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From Homeless to Multimillionaire

By Carmine Gallo - from BusinessWeek Magazine

Chris Gardner, the man whose rags-to-riches story inspired the movie The Pursuit of Happyness, explains how he harnessed his passion to turn his life around

It's not every day you get the chance to pick the brain of a man whose real-life rags-to-riches story was turned into a Hollywood movie starring one of America's top actors. But the other day I had the opportunity to spend time with Chris Gardner, subject of the 2006 movie The Pursuit of Happyness, in which Gardner was played by Will Smith.

While attending an unpaid internship program at Dean Witter Reynolds in 1981, Gardner spent a year on the streets with his two-year-old son. They took refuge at night in a church shelter or the bathroom of a BART subway station in Oakland, Calif. Nobody at work knew. Gardner eventually won a position as a stockbroker at Dean Witter. Two years later he left for Bear Stearns (BSC), where he became a top earner. In 1987, he founded his own brokerage firm, Gardner Rich,in Chicago. Today, Gardner is a multimillionaire, a motivational speaker, a philanthropist, and an international businessman who is about to launch a private equity fund that will invest solely in South Africa. His partner in the fund? Nelson Mandela. Not bad for a guy who, six years before founding his own brokerage firm, was "fighting, scratching, and crawling my way out of the gutter with a baby on my back."

"Passion is Everything"

Gardner is a magnificent speaker and has an engaging personality—qualities all business professionals would crave. But what's behind his success? What is the one thing—the one secret—that helped him change his life? "It's passion," he told me. "Passion is everything. In fact, you've got to be borderline fanatical about what you do." Gardner says he was fortunate to find something he truly loved, something where he couldn't wait for the sun to rise so he could do it again. His advice to entrepreneurs and those seeking a career change? "Be bold enough to find the one thing that you are passionate about. It might not be what you were trained to do. But be bold enough to do the one thing. Nobody needs to dig it but you."

Gardner wanted to be "world-class at something." For him, that something was being a stockbroker. For you, finding something you are passionate about will make the difference in how engaging you become as a communicator and as a leader. If you love what you do, you'll eagerly share the story behind it with boundless enthusiasm.

Passion is not teachable. As a communications coach, I can help clients craft and deliver a powerful story, but I can't create passion. But it's passion that separates the electrifying presenters from the average ones. I'm absolutely convinced of it. As a former television journalist, I've interviewed thousands of spokespeople and personally coached hundreds of others in my current profession. Donald Trump once said: "Without passion, you have no energy—and without energy, you have nothing." Your listeners want to be in the presence of someone with energy, a person who greets people with a smile and an abundance of enthusiasm. Passion is not something you necessarily verbalize, but it shows. When Gardner walked into Dean Witter after having slept in a subway station the night before, he only wanted to leave one impression on his co-workers. "All they needed to know is that I would light it up day after day. Passion is not something you have to talk about. People feel it. They see it just as clearly as the color of your eyes, baby."

Coffee and Commitment

I have spent the last several years interviewing inspiring leaders, and I can say without hesitation that passion is the No. 1 quality that sets them apart. In many ways, my talk with Gardner reminds me of a conversation I once had with Starbucks (SBUX) Chairman Howard Schultz. Like Gardner, Schultz used the word "passion" throughout our entire conversation. But remarkably, the word "coffee" was rarely spoken. You see, for Schultz, coffee is not his passion. Instead, Schultz says, he is passionate about creating a workplace that "treats people with dignity and respect;" a workplace environment that his father never had the opportunity to experience. The coffee product offers the means to help Schultz fulfill his passion. In much the same way, stock trading and commissions offered Gardner the means to fulfill his passion, which was to give his son something he never had—a father.

Passion is the foundation of effective communication. Dig deep to discover your core purpose, your true passion. Once you connect to it, use it as fuel to build a rapport with your audience—recruiters, managers, employees, etc. Your presentations, pitches, speeches, and all forms of business communication will be more engaging than ever. Nearly everyone has room to increase what I call the "passion quotient"—the level of passion you exhibit as a speaker. The higher your passion quotient, the more likely you are to connect with people. Chris Gardner's passion fueled his determination in the face of overwhelming odds and obstacles. Take the time to imagine where harnessing your passion can take you.

Carmine Gallo is a Pleasanton, Calif. communications coach and author of the upcoming book, Fire Them Up! (John Wiley & Sons; September, 2007).

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