Millions of people have heard Chris Gardner’s inspirational talks. They come to hear lessons from the lives he’s lived as an entrepreneur, stockbroker, and single parent. But most of all, they derive hope from the struggles he surmounted: homelessness, a childhood of poverty, domestic violence and parental alcoholism.
Gardner chronicled his incredible journey to self-made success, which saw him climb the ladder as a stock broker at Bear Stearns before launching his own successful firm, Gardner Rick, is his bestselling autobiography, The Pursuit of Happyness, which in turn was adapted into a hit 2006 film starring Will Smith.
That book was followed by 2009’s Start Where You Are: Life Lessons in Getting from Where You Are to Where You Want to Be, another bestseller in which Gardner encouraged readers to channel positivity and discipline. In 2013, he steered his life to Chris Gardner Media, through which he delivers hundreds of talks each year.
Even with all of his success, Gardner has never forgotten his humble roots, maintaining involvement with homelessness initiatives, the National Fatherhood Initiative, and National Education Association Foundation. To his mind, the key to living well is that “you must constantly make wise choices… The biggest lesson in that scenario is that family rules.”
The Edge spoke with Gardner about what he’s learned, and what wisdom he has to share.
Why the career shift from broker to speaker?
I lost the love of my life. Some of the last conversations we had were her saying to me, “Now that we see how truly short life can be, what will you do with the rest of your life?” When you have that conversation, that changes everything. Holly passed on July 1. July 2, I walked away from Wall Street.
I’ve said it many times, that if you’re doing something that you’re not truly passionate about, you’re compromising yourself every single day. I worked on Wall Street, loved it for 30 years, 25 of which I ran my own firm. I’m not one of these guys that walked away from the firm saying, “Oh my God, those horrible people; what a toxic experience that was.” No, I loved the business. I just didn’t want to do it anymore.
What values from your mother did you apply to business success?
Wow, everything. I have one of those old-fashioned mothers who told me every single day, “Son, you can do or be anything that you want to do or be.” And I believed it.
There was a time I was watching a college basketball game on TV, amazed by the talent these guys had. I commented that one day, a particular player would make a million dollars because they can run, jump, and catch a ball. My mom said “Son, one day it will be you who’ll make a million dollars.”
Until she said those words, the thought had never entered my mind. She went on to say, “If you want to make the team, go to the gym. If you want to own the team, go to the library.”
You’re saying our self-perception determines our fortune?
Yes. I look at the power of choice. We’re born with the spirit to become what God wants us to be. That has nothing to do with anatomy, biology, chemistry, or physics. The part of you that cannot be analyzed, quantified or measured. The part of you that is not composed of blood type, DNA, or pigmentation. The part of you which is beyond the scope or understanding of science, medicine, or technology. Just totally spiritual.
There’s no technology to measure that. A scientist can take a strand of hair, drop of blood and so on, put it under a microscope and it will tell things about you highly accurately – age, sex, eye colour, [identify] sickness or disease. But there’s nothing found under a microscope that will say why you became who you are as man or woman. We make choices. I chose light, from my mother, and from others with whom I don’t share a single drop of blood, and I embraced it.
Did everything fall into place for a reason?
Everything fell into place for a reason and I wouldn’t change anything. There’s a school of thought that we are all products of our environment. According to that school of thought, I should have become another alcoholic, wife-beating, child-abusing illiterate loser. But I saw the light in my mother and in others, and I embraced the light.
The reason I wouldn’t change anything? I went through that pain as a child, so my children wouldn’t have to. I made a decision as a five-year-old boy: my kids will know who their father is. The rest of my destiny came forward because I made the right choices.
Dave Gordon | Contributing Writer