“Gardner is encouraging us all to start where we are and dare to make our lives bigger and stronger, more satisfactory, and better. Chris Gardner is a knockout!”
Chris Gardner’s astonishing memoir—the phenomenal New York Times bestseller, The Pursuit of Happyness, which inspired the film of the same name starring Will Smith—served as a shining beacon of hope for countless people. In Start Where You Are, “a book that teaches you how to transform the impossible into the possible” (Sidney Poitier), Gardner offers indispensible life lessons in getting from where you are to where you want to be.
May 12, 2009
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About the author
Chris Gardner is the Chief Executive of Gardner Rich & Company, a multimillion-dollar brokerage with offices in New York, Chicago, and San Francisco. An avid philanthropist and motivational speaker, Gardner is committed to many organizations—particularly those related to education—and was recently the recipient of the “Father of the Year Award” from the National Fatherhood Initiative. A Milwaukee native, Gardner has two children and resides in Chicago and New York.
Start Where You Are – Chris Gardner
One / Start Where You Are
Live your life so that whenever you lose it, you’re ahead.
Actor, humorist, commentator, entrepreneur
AN INTRODUCTION TO LESSONS #1 TO #10—UNIVERSAL LESSONS FOR PURSUIT
You may not realize it just yet, but by being here of this book, no matter how you arrived at this spot or where you aspire to go in the short or long term, you have already started. By reading these words, you’ve already begun to ask the important questions for any and every pursuit you may choose to undertake. By embracing the possibilities that are yours to be claimed, right now, in this very moment, as promised by those four words—Start Where You Are—you have walked through the gates and have begun your journey to the destination of your choosing.
So, before we go one step further, we should celebrate this greatest of occasions and mark this moment as the beginning of your time in the sun.
The power of the present offers each and every one of us that same new beginning. It doesn’t matter how young, old, rich, poor, tall, short, or in between you are. You don’t have to have lived on the streets or have traveled in high-powered circles. The present throws out a welcome mat as an equal-opportunity invitation to come into your own—in order for you to shine as brightly as you were designed by the forces of the universe to shine.
Here in my early fifties, blessed beyond my dreams, yet with so much more still to learn, I have finally attained a bit of wisdom that almost every life lesson in this book has helped me to grasp. And that is simply that if I look back at everywhere I’ve been—down every wrong turn, side alleyway, slow detour, or careening in the fast lane at my own peril—every stage of the journey in what has been my life so far was exactly where I needed to be at that time.
I know that applies fully to you as well. Whether you’re starting on a brand-new path, or braving new obstacles, or trying to get past excuses and fears that have hindered you in the past, you, too, are where you need to be. What’s more, you have every possible resource you can name already at your disposal.
I realize that’s not always easy to see, especially when the odds appear to have stacked up like a tsunami coming for you. A moving e-mail from Kimberly in Utah—a proud mother of five wonderful children whose husband, the family’s main source of financial support, had been let go from his job—spoke to this point so profoundly. No stranger to struggle, Kimberly had worked from the time she was fifteen years old, but chose to stay at home as a full-time mother so that her husband could pursue better opportunities for the family; at the same time she was studying for her degree in criminal justice. But after a car accident left her husband seriously injured and then having to battle a major health crisis, it felt like they were being hit from all sides. Over a period of a few years, they had lost two houses and making the rent was becoming harder every month. Even so, with only nine classes to go for her college degree, Kimberly hadn’t forgotten her dream to work as an advocate for those impacted by domestic violence and child abuse. Then again, it had to be tough for Kimberly not to feel overwhelmed:
I know it is within me to do the things that I would love to do to make my mark on the world. But it was a blow for all of us when my husband lost his job. We are waiting for military orders so that he can go back full-time for the National Guard. He has fought back physically as well for part-time Guard duty. I know we will make it, as we always do somehow. The trials will still come. I will always continue to fight and choose to be happy, regardless of the stress in my life. I do not expect anyone to fix our problems, I want to live life on my terms. I want to do for my family what I can so that they will be my legacy. But on some days, I’m not sure what to do next. Do you have some pointers?
