2019 Family Medicine Experience

Michael Eisner: Find Your 'Why' and Embrace It

September 27, 2019 03:31 pm David Mitchell Philadelphia –

Michael Eisner was destined to be a storyteller, but the former CEO of the Walt Disney Co. dreamed of being a doctor when he was a teenager.

FMX keynote speaker Michael Eisner keeps the audience engaged with personal stories about his rise to the top of the Walt Disney Co.

Eisner was at the beach when he found an abandoned copy of The Cry and the Covenant in the sand. Morton Thompson's 1949 novel is based on the life of Ignaz Semmelweis, the Hungarian doctor who pioneered antiseptic procedures in hospitals but was derided by his peers and died in an asylum. His theories were proven and accepted after his death.

"That story inspired me," said Eisner, who was a mainstage speaker Sept. 25 at the AAFP's 2019 Family Medicine Experience. "I wanted to be a physician and make a difference -- but without the dying in an asylum part."

Eisner was eight weeks into an organic chemistry class at Columbia University when he realized he wasn't going to make it as a physician. He briefly tried his hand as a playwright, but he failed there, too.

"You have to know your why before you can love it," said Eisner, alluding to the theme of the 2019 FMX: "Love Your Why."

Story Highlights
  • Former Walt Disney Co. CEO Michael Eisner spoke to family physicians at the opening ceremony of the AAFP's 2019 Family Medicine Experience on Sept. 25.
  • Eisner discussed the importance of finding meaning in your work, alluding to the theme of the 2019 FMX: "Love Your Why."
  • He also addressed the mixed blessing of increasingly complex technology, such as filmmakers' computer animation systems and physicians' EHRs.

Eisner landed a job as an NBC page at Radio City Music Hall. Later, as a Federal Communications Commission clerk, he tracked data on commercials, such as the time they aired and whether they were black and white or color. At CBS, he tracked which commercials aired during Saturday morning cartoons.

"Before long, I had every cartoon theme song stuck in my head," said Eisner, cuing an audio snippet of, "Here I come to save the day," from the Mighty Mouse theme song.

Yet Eisner longed for something more, and he eventually found it as an assistant in the programming department at ABC, which was failing so badly at the time that Eisner said it "ranked fourth out of three networks."

He helped launch The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau in 1966. The show was popular, but when ABC moved the documentary series to its news division, Eisner was out of work again.

"I didn't know my why because I was always focused on the next thing," he said.

He eventually worked his way up to senior vice president in charge of programming and development, helping lead ABC to the No. 1 spot in primetime, daytime and children's programming.

In 1976, ABC was developing a project about slavery with a mostly black cast that the network's research department assured him was doomed to fail because "America wasn't ready" for such a show. But he pressed ahead. Roots set ratings records and received 37 Primetime Emmy Award nominations, winning nine.

Eisner had similarly ignored skeptics a few years earlier when network researchers told him that nobody would watch a sitcom set in the 1950s. Happy Days ran for 11 seasons and spun off another hit show -- Laverne & Shirley -- set in the same time period.

Bigger than life images and pounding music from the original Disney movie The Lion King provide a thrilling backdrop to Michael Eisner's speech at the AAFP's 2019 FMX opening ceremony.

"I never trusted audience research again," he said.

Eisner talked extensively about the need to make positive outcomes out of negative situations. On his first day as CEO of Paramount Pictures, for example, he was pulled over for speeding in Beverly Hills. He engaged the policeman in a conversation about what it was like to work someplace with a largely privileged population and not be able to afford to live in the city he served. That discussion sparked an idea that eventually led to Beverly Hills Cop, the Eddie Murphy comedy that spent 14 weeks as the No. 1 movie in the country and was the highest-grossing film of 1984.

"Something good resulted from a not-so-good experience," he said.

Happy outcomes can come out of bad situations if you think them through, said Eisner, who used clips from movies to back up his points. For example, during production of Raiders of the Lost Ark, actor Harrison Ford was sick on a day he was supposed to film an elaborate fight scene with a big, sword-wielding bad guy.

"Couldn't I just shoot him?" Ford asked.

Director Steven Spielberg agreed, leading to one of the most memorable scenes of the iconic film.

Paramount produced numerous hit movies and TV shows during Eisner's tenure, but he was passed over when his mentor, chairman Barry Diller, left the studio. Eisner bolted for Disney. Under his leadership, his new employer had a string of successes in its animation studio, increased its theme park footprint and expanded through acquisitions of Miramax Films, ABC and ESPN.

Still, things don't always go as planned. In 1989, Eisner expected that a big step for the upcoming Euro Disney Resort would be greeted with cheers. Instead, angry Parisians pelted Disney officials with objects when Euro Disney was launched on the Paris Stock Exchange that November.

"There was yolk on my lapel," he said. "That makes you question your why. Excuse me -- my pourquoi."

After early struggles, the now renamed Disneyland Paris draws roughly 15 million visitors per year.

"No matter how much you love your why, you might not always feel like your why loves you back," he said. "When times are challenging, you have to grab on to it even tighter."

Eisner said he sympathized with physicians struggling with the challenge of administrative burdens that distract them from patient care.

"It's death by a thousand clicks," he said.

He said an "inherent irony in technology is that as it becomes more complicated, it becomes easier to use," offering as an example The Lion King, which was the most sophisticated computer-animated film when it was released in 1994. Toy Story, the first completely computer-animated film, followed just a year later.

But physicians have not seen such rapid improvement in EHR technology.

"Technology is a mixed blessing in your work," he said. "It giveth headaches and it taketh them away."

Shifting to the topic of decision-making, Eisner said sometimes you just have to go with your gut. He talked about a script he was given that, unlike many Hollywood films, had "no action and no sex." Still, a teacher in the period piece played by Robin Williams reminded him of one of his own mentors. Dead Poets Society was nominated for four Academy Awards in 1990 and won for best original screenplay.

"That movie had a great impact on people when it was released and continues to today," Eisner said. "It shows the impact of one person and how they connect with others. The character is a teacher, but it could be anyone."

Like, say, a physician?

Eisner said he "did some math" and estimated that the thousands of physicians in the room had likely had a direct impact on the lives of roughly 30 million people, "including lives you've saved."

Eisner pointed to a 75-year Harvard research project that tracked subjects' emotional and physical health and found the greatest predictor of happiness was good relationships.(www.inc.com) His Eisner Foundation(eisnerfoundation.org) supports programs that bring together people from different generations because, he said, "loneliness kills."

Eisner, who left Disney in 2005 and later founded the investment firm The Tornante Co., said it took him years to find meaning in his work, but physicians should know their why.

"Love it, treasure it and embrace it," he said.

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Additional Resources
2019 AAFP FMX: Thursday(wakelet.com)

2019 AAFP FMX: Wednesday(wakelet.com)

2019 Congress of Delegates: Day Three(wakelet.com)

2019 Congress of Delegates: Day Two(wakelet.com)

2019 Congress of Delegates: Day One(wakelet.com)