Insights from Chris Gardner at the World Business Forum

Chris Gardner, author of the 2006 autobiography, The Pursuit of Happyness, shares what he’s learned at the World Business Forum.

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Author of the 2006 autobiography, The Pursuit of Happyness, a New York Times and Washington Post #1 bestseller that has been translated into over forty languages, Gardner is also the inspiration for the acclaimed movie of the same name.

‘Spiritual genetics’ were what helped me make it.

As great as the film The Pursuit of Happyness was, the movie was about one year of my life. I was 28 years old; there were 27 years before that. If I didn’t develop ‘the right stuff’ in the first 27 years I wouldn’t have made it. I call it ‘spiritual genetics’. That’s the spirit of what you become – it’s what makes you you; it’s that which has nothing to do with anatomy, biology or physics. It cannot be analysed. It’s the part that’s beyond the scope, reach and understanding of science and technology.

People often ask, could I do what I did again today given the GFC, political polarization and a jacked up anxiety index? Yes I could. There are so many similarities between what the world looks today. It was 1982. The US was mired in a recession, the trade deficit over $1 trillion. The safety net for those most in need was strained, and unemployment rate 10.9%. Today the world is now facing major issues and challenges. It’s struggling to recover from GFC;

20% of all jobs created since GFC do not offer full time employment so there’s no retirement or pension or healthcare. This has created a whole new class of homelessness – white-collar homelessness.

My mother taught me that I could do anything with nothing.

My mother Betty Jean Triplett‘s wit and wisdom made everything I have done possible. When people ask what made you think you could accomplish what you did in life I hear my Momma’s voice and remember I can do anything with nothing because I saw her do it.

I’m often asked, how do you choose between doing what is practical and what you’re passionate about? My answer is not popular: sometimes you have to do both. It can mean doing what you have to do before doing what you want to do. Mine is the ultimate rags to riches story but it was never about money it was simply a story about a father who was committed to giving his child something he never had – a father.

Whatever you do with your life seek to become world class at it.

I heard Dr Martin Luther King Jnr speak the night before he was assassinated in Memphis to a group of municipal workers – garbage men. And he said: “Whatever you do become world class at it. If you’re going to be a garbage man, seek to become a world class garbage man.”

‘World class’ means when a conversation is being held about who is the best in the business, someone says your name or the name of your company.

If no one says your name you have work to do. If no one says your name and you don’t care, get out of business. If someone who hates you says your name, you’re world class.

You have to find your ‘on’ button – the thing that turns you on.

It took me 10 years to find mine. Gary Shemano and Marshall Gellar, Managing Partners at Bear Stearns in San Francisco agreed that although I didn’t have an MBA, I had a PSD – I was poor, smart with a deep desire to become wealthy so I was qualified for a job.

The first time I walked into a trading room I knew. The ticker tape was rolling, phones were ringing off the hook – it looked like chaos. But for me it was like reading a sheet of music. I could feel that this is where I was supposed to be:  not ‘I think I can do it’ or ‘I’d like to try that’… it was ‘this is where I am supposed to be’.

You can’t change something until you own it

There was a highly polished piece of sheet metal over the sink of the train station bathroom that I washed in every day. It served as a mirror. Every day I had to wash my little boy there and I’d look in the mirror and ask difficult questions – why did this happen? And, what will happen next? But the most brutal question was, how did I get here? The answer was just as brutal. I drove here. I had something to do with the situation and circumstances that had become my life – there was something liberating and empowering about that. Because if I drove here I can drive out again.  You can’t change something until you own it.

The hardest thing I had to do every day as a working homeless man taking care of a toddler was childcare. 

My son was only 14 months old when we were homeless. He was still in diapers. The hardest thing I had to do every day was childcare. At the bottom of the childcare food chain was ‘a woman who kept kids’ – she was not licensed or registered but provided a service so people like me could go to work.

I’ll never forget every day walking out the door and hearing my boy screaming and crying and all I could say was, ‘I’ll be back’.  I knew those were words I never heard my father say to me. My son and I were together every single day.

I would not know how incredibly important all this time my son and I spent together was until many years later we were doing the Oprah show and she asked him what he remembered. What he said made my soul smile: “All I remember is every time I looked up my father was there.” He never knew we were homeless. He didn’t know some of the times he ate and I didn’t it wasn’t because I wasn’t hungry. He didn’t need to know. He did not know that some of the times we both ate and got a hotel room was possible because I had just sold blood. Because that is what fathers do.

When you’re doing something you’re truly passionate about there is no Plan B

I call the most important components of a plan ‘c5’: it has to be complex, clear, concise, compelling, consistent and committed. Everyone has a dream but what is your plan? When you’re doing something you’re truly passionate about there is no Plan B.Plan B sucks. If Plan B was any good it would be Plan A. Plan B distracts from Plan A.

Time is the ultimate asset

You can make money, you can lose money but you cannot make time. The last breath you took? You’ll never feel it again. The biggest question of all is, how much time is on your clock?

I’ve been asking myself for a little while now. The greatest honor of my life was being a primary caregiver for the last four years of my partner Holly’s life as she fought brain cancer. She’s been gone now three years 10 months and 25 days. I was blessed with the assets to bring to the table the best minds of science of medicine, but she kept asking the whole time, what about the people who can’t do what we have done? I am working on that now.