Chris Gardner | Survival Guide: extended interview

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 best seller "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. 

One of the very memorable parts of getting ready to shoot the film "The Pursuit of Happyness" was Will Smith and I went for a number of walks. As opposed to sitting and talking, I said to him, 'Let me take you and show you places where my son and I had to sleep.' We went down into the subway stations, train stations, hotel lobbies, restrooms of subway stations, and Will is such a sharp guy, he turns to me and says, 'A lot of these people look like they are dressed to go someplace.' Some of them were ? dressed to go to work in the morning. 

In some communities, I'm told by the U.S. Interagency Council on Homeless, the number of working homeless is a lot higher. It's up to 30 percent in some places. 

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. 

Though my mom had too many of her own dreams denied, deferred and destroyed, she instilled in me that I could have dreams. And not just have dreams but had a responsibility to make them reality. My mom taught me from a very early age that I could do anything I wanted to do. 

My first ambition in life was to be Miles Davis. I didn't want to be a trumpet player, an artist or a jazz musician ? I literally wanted to be Miles. My mom said to me, 'Baby, you can't be Miles. There ain't but one, and he got that job.' But I made a commitment at an early age that I wanted to be world class at something. I studied trumpet for nine years. I wanted to be world class at it or world class at something. After I realized and accepted the facts [I redirected my efforts]. At 18, Miles Davis was in New York playing with Charlie Parker and John Coltrane. At the same age I was playing with some cats named Pookie and Ray Ray. It wasn't going to happen. But I made a commitment to be world class at something.

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 to.

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. 

And you have to be bold because there will be folks who will say 'you can't' or 'you shouldn't' or 'why'? There is a certain boldness to saying 'Well, I really don't want to be a high-powered corporate lawyer. I'm really passionate about painting.' 

One thing I do say to folks ? and I don't put myself out here as somebody who has all the answers ? but I do state the obvious when I say that no matter how much money is involved or no matter how easy it is for you to do, if you're not happy, you are nothing more than a slave to your talent and money. So be happy. 

WT: You own your own stock brokerage firm? What advice would you give anyone thinking about starting his or her own business? 

Gardner: Hunker down, strap in and hold on. Hold on, baby! It goes back to the last answer about being happy. Hey, man, it's hard out here. In my business, the brokerage business, you can walk on water in this business. You get to the other side, then the boys from Goldman Sachs and Bear Stearns are waiting for you. You have to be committed, and you have to find something that you are passionate about. 

And forget about money. I've learned that money is the least significant aspect of wealth. Do something that makes you happy and makes you feel good about yourself. Do something that makes you feel your work is significant and meaningful. If you just want to make money, that's a whole different trip. I can't help you with that.

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. 

Another day filming. We're going to film in Golden Gate Park. We're filming in a place where I used to take my son to teach him how to fly a kite. We had nothing else to do, no other form of entertainment, no money. I told no one that. 

[And] there's a children's park in San Francisco. They have a little concession stand. I talked about it in the book. I remember it well. I couldn't buy my son a pop, it was 25 cents. If I bought the pop, we had to walk home. 

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. I went to some very successful business people when I was trying to open the doors of my company, and none of them would give me the time of day. I made a promise to myself and to God. I said, 'God, if you ever let me get to a certain level, I am not going to be like that.' 

Just like anybody else, you've only got so many hours in a day, but as far as being available and accessible and have these relationships developing, I did something 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, brokers. 

The coolest thing in the world is walking up the street in Chicago, New York or San Francisco and having someone say 'Hey, you might not remember me, but thank you for helping me get in the business.' That was 12 or 14 years ago. These kids have graduated from college and gone to law school or gotten their MBAs and are running departments in some of the biggest financial institutions on Wall Street. 

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], 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.

About the Author

William Welsh is a freelance writer covering IT and defense technology.

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