Author, entrepreneur and motivational speaker Chris Gardner became an international symbol of the will to survive in 2006. His incredible journey from homeless single father to fiscal guru was chronicled in both the best-selling memoir The Pursuit of Happyness and the blockbuster film starring Will Smith.

Now, three years later, Gardner is not only a wealthy man, but a passionate social activist determined to help others achieve personal and professional success, no matter their circumstances or background. His new book, Start Where You Are: Life Lessons in Getting from Where You Are to Where You Want to Be, represents the next phase in Gardner's career, offering hope and sound advice in this tough economic climate.

"I remember telling people 18 months ago when everything looked good that tough times were coming," Gardner says by phone from his Chicago office. "I didn't have access to any information or trends. I just saw some factors in terms of how much credit was out in the marketplace and the speculative buying. Now I'm determined to show people they can be totally broke today, and still, through the lessons in this book, not only recover but eventually thrive if they are willing to do what it takes."

The book's 44 chapters distill commonsense wisdom, presented with a zeal and enthusiasm that is evident as Gardner responds to questions. "The very first thing I tell college graduates today is that if you want to get an advanced degree, now is a good time to do it, because in many cases the job you thought you earned your [first] degree to get might not exist any longer.
"But more important than that, you should find something you love and are passionate about doing. Then, assess the opportunities out there for you to do it. You might have to take a job doing something else for now, but don't forget or abandon your long-term goal," Gardner says. "You definitely should have a plan, and you've got to know the difference between who you are and what you do. Whatever job you get doesn't define who you are. That's defined by your values, your willingness to work hard, your ingenuity and your persistence."

Start Where You Are dispenses many other suggestions and strategies for getting where you want to be. One section is devoted to getting started in whatever field you want to pursue. Others look at avoiding past mistakes, the necessity for learning the ropes of a particular craft and even the boost that can be obtained from a spiritual approach.

"If people are looking for how to get rich quick, I tell them this isn't the right book for them," Gardner says. "I'm talking about improving your life, and money is really the least effective way of measuring someone's self-worth. The lessons in this book will not only help you grow and thrive as a person, they'll help you when the tough times arrive, and enable you to understand the world's not ending if you get laid off."

Gardner talks as much about joy, love and faith as he does ownership, empowerment and capital. Though the book contains chapters that deal strictly with financial matters, like Lesson #34 (Mo' Money, Mo' Options, Mo' Problems) or Lesson #29 (Share the Wealth), he's far more concerned with psychological and moral growth than fiscal improvement, and sees the latter as the natural byproduct of the former. "The advice that I provide is universal," he points out. "So much of what happens in life comes as a result of your approach, and when you change that, you can change your life."

Now CEO of the investment firm Gardner Rich LLC, Gardner also tackles causes ranging from homelessness to violence against women to financial illiteracy. He is teaming with actor Will Smith again on a forthcoming project: a network reality show, though Gardner cautions, "It won't be something sensational or exploitative. We want to do real stories and give people the opportunity for growth, change and empowerment."

Gardner and Smith are joining forces with superstar producer Mark Burnett, creator of "Survivor" and "The Apprentice," among other shows, and he's hopeful the program might be ready for the fall season, though he adds that details are still "in negotiations." So for now, Gardner will continue his lectures and work, hoping that Start Where You Are will prove as transformative and inspirational as The Pursuit of Happyness.

Ron Wynn writes for the Nashville City Paper and other publications.

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