Interview: Chris Gardner

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Born February 9, 1954 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, Christopher Gardner never knew his father. He lived with his mother, Bettye Jean Gardner, whom he adored, and, when necessary, in foster homes. Despite a life of hardship and emotional scarring, his mother provided him with strong "spiritual genetics" and taught him some of the greatest lessons of his life, which he follows to this day.

She convinced him that in spite of where he came from, he could attain whatever goals he set for himself by saying, "If you want to, one day you could make a million dollars." Gardner believed this to be fact, and knew he would have to find a career he could be passionate about, and one that would allow him to "be world-class at something."

Though hard working and tenacious, a series of circumstances in the early 1980’s left him homeless in San Francisco and the sole guardian of his toddler son. Though unwilling to give up Chris, Jr. or his dream of financial independence, and without connections or a college degree, he still somehow earned a spot in a stockbroker training program. Often spending his nights in a church shelter or the bathroom at a train station in Oakland, Gardner ended up  the sole trainee offered a job at Dean Witter Reynolds in 1981.

Today, he’s the CEO of Christopher Gardner International Holdings, a company he founded with offices in New York, Chicago, and San Francisco. The amazing story of his life was published as an autobiography, The Pursuit of Happyness, and is the inspiration for the new movie of the same name starring Will Smith.

Having surmounted acute obstacles on his road to success, Gardner is an avid motivational speaker, addressing the keys to self-empowerment, beating odds, and breaking cycles. He is also a passionate philanthropist committed to many charitable organizations. He has two children and resides in Chicago and New York. Here, he reflects on the film about his life.

BSN: What was it like meeting Will Smith, the person who would portray you on screen?
CG: He and I had dinner in his home, and we were having a conversation, and I noticed something that initially made me just a little uncomfortable. We were seated across the table from each other talking, and the next thing I know he was observing me intensely. I had never been studied before, not like that. He went on to explain that his work doing Ali was easy compared to this because everyone knows Ali. They knew the history. They knew the story. They knew how Ali would react. But me, they didn’t know.

BSN: Did his studying you pay off?
CG: The time that we spent together, I see it in the film. I see it in the takes. And a few times I have asked myself, “Wow! How did he know that?” And someone explained to me recently that the answer’s simple. While everybody else was watching Will, Will was watching me.

BSN: Will said you were on the set every day. What was it like working with him?
CG: The agreement that Will and I came to very, very early in this process was that I was going to open up and that he could pick and choose whatever it was that was going to help him tell the story. I even took it a step further. I shared a copy of the transcript of my book with Will to help him get a sense of why it was so important for me to be there for my son, why it was so important that I break this cycle of men who were not there for their children.

BSN: Was it emotional for you to be on the set and see the worst days of your life being recreated?
CG: There were some times when I just had to walk away, because I don’t think I was ready for the emotional intensity. It was the equivalent of having an out-of-body experience and a flashback at the same time. But the whole process helped me tremendously by enabling me to create, if you will, new memories of San Francisco, new memories of the Bay Area, instead of the film I had been running in my own mind for the past 23 years. It’s part of letting go. So, it’s been a beautiful experience in that regard.

BSN: What message do you want people to walk away with after watching your rags-to-riches story?
CG: My story has been portrayed in certain media outlets as a rags-to-riches story. That ain’t important. The important thing is the commitment to my children to be there, as any parent must. That’s going to be the common thread. To be there. The money? Hey man, money is the least significant aspect of wealth. You do get to a point in your life where what’s important to all of us is our health, our children, and some degree of happiness. At the end of the day, that’s what it’s all about.

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