Chris Gardner hasn’t always been a successful stockbroker, entrepreneur and public speaker. He used to be homeless.
If you go
WHAT: Crisis Ministries’ fundraiser dinner and auction, featuring Chris GardnerWHEN: 6 p.m. cocktail reception, 7 p.m. main event, ThursdayWHERE: The Riviera Theater and Ballroom, 227 King St.COST: $150 per person; $500 for VIP passes (includes two tickets)MORE INFO: charlestonhomeless.org; 843-737-8384
For a year during the 1980s, he scrambled to keep his world from falling apart. He obsessed about protecting the 14-month-old son in his custody. He connived to convince people in the business world that he was legitimate, smart, competent. He scratched his way back.
His story became a bestselling 2006 autobiography called “The Pursuit of Happyness,” which was quickly made into a popular Hollywood movie. Gardner will be the featured speaker at Crisis Ministries’ live auction fundraiser on Thursday.
In a telephone interview this week, he spoke mostly about the challenges of parenting, the importance of family, professional success and something he called “spiritual genetics,” but it was evident that his year in the streets had made a profound impact.
“Once you’ve had that experience, it never leaves you,” he said. In his comfortable Chicago home today, one finds a lot of luggage scattered about. Why? Because a homeless man depends on bags — symbols of impermanence and readiness.
“When you start a small business, you start with limited or no resources,” he said. “How do you prepare to be an entrepreneur? Try being homeless for a year.”
Gardner recalled what his mother had told him: Son, I’ve had to do so much with so little for so long, I’ve learned to do everything with nothing.
Creative and unorthodox maneuvers helped to keep him going, like when he went to visit his clients in person, without an appointment, after his phone had been cut off for nonpayment. That bought him an extra week to get the phone bill paid.
“They don’t teach you that at Harvard,” Gardner said.
All of his life, family life and professional pursuits have been interwoven, first when he was considering a career in medicine, then when he turned to the world of finance.
“I am talking to people constantly about doing something they’re passionate about, but you’ve got to be realistic, too.” Don’t wait for the perfect time, because there’s no such thing. As for his efforts to strike a balance between family and career, Gardner didn’t have to think long before answering: “In a tie, family wins.”
In May 2008, he delivered the commencement address at Hampton College, where his daughter Jacintha became the first in his family to earn a college degree.
“I’m so glad I acknowledged the fact that she was first in the family to walk across that stage,” he said. “So many other people came up to me to say my grandson, my niece, he was the first, she was the first. That is a huge deal.” He said he went out of his way to acknowledge the many single parents who shared in their children’s successes.
Today, Jacintha is an interior designer who recently started her own business (with financing from dad). His son, Chris Jr., is a music producer with a 5-year-old daughter.
His worst mistake as a father was to spoil his kids, he said.
“I gave them too much,” Gardner said. “I tried to give them all that stuff I never had, thinking I was going to make them better people. But what you learn is, you’re not making them better people, you’re just giving them better stuff.”
His own father was not in his life, and his stepfather told him everyday, “I ain’t your daddy.” Gardner was 5 when he promised himself he would never be like that.
“When you grow up, you can do one of two things, perpetuate it or go the other way. I chose to go the other way.”
And this he attributed to “spiritual genetics” which, unlike biological genetics, over which no one has any control, is a set of choices.
“I saw the light in my mother and others with whom I did not share a single drop of blood, and I embraced it,” Gardner said. “Science can tell you a lot, with a high degree of certainty. But nothing under that microscope is going tell (that scientist) why you became what you are as a man or woman.”
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