“Everybody got a dream. What’s the plan?” – Chris Gardner
When father/son duo Will and Jaden Smith took to the big screen in The Pursuit of Happyness, they were doing more than acting. The film took viewers to a very personal place in the life of a man who wouldn’t be known if he had given up.
Ten years ago, The Pursuit of Happyness gave moviegoers a glimpse into Chris Gardner’s life. The film highlighted a period of faith, struggle and self-determination that isn’t quite evident in everyday life. Gardner’s refusal to accept failure, as well as his absolute rejection of being known as anything other than “world class,” is why he’s being talked about today.
“The most important decision I ever made in my life I made it as a 5-year-old,” Gardner tells EBONY.com. “And that decision was when I grew up and had children, my children were gonna know who their father was.”
The above statement may sound cliché, but it actually is quite powerful given the fact that Gardner was a single dad to an infant son—not to mention broke and living paycheck-to-paycheck at one point.
“In the film Jaden Smith plays my son as a 5-year-old. They did that for the dialogue,” Gardner says. “But at this point in our journey, my son was 14 months old. He was still in diapers. So that’s a whole different situation.”
Recently, EBONY.com caught up with Gardner to talk about his life and journey, and how he seeks to help young, urban entrepreneurs pursue their dreams.
EBONY: You grew up in Milwaukee. What was childhood like for you?
Chris Gardner: How much time we got? We ain’t got enough time. Let me say this. I grew up without a father. So everything and anything that you can imagine that goes with that came with that. And I made the decision as a five-year-old boy that my children were always gonna know who their dad is. So childhood, we don’t spend a lot of time back there.
EBONY: I understand. Now I remember watching The Pursuit of Happyness and I identified at least four times in your life through its portrayal in the film where I wouldn’t have judged you for giving up. What was it that kept you going?
Chris Gardner: I had one of those moms who told me every day, “Son you can be or do anything” and I believed it. All those interviews I went on, I had never heard “No” more in my life. Everywhere I went I heard, “No, No, No!” From my ex at home I heard a couple of other words. I remember them also. Her position was that Wall Street firms had begun to require an MBA just to get into their training programs. I had never even gone to college! [That] didn’t mean I wasn’t smart or I wasn’t bright, I just didn’t have a college degree. But I kept coming back. I had a mom who told me I could be and do anything, and I wanted to do something that I was truly passionate about. I wanted to do something that got me so excited the sun could not come up soon enough in the morning.
EBONY: And Wall Street was that thing for you…
Chris Gardner: Aw man! The first time I walked into a trade room with the phones ringing off the hook, people are screaming and shouting, bodies are flying across the floor (pause). What would look like chaos to anybody else was like sheet music to me. This was where I was supposed to be and I knew it. So I kept coming back.
EBONY: I feel that. I bet that when you were going through all of this, inspiring folks was the last thing that was on your mind.
Chris Gardner: I was trained to survive. I knew that I was doing something that I loved and had made a decision. That decision was to become world-class at whatever I did with my life. Not “good” at it, not “pretty good” at it, but world-class at it. My first ambition in life I wanted to become Miles Davis, but it was my mom who said to me, “Son you can’t be Miles Davis. Ain’t but one and he got that job.” And I had to look at the facts. The facts were that at 18 years of age, Miles was a New York City player with Quincy Jones and Dizzy Gallespie. At the same age, I was in Milwaukee, Wisconsin playing with Pookie and Ray Ray, alright? I couldn’t become Miles, but I could become like Miles. Meaning I can become world-class in whatever I did with my life.
Ebony: Right. Let’s talk about AT&T’s Agility challenge. You give back in so many ways so I imagine that this campaign and your involvement in it is calculated.
Chris Gardner: It’s a tremendous opportunity, and it’s what I want to do with the rest of my life. One of the first things we’re doing is going out and meeting entrepreneurs where they are, and learning what challenges they face. [Owning a business is] not an ABC and 123 process. Life happens, and you have to recalibrate. Know that at the same time if this is what you truly want to do with your life, you got to be agile. Skills, talent and expertise are transferable. Why not transfer those things into doing something that you’re truly passionate about? That’s agility!
EBONY: You mentioned being “world-class.” What do you mean by that when it comes to success?
Chris Gardner: Simple. Somebody gotta say your name. “Who’s the best in the business?” If nobody says your name, you’ve got work to do. If nobody says your name and you don’t care, get out of the business. You’ll never be any good. But the ultimate confirmation is when somebody who does not like you says your name. When the phone is ringing and the folks are calling you, that’s world-class. Some folks like you, some folks don’t, but they have to call you. That was always something that carried me every day. You’ve got to have a plan, and Plan B sucks. Everybody got a dream. What’s the plan?
For more information on ATT&T’s Agility Challenge, visit https://bizcircle.att.com/agility.