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A Lesson In Life From Michael J. Fox

When Michael J. Fox left high school in British Columbia, Canada, to become an actor, a social studies teacher told him, "You're making a big mistake, Fox. You won't be cute forever."

Fox says he replied, "Maybe just long enough, sir. Maybe just long enough."

As the commencement season approaches, Fox, who proudly calls himself a graduate of the "University of the Universal," has written a small book aimed at graduates, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Future, in which he shares some lessons from his own life.

"I always felt that I came up short in the education department," Fox tells NPR's Scott Simon. "But I've come to the conclusion that we all get an education. And somehow over the years, I managed to get one."

Fifteen years after leaving high school, Fox went back and got his GED at the urging of his 4-year-old.

Lesson In Economics

Fox breaks his book down into specific disciplines -- similar to a degree program. Under the "economics" section, Fox discusses learning about money as a young working actor in Los Angeles. He says in his first year, he made about $50,000 -- but spent $75,000.

"That was my first lesson in economics: That doesn't work," says Fox.

Fox went on to play the fiscally conservative Alex P. Keaton on the show Family Ties.

"It's ironic that now as I'm a fundraiser for a [Parkinson's disease research] foundation, some of our biggest supporters are people on Wall Street and in the financial industry -- hedge fund managers and stuff -- that grew up idolizing Alex Keaton," he says. "So it's come around in this weird karmic way that these people who I was satirizing ended up being my biggest benefactors."

During his time on Family Ties, Fox also shot Back to the Future.

"In the same kind of way the math didn't work in the economics, the math didn't work in a temporal sense," he says.

He would work from about 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. at Family Ties. Then he would shoot Back to the Future from 6 p.m. to 4 or 5 a.m.

"A teamster literally would pick me up from bed and throw me in the shower and then at the end of the day reverse the process," he says.

Learning From Loss

Fox says that he thinks people learn more from disappointment than success.

"There's always failure. And there's always disappointment. And there's always loss. But the secret is learning from the loss, and realizing that none of those holes are vacuums," he says.

Fox, who has Parkinson's disease, says in the book that he learns from his illness.

"Right as I speak to you now, I'm waiting for a pill to kick in, which is not helping me out and not kicking in," he says. "And so, I have a choice: I can either kind of quit and say, 'Well, this is not ideal, I'm going to give in.' Or you can just push through."

He says much of the time, his pills are working and he feels great. He has to remind other people -- and himself -- that his natural state is halting and tremulous.

"But I'm always happy either way," he says. "So when it comes to me, body language lies."

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