Like the overwhelming majority of folks who write to tell me about their challenges, Kimberly wasn’t asking for a handout or a miracle cure. She wasn’t complaining because someone had run off with her safety net or because nobody ever left her a trust fund. What she wanted was direction to the tools, assets, and resources that were within her means—which she could access and put to use immediately.
That’s exactly what the ten universal life lessons that we’re going to cover in this chapter are here to provide for all of us. What Kimberly’s example illustrates, even for those of us who aren’t dealing with the same kind of harsh reality or with circumstances that feel overwhelming, is that all too often we forget or overlook the abundance of resources that we already have. Much of the time, as you’ll see, what we most need is right there at our fingertips—asking to be acknowledged and utilized.
For all that Kimberly feels she doesn’t have, what most struck me about her situation was her focus on what she does have: her belief that she has it in herself to do the things I would love to do to make my mark on the world. Starting with that alone, she is ahead of the game, ready to move ahead with resources that will be emphasized in Lessons #1 to #10—as we can see in this preview:
#1 Knowing what pursuit of happyness means to her, the first step may be as basic as creating or refining a practical plan to make it happen.
#2 With a reminder of positive choices and actions she’s taken throughout her life, this lesson gives pointers for getting back onto the path of empowerment.
#3 Another naturally indispensable asset is her own can-do attitude, here for the asking when most needed.
#4 As this lesson will reinforce for Kimberly and for everyone, it is often in our times of greatest crisis that we tap our true ingenuity.
#5 It’s always important to make sure we’ve engaged our sense of purpose that can give us the persistence required for staying on course.
#6 Her concern that she may be at the end of her rope can be a gift—a cue for using the resource of instigation that’s needed to transform her life.
#7 This lesson is intended to reconnect Kimberly and all of us to inspiration we can utilize to face fears and not give up on our dreams or ourselves.
#8 Problem solving and opportunity seeking start by gaining perspective—as she has already demonstrated by the awareness expressed in her letter.
#9 A mainstay of success for countless individuals, research & development, as I refer to the act of asking questions of others, is exactly what Kimberly knows how to do by looking for guidance.
#10 Above all, there is little that can’t be overcome for Kimberly or for anyone who chooses to tap the unstoppable force of passion—for pursuit and life itself.
As it turned out, when I was able to follow up with Kimberly and her family, she had weathered the crisis—thanks to her ability to recognize and put to use some of these very resources that were at her disposal. What had been most valuable for her, she let me know, was adjusting her attitude by remembering the cavalry ain’t coming (Lesson #3) and then choosing to see the challenging circumstances as opportunities to roll up her sleeves and come up with practical solutions. Her recent struggles only made her anticipated success that much sweeter. In short, the experience had helped her discover how capable she and her family members really were.
Indeed, the life lessons for pursuit in this chapter are intended to reinforce and reconnect you with the amazing capabilities that are innately yours. Even though many of us aren’t in situations as dire as the one that Kimberly and her family had to face, most of us can relate to those moments of challenge or confusion when we’re not sure what our next steps should be. For that reason, I’ve chosen to start with universal and classic examples in the lessons ahead that have mattered most in directing me to the resources most needed to proceed, all systems go.
Although it’s true that I don’t know you or where you find yourself today, let me boldly say that you’re ready to pursue happyness like never before, just as you are. If you doubt it at this moment, you may feel otherwise after you’ve taken a look at this first slate of lessons that will steer you toward the true wealth that is already yours—for the asking. You’ll find that you actually do have your own safety net of capacities, as well as a trust fund of assets that will never fail you—as long as you get past excuses and make the conscious choice to discover them.
We’re talking about resources you’ve probably used before but may have forgotten or overlooked. Or maybe you’ve got the knowledge but have never known how to utilize it in a practical way for your specific concerns, hopes, and dreams. These are resources that you don’t need anyone to hand to you. They’re within you—waiting to be acknowledged and valued. But like anything else that we already have, as I tell my kids, it’s a stomp-down, butt-naked fact that you’d better use it, or lose it!
