The Doctor Will Speak to You Now

Mehmet Oz’s career has been on a steady rise since medical school, but now he’s achieved something greater: significance. He shares the secrets (and mistakes) that have driven his journey.
September 1, 2011

I experience nothing unexpected when I first meet Mehmet Oz, known better on TV as Dr. Oz. All the usual trappings are in place: a direct self-introduction, a firm handshake, and a suit and tie. “Would you like some nuts?” he asks, offering up the bag of cashews he carried in with him. Of course, not everyone carries a bag of cashews, but this doesn’t strike me as strange—the man’s dedicated his life to health.

But then he settles in. We’ve convened at a midtown Manhattan recording studio so he can record his audio interview for the CD in this issue and talk to me for this story. The settling-in includes taking off his jacket and untucking his shirttails so they hang all wrinkled around his waist. I didn’t expect that. But it’s the first indication of the personality behind the persona: Comfort means better concentration, which means better performance. In short, he sets himself up before so he doesn’t have to think about it during.

“The brain consumes 20 percent more energy when it’s thinking,” he says. “Why would you waste energy when you don’t have to?”

Dr. Oz, 51, talks fast, directly, and packs each sentence with a lot of information. That’s because he has a lot of information to offer, a lifetime of medical experience polished and processed by another part of his brain that has been honed by years of media training. The result is a man Oprah Winfrey calls “America’s doctor.”

His résumé and daily schedule are impressive: He’s an Ivy League-educated M.D., of course, but few know that he also has a Wharton M.B.A. and has performed thousands of cardiothoracic procedures as a surgeon at New York Presbyterian/Columbia University Medical Center. He’s been heavily involved in developing less invasive surgical techniques and holds several patents. He teamed with the founder of WebMD to create Sharecare.com, a leading question-and-answer medical information site on the Web. And then there’s the stuff most people know: host of his own Emmy Award-winning medical advice show, The Dr. Oz Show; author and co-author with Dr. Michael Roizen of multiple No. 1 best-selling books; protégé of Oprah Winfrey; and most recently, the man who has taken over Oprah’s daily time slot in most markets across the country.

He’s achieved a more recent transformation, however. You can’t pinpoint a moment when it happened, but along the way, as he became more and more successful, Mehmet Oz achieved significance. This isn’t the same as material success. And he understands what he’s become. He has, in fact, strived for it.

“Significance means service,” he says, “doing things that impact people, hopefully in a beneficial way. It’s not just going out there and bragging about a certain thing you’ve done, but showing people how they can apply it to their lives and improve something. That to me is what significance is all about.”

Many of us search for that significance, but it’s very easy to confuse significance with success. Success, as Oz defines it, is simply the “achievement of goals.” That’s far easier to do than aligning your goals to helping others. And here’s a secret: Success helps you achieve significance because it gives you the wherewithal to branch out, take chances, and develop new projects.

Not surprisingly, Dr. Oz has a few ideas about how to put yourself on the road to significance. Each one—based either in personal experience or sound medical science—is designed to propel you forward. Think of it as a master class from one of our most successful—and significant—practitioners of life improvement.

1. Find a better way.

Oz practices two kinds of medicine: proactive and reactive. Think of reactive medicine as more traditional medicine. A patient comes in with a problem such as a coronary artery blockage. The doctor performs a procedure to fix the problem. Most doctors practice reactive medicine.

Proactive medicine is different, and more difficult, because you’re trying to educate people to make better lifestyle choices so a reactive medical procedure never has to be done in the first place. Oz added this style of medicine to his repertoire because as the years and surgeries piled up, he noticed something disturbing: He was cutting on younger and younger people, “25-year-olds,” he says, shaking his head. “Can you imagine operating on people in their 20s with coronary blockages? It’s crazy.”

And when one of those twenty-somethings ate fast-food as her first postsurgical meal, he realized that education and prevention were two grossly underserved areas in medicine. “At a certain point you need to honor your responsibilities as a professional. Professionals are the ballast of our society. It’s our job to right the ship as it goes through troubled waters. So if there’s a professional reading this article, they should recognize that it’s about doing your job right. You have a civic responsibility. That’s what I was embracing.”

2. Take a lot of swings.

Oz has four children, and one of the lessons he tries to impart is that success only comes with repeated and tenacious attempts. You cannot be a one-trick pony. “We make lots of mistakes,” he says. “I was talking to my daughter recently, and I told her the reason there’s lots of stuff next to my name when I’m introduced is because I’ve made lots of mistakes. If you do a lot of things, you have bad outcomes. If you do a lot of surgeries, you’ll have bad outcomes. If you do a lot of shows, you’re going to hurt people’s feelings even though you didn’t want to.”

He compares his ambitions to that of a baseball player. Become a starter, stay in the lineup and rack up hundreds of at-bats. That’s the only way you become a good hitter. “You won’t get a hit all the time. The leading hitters strike out a lot because they’re at bat a lot. So it’s our challenge in life to learn from those mistakes, to not be defined by our errors but how we recover from them. That’s what hope is all about.”

