Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Book Review: The Pursuit of HappYness

This book was not what I expected.

The two expectations I had when starting this book were:

1. That it would mostly be the same story as told in the movie with a few changes that were made for cinematic effect - (like no Rubik's cube, no night spent in the subway bathroom, and no showing up for the interview shirtless and covered in paint, etc...

2. That I would not like Chris Gardner.  I had been told by someone else that the book showed that he was not a good man, that the reason he went to jail was not for unpaid parking tickets, but for domestic abuse against his wife.  I should expect to appreciate his motivation, but dislike the man.

Both expectations were mostly wrong.

I was surprised by the book because the movie only covers about 1/3 of the book's contents.  The entire first half is all about Chris Gardner's upbringing.  It shows the horrors he endured, the constant abuse he received as well as the gut-wrenching details of him being forced to watch his mother get beat regularly.  It shows Chris wanting to kill his step-dad because of the abuse, Chris getting raped by an older man, Chris stealing and going to jail and being taught right from wrong from the stable women in his life.  It shows what life was like for a young black boy with a broken home living in a bad neighborhood.

I was very surprised to read about his first marriage.  He wed a very successful woman from a wealthy family.  Chris may have been raised in the poor part of town, but he was a genius.  He started working in a medical research lab and with no college whatsoever - HE was the one teaching the medical students what to do.  He planned to go to medical school, and he had the brains and ability - but he wasn't sure he wanted to go back to THAT much school.  Was it worth it?

Eventually it gets to the part we know.  After he left his wife for another woman (and describing quite openly his sexual interests, and how much they got him in trouble) his new girlfriend gets pregnant and they get married.
A while later he meets a stock broker, decides that is his destiny, and his wife laughs in his face. 

This is where I was surprised.  The timeline is quite different from the movie.

Chris has many interviews with many brokerage firms, but due to his lack of formal education he can almost never get a 2nd interview.  He finally gets offered a 2nd interview with Dean-Witter, and 2 weeks before the interview he argues with his wife in front of their house.  As he describes it: they are screaming at each other and he grabs her wrists, she struggles and tells him to let go, when he does she falls backward into a rosebush and gets scratched up.  She cleans herself up and leaves.  30 minutes later police are at his door asking about domestic battery.  He's astonished.  The cops run his ID and see the $1200 in unpaid parking tickets and take him to jail.  He is never charged with battery and the cops tell him they'd let him go, but he has to pay the parking tickets, or serve 10 days in jail.  He takes the 10 days.  When he gets out it is the day before his second Dean-Witter interview.  He goes home - everything is gone.  His wife, his belongings... and his son.

He has no business clothes, in fact no clothes at all except what he was wearing when arrested.  He goes to his interview the next morning in bell bottom blue jeans, a t-shirt, a wind-breaker, and paint speckled Adidas sneakers.   

How does he pass the interview? 

He tells the interviewer everything except the jail part.  He tells about his wife running off with their son, and taking all his material possessions with her.  The interviewer says he's been married and divorced three times and can TOTALLY relate.  The interviewer talks for 45 minutes about his own marital problems and with no real questions or interview he welcomes Chris Gardner to the internship.  The first $1000 stipend will arrive after 30 days of work.

At this point I thought - WHAT!?  So he gets paid AND his son isn't with him for all of internship?  That's not how the movie showed it?  What about being homeless?  What about sleeping in the bathroom of the Subway with his son?

That happened 3 months later.  Though he had been hired, he still made next to nothing as he built his clientele.  Then suddenly his wife showed up, dropped off their son, and left.  Chris was still dirt poor, couldn't afford much of anything, and that's when it all happened.  He really did push his baby boy's stroller up and down the hills of San Francisco.  He really was homeless, they spent MANY nights in that Subway bathroom.  He rushed to make it to the family shelter on time and when they didn't make it, they slept somewhere else. It's devastating.

The story is sad, but encouraging - and it goes on.  It shows not only his first success as a stockbroker, but how far that went - up to the time Chris Gardner met Nelson Mandela, bankrolled a $50 million inner city development for kids, and made well over $1 million per year.

It is a success story, and I enjoyed it.  I wish Chris Gardner well.  I hope I can learn the lessons he did by reading them, rather than experiencing them myself.  I honestly don't know how I'd do it.

In the end - I judge books by the effect they have on me.  When I finished this book, I reevaluated my life with the thought - I CAN DO ANYTHING!

Any book that leaves me feeling that way is worth recommending.

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