Chris Gardner was the last person you would expect to be a millionaire. He was a black boy raised by a single mother. Chris suffered abuse at the hands of his stepfather, and only knew a life of poverty when he was young. The odds were stacked against him, and most people would have written him off as a statistic. But through the power of education, determination, and the sheer force of his will, Chris Gardner grew up to be a millionaire stock broker.
GETTING PERMISSION TO SUCCEED
Chris Gardener was born in Milwaukee to a single mother, Betty Gene, who ended up marrying a violent man named Freddy Triplet. Gardner was physically and verbally abused by his stepfather on a daily basis, until his mother was put in jail for defending herself. Chris was then sent to live with a foster family, but they left him alone to play on the streets of Milwaukee and because of this neglect he became the victim of a child predator. From this very young age, Chris had already experienced more pain and trauma than many see in their entire lifetime.
When Betty Gene finally regained custody of Chris and his two sisters, she made sure to be the best mother she could be. She brought them to the library, and encouraged Chris to rise above his struggles and get a college education.
Baby steps count too, as long as you are going forward. You add them all up, and one day you look back and you’ll be surprised.
- Chris Gardner
At 16 years old, Chris sat by the television, watching a March Madness basketball game. He sighed, saying, “One day, those guys will be millionaires.” His mother immediately responded, “Chris, one day, you can be a millionaire, too.”
This was a life-changing moment for him. His mother had essentially given him permission to succeed. It didn’t matter if he was born black, or poor, or suffered abuse. His mother raised him to believe that he still had just as much of a right to be a millionaire as anyone else.
WHEN THE RIGHT CHOICE IS WRONG
Chris knew that his family couldn’t afford to send him to college, so his only option to receive an education was to join the Navy. After four years serving as a medic, he met a cardiac surgeon named Dr. Robert Ellis who worked in the veterans hospital at the University of California. He began working with Dr. Ellis in his medical research team, and Chris Gardner’s name appeared as a co-author on these research papers. This experience was enough to get him started on the path of becoming a doctor. He had done everything absolutely right up until this point, and was building a ladder to reach his goals. Things seemed to be going great for Chris. He even married a beautiful math teacher named Sherry Dyson.
However, there was just one problem. Chris Gardner realized that becoming a doctor wouldn’t make him happy. At this point, he wasn’t exactly sure what he wanted to do with his life, only what he didn’t want to do. This decision to give up his path to medical school ruined his marriage. From his wife’s perspective, he was throwing away his only chance at success to chase a dream without a name.
If you don’t take the necessary steps to make them happen, dreams are just mirages that mess with your head.
- Chris Gardner
Chris started seeing a dental student named Jackie Medina, and she became pregnant with their son. Pregnancy and taking care of a newborn was too much for Jackie to balance, so she failed her board exam, and had to give up her dreams of becoming a dentist. Being a stay-at-home mom made Jackie miserable, and their relationship miserable too.
But then Chris found a job as a medical sales rep, which paid a starting salary of $25,000, and older men at his company made $80,000 a year. So, even though he stumbled, Chris was still moving up in the world. But somehow, that still didn’t feel like enough.
When he was 26 years old, Chris ran into a man driving a red Ferrari. He was wearing a suit, tie, and luxury watch. He asked, “What do you do, and how do you do it?” The man, Bob Bridges, responded that he was a stock broker who made $80,000 a month.
A DREAM, AND A DISASTER
So Chris Gardner treated Bob Bridges to a cup of coffee, and he was given a tour of the firm where he worked. Instantly, Chris felt the high energy of the room. Men were making deals over the phone, and millions were being transferred by the second. Finally, he found his dream without a name. He knew exactly what he wanted to do for his career.
Bob Bridges helped Chris secure interviews with various firms around San Francisco. The only problem was that he didn’t have a college degree in business or finance. Finally, one day, he was offered the position of a job as a trainee at a firm called EF Hutton. Overjoyed, he quit his sales job, and got ready to begin his new career path. Unfortunately, there was a change in management, and they retracted the job offer.
Chris had to go home to Jackie to tell her that he was unemployed. They began fighting, and the neighbors called the police. Chris had $1,200 in unpaid parking tickets, so they arrested him, and kept him in jail for 10 days. When he was released from jail, his girlfriend Jackie was gone.
