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Interview: The Long Road to 'Happyness'

From living on the street to working on Wall Street, Chris Gardner’s transformation illustrates the importance of putting passion in your work.

Anyone who opens Chris Gardner’s gripping—and gritty—new autobiography, The Pursuit of Happyness (HarperCollins), will discover that the happiness he pursues is not just his own. Happyness, a title inspired by a sign in the daycare center where Gardner yearns to place his son, chronicles his extraordinary life journey from poverty to prosperity. Pushing his son’s stroller with one hand, while balancing a box of Pampers and all his possessions with the other, the homeless single father worked his way from counting cracks on the sidewalk to counting cash on Wall Street. Today, he owns a multimillion-dollar brokerage firm that gives 10 percent of its earnings to support public schools and educators. The longtime NEA supporter recently spoke with NEA Today’s Sabrina Holcomb about his life and the news that his book will soon be released as a film starring Will Smith.

How does it feel to have Will Smith play you in a Hollywood movie about your life?

GARDNER: It’s part of life’s blessings—an incredible opportunity to share the key message I talk about in my book, which is how important it is to break cycles. I never knew my father; the cycle I had to break was the men in my family not being there for their children. The Pursuit of Happyness may be the story of my life, but it’s the book of us.

What gave you the mental and emotional resilience to survive a harsh childhood—a violently abusive stepfather, your mother’s unexplained absences, constantly moving from place to place?

Chris Gardner appreciates the teachers who looked out for him and "turned the wattage up."

GARDNER: I call it “spiritual genetics.” I got it from my Mom, but it’s not DNA that’s passed along in the genes; it’s a spirit you have to choose to embrace. A comment my mother made one day became one of two pivotal events in my life. I was watching a college basketball game and I said, “Wow, one day those guys are going to make a million dollars.” My mother said, “Son, if you want to, one day you could make a million dollars.” I was stunned. Until she said it, it wasn’t a possibility. I always knew I wanted to be world class at something. I couldn’t sing, I couldn’t run and catch a ball, and I couldn’t dance. But I was pretty good at reading and writing. So that was my ticket.

In your book, you talk about how your Mom got you hooked on reading and education.

GARDNER: My mother was a smart, well-read woman who always wanted to be a teacher but ended up working as a domestic. She was probably her happiest when she was teaching my sisters and me. She was our professor, our Socrates.

My schoolteachers also looked out for me. In elementary school, Mrs. Broderick made me read whole chapters out loud even though I was trying to “dumb down” to be cool. In junior high, Mrs. Spellman made sure I was good at math. When my high school teacher Mrs. Mertz found out I was reading beyond my grade level, she brought me magazine articles and took me to see Handel’s Messiah. Once she found out I had a light on in my head, she turned the wattage up. Everybody who’s doing anything positive in life had a teacher who turned the wattage up and wouldn’t let them turn it down.

How do you acknowledge teachers who have “turned up the wattage”?

GARDNER: Every year, my firm awards a check to the Teacher or Education Support Professional of the Year. Our first teacher was Sandy McBrayer, who taught homeless children in a San Diego school called “The Place.” She used the money to give her students partial community-college scholarships, alarm clocks, and backpacks. After years of awarding money to teachers, we switched to ESPs. We had to start acknowledging that there are a whole lot of folks who make these schools work. And I can’t think of a better way to honor my mom and lift her up than helping educators—the biggest part of her soul was to teach.

Do you ever talk to schoolkids about pursuing their happiness? What do you tell them?

GARDNER: That’s a tough crowd. The first things kids want to know is how much money I make. For them, that’s a validating question because it means: “Why should I listen to you?” My answer is always the same. If I were in the NBA, I might not be making as much as Shaq, but I wouldn’t be on the bench, either. I tell them forget about money; money is the least significant aspect of wealth. It’s more important to do something that makes you happy. Why do teachers teach? They’ve got passion for it. They do it to see the light come on in their kids’ eyes.


Photo: AP Photo/M. Spencer Green

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