From a homeless man to a millionaire – life lessons from the real hero, Chris Gardner

27th Sep 2016
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“The world is your oyster. It's up to you to find the pearls.”

Who hasn’t cried buckets while watching Gabriele Muccino’s The Pursuit of Happyness? We perched on the edge of our seats, our hands on our moist cheeks and praying that Chris Gardner would dodge the clutches of sheer bad luck and make it to the finish line. I know I did, and I’m venturing a guess that you did too.

The Pursuit of Happyness traces Christopher Gardner’s journey from a homeless man to a multibillionaire. With a pearly smile on his face and the tough lines of age and experience setting base on his face, Gardner is the ultimate personification of a self-made entrepreneur, someone who refused to give up even when life was kicking him to the curb.

pursuit-of-happiness

With no degree or experience, he managed to find himself a low-paying gig of selling medical supplies. A chance meeting with a man in a Red Ferrari changed his life forever. He caught this person’s attention and asked him what he did to afford such a car, to which the latter replied that he was a stockbroker. Gardner often describes this as ‘the moment he knew’ – he knew that his future lay in the field of investments, strategic calculations and fat paychecks.

Lady Luck hadn’t quite been favouring Gardener at this point. His girlfriend had left him and his two-year old son for a ‘better life’, and the night before he managed to procure an interview for an internship at San Francisco-based brokerage firm Dean Witter, he was pulled up and arrested for a night by the cops for unpaid parking tickets. Undeterred, Chris showed up for the interview in sweatpants and a wife-beater from the night before. His passion and sincere urgency won him a spot in the programme.

But his troubles were far from over. Now homeless, Gardner struggled to find shelter. When he got lucky, he was able to find accommodation at the Glide Memorial Church Centre. But this wasn’t always the case. Once, he had to sleep the night in a locked bathroom in Oakland Subway Station with his son. By the end of the internship, he was the sole trainee chosen for a permanent position at Dean Witter. A few years later, he took a position with Bear Stearns & Co., where he managed to bring in the top numbers. In 1987, he founded his own brokerage firm, Gardner Rich & Co. in Chicago, which he has since transformed into Christopher Gardner International Holdings, an institutional brokerage firm that also directs projects overseas, primarily in South Africa.

In May 2006, his memoir The Pursuit of Happyness was published which was soon adapted into an Academy-Award nominee film starring Will Smith as Chris Gardner and Jaden Smith as his son, Chris Jr.

While he still runs his billion dollar firm successfully, Gardner is currently on the threshold of writing another prospective bestseller and actively involving himself in many social causes dealing with homelessness and domestic abuse. We take out a few life changing lessons from this determined multitasker’s roller-coaster of a journey for all you motivated entrepreneurs out there.

Having the right drive

“Passion is everything. In fact, you've got to be borderline fanatical about what you do.”

Everyone knows that entrepreneurship is nothing without passion. If you don’t feel crazy about your business or your product and you aren’t staying up enthusiastically sleepless nights to go over a ten-policy programme in your head for the meeting next day, then you aren’t doing it right. Gardner often says that he was lucky to find a job he truly loved, one for which he couldn’t wait for the sun to rise so he could get back to. Gardner didn’t have any training in the job, nor did he dream of it his whole life. But he had that one instance with the red Ferrari when he knew with absolute clarity- that this was what he was meant to do.

Get your timing right

“Walk that walk and go forward all the time. Don't just talk that talk, walk it and go forward. Also, the walk didn't have to be long strides; baby steps counted too. Go forward.”

Gardner has held many interactive conferences with aspiring entrepreneurs, and one of his great pearls of advice has been “Always get your timing right.” He emphasises the importance of being at the right place at the right time, just like he was when he saw the Ferrari, or even beating bad timing, like when he had to attend the interview at Dean Witter in the same clothes he’d spent his night in jail. He advises them to be faster than time and be “aggressively early” because “being late projects the wrong image and makes people lose faith in your ability to prioritise.”

Trial and error

“Sometimes the only way we can discover our true power is by living through the crisis we feared.”

Gardner has had his fair share of downs in life, and as he confesses in the book, he didn’t always know how to go down the right path or make the right decision for his family. But he took the plunge anyway and made the best out of every situation, which got him to where he is now. To him, a better life can only be lived and an individual can only understand his or her true potential when they have survived a crisis they fear the most.

Today, he may carry the invisible scars of life and experience, but his shoulders lack the weight of the hopelessness they once carried because it has been replaced with something much lighter – happiness.

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