There’s something assuring about Chris Gardner’s rich baritone and full-throated laughter that makes you happy in the first few seconds of meeting him. I can’t help but try and visualise him in the key scenes of the globally acclaimed film, The Pursuit of Happyness (based on his book of the same name), that catapulted him to international fame almost overnight. Few stories are as inspiring and moving as his. He has been homeless and without a job, slept rough, struggled with childcare as a single parent, been incarcerated, and yet has risen from despair and hopelessness like a phoenix to reclaim his lost identity.
Gardner climbed the financial industry ladder from the very bottom before starting his now multimillion-dollar brokerage firm, Gardner Rich in Chicago, in 1987. As a single parent for most of his life, he works for the well-being of children and has travelled around the world, speaking to hundreds of young people in high schools and colleges, inspiring them with his life lessons, telling them, ‘If Chris Gardner can do it, so can you’.
Gardner, who was deeply influenced by his mom, Betty, and as a child did not have a father figure around, reminds you that epic one line in the book and the film, where he tells his young son (something that his mom told him years ago), ‘Don’t ever let someone tell you you can’t do something. Not even me.’
The pursuit of happiness is a global pursuit, says Gardner. I ask him where he finds happiness on an average day, and he says, ‘You know when I wake up every morning, I look at the sky and say “Thank You God”. Because whether the sky is blue or grey, to wake up and to be at this point in my life — I recently celebrated my 65th birthday — where I can work and do what I love to do. That’s an absolute blessing.’
In his second book Start Where You Are, Gardner echoes this sentiment when he says, ‘Whenever I’m asked what happiness is to me, my first answer is that it’s the ability to look at where I am in the moment, wherever I am, to remember where I came from and how far I’ve travelled, as a father, a friend, a contributing citizen of the world, and to be able to say, “What a beautiful life this is”, I’m so grateful to be here. More than anything, happiness is being able to appreciate everything…
‘You know what I really really really enjoy?’ he asks, stressing on the word ‘really’. ‘It’s my garden… When you come to Chicago, you will find out I live literally in a garden. My home has become a garden, a library, and a shoe closet.’
Many years ago when Gardner was struggling as a single parent, he saw the word ‘happiness’ misspelt as ‘happyness’ in his son’s day-care centre. “I saw that ‘y’ at a time… when I needed to smile. It lightened the load and has ever since. The ‘y’ is also there to represent you and yours when it comes to defining and pursuing what it is in your terms, and what success, growth, fulfillment and enlightenment mean to you for this life — the only life you’ve got,’ he says.
While in his first book, The Pursuit of Happyness, Gardner had shared with his audience lessons of self-empowerment, and how to beat the odds, his second book, Start Where You Are (published in 2009), motivates others to claim ownership of their dreams and achieve their full potential.
He tells readers to begin wherever they are in life and capitalise on what they have in hand while building towards bigger goals and ambitions. In the chapters he offers practical advice and talks of having a Plan A with positivity, courage, tenacity, discipline and common sense. ‘This is what worked for me, a commitment to plan A,’ he says.
Gardner talks of the plan being clear, concise, compelling, consistent and committed or what he calls the C-5 complex. ‘You’ve got to have Plan A and not a Plan B. I will point to three people who exemplify this idea — Michael Jordan won six NBA championship rings because he was committed to Plan A, not Plan B. Oprah Winfrey, the queen of media, has been committed to Plan A, and Barack Obama won two terms as the president of the US because he was committed to Plan A, not Plan B. If it worked for those people, and worked for me, it could work for you,’ Gardner explains.
He emphasises what former US president Thomas Jefferson once said, that happiness is not guaranteed, it is something we need to pursue. Stay focused on Plan A, Gardner insists. ‘If Plan B was good, it would be Plan A. Plan B distracts from Plan A… We have to make Plan A work.’
Gardner’s new job title as the CEO of Happyness connects him with the youth from all over the world. ‘My biggest job today is to be a candle in a cave in a world that seems to have become more frightening, darker and colder every day. I believe the most important thing I can do is to work with young people in high schools around the world to show them that they can achieve their dreams.’
