Chris Gardner is man behind the incredible rags-to-riches story of a homeless single father in blockbuster movie “The Pursuit of HappYness,” where A-list actor Will Smith portrayed Gardner. About more than just the American dream, at it’s heart the movie is about being a parent, and the things need to make a good life. Though Gardner now is CEO of his own financial company and speaks to groups around the world, he insists it’s not about the money. Here are a few pertinent lessons he imparts:
You make your life. After creating a career for himself at Bear Stearns, a leading investment bank at the time, he decided to move from San Francisco to the company’s base in New York City. Many found this move unwise; however, Gardner had a picture for his future, and did what it took to obtain that picture. “I learned how to sell in San Francisco, but I learned the business in New York,” he reasoned. “When I started talking about leaving Bear and starting my own shop in 1987 people said ‘you are crazy.’ Let me tell you what crazy is: I got more money for the stock I sold then than when they sold [Bear Stearns] to JP Morgan. I got more money and a franchise and they got no money and no job,” he imparted, with a tone that reminiscent of “who’s crazy now?”
Believe in yourself. Gardner’s mother instilled in him strength of character and belief he could do anything to which he set his mind. In the film, there’s a scene where Smith (as Gardner) plays basketball with his son, who has dreams of becoming a professional player. “He says ‘forget it, that will never happen, I couldn’t do it, so it means you can’t do it,’” remembered Gardner. “But I told Will Smith he can’t say that, because that’s not what my momma told me. I was told I could do anything I want to do.” In the move we see Smith saying to his son, who is visibly dejected after just being told his dreams of becoming a basketball player were unrealistic: “Don’t let anyone ever tell you what you cant do. Not even me.” The originally unwanted in the film ended up becoming one of its most iconic and memorable moments, beamed Gardner.
Pick your battles. Gardner tells the story of his top client at Bear Stearns, a wealthy Texan, who also became one of the firm’s best customers. Gardner, who is African American, worked with the client on the phone and often endured long stretches of derogatory ethnic jokes at the end of each call. Why did he let it go on? “I just had to fight, scratch and crawl out of the gutter with a baby tied on my back just to get in the game,” shared Gardner. “It was not time to sing ‘We Shall Overcome,’ it was time to get paid!”
After declaring “I want to meet the man who is making me so much money,” and overcoming the shock of seeing Gardner in person, the client closed accounts at Goldman Sachs, Solomon Brothers and J.P. Morgan, gave Gardner all his business and began telling knock knock jokes at the end of each call. “Racism is not new, it was not invented just for you,” said Gardner. “Get bigger than that stuff.”
Never stop learning. Discussing the many times in his life he had to work in less-than-desirable situations with sometimes unpleasant people, Gardner put it all in perspective: “You gotta learn. You can learn from everybody you have to work with no matter what kind of ahole they happen to be.” He emphasized that knowledge is portable, and no matter how the people we deal with choose to live life, if they have something important to teach, take the information with you. “Choose to learn, and take it with you when you walk out the door. Know that it’s part of the game.” he shared.