Live From IBM Pulse 2013: Chris Gardner And His Pursuit of Happyness
You may not know Chris Gardner by name or by face. But if he told you that one of the world’s most bankable movie stars, one who travels with a four bodyguard security entourage, made a movie about his story, he might just get your attention, as he got mine when he kicked off this afternoon’s session at the Tivoli Business Partner Summit here at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas.
And that’s when Mr. Gardner explained that Will Smith was not going to be joining us, and also the first moment Chris Gardner had the audience in the palm of his hands, which he never let go for the ensuing 45 minutes.
If you don’t know the story behind the story behind “The Pursuit of Happyness,” then you’re missing out. But the irony wasn’t lost on Mr. Gardner, who joked that the people in “Hollyweird” spent $70 million to recreate a story he endured “for nothing.”
But as it turns out, it wasn’t for nothing, as it’s a story that has inspired people around the world, in the form of both a movie and a book, one which has been translated into six dialects of the Chinese language.
And it all started with an interview that Mr. Gardner almost didn’t do with Barbara Walters for “20/20.”
But he did do the interview, which ran on a Friday, and on Monday the floodgates opened with calls wanting to exploit his story. Juxtapose that with another Friday he found himself in a Bay Area jail, a much longer weekend where he had to wait to get released so he could go and find his infant son.
Because ultimately, Gardner explained, that was his life’s work, a promise to himself: To break the cycle of failed fatherhood among black males, a promise he made when he was only five himself and didn’t have his own father around.
Soon, there was one call from the entertainment realm that interested him, one from Steve Tisch, a co-producer on “Forrest Gump” and part of a firm called “Escape Artists,” who convinced Gardner he wanted to help him share his story with the world through the form of a major motion picture.
Though Gardner was at first hesitant to okay Will Smith as the star — “This story is about inner space, not outer space” Gardner explained — his daughter ultimately convinced him when she said “Papa, don’t worry. If he can play Muhammad Ali he can play you.”
The key question everyone wanted to know, Gardner then continued, was “how do you become homeless?”
And his answer was, “life happens.”
He had worked his way into a great job at a local university, was soon married and an expectant father, and he was all about seizing opportunity. After enduring for a period a cushy if modest lab equipment sales job, he one day saw a guy driving a Ferrari, which he offered to help find a parking spot for. But he first wanted an answer to two questions:
“What do you do, and how do you do that?”
The answer was the guy was a stockbroker, cleared about $80,000 a month, and because Gardner was “pretty good with numbers,” decided that’s what he wanted to do with his life.
But as he again explained, “life happens,” and before he knew it he was destitute due to some accumulated parking tickets and some domestic woes at home. Before he knew it, he was without a job, health care, and soon, even his wife and son.
It was a single policeman who, during his ten day jail stay, cut him some slack and allowed him to make a phone call so he could postpone the all-important stock trader assistant job position he was applying for.
Shortly thereafter, he was successful in getting the job, but he lost his wife and now had an infant son to take care of. The boarding house he was staying in didn’t allow children, so he quickly found himself and his son on the streets of Oakland with no place to go.
It was at this point that Gardner explained that an estimated 23% of homeless people “have jobs and go to work everyday,” and that this problem has only grown through the economic downturn.
But through a series of ingenious, if challenging, moves, he found a way to take care of his son and endure the hard-nosed requirements of the new job, staying at times on the streets, at others in dime hotels, and yes, acceding to the kindness of strangers.
Including a reverend at a local homeless food distributor, Mo’s Kitchen, the proprietor of which saw Gardner standing in line with his infant son, an anomaly considering most of the kitchen’s visitors were homeless women with children.
“What are you doing with that baby?” the reverend asked one day. “I’m gonna keep it,” Gardner explained.
And so every day for a year, that’s precisely what Gardner did. “You would see me, my son, a stroller, one suit on my back and another in a hanging bag, and we hit the street, every day for a year.”
They slept outside, at airports (this was pre 9/11), a Union Station bathroom…wherever they could. And Gardner observed the one thing his son remembers from this period was this: “Every time I looked up, my father was there.”
Gardner remembers, “He didn’t know we were homeless.”
And despite all else, Gardner stayed homeless, until such time that he could save enough money to find his own place, a small apartment not two blocks from the train station they once frequented for shelter.
Gardner went to explain that his son didn’t know that some of the times he ate, Gardner went hungry, or that sometimes he was able to get a hotel room only after first giving blood. He didn’t know that, Gardner explained, “because that’s what fathers do.”
After spending their first night in their new home, Gardner’s son saw him leaving the apartment without carrying everything he owned, which he’d been forced to do for the better part of that year.
Gardner explained to him, “You know what son, we got a key now…we’re home. We don’t have to carry stuff anymore.”
“That was the start of turning our lives around,” Gardner related, although it hadn’t come easy. “After a year of struggle, I didn’t know how much more I could take when one day, my son, stood up in the bathtub, and said, ‘Papa, you know what? You a good papa.’”
We know the rest of the story from the movie, and from Gardner’s retelling. He went on to enjoy great success as a stock broker, ultimately arriving at Bear Sterns’ San Francisco office and making millions.
“Sometimes it’s okay to laugh all the way to the bank,” Gardner joked.
But through it all, Gardner never lost his perspective.
Much later, the great American poet Maya Angelou explained to Gardner that “This story ain’t even about you. This is about every mother who ever also had to be a father, and every father who ever also had to be a mother.”
This was about breaking the cycle of men who have not been there for their children.
And though you might not recognize Chris Gardner walking down the street if you ran right into him, he was there for his son.
And in the end, that’s all he really wanted any of us to know.