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Service & Impact
summer 2021

The Happyness Principal

Immortalized by Hollywood, Inspirational Overcomer Chris Gardner Is Schooling Others to Scramble
Written by: WayMaker Journal Team

Chris Gardner rewrote the rags-to-riches storyline with his book and Will Smith-starring biopic, The Pursuit of Happyness. His broke-to-broker account of clawing his way from being a homeless father of a toddler to a wealthy trader inspired millions to keep believing, keep hustling.

The remarkable story opened up a new chapter for him as a motivational speaker and philanthropist, addressing governments, foundations, and institutions around the world— including a presentation to a United Nations summit on homelessness.

But more recently he has been focusing on a smaller and younger audience, in school classrooms across the country. Launched with the goal of sharing his “Permission to Dream” message with students at 100 high schools, his Back 2 High School initiative now has the ambitious target of 1,000 presentations.

It’s not as dramatic a change in focus for his life as some people think. Dismissing the idea of a reinvention, he calls his new emphasis “just an extension. I’m making different types of investments now. I am making alternative investments—a human capital.

“If a young man comes up to me and says, ‘I want to become a billionaire,’ I’ve got to say, ‘I’ve never done that. I can’t help you with that,’” he says. “If a young woman comes up to me and says, ‘I want to become the CEO of a major Fortune 500 company,’ I’ve got to say, ‘I’ve never done that. I can’t help you with that.’ But when a young person comes up to me and says, ‘I want to do something that I love and I want to work for myself,’ I could say, ‘I’ve done that. I can help you with that.”

Gardner offers that advice and encouragement with a mix of homey wisdom, heartfelt storytelling, and hard-knock honesty as he challenges young people to make their own better future. He shares what he says are the three most important decisions he ever made, at around their age.

First, that he was going to break the chain of child abandonment. “And when I broke that one, all of the other associated links were instantly shattered, including child abuse, domestic violence, alcoholism, illiteracy, and fear of generational poverty.”

That one alone “didn’t just change my life, it changed the lives of my yet-to-have-been-born children, and my grandchild.” But there was more. He also determined that he was going to be world-class at whatever he did. “Not good enough,” he says, “not pretty good at it, but world-class at it.”

The Global Challenge
Part of Gardner’s inspiration in aiming to be the best came from Martin Luther King Jr., who famously challenged people to excel at whatever they did, even if it meant being the world’s best garbageman. “World class,” Gardner emphasizes. “Not good. Everybody’s good. No, you’re constantly raising the bar in comparison to somebody else, raising the bar in comparison to what you did yesterday.”

The young Gardner’s third personal pledge was that “I was going to do something that was bigger than what I saw” in the Greyhound station in downtown Milwaukee, Wisconsin, where he would sit and watch the buses heading out for all points of the compass: St. Louis, Kansas City, Cleveland, Detroit. “I got no money. I got no ticket. I can’t go anywhere,” he remembers, “but I would sit there and say, ‘One day, man, I’m going to all those places.”

Gardner’s youthful wanderlust has since been more than satisfied—before COVID-19 slowed his travels, he had spoken in over 80 countries, in addition to crisscrossing the United States.

Faith is important to him, but it’s not a sit-back-and-hope-good-things-happen kind. He believes in the heavenly hustle instilled in him by his mother. “Did you do your work?” she would ask him. “Did you pray on it?” When he answered affirmatively, she would tell him: “Well, keep working, because God’s busy. God’s got to help somebody that needs some help more than you do right now. Keep working. He’s gonna get back with you.”

If determination to work hard was important when he was trying to make a way for himself, he believes it is even more critical for young people today. Because of technology, “the people that you’re now competing with are not just in your classroom,” he tells them.

“Because of globalization, the people that are now competing with us are someplace all around the world. And while you are off being young and enjoying yourself—as you’re perfectly entitled to do—you have got to know this: that the people that you’re competing with are someplace grinding, they’re practicing their networking, they are rehearsing.”

There has never been another generation better prepared to embrace, demand, or create change than this generation right here.


The Change Generation
Best isn’t a one-time event, either. “Because it is a fluid thing,” he says. “You don’t just get to a place called happiness and pull off. There’s no exit ramp for that. You cannot take your eye off the ball for a second. You cannot let your guard down for a second. You have to stay focused, you have to stay disciplined. You cannot allow yourself to be distracted.”

That means making hard choices about what is really important to you. “Everybody wants to work when the sky is clear and the sun is out,” he says. “Sometimes you have got to do your best work in the rain—and I’m not talking about the rain coming down from the clouds. I’m talking about the blood, sweat and tears that you create. When you’re trying to build something, you’ve got to be able to work in the rain.

“That’s what’s gonna make the difference. Everybody else, go inside.” Because whether you decide to kick back or push hard is “going to make the difference between who signs the front of the check and who signs the back of the check.” It’s your responsibility to create the kind of life you want, he says, “because the cavalry is not coming.”