She had taken everything but the dust. Most importantly, she had taken my little boy.
- Chris Gardner
On the day he was released, Chris had to show up to an interview at a firm called Dean Witter. Since Jackie took everything, he didn’t have a suit, and was forced to show up with the clothes he had been arrested in. By some miracle, Chris used his intelligence and charm to talk his way out of the embarrassing situation, and he was accepted into the Dean Witter training program.
OPPORTUNITY AT ROCK BOTTOM
After returning home from acing the Dean Witter interview, Chris discovered that Jackie had wiped their bank account clean of their life savings. She also neglected to pay the rent, so he was kicked out of his apartment immediately. In less than two weeks, Chris went from having a high-paying sales job and a new job offer on the table to becoming homeless. He had no choice but to pay for a bed in a boarding house.
For a lot of people, an event like this would be enough to break them. But Chris continued to show up to his classes at the Dean Witter training program, and sleep at the boarding house at night. This program was so competitive, that it wasn’t enough to simply keep up with the rest of his peers. He had to exceed all expectations.
Eventually, Jackie came back with their son, Chris Jr. She couldn’t handle the responsibility of being a single mother. Chris gladly took his son back, but there was just one problem. The boarding house didn’t accept children, so they had nowhere to stay.
During this time, Chris and his son were homeless. Sometimes, they slept under his desk at work. They tried to stand in line at the homeless shelter, but the beds would fill up quickly. When there were no other options, Chris locked himself and his son in the subway bathroom. In the daytime, he has to leave his son at a daycare with the little money he had on hand.
With nowhere else to go after picking his son up from daycare, Chris had to walk around the city with his son until businesses were shutting down for the night. The sex workers took notice, and figured out that they were homeless. They began slipping Chris Jr. $5 bills in his baby carriage. Without the generosity of these women, Chris said that there were many nights where he and his son wouldn’t have been able to eat.
The future was uncertain, absolutely, and there were many hurdles, twists, and turns to come, but as long as I kept moving forward, one foot in front of the other, the voices of fear and shame, the messages from those who wanted me to believe that I wasn’t good enough, would be stilled.
- Chris Gardner
FINALLY, THERE WAS HOPE
Chris began attending Sunday services at a Methodist church, and he stood in line with Chris Jr. at their soup kitchen. Reverend Cecil Williams had a program for homeless mothers, but Chris Gardner was the only single father. He asked the reverend to make an exception, and he was brought into the program. Finally, because of the kindness and generosity of Reverend Williams, he was able to find a place for him and his son to live.
The one-year training program at Dean Witter was finally complete, and he was able to pass the Series 7 Exams. This helped him secure a full-time job as a rookie stock broker at Bear Stearns. His salary was only $1,000 a month. Even though this didn’t seem like much, he was able to afford the rent on a small studio apartment, and they were no longer homeless.
Now that he had his foot in the door, Chris took this opportunity and ran with it. He showed up early, stayed late, and proved through hard work that he was the best stock broker in the firm. Over time, he saved up $10,000, and began working on his next big dream. In 1987, Chris Gardner left his job at Dean Witter to start his own firm, Gardner Rich. And in 2006, he sold a minority stake in a multi-million dollar deal. Today, his net worth is $70 million.
A MILLIONAIRE AND A MOVIE
Even with all of his success, Chris Gardner never stopped having gratitude for the help he received when he was homeless. He also never forgot that the generosity of others is what helped keep him and his son alive. Chris continues to volunteer at the soup kitchen, and give financial donations to Reverend Cecil Williams so that he can continue the program to help homeless mothers.
Wealth can also be that attitude of gratitude with which we remind ourselves every day to count our blessings.
- Chris Gardner
People were so inspired by his life story, that Chris Gardner decided to write an autobiography. He titled it The Pursuit of Happyness. The word “Happiness” is misspelled, because it was painted on the side of a wall near his son’s daycare in Chinatown.
His story was so inspirational, that it was turned into a movie, starring Will Smith in 2006. After performing in this movie, Will Smith was so moved by the story, that he donated $75,000 to the homeless shelter run by Cecil Williams.
Today, Chris Gardner continues to work as a stock broker, and he travels giving inspirational speeches. If the story of Chris Gardner teaches us anything, it’s that no matter how hard life may seem, we can always stand up and dust ourselves off. There is always hope to turn things around.