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  • Chris Gardner: 'Pursuit of Happyness' inspiration tells Appleton gathering to dream big

    Chris Gardner, Chris Gardner: 'Pursuit of Happyness' inspiration tells Appleton gathering to dream big

    APPLETON - You can do or be anything.

    That message, told to him by his mother at a young age, stuck with Chris Gardner. He believed it then. He believed it as an adult, when he was homeless, raising a son and sleeping in train and bus station restrooms. He believed it later when he found great success on Wall Street and Hollywood agents were racing to tell his story.

    Now more than 35 years removed from being without a permanent address, the Milwaukee-born Gardner delivered that same motivational message Monday to about 1,000 people at the Fox Cities Exhibition Center as part of the first full day of the Wisconsin Governor's Conference on Tourism.

    Gardner is the author of "The Pursuit of Happyness," which was the basis for a 2006 film of the same name starring Will Smith. Gardner's memoir told the story of his ascent from raising a year-old son while homeless to founding his own stock brokerage firm.

    What he'd wanted to be was present as a father and what he wanted to do was provide for his family. He made it happen — and now his granddaughter has become the first college graduate in the family "since they stepped off a slave ship 400 years ago" — thanks in part to what he calls "spiritual genetics."

    Spiritual genetics is the phrase he's coined to describe a person's makeup. It's the spirit and the soul — "what makes you you." It's that quality in a person that determines where they go in life, he said, rejecting the idea that "we are the product of our environment." 

    If that were the case, Gardner believes he would have turned out like his step-father — an abusive alcoholic.

    "A lot of people would have said, 'Well, look where he's from. He didn't have a choice,'" Gardner said. "But I did have a choice because I saw the light from my mother and from those with whom I did not share a single drop of blood. And I embraced it."

    It was the seeing and embracing of his mother's message — you can do or be anything — that carried him through the toughest times. He calls it the "generational transfer of a dream." 

    Gardner's written two books and is working on a third, and has delivered speeches around the world. Like Monday at the exhibition center, his stories are sprinkled with name-drops like Barack Obama, Oprah Winfrey, Maya Angelou, Quincy Jones and, of course, Will Smith.

    An important part of his message to those members of Wisconsin's tourism industry was that everyone should strive to be "world-class" at whatever it is they do. He remembered as a youngster seeing a speech from Martin Luther King, Jr. just days before his death, where King spoke of the same concept. That's when Gardner said he made up his mind that whatever it was he was going to pursue, he was going to focus only on that — and learn to do it at a world-class level.

    "Plan B sucks," he said, eliciting laughs. "If Plan B were any good, it'd be Plan A."

    Though born in Milwaukee, the year of Gardner's story that got the Hollywood treatment took place in San Francisco.

    The early years of his life were surrounded by poverty, abuse and alcoholism. After finding success as an entrepreneur, he's become a philanthropist and motivational speaker, using lessons he learned throughout his life to help others push past obstacles and break harmful social cycles. 

    "The Pursuit of Happyness" book, published in 2006, became a New York Times No. 1 best-seller. The Hollywood studio "spent $70 million to recreate what I did with nothing," Gardner joked about the subsequent film, which earned Smith an Academy Award nomination. 

    Another life lesson came for Gardner about five years ago. The 64-year-old lost the love of his life to brain cancer. The next day, he ended his Wall Street career and began a new chapter in his life — one of spending time with his family, sharing his advice around the world and, as he calls it, being the "CEO of Happyness." 

    When you finally get all the toys you thought you had to have, he said, you realize that there's not enough time to play with them all.

    "Time is the ultimate asset," he said. " ... You can make money. You can lose money. You cannot make time."

    The keynote speech was part of the Sunday-through-Tuesday gathering that is the state's largest tourism education and networking event. About 1,000 people, representing hotels, restaurants, attractions, marketing groups and more, were expected. 

    Gov. Scott Walker was part of the opening address Monday morning and will be back Tuesday night for the conference-closing dinner and awards celebration.
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