Chris Gardner, barely older than a toddler, hadn’t grasped the concept that he was living in a foster home. He only knew that his mother and his stepfather had disappeared one day and he was living with strangers.
For three years, he had been in that home. Close to the end of the third year, a familiar face started visiting the foster home and making homemade candy for the children. She visited over and over again. Wrapping himself in the comfort and familiarity of her smell and her loving eyes, young Chris felt like he should know her, but he couldn’t place from her. He exchanged glances with the mysterious lady, thinking she was beautiful. As she handed him a piece of molasses candy one day, the realization clicked.
She was his mother.
Bettye Jean had been sent to prison by her abusive husband, Freddie Triplett, for welfare fraud. She was receiving benefits and also working to provide for her children. One day after a fight, Freddie got mad and turned her in. She was taken from her kids and jailed.
When she was released and got Chris and rest of her children back, she ran straight back to the man who had put her behind bars. Freddie hated Chris and his siblings, telling them, “I ain’t your goddamned daddy.”
The verbal abuse was unrelenting. Drunk and emboldened, Freddie beat Chris’s mom on a daily basis. She took it — doing her best to protect the kids. Chris worried that Freddie would kill her.
And then it happened.
One night, his older sister woke him up with a piercing scream. He found his mother lying in a pool of her blood with a 2×4 board stuck into the side of her head. Freddie had finally done it.
The tough mom that she was, Bettye Jean only spent one night in the hospital and kicked Freddie out of the house when she came home. But a few days later, he was back on the couch, beer in hand, screaming at Bettye. She stood there. Still. Taking the punishment.
But this time she had a plan. Bettye Jean made sure all four kids were out of the house. Freddie was as predictable as he was abusive. When he came staggering home drunk, Bettye Jean waited for him to pass out on the couch.
She lit their house on fire and walked out.
In the middle of the blaze, Freddie woke up and was able to put the fire out. He called the police on Bettye Jean and again had her put in jail. This time she was sentenced to four years more years.
At six years old, Chris Gardner promised himself that when he grew up and had kids, he would never leave them. But right now, he was all alone. Again placed into foster care. Disconnected from that beautiful lady who handed him that molasses candy he loved.
The cycle only continued when his mom got out of prison. Back at Freddie’s house. Shouting. Beatings. Violence. Chaos. Unloved. A teenager without direction or support
And then if his life wasn’t already miserable enough, he experienced a traumatic event that would haunt him for years to come.
It started with a knock on his door.
It was a local man in his apartment complex. Chris had a small job cleaning up and got to know a few of the people he lived with. Chris let him inside the apartment, oddly noticing his limp and the unpleasant odor that followed him. The man he thought was his friend overpowered him and raped him, not once, but twice, before getting up and leaving a shocked and violated Chris Gardner laying face down on the bathroom floor.
For three years, that day haunted Chris.
One day, he saw the familiar limp and smelled that familiar unpleasant odor. Chris followed the man into an ally with a cinderblock in his hand. Turning around, the man realized who Chris was. He wasn’t able to say anything before Chris smashed the cinderblock down on his head. Again and again. And again.
“Got ya,” Chris said.
He walked away not sure if the man was dead or alive.
But he was ready to move on with his life. He was determined to make something of himself. He enlisted in the Navy. And decided that he wanted to be in the medical industry — where he could make good money and finally be happy.
But he found himself struggling financially. He was recruited by world renowned heart surgeon, Robert Ellis, to join the research team at University of California Medical Center. Chris soaked up information like a sponge. He worked determinedly and even made a name for himself in the medical research industry, but his paychecks weren’t enough to cover his bills.
He was broke. Chris wanted more. He had a wife to support. And big dreams to achieve.
One day, while walking to his car, he saw a man in a Ferrari looking for a parking spot. Chris told the man he would give him his own parking space if he could ask him a few questions.
Chris asked two questions that would change his life.
“What do you do?” and “How do you do it?”
The man in the Ferrari was Bob Bridges, a wealthy stockbroker. Chris and Bob quickly became friends and Bridges was able to open some doors for the struggling medical researcher. That was enough for Chris to leave his unfulfilling job in the medical field and try his hand at being a broker.
It was not an easy feat for him. He worked on commission only and had to work long days to meet the quotas he had set in his head. He was tired — but determined. As he thought about his mother working tirelessly to provide for him, he knew he could do it, too.
But he also picked up his mom’s bad relationship habits. He was abusive to his wife and unfaithful. Things began to unravel when he had an affair with a woman named Jackie.
It started as mostly drug binges and sex.
But shortly after they started seeing each other, Jackie found herself pregnant. Remembering that promise he had made to himself when he was six, Chris left his wife to be with his girlfriend and son. He wanted to do better than his father and stepfather had done. Still, he was trapped in the cycle from his childhood.
