Chris Gardner | Survival Guide: Perspectives from the field

Chris Gardner, CEO, Gardner Rich LLC

"A long walk to Wall Street is how others describe my life." That sentence is emblazoned on the cover of Chris Gardner's bestseller "Pursuit of Happyness", which chronicles Gardner's climb to the top of the financial world following a bleak spell of homelessness in San Francisco during the 1980s.

Gardner grew up in Milwaukee, served in the Navy, then traveled to Golden Gate City in search of his dreams. An estranged wife, a toddler son and a housing situation that didn't allow for children made him one of the city's working homeless: those who have a job but no roof over their heads. Despite the odds against him, Gardner vowed not to abandon his son.

His rise from a trainee at Dean Witter to owner of his own stock brokerage firm is the stuff from which legends ? and movies ? are made. A Sony Pictures film based on his story and starring actor Will Smith opens in December in theaters nationwide.

Gardner spoke recently with Deputy Editor William Welsh about making it through hard times, owning one's responsibilities and what it's like to have a movie made about your life.


WT: When you were one of the working homeless in San Francisco, did you have hope that you would get out of the situation?

Gardner: We were homeless, we were not hopeless. There's a world of difference. A lot of folks don't realize it, but it's estimated that 12 percent of all of the homeless people in this country have jobs and go to work every day.

WT: To what do you attribute your rise to the top?

Gardner: My mother. You don't have enough tapes for me to go into it. I chose to embrace the "spiritual genetics" of my mom. We all understand genetics. You get your eyes from your dad, your mom's nose, there's nothing you can do about that. But your spiritual genetics you can choose, pick, embrace and commit to. That's what I did.

WT: What important lessons have you've learned from your life experience?

Gardner: Man, I'm still learning. One is: The cavalry ain't coming. You've got to do this yourself. How would you like to be one of them folks down in Louisiana or Mississippi waiting for that cavalry to come save you? Another very important lesson is that baby steps count, too. As long as you are going forward. You add them all up, and one day you look back and you'll be surprised at where you might get.

WT: What advice would you give people who are just starting out or who are trying to get ahead under difficult circumstances like those you experienced?

Gardner: Do something that you love. Whatever you're going to do is going to be tough enough. Find something that gets you so excited that the sun can't come up early enough in the morning because you want to go do your thing.

WT: What advice would you give anyone thinking about starting his or her own business?

Gardner: Hunker down, strap in and hold on. You have to be committed, and you have to find something that you are passionate about. Do something that makes you happy and makes you feel good about yourself.

WT: How does it feel having a film being made about your life experience?

Gardner: I'll tell you when I wake up. I now know the definition of surreal. On the first day of filming, I didn't know where they were filming. They took me to 555 California St., the Bank of America world headquarters building. At times when I was homeless, I used to sleep in that building. Nobody knew. I never told that to the writers and never discussed it with the producers.

WT: What do you hope that people take away from your book and the film?

Gardner: The film is going to focus on one year of my life. That year being the toughest, darkest, scariest year of my life. Living with a baby tied on my back, trying to work. It can be done. But you have to make it happen. And no matter what, you have to cling to it like it's life itself, if that's what you really want to do.

WT: Do you think that people who make it to the top have an obligation to mentor others?

Gardner: I do it [but], not out of a sense of obligation. A number of years ago I got involved with a program in Chicago that was designed to help young people get internships in the financial services business and learn the business at the exchanges, insurance companies, banks, money management firms and brokers.

WT: So that was a way for you to give back something?

Gardner: You know how mountains get moved? Everyone who can move a couple [of mountains should] move a couple. Those who can move rocks, move rocks. Those who can move boulders, move boulders. That's how mountains get moved. If every one of us did everything we could, I believe we would be in a different world.

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