There is never a better time and place than right now, right here, for you to make the conscious choice to look more closely at what you already have. The questions you’re willing to ask may take you in a direction you haven’t yet imagined, as they did me, and further than you might believe possible. But start here so that you can harness the mountain-moving power of the present that the following lessons can help you to do. They all offer applications that are intended to be universally relevant, whether you live in Wichita, Kansas, or in Soweto, South Africa, for use in all seasons, during bear or bull markets, and in all kinds of weather. They’re intended to offer guidance for keeping on track with the big questions, to help you keep your power to drive, and to steer you toward your rightful path. They’re here at the start to reveal to you the true gift of being where you are. Of course, as the saying goes, that’s why they call it the present.
Without a Plan, a Dream Is Just a Dream (the C-5 Complex)
Not too long ago I was invited to Washington, D.C., to speak to a group of veterans on how to pursue happyness.
This was an honor for many reasons. First of all, as a proud navy veteran myself, I knew I’d be in good company. So many times when I’ve been asked if I ever regretted choosing to enlist rather than going on to college after graduating from high school, I’ve answered simply and to the point, Never. Not yet twenty years old at the time, when I sped over to Milwaukee’s recruiting office after watching Jack Nicholson as a tough-talking sailor in The Last Detail, I admit that my main motivation was to Join the Navy, See the World as the poster promised. Though I never left the ground of the good old USA, the navy gave me something more. It allowed me to see the world of possibilities for myself and my future. Not only that, but the navy gave me an education that taught me the fundamentals of pursuing those possibilities—discipline, character, and initiative, all transferable skills that would serve me in every pursuit to come.
Besides the fact that I came away with training as a medic that would have rivaled a degree from a top medical school, the navy provided me with a stepping-stone to civilian life when I took a position overseeing a cutting-edge scientific research laboratory at the Veterans Administration Hospital in San Francisco and at the University of California there. Since then, without question, I count the lessons in the service and at the VA as central to my every success.
The opportunity to speak to the veterans group in Washington, D.C., was also meaningful because it allowed me to honor the army service of my uncles—my mother’s brothers who had been father figures to me. Their traditional values—hard work, duty, sacrifice, family, plus the love of adventure—had been part of my upbringing, even though I came of age in a much different era.
All of that said, I have a profound respect for today’s veterans and wanted to express my gratitude in a meaningful way. Many in the group who would be in attendance had returned from recent tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan, while others had served previously—in different branches of the military during the 1990s and 1980s, as well as in Vietnam and Korea; there were even a few who were veterans of World War II.
Some of these men and women were dealing with ongoing medical and psychological issues, either in treatment or on waiting lists at overcrowded VA facilities and overextended support systems. Some of the younger vets had come home to positions at work that had been filled in their absence or that didn’t exist anymore. The odds of finding a better job were much less likely than obtaining employment at lower salaries with fewer benefits, or having to hit the pavements to hunt for openings elsewhere. Many were confronting the same mortgage and foreclosure crises, skyrocketing gas and food prices, and other major challenges—including homelessness—impacting an increasing number of Americans.
Current statistics tell us there may be as many as 1 million homeless veterans living in America and that military veterans have come to represent one-third of the adult homeless population in this country. And those estimates are conservative.
As I prepared my remarks, I couldn’t help but be outraged by those statistics—not only as a vet myself, but even more so as a citizen of this country. Plain and simple, our veterans of war and of peacetime deserve better. But I suspected that my sense of injustice over their struggles was not the best way to strike up a conversation about how to overcome them. Then again, I didn’t want to go in and deliver a rousing pep talk without offering something tangible and even possibly transformational. If I had twenty minutes to share just one story, message, or life lesson, I wanted to choose one that had the potential of making a real difference in their lives.
In the end, I decided rather than arrive with all the answers, I’d start with a question, and maybe, if I paid attention, I’d learn something. That’s just what happened.
The question was—what is the single most important ingredient for successful pursuit? In other words, I asked them, when you look at every remarkable story of anyone who ever made possible something that everyone else believed was impossible, what allowed them to succeed where others have failed? Or, if you look at someone who epitomizes the kind of pursuit that inspires you, what does he or she have that you don’t?