Gardner talks about how the global financial crisis of 2008 changed the way the youth look at the world today. ‘You know my film The Pursuit of Happyness was released in December 2006. In January 2007, the US economy was going through a recession and spring 2008 was officially acknowledged as the beginning of the global financial crisis. All the young people who went to college in 2008, saying “yes we can”, graduated in 2012, saying, “Wait a minute, what really happened? I did everything I was told to do. I went to school, I graduated and I got good grades. Now I have $100,000 as student loans debt. The world has changed so much, I have no opportunity, and I have to move back with mom and dad, hoping that mom and dad haven’t lost the house in the subprime fiasco”.
‘Now when I talk to their younger brothers and sisters, they have seen how things did not work out for their older siblings. The world has forced them to look at things very differently and they are more focused on not having but being and becoming. This is a whole different mindset we are dealing with,’ says Gardner.
Gardner’s plan to work with young people around the world is what he calls his ‘Passion 2 Dream’ and he has the goal to reach over 100,000 students from ages 13-18 this year.
‘Oh we are going to blow that number away,’ he says. ‘You know, what really got me going down this path? One day in Wisconsin, standing in front of the elementary school Oprah and I went to, I thought how do we make another Oprah Winfrey and Chris Gardner? The next one may be walking out through the doors of such public schools and the truth is they are. My job is to let children know that they can.
‘When a young man says I want to be a billionaire, I say I can’t help you with that. If someone says I want to become a CEO of a Fortune 500 company, I say I can’t help you with that. But if he says I want to do something I love and am committed to becoming world class at that and I want to work for myself — I can say I have done that and I can help you.’
The importance of inclusive language has been one of the key pillars of Gardner’s work with people around the world. ‘As we go around the world, we have to make sure we are checking out a lot of boxes. We want to include not just young boys and girls in high schools, but also abandoned children, those in foster care, children who have never known their dads, moms in prisons, those who have dropped out from college, and even single parents, entrepreneurs and blacks. That’s being inclusive,’ he says.
For Gardner the greatest gift is the permission to dream. He provides fundamental tools to young students to empower them to see what is possible when they make the simple decisions. ‘I tell people that you can be anything you want. Money is important but never confuse your net worth with your self-worth.’
Gardner’s son, Christopher, who had his dad as his constant companion despite his hardships, said in an interview that ‘all I knew when I looked up, he was there. I looked around and he was there.’ This speaks volumes of his love for his son, something Gardner believes strongly as part of his philosophy behind happiness. ‘Whatever situation you are in, it doesn’t matter,’ he says. ‘You have to be there. You have to be with your child. Parental love and assurance means everything to a child. Young people are looking for a leadership. The person that cares most about you lives in your house — it’s your mom and dad. I had the unique experience of being the mom and dad — not the best or right way — but sometimes when life happens you just have to do what you have to do.’
For Gardner the affection and trust his son has placed in him was an impetus to overcome his obstacles. ‘It just made me more focused,’ he says.
He recalls that his greatest achievement in life was to finally be able to put a roof over his son’s head. ‘There are no words to describe what that it felt like,’ he says.
His parting thoughts are simple. ‘You got to do what you are truly passionate about. It can’t just be about I want to make money. Everyone wants to make money. It has to be the thing that gets you up in the morning, and the sun cannot come up sooner for you to want to do that thing you love.’
10 TIPS from Chris Gardner’s Start Where You Are: Life lessons in getting from where you are to where you want to be
Without a plan, a dream is just a dream – plan your pursuit with intention and action: clear concise compelling committed and consistent.
We all have the power of choice – choose to shake off the limitation of lowered expectations, know that where you are is by choice and not chance.
Your attitude is the only thing you can truly control.
Start with what you’ve got in your hand. If you can do something with nothing, you can do anything.
Baby steps count, too, as long as you go forward.
Choose to believe your best years are still to come.
Inspiration is the very breath of life. You can draw from the victories of your heroes to see what’s possible.
Embrace your abilities to change the channel or to stand your ground in crisis.
9. Reach and Development
There are no crazy ideas. JK Rowling started with a crazy idea and followed other maps, until she could throw them away and draft her own.
There’s no plan B for passion. If right now you can’t wait for the sun to come up so you can do your thing, you are doing the wrong thing.