3. Understand the real definition of salesmanship.

The proactive side of Oz’s business, trying to help folks make positive changes so they stay healthier longer, involves salesmanship. There’s no way around it. And if you work in sales or run a company that sells things (which is every company out there), you know that the most difficult thing is getting to yes. How do you convince clients or customers that what you’re bringing them is what they need? Oz has honed his healthy sales pitch to a fine edge because he finally figured out how to reach people.

“The most important thing you need to be able to do to be successful is to listen,” he says. “I know it’s such an obvious and simple thing to do, but so few of us listen well. As a doctor, as a male and a father, all these masculine things, I didn’t learn to listen well until I started my own show and started working at ‘Oprah University’ for seven or eight years on her show.”

But listening is just the initial skill. You still need to process what you’re hearing from people and return it to them in a way that is meaningful. Think about what Oz is trying to do for 300 million customers: change many ingrained habits that hurt them long term. Change a society so it’s healthier? There’s no harder sales job in the world. And yet Oz is having a positive impact. He’s reaching people with his pitch. What’s his secret?

“You can throw terrific information at people, but that won’t do it,” he says. “People don’t change based on what they know; people change based on what they feel. If you can listen to people and validate their emotions, they’ll feel connected to you. Do that, and now you’re talking to their emotions and to their soul, not just to their brain. That’s when real change happens. When you understand that, you’ll be able to change how they act and, by doing that, change how you act with them. That can be a huge opportunity for success with your family, for sure, but also for the people you work with and the people you’re trying to interface with.”

4. Concentrate on health before everything else.

When Oz turned 50 in 2010, “in celebration of my half-century on the planet” he wanted to give himself a gift. Well, what do you get the man who has everything? A colonoscopy, of course. In theory, he was trying to be a dutiful human and do what’s right for his health, the same thing he tells his audience to do every day. In practice, however, “I was not a good patient. I had lentils and beets the night before the procedure, which complicated the imaging on the colonoscopy.”

In short, he didn’t take it seriously. Until it turned deadly serious. “It was all fun and games until about two-thirds of the way through the procedure,” he says.

"The gastroenterologist changed his tone and said, ‘There’s a polyp.’ I looked up at the screen, and I’ve done a lot of colonoscopies and said, ‘Oh my goodness, that’s a precancerous polyp.’ He took it out. And sure enough that was the diagnosis."

Incredibly, his behavior as a patient didn’t improve. “I went through what so many people go through, getting a bad diagnosis, waiting for the right information, figuring out what you’re going to do, and then telling everybody. Then I spent another nine months stalling and delaying and obfuscating getting the follow-up colonoscopy, which is mandated. I was about as bad a patient as I could be through that time. But I gotta say that my second time through, when I finally got my head on straight, my preparation was so good you could’ve eaten tapas off my colon wall.”

Getting his head on straight included a long period of reflection after it was all over and he’d been declared healthy. He finally felt what it was like to be on the other side of the transaction. And it was insane: He was doing all the denying and self-destructive things he’d seen his patients do for decades. The things that would frustrate him most as a physician. He needed to answer the vital question: “ ‘Why do rational people do irrational things?’ I struggle with that on the show on a daily basis.”

He worked it over in his brain and analyzed it against all the bad behavior he’d seen over the years and came up with this: “It’s not because we’re immortal. And it’s not because we think the numbers don’t apply to us. Because I think we recognize that they do. I think deep down inside of us, we don’t want our routine disrupted. We don’t want the bad news that all of a sudden messes up dinner tonight and all the plans we had next week and the summer vacation; all that stuff we’d thought through now all gets blown up because we had some bad biopsy result.”

That’s certainly true of Oz, who has a routine as packed as they come. Like all of us, he depends on that routine to accomplish what he needs to every day. It makes him happy. And suddenly, all of that was stripped away. Now he understands why people blow off not just screening tests like colonoscopies, but even simpler things like annual physicals.

But here’s a bigger truth: If you strive for success, you cannot do so without good health. Health is the foundation of all success. If you’re not following Oz’s “four pillars” philosophy of good health (at left), you might be just as badly in denial as he was when faced with a health crisis. And it’s not just about personal success. Good health is also part of another commitment.

“The big epiphany for me is that it’s not about me,” he says. “It’s about the people we love in our lives, the people who care about us, the people who depend on us at home and work and elsewhere. So if you look at it in that context and go ahead with those screening tests, it’s worth the investment even if it disrupts the fantasy that you control your own destiny.”

5. Discover how to connect with strangers.

Oz realized one of the most powerful keywords in our lexicon. He’s used that word to create a multimillion-dollar cottage industry to go along with his medical practice and TV show. That word? You.