You have to start with a dream, said one of the older veterans. There was lots of agreement until someone wisecracked, I have a dream, but she’s married. Then several other veterans talked seriously about their dreams, visions, hopes, and desires. Some dreams were related to having a home, financial security, a different career, a better-paying job, or just a job. Others had to do with wanting an improved lifestyle for their family or a longing to pursue an education in a different field or to continue where they’d left off. There were business venture ideas, investment plans, glamorous dreams of becoming a Hollywood mogul-type, and desires of working to do more to benefit others. Some dreams were more basic: To feel more hopeful, Sobriety, Peace of mind, To have a better day today than yesterday.
As I listened, it struck me that—as usual—God had put me into a situation to teach me something new. With that, it hit me what the lesson was—that, yes, dreams can inspire and motivate you like nothing else, if you believe that you’re capable of making them happen. But if you don’t take the necessary steps to make them happen, dreams are just mirages that mess with your head! So, did the recipe for pursuit come down to Thomas Edison’s formula that success is 10 percent inspiration and 90 percent perspiration? I had to think this one through. If 10 percent is owning your dream—believing you can do it, no matter where you are or the conditions in which you start—is taking action a full 90 percent of the equation? As I reflected on every spine-tingling, master-blaster pursuit story that had ever wowed me, I realized that action alone wasn’t the critical part. Just setting off without direction could take you in a circle, or not very far. My conclusion was that the key ingredient, the one thing that marks the difference between those who do and them that don’t, is very simply one tangible thing: a plan. Hence: A dream is just a dream without a plan.
Where do you get a plan? You create one!
Out of that memorable session with a group of my heroes, a gathering of American veterans, a creative way to apply this lesson for anyone who wants and needs a plan for any pursuit was born. I dubbed this planning device the C-5 complex—so good for you it can be used as a change-your-life daily supplement.
The five Cs to supercharge your pursuit with a worthy plan are five words: Clear, Concise, Compelling, Committed, Consistent. The first example that came to mind in the middle of my remarks that day was from my family history, back in the 1940s, when many of my relatives, with no prior experience, planned to escape bigotry, poverty, and fear by traveling north to freedom and opportunity. My same three intrepid Gardner uncles who later served in the army were in that group. With a dream that clear and concise, they were motivated to pool their meager resources and mechanical know-how in locating a car to transport them from dirt-poor, rural Louisiana to as far north as it will roll. As for compelling, in those days getting the hell out of the land of Jim Crow and lynch mobs was probably as compelling as you could get. Once they hit the road, with car breakdowns and misadventures, they could have stopped, given up, or even turned back, except for the commitment to the plan and one another. They had to remain committed, not just on safe, sunny days but on a consistent mile-by-mile basis, all the way to as far north as possible.
Actually, my uncles famously intended to go to Canada but broke down in Milwaukee and decided to put down roots and go to work there. Even so, their plan succeeded and their pursuit of a better life for themselves and their kids set the stage for everyone in the family who followed—including my mother, pregnant at the time with me.
Whether the endeavor is as direct a path as getting from point A to point B (or thereabouts) or as strategic as mounting a military offensive—as some of the veterans observed—or in planning an undertaking that is outlandish, massive, or over the top in scope, the C-5 complex is a tool that you can apply as you go, turning something fluid or complicated into something manageable.
Being clear first about what you want to do or where you want to go is mandatory. It’s the most important C for me. This might be a conversation between you and you—to let yourself know where you’re headed and make sure it’s a priority. In our rush to go charging after dreams and desires, with all the static and distractions, sometimes we would do well to turn the volume on the hubbub down, find a place of stillness, and make sure we are clear about where we’re charging off to.
Very often, in the course of making myself available to folks who have come to me for thoughts, advice, guidance, and/or inspiration, I find myself becoming frustrated by the lack of clarity as to what they’re hoping to hear from me. In such a conversation or meeting, while sitting there and after honestly listening to people express their dreams and desires, without hearing them ask any questions at all, the first concern that comes to my mind is—how can I help? And many times, I’ve concluded that the best way I can be of help is to force the issue by simply asking, How can I help? Or What is it that you want me to help you do? Better yet: What is it that you hope to accomplish?