Yet Gardner suspects that today’s young people may be uniquely up to the challenge of having to try harder. Look at the timeline of the lives of those born at the turn of the millennium, he says: they were “conceived in a storm” as he describes the Y2K panic.

“It turned out to be a non-event, but the fear was the world was going to end, all the technology was going to fail, the banks were going to collapse….” Now fast forward on their timeline, he says, through global financial crises, political and racial polarization, and a pandemic.

“What’s the one constant in that timeline?” he asks. “Big, dramatic, frightening change. There has never been another generation better prepared to embrace, demand or create change than this generation right here. Change is in their DNA.”

The Greatest Export
Gardner doesn’t just have a challenge for people who are trying to make their way up the ladder, he also has some straight talk for those who are there enjoying the view.
“Get up from your desk,” he says, “walk through the C-suite and ask yourself, ‘Who is out here that does not look like me? That could do my job?’ Question number two, ‘Why isn’t there anybody out here that doesn’t look like me that could do my job?’ Question number three, ‘Whose job was that?’”

Gardner raises an eyebrow over some of the calls he got in the wake of 2020’s racial unrest from CEOs of major businesses seeking his opinion on what they might say.
“My response was, ‘Well, why do you care now?’” he recalls. “Where was all this empathy, concern and compassion, not five, 10 years ago, but five, six months ago? Why do you care now? And if you can’t answer that question, maybe you shouldn’t say anything.” It’s one reason he has never accepted an invitation to give an MLK Day address, and never will.

“I’ve been asked to do many, many of those,” he explains. “I decline because my position is this: Every year, every CEO comes out and gives the same lame speech about Dr. King’s comments about the content of your character being more important than the color of your skin… and then they go back to doing the same things they would do in the 364 days before.

“No, I ain’t going to support that.” Gardner points to people who pledged big sums of money to fight injustice and economic disparity, in the wake of last year’s racial tensions. “Has anybody written a check? Has anybody gotten a check?

“A lot of these people making these pledges, they got a PPP problem, and I’m not talking about the payroll protection plan. I’m talking about the fact that every pimp, politician and preacher is at their front door saying, ‘Pay me.’ And some of these folks, if you write them a check, they will go away quietly.”

Gardner is careful to avoid politics. “You’re not going to change anybody’s mind,” he observes. “The red people are red, the blue people are blue, and if you disagree with them, you are going to fight. Well, I don’t have time to fight, I’ve got work to do. I’ve got to go to a school today.”

Telling people he is in the import-export business these days, he asks them what they consider to be America’s greatest-ever export. “Manufacturing; no. Technology; no. Hamburgers; no,” he says. “The greatest export in the history of the United States is the American dream, this ideal that there’s a place where you can do or be anything. That’s the greatest export in the history of this country. And that’s why I’m working to help import it right now because too many of our young people don’t believe—and with good justification.”

That makes him sad because he believes in the American dream as defined for him by his mother: that you can be anything you want: “And I’m living it every day.” His belief in unlikely possibilities in part inspired his latest book, Permission to Dream (Amistad), in which he shares some more of his life lessons.

The greatest export in the history of the United States is the American dream.

The Big Comeback
Looking ahead, despite all the challenges, Gardner sees a bright future for the country. “I believe we’re about to have the greatest comeback in the history of comebacks,” he says. “This thing is going to be bigger than Rocky Balboa. And if you don’t believe that, then get off the field and get out of the way because the bench is deep and they came to play.”

Gardner makes a cameo in the closing scene of the movie version of his life, as an anonymous man passing Smith as he celebrates securing his first broker’s position and a pathway out of poverty. In real life, Gardner sometimes finds himself being recognized by people as he walks through one of the big cities’ financial districts. Young interns to whom he gave a break when he had his own brokerage will tell him thank you, and how they are now prospering. That’s “the most exciting thing in the world,” he says.

Touching and helping others is the greatest investment you can ever make, he says, “because that is how we are going to change this country and we are going to change the world. I believe that.”

At a time when some people his age are starting to slow down, Gardner is as fired up as ever, calling life to date a warm-up. “I am a 67-year-old startup,” he says, with a passing reference to talks with a big company that “could be the biggest thing I’ve ever done in my business career.”

He has reached the perfect age, he says: “Old enough to know what you’re doing, but young enough to get it done. That’s where I’m at, baby. I’m probably in the best physical condition of my life. I feel strong mentally, emotionally, spiritually. I couldn’t be better. Everything before this was practice.”

He pauses to make it clear that he’s not intending to sound braggadocious, simply underscoring his belief in the importance of paying your dues to see your reward. “When you do the work for a long time, when nobody’s watching, when you’re in the woodshop and you’re grinding… you’re due the chance to do something called your best work. And that’s the greatest feeling in the world.”

Chris Gardner: My WayMaker
My mom; she was one of those old-fashioned mamas. She did not say you could have anything or you could buy anything. She did not say you are entitled to anything. She said you could be anything. And for me, that was an even bigger statement, because if you can do or be anything, all the other stuff will come. My mother gave me permission to dream.