From Homeless to
- from BusinessWeek
Chris Gardner, the man whose
rags-to-riches story inspired the movie The Pursuit of Happyness,
explains how he harnessed his passion to turn his life around
It's not every day you get the chance to
pick the brain of a man whose real-life rags-to-riches story was turned into a
Hollywood movie starring one of America's top actors. But the other day I had
the opportunity to spend time with Chris Gardner, subject of the 2006 movie
The Pursuit of Happyness, in which Gardner was played by Will Smith.
While attending an unpaid internship
Witter Reynolds in 1981, Gardner spent a year on the streets with his
two-year-old son. They took refuge at night in a church shelter or the bathroom
of a BART subway station in Oakland, Calif. Nobody at work knew. Gardner
eventually won a position as a stockbroker at Dean Witter. Two years later he
left for Bear Stearns
(BSC), where he
became a top earner. In 1987, he founded his own brokerage firm,
Rich,in Chicago. Today, Gardner is a multimillionaire, a motivational
speaker, a philanthropist, and an international businessman who is about to
launch a private equity fund that will invest solely in South Africa. His
partner in the fund? Nelson Mandela. Not bad for a guy who, six years before
founding his own brokerage firm, was "fighting, scratching, and crawling my way
out of the gutter with a baby on my back."
"Passion is Everything"
Gardner is a magnificent speaker and has an
engaging personality—qualities all business professionals would crave.
But what's behind his success? What is the one thing—the one
secret—that helped him change his life? "It's passion," he told me.
"Passion is everything. In fact, you've got to be borderline fanatical about
what you do." Gardner says he was fortunate to find something he truly loved,
something where he couldn't wait for the sun to rise so he could do it again.
His advice to entrepreneurs and those seeking a career change? "Be bold enough
to find the one thing that you are passionate about. It might not be what you
were trained to do. But be bold enough to do the one thing. Nobody needs to dig
it but you."
Gardner wanted to be "world-class at
something." For him, that something was being a stockbroker. For you, finding
something you are passionate about will make the difference in how engaging you
become as a communicator and as a leader. If you love what you do, you'll
eagerly share the story behind it with boundless enthusiasm.
Passion is not teachable. As a
communications coach, I can help clients craft and deliver a powerful story,
but I can't create passion. But it's passion that separates the electrifying
presenters from the average ones. I'm absolutely convinced of it. As a former
television journalist, I've interviewed thousands of spokespeople and
personally coached hundreds of others in my current profession. Donald Trump
once said: "Without passion, you have no energy—and without energy, you
have nothing." Your listeners want to be in the presence of someone with
energy, a person who greets people with a smile and an abundance of enthusiasm.
Passion is not something you necessarily verbalize, but it shows. When Gardner
walked into Dean Witter after having slept in a subway station the night
before, he only wanted to leave one impression on his co-workers. "All they
needed to know is that I would light it up day after day. Passion is not
something you have to talk about. People feel it. They see it just as clearly
as the color of your eyes, baby."
Coffee and Commitment
I have spent the last several years
interviewing inspiring leaders, and I can say without hesitation that passion
is the No. 1 quality that sets them apart. In many ways, my talk with Gardner
reminds me of a conversation I once had with Starbucks (SBUX) Chairman
Howard Schultz. Like Gardner, Schultz used the word "passion" throughout our
entire conversation. But remarkably, the word "coffee" was rarely spoken. You
see, for Schultz, coffee is not his passion. Instead, Schultz says, he is
passionate about creating a workplace that "treats people with dignity and
respect;" a workplace environment that his father never had the opportunity to
experience. The coffee product offers the means to help Schultz fulfill his
passion. In much the same way, stock trading and commissions offered Gardner
the means to fulfill his passion, which was to give his son something he never
Passion is the foundation of effective
communication. Dig deep to discover your core purpose, your true passion. Once
you connect to it, use it as fuel to build a rapport with your
audience—recruiters, managers, employees, etc. Your presentations,
pitches, speeches, and all forms of business communication will be more
engaging than ever. Nearly everyone has room to increase what I call the
"passion quotient"—the level of passion you exhibit as a speaker. The
higher your passion quotient, the more likely you are to connect with people.
Chris Gardner's passion fueled his determination in the face of overwhelming
odds and obstacles. Take the time to imagine where harnessing your passion can
is a Pleasanton, Calif. communications coach and author of the upcoming book,
Fire Them Up! (John Wiley & Sons; September, 2007).