On the flip side, whenever anyone clearly presents their ideas or plans to me, my attention is drawn in immediately. The contrast was evident when I was approached by two young would-be community organizers in different ways. One was a former gang leader who came highly prepared with a small piece of paper on which he had written notes for himself. He was somewhat nervous and soft-spoken when he explained that most of his former colleagues were in jail or dead and that his dream was to motivate kids to avoid the pitfalls of gangs, drugs, and violence. He had already developed and tested a program for working with teens to create options that were legal, profitable, and educational. Sounded clear, somewhat promising. I assumed he was going to make a play for financial support. But instead, when I asked how he saw me helping him, his clear response was: An introduction to a few community leaders who’ll hear me out. I picked up the phone and made it happen.
Another would-be community organizer was much less clear about what he wanted from me, other than, as he said, advice on how to help people less fortunate than me. Even though he was a college graduate and had an academic background, he was vague about what area of community organizing excited him, how to get started, what resources he might need, and what steps he should take to begin. It was beautiful that he wanted to help people, don’t get me wrong. But he still needed to clarify what it was that he wanted to help people do.
Vagueness and ambivalence can be the kiss of defeat, if not death, in some pursuits, and are often why some folks get lost in their efforts whatever they are. Being clear allows you to see your plan unfolding in your own mind and then communicate it so that others can see it, too.
Being Concise, the second C, is vital to your plan so that you focus your vision, not spin it out or re-create the universe in a day. Short and to the point. It’s how best to communicate with yourself and with others. Like Shakespeare told us four hundred years ago, brevity is still the soul of wit. It doesn’t have to be a clever bumper sticker slogan, unless that works for you. But if you can capture and distill what you want to do, concisely, to its essence, you will be practicing an art form that will serve you in other ways, too.
In my younger days, I can remember how challenging it was to explain my big dreams and visions without becoming too grandiose or going off on tangents. Whenever I was able to articulate an idea tightly—just as I learned to give short, snappy names to important life lessons—it gained major steam. In order to be concise, the operative takeaway is to keep it tight.
One of the veterans in the group that day talked about the red tape that he and his fellow vets had to endure in obtaining basic services, like medical care; he often had to go through a maze of paperwork and phone calls, while being shuffled here and there, having to tell his symptoms or concerns over and over. The ability to walk into an office and explain what he wanted, clearly and concisely, had made a huge difference in his pursuit of better all-around health.
As we speed through our days, faster than ever, it’s all the more worth it to make an effort at being concise. In relationships, personal, professional, and familial, it’s a form of respect, of letting the other person know you value their time as much as your own. In my desire to be the best parent that I can be, I want to be able to be clear and concise with my children, especially now that my son, Christopher, and my daughter, Jacintha, are young adults and have no time or tolerance for long fatherly speeches from me.
Being concise doesn’t mean you have to talk in shorthand code that’s so minimal nobody gets it but those who are trained in stenography. A concise plan might include a series of action steps to be taken, but they too should be concise and doable in such a fashion they can be checked off a list over time. If you want someone to sign on to your plan and support you, the ability to communicate your vision and action steps in five minutes or less is a good way to test how concise you are.
I’m the last person to go look at websites or review proposals or sit through multimedia presentations. Pretty much everyone these days has the attention span of a gnat, so to grab it requires an economy of language and motion. We may not like that reality, but it’s a feature of modern living—another one of those butt-naked, stomp-down facts—as I recently told my creative son whom I was encouraging to be more concise.
When your plan of pursuit is clear and concise, you’re then ready to make sure that it’s Compelling. This third C is about engaging your own inner wow factor. It means that you’ve identified something about what it is you want to do or the route you’ve chosen that excites you and others who can believe in your dream, too. Compelling means that you’ve sold yourself. After all, if you wouldn’t buy it, why should I? If you are going to make it over the long haul, compelling means you gotta make it real as well. Is it a line of crap? Can’t be. You must compel yourself onward. If this is the dawn of your time in the sun, find what it is that is the reason for the season. Compelling is your trump card.