By using that word as the title of the No. 1 best-selling book series co-authored with Dr. Roizen, of the Cleveland Clinic—YOU: The Owner's Manual , YOU: On A Diet , etc.—they managed to individualize and personalize the cover of each book for every reader who passed it in the bookstore. By using the word you, they instantly made each book about the reader—an incredibly simple, and incredibly powerful, success strategy.

“We deliberately left our pictures off the You book covers, which is not typical of medical books,” he says.

“Most medical books are about someone being a guru for wellness. ‘If you just follow me and be my disciple, you’ll be healthy!’ That’s not true. Even if you learn everything I talk about, it means nothing unless you do a little bit of what I talk about.”

Oz has become an expert in getting through consumers’ outer defenses. He uses a similar formula on the show to keep viewers not just staring at the screen, 
but listening.

“The biggest obstacle we have is that people think they have the answer already,” he says. “You gotta shake ’em. So the first thing we do on almost every show is give you something provocative that will convince you that you don’t know everything there is to know. Something as simple as sex: ‘One-third of women have orgasms routinely.’ If you’re a man watching, you think, Jeez, that’s not very good. I wonder if my wife has orgasms? Then I’ll say: ‘And most women fake it.’ I just answered the guy’s question. And he thinks, Shit. All that time? Now I gotta pay attention! For women, we’ll say, ‘If you don’t know how to pleasure yourself, there’s no way you can show a man how to do it, either. Why would you expect him to know that?’ So even with an embarrassing topic like sex, you can shake them up. My job is to make it entertaining and fun. If you can make it fun, then you get the one-two punch on it.”

6. Show them you mean it.

A good boss walks the walk. Dr. Oz is on TV every day telling people what they need to do to live better, happier lives. But people naturally wonder, What does the doctor do for himself? Oz has a first-class production team working on his show, some of the best in the business. They have to be to put on a show like his, and a big part of their performance is proper fuel during the day. And here’s what Oz discovered: As the boss, as the guy everyone looks to, he has to put forth the example as well as give them the tools to succeed themselves. And a good boss does that on Day One: “On the first day on the show two years ago, I asked all the union crew members to come sit down,” he says. “Jimmy Fallon’s show is across the hall from me, Saturday Night Live is upstairs, so it’s an iconic location."

Oz told his staff, "I don’t want to give you the craft food table. I want to replace the morning junk with oatmeal, 100 percent whole grain breads, eggs, real food. For lunch I want to have quinoa, whole grains, stuff that I think is going to be energy-building for you. Because I’m eating the stuff."

They all said fine. During the first year, every single person who came up to Oz told him how it changed their life, not just there, but at home. “The ones who don’t like it won’t mention it to me, I grant you that,” he says with a grin. “But the ones who do also tell me that when they do other shows, ‘I see their craft tables; I’m actually repulsed by it.’ ”

The boss feeds his staff not just food, in this case, but their energy. Their enthusiasm will reflect the boss’s enthusiasm. Their habits will affect the boss’s habits. And Oz does not mince words on this subject: “People will follow you by example. When you hang around with fat people, you get fat. Hang around skinny people, you get skinny. And talk about smoking for a second. I always ask young smokers why they smoke. One of the big reasons they give is that it will help them get promoted at work.”

I smirk at that and ask, “Really? How? Smoke breaks with the boss?” He nods.

“It’s true. Smokers get promoted more often."

Oz says, "The reason is not just a smoke break with the boss, but the boss feels insecure if you don’t smoke and he does. So if you get a smoke break with the boss, you spend time bonding with the boss, you’re like the boss. The boss likes that. So you get promoted more often. If a boss smokes, there are a lot of people under him or her who smoke because they follow the lead. And for good reason. When the boss doesn’t smoke and you smoke, that’s a big problem.”

7. Automate as much as possible.

This goes back to what Oz said before about thinking. Thinking saps our energy. His philosophy is simple: Take as much thinking out of your day as you possibly can. “Anyone who is successful, I think, has automated some parts of their life,” he says. “It’s not that you’re lazy, you just don’t want to have to think all day long.”

He picks up his handy bag of cashews and again offers me some. “See, I have these nuts with me. I don’t have to think about these nuts. And I’m hungry now. If I didn’t have them with me, I’d be asking Tim [his publicist] if there were any pastry stores nearby. If there were doughnuts here, I’d eat them. Like everyone else, I eat when I’m hungry. If I have nuts, I know I’ll never have to search for food. These are dumb examples, but they add up very rapidly.”

He breaks his food decisions down during a five-minute window at the start of his day. That’s it. That handful of minutes automates his eating choices for the entire day. Today, all it took was filling a plastic bag with nuts.

“The ideal world is one where you spend five minutes in the morning thinking about food. And then you don’t have to think about it a lot for the rest of the day. That five minutes, that extra effort, defines success in life, and it always has.”

More from Dr. Oz

Read Dr. Oz's key advice for SUCCESS readers.

Listen to an excerpt from Dr. Mehmet Oz's interview with Darren Hardy on the October 2011 SUCCESS CD.

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