Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 29 November 2020

How Chris Gardner's challenge to Will Smith inspired the film 'The Pursuit of Happyness'

The self-help author will take part in an online discussion organised by the Abu Dhabi International Book Fair

CINCINNATI, OH - OCTOBER 17: Chris Gardner speaks during Life Reimagined: Pursuing Purpose And Passion on October 17, 2015 in Cincinnati, Ohio. Duane Prokop/Getty Images for Life Reimagined/AFP
CINCINNATI, OH - OCTOBER 17: Chris Gardner speaks during Life Reimagined: Pursuing Purpose And Passion on October 17, 2015 in Cincinnati, Ohio. Duane Prokop/Getty Images for Life Reimagined/AFP

If you are struggling professionally, then Chris Gardner has a message for you.

“Skills, talent and expertise are transferable,” he says. “The key is where you choose to transfer those things. You have to do something that you're truly passionate about.”

It is a concept that not only forms the basis of his bestselling 2010 book Start Where You Are, but remains a principle that has served him well throughout his storied life.

That motto is so good, in fact, it inspired Gardner’s first book – the hit-memoir-turned-Oscar-nominated-2006-film, The Pursuit of Happyness.

If you are not familiar with the work, published the same year as the film’s release, then here is a quick recap: a struggling stockbroker and single father raises his son while on the poverty line in San Francisco.

Through ambition and toil, he manages to eventually find secure housing and a better job that fast-tracks his career to chief executive of his own business and motivational speaker.

Even if you have already seen the film, don’t skip the book.

Like most cases, the literary version offers a more rounded affair. While the film focuses on one year of Gardner’s life, the book is more sweeping story as it recalls his troubled childhood and early ambition to become a doctor.

While the rag-to-riches journey has become a tired marketing trope of self-help literature, what elevates Gardner’s work above the pack is its sheer grittiness.

Written with Miles Davis memoirist Quincy Troupe, Gardner is unflinching in detailing his faults as he tries to find a way out of dire straits.

As it turns out, the impetus he needed came after the following insights: find acceptance in the past, focus on the challenges ahead and move forward.

A light in a cave

Where The Pursuit of Happyness traced the discovery of those valuable life lessons, Start Where You Are finds him synthesising these ideas in a book that offers a road map for those feeling lost in their careers and personal lives.

Gardner will be detailing his experiences further on Sunday, May 10, during a session streamed on the Abu Dhabi International Book Fair’s YouTube page at 10pm.

With the book written in the aftermath of the global financial crisis of 2007-2008, Gardner’s insights will prove useful in this particular tumultuous period, in which the ongoing pandemic has already caused mass unemployment across various sectors.

That feeling of hopelessness is something he is intimately familiar with. He saw it first hand when running his brokerage firm in the US when the financial crisis struck.

“I was on the train in Washington in the middle of the day and, where it would normally be empty, this train was packed with the first wave of 50,000 people who lost their jobs at Citibank,” Gardner recalls.

“It was packed with people carrying these boxes. Inside were their degrees, their personal items, the pictures of their kids, the house plans and they were all worried because they were going home to tell their families and the bank that they no longer have a job.”

Gardner says Start Where You Are was born out of a conversation he shared with one of the laid-off passengers. Recognising him from television – the success of The Pursuit of Happyness made Gardner a celebrity, after all – the passenger sought his advice.

Gardner kept it succinct. “I was trying to get him to see that you lost your job, but you have not lost your skills, talent or expertise. I told this young man that now is time for creating opportunities where you can be at your prime. Because looking for an opportunity and a job are two different things. It's about finding that one thing that you love so much that you will wake up before the sun goes up for and do it for free,” he says.

“The best part was about a year later, I got a call from that same person who said that he and his friends got the money from their retirement plans and started a new company. And the first company that hired them was who? Citibank. Now, isn’t that cool or what?”

The anecdote demonstrates the power of well-placed encouragement.

However, if you are looking for number-crunching tips on how to make your next million dirhams, then Start Where You Are is not the book for you. Instead, the work is tailored to those who have found their well-laid career plans suddenly derailed.

Over its brisk 44 chapters (described as life lessons), Gardner offers advice on the best ways to tackle problems and make smart decisions, with anecdotes taken from personal experiences and time spent on the trading floor.

“And this is why I have been travelling so much and trying to meet as many young people that I can in all kinds of events and festivals,” he says. “I am just trying to be a light in a cave. It’s about providing that encouragement and instilling that belief that they can do what they always wanted. But it comes with knowing what you want to focus on.”

When Gardner first met Will Smith

Chances are, that shift in focus will work for you.

After all, it did wonders for Will Smith, whose portrayal of Gardner earned him the biggest acclaim of his career and an Academy Award nomination for Best Actor.

Gardner says he knew the film was in good hands after his first meeting with the Hollywood star in 2005.

“He invited me over to his house for dinner and I brought along the script and my notes as he requested. But more importantly I brought a picture of me and my son that was on the cover of my book,” he recalls.

“I said to him that we can talk about the script or we can talk about these two guys, what do you want to do? Well, you know what he chose. As a result, he trusted me to be more open and I trusted him as artist to cut and paste and do whatever an artist has to do to tell a story. And it all turned out great. I couldn’t be happier.”

Chris Gardner: The Pursuit of Happyness will be streamed on Abu Dhabi International Book Fair's YouTube page on Sunday, May 10, at 10pm

Updated: May 10, 2020 03:11 PM

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