – let them define their own life and what they can do.”
- On his foundation: “We are the leading private funder of Parkinson’s research.”
- On delaying disclosing his diagnosis: “How can the audience laugh at me if they know I’m sick?”
- On the future: “You can’t project what’s going to happen in the future. You just have to see how it goes.”
I’ve always cringed when someone comes up to me and says, “Happiness is a choice!” Mostly because it’s accompanied by a big giant smile and is usually preceded by a statement akin to, “It looks like someone has a case of the Mondays.” But when Michael J. Fox says he made the choice to not let this define him and to fill his days with life, I totally believe it.
This keynote made the conference for me. It’s one thing for people to tell you to choose happiness.
It’s another thing entirely to see someone who did it.
This is what inspiration looks like. A 54-year-old Canadian who loves to walk outside and feel the dew on his feet and spend time with his family.
If you’re interested in learning more about the Michael J. Fox Foundation or if you want to donate to fund research, visit https://www.michaeljfox.org/.