In September, I visited LA and had the chance to hear Chris Gardiner, whose life story was captured in the movie The Pursuit of Happyness starring Will Smith and his son, Jaden. Gardiner was the keynote speaker for a big conference. The room in which he spoke was cavernous, but he filled it with the thousands who wanted to hear his message.
He spoke for an hour, sharing stories from his life and explaining how many times he had reimagined his life, reimagined himself right out of one situation and into another one. He described the first time this happened, when he was a small boy trying to hold his own with a stepfather who told him, “You don’t have a father and you never will.” At that moment, little Chris decided that someday he would be a father and that he would never treat his child cruelly. “This was the first time I reimagined my life,” he said.
Gardiner spoke about what it meant to him years later when, on a trip to Africa, he met Nelson Mandela for the first time. “Welcome home, Son!” exclaimed Mandela warmly, saying words that Gardiner had never dreamed of hearing. It was another moment of life re-imagined.
The audience was moved to tears and smiles as Gardiner told story after story about his journey through life, but the speaker was adamant that we not take away too rosy a picture. “When I was living in the bathroom of the subway system with my 14-month old baby boy, I had to look in the mirror every day and ask myself some hard questions. Of course, there wasn’t really a mirror, just the polished metal of the side of one of the stalls, but it had been polished bright enough that I could see my own face. I asked myself the toughest question of all, “ he said. “Chris, how did you get here?” And I had to admit to myself that I drove myself there. Through a series of missteps and setbacks and poor decisions, I drove myself there.”
The vast room was silent. The mood of the crowd was grave. “You know,” said Chris Gardiner. “The thing I realized is that if I could drive myself there, I could also drive myself out of there. When you look yourself in the mirror and take responsibility for your situation, you’ve taken the first step towards driving yourself out of it. You can have all the great ideas in the world, but you’ve got to begin by taking responsibility for your situation and then work step by step from there.”
The next day, people were still talking about this speak. It seemed that everyone could relate to that moment of truth AND to the opportunity to re-imagine your life and take it in a new direction, one step at a time. Gardiner’s words have stayed with me and given new meaning to the way I think about imagining the life you really want.