Chris Gardner's life story is impressive. Despite having never gone to college, and after a period of being homeless, he became a wildly successful stockbroker and wrote his memoir, Pursuit of Happyness. It's not surprising that Hollywood turned his story into a blockbuster film starring Will Smith. Pursuit of Happyness tracks this happy, rags-to-riches story, starting in early childhood and including Gardner's adult progression through a few different careers.
About the Book
Chris Gardner went from an impoverished childhood to become a wealthy stockbroker and entrepreneur and managed to juggle single fatherhood before it was culturally accepted. His memoir, Pursuit of Happyness, spends a lot of time recounting that difficult childhood and his transition to the military and to time spent working in medicine. The story picks up more speed two-thirds of the way through when Gardner is living in San Francisco determined to raise his son and succeed as a stockbroker, despite having never gone to college.
Gardner's message can seem inconsistent. On the one hand, he was moved by his own troubled childhood to vow that he would be a good father to his children. On the other hand, a flashy red Ferrari caught his eye one day, prompting him to adopt the goal of becoming a stockbroker in order to earn enough money to buy his own Ferrari. The two goals aren't incompatible, of course, but Gardner doesn't mention any tension he may have felt between his selfless love for his son and his more superficial-seeming financial goals.
Any self-reflection present in Gardner's story seems to be mostly the self-reflection of a motivational speaker, which Gardner has become. There is much discussion of working hard to overcome the paucity of other African-Americans on Wall Street, not to mention Gardner's lack of a college degree. The Pursuit of Happyness makes for an enjoyable story, and an inspiring one, but leaves the reader looking for something more.
What Makes the Book Worth Reading (or Not)
Chris Gardner's story is unique in more ways than one. A child who grew up largely in foster care, he found the tenacity, strength of character, and talent within himself to become extraordinarily successful. A black man growing up in poverty, he built a reputation that turned him into a major motivational speaker for people of all backgrounds. Perhaps most significantly, Gardner is a father (not a mother) who did whatever it took to ensure that his son would grow up in a safe, loving home. If you are struggling against the odds, you may well find reassurance and motivation in Gardner's experience.
If you don't find motivational biographies inspiring, you may also want to read the book as background before viewing the movie version starring Will Smith. The movie includes only a portion of the full story, and skips or changes some of the details.
Both book and movie, however, have similar pros and cons. As with many rags-to-riches stories, the emphasis is on the grit and determination of the individual and not on the systemic issues that placed the individual in a seemingly impossible situation. Much of Gardner's achievement is related, not to relationship-building or self-discovery, but to the ability to find a niche in which he could fit in and make the money he craved. For many people, Gardner's story will be inspirational; for others it's likely to be frustrating.