What happens when, for instance, you don’t know what your pursuit is and you decide that you’re going to pursue finding out? Ain’t no shame in that game. There were veterans in the group who dared to consider the possibilities of writing books, making movies, doing stand-up comedy. Why not? To do something that bold, you have to make it compelling for yourself and others. One gentleman among the veterans had served in Desert Storm in the early 1990s and had returned to Iraq as a contractor recently, coming home with observations that he wanted to write about; but he wasn’t sure if he had it in him. As he told his story, everyone stopped and listened, wanting to know what happened next. That’s compelling! That’s grabbing others and having them want more.
Whenever I undertake something new, I will test-drive that baby to see if it holds up, offering the same intrigue for me as it does for others. If I’m not getting a look of curiosity, or holding enough interest that when I pause, I hear, Go on! then I haven’t found my flow yet. That’s the motivation needed to galvanize action in order to follow the rest of the plan.
The compelling part of the C-5 complex can be your calling card, as it was for Shane Salerno, one of the hottest writer-producers in Hollywood, who arrived in town some years ago with a couple of scripts and a film he had produced on his own. Raised by a single mother, he was familiar with struggle and had no savings to support himself while he tried to learn the business. Salerno could have been overwhelmed by the competition from much more established screenwriters and how difficult it was to meet agents and producers who would actually look at his work, but, instead, he came up with a different approach. Rather than trying to get his scripts read or ask people to watch his movie, whenever Salerno met someone who might give him a break, he handed them a Xeroxed article about himself from a small out-of-town newspaper that showed him in a photograph working with inner-city youth on moviemaking. The photo alone spoke a thousand words about who he was and allowed him to stand out from other contenders. It worked as a powerful calling card that opened enough doors for Salerno to pitch ideas, find representation, and, as they say in show business, take meetings. Before long he was chalking up such credits as the blockbuster movie hits Armageddon and a remake of Shaft with Samuel L. Jackson. That’s the power of compelling.
Committed is about your level of passion. Can you be thrilled to get up every day and work at whatever it is to get you through to the next station? Are you committed to a path that is important to you? Good, because that kind of commitment is contagious! Commitment is my stock in trade, my old standby—whether it has been for breaking generational cycles or for breaking down barriers to opportunity.
Behind every successful pursuit of happyness that I’ve ever witnessed is a level of commitment that would have to be rated above average, even borderline fanatical. When I asked one of my Wall Street mentors, Gary Shemano, what it was that made him decide to take a chance on me when I was still a very green stockbroker, he said that it was a tenacious commitment to learn—to attach myself like a pit bull to his thigh and not let go until I mastered everything that he knew.
For the veterans who inspired me to develop the C-5 complex, there was no mystery about the meaning of commitment to a plan. They had already shown that capacity in following protocol with the highest level of discipline and duty. They understood how to focus on a mission, how to break it down into the building blocks of action, and how to never give up. Now it was a matter of transferring that commitment to their own pursuits.
These vets also knew about the meaning of being Consistent. This fifth C is the proof of whether you can be committed not just on certain days but every day. It’s the ultimate seal of the deal, the ingredient that determines whether you win or not. Consistency is about showing up in life and in your pursuit on a regular basis, in your relationships with others, in work, and in play. It propels you along on the arc of the journey, through the sum of the action steps you’ve set out in your plan. Consistency is your touchstone, the make-it-or-break-it part of pursuit that will take you anywhere and allow you to make possible the impossible, and then see your dream come to fruition.
The classic examples of consistency for me have always been those fanatically committed individuals, considered crazy by everyone else, who take up the cause of inventing something that’s never been accomplished before—like Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Edison, Alexander Graham Bell, and Marie Curie. How many failures, disappointments, and duds must have occurred before electricity, the lightbulb, the telephone, and the lifesaving uses of radiation could be invented? For every inventor, no planned experiment could ever succeed without the consistency of trial and error that comes with no guarantees.
As most of us can agree, no pursuit comes with a guarantee—which is why this lesson comes with the advisory that plans may have to be retooled as circumstances on the ground change, rough patches are hit, and repairs are required. But don’t let that keep you from asking yourself, right now, right here, what your dream is and how you plan to pursue it.