One day, when his son was almost two, a fight ensued. Chris grabbed Jackie by the wrists to stop her from hitting him. When he let her go she fell into the bushes. Hurt and angry, Jackie called the police for domestic abuse. When the police showed up, they ran Chris’s name through their database and ended up arresting him for outstanding parking tickets.
When he got out of his short stint in jail, Jackie left him and their son. Chris, now a single father, had to worry about how to continue on that path he had started to get his own Ferrari with a two-year-old in tow. Even when he couldn’t afford a place for the two of them to live. Chris would not give up on being a father.
In a job that only paid commission, Chris was homeless.
But not hopeless. He pushed forward, taking every punch thrown in his direction. Some of them hit him square in the jaw, others he ducked and dodged. He was determined to make it work. He remembered the words of his mother: “You can only depend on yourself. The cavalry ain’t coming.”
Using any money he made to keep his baby boy in day care, Chris worked vigorously for success. His days were longer than his successful counterparts. He started earlier. He finished later. He made more calls. And fewer breaks. He wanted it more. And his determination did not go unnoticed.
Chris caught the attention of Gary Shemano, the head of Bear Stearns’ San Francisco office. Gary was so impressed with Chris’s drive and relentless work ethic, that he was offered him a job with better pay and a clothing allowance. It was an offer that was too good to refuse.
It was the break he had been working for.
Chris used the clothing allowance to move himself and Chris Jr. out of homelessness and into an apartment of their own. He put Chris Jr. into a good day care facility. And he kept pushing. He kept learning. He asked questions. He took the answers and he ran with them.
He was determined to make his million dollars. Growing up, the only millionaires that had brown skin were singers and basketball players. Chris Gardner knew he couldn’t sing or shoot hoops. He remembered what his mother had told him so many times growing up, “Son, if you believe you can do it, you will.”
So Gardner continued to believe. He continued to ask “what do you do?” and “How do you do it?” Whenever he ran across someone who was succeeding, he asked questions. More importantly, he listened to the answers. He studied. He pushed. He worked.
Learn. Improve. Learn. Improve. Learn. Improve.
Chris transformed himself from newbie stockbroker into a heavyweight financial professional.
“The man was like a sponge who always wanted to be around smart people,” Gary Shemano recalls. “He wanted to know how people had succeeded and learned from them — learn how they did it.”
He soon earned the confidence of management all the way up to chairman, Ace Greenberg. Eventually leaving Bear’s San Francisco office for its New York headquarters. Chris moved from picking stocks for wealthy investors to putting together complex investment strategies for institutional portfolio managers.
It was a long tough road. But he had achieved his dream of becoming a millionaire.
And his story didn’t stop there. Chris Gardner could have easily gotten lost in the cycle of violence. He could have easily let someone else raise his son while he sought success. That was not in the cards for him. Neither was continuing to work for someone else.
It was time to step out on his own.
Starting out in an office set up in his tiny apartment, Chris started Gardner Rich & Co. in downtown Chicago. Using all the lessons he had learned from his struggle up to this point, he built it into an investment juggernaut that he sold for million dollars a decade later.
And even that was not enough. Chris opened an even larger firm, called Christopher Gardner Holdings, with offices in Chicago, New York City, and San Francisco. It’s his vehicle for giving back. For helping other troubled and abused young, inner-city men.
His inspiring, life story was played by Will Smith in the movie, The Pursuit of Happyness, that generated almost $170 million in revenue.
He was successful because he was obsessed with learning.
- He beat poverty because he learned how to make money
- He beat the cycle of abuse because he learned how to be a good dad.
- He beat homelessness because he learned how to be creative.
He beat sexual abuse. He beat complacency. He beat his demons.
And all because he was willing to learn. And not just willing. He craved it. He depended on it. It was the secret to his success in making money and in being the father that his son needed.
Every problem was an opportunity to learn and improve. Every obstacle could be thwarted by learning and improving.
The same is true for you. You’re going to make mistakes. You’re going to find yourself in situations where life chews you up and spits you out.
Your mission is to learn and improve.
You don’t need to get it right the first time. Or even the second or third time. But you do need to learn from your mistakes and figure out a way to make sure you get to where you want to be.
That’s the secret to breakthrough. Continual improvement. An obsession with being a better version of yourself.
Chris Gardner continues to make a difference — helping others to learn and improve their lives. His organization provides homes to the working poor, giving them hope and a decent standard of living. Because of his outreach, he has received numerous awards including the “Father of the Year” award from the National Fatherhood Initiative.
“I find myself saying over and over: ‘Baby steps count. But you’ve always got to be moving forward,’ “ says Gardner, “Hope is all you need”.
That’s a lesson worth learning.