When I was a little boy, growing up in Baku, my mother told me I could become the world chess champion someday. I don’t know if anyone else believed her, but I believed her. Years later, the sports authorities in the Soviet Union told me that I was a troublemaker, and that I could not become the world chess champion. Well, in 1985 I did become world champion, and this taught me the first important lesson I wish to share with you all today: listen to your mother!
Six years after that, the Soviet Union and all of its sports authorities ceased to exist while my mother is still going strong. And she is still telling me what I am capable of – and to eat my vegetables. Everyone will tell you to believe in yourself, and this of course is true. Only you can decide your course and only you can make it happen. But you must also listen to those who believe in you and to take strength from their love and from their support. Often they remind us to aim high, higher than you might aim on your own, especially when you are young. I am quite sure that if you all accomplish what your mothers believe you can accomplish, that this will be the most successful graduating class in the history of the world.
When I won the world championship in 1985 I was 22 years old and it was the greatest day of my life. I imagine today is a similar feeling for many of you. You are young, you are strong, and you have a long-time goal in your hands.
On that day in 1985, a strange thing happened. I was standing there on the stage, still with my flowers and my medal, the happiest person in the world, when I was approached by Rona Petrosian, the widow of a former world chess champion from the 60s, Tigran Petrosian. I was expecting another warm congratulations, but she had something else in mind. “Young man,” she said, “I feel sorry for you.” What? Sorry for me? Sorry for me? The youngest world champion in history, on top of the world? “I feel sorry for you,” she continued, “because the happiest day of your life is over.”
Wow, I couldn’t believe it. What a thing to say. But as I got over my shock I began to wonder… what if she’s right? And while I did not think much more about it on that celebratory day, I slowly came to realize that Rona Petrosian had given me a new goal in my life: to prove her wrong!
Now I realize she did me a favor that day, and so I will pass her gift on to you. Is the happiest day of your life over? Or do you already have a new dream, a new goal, a new plan? Graduation is about the future, and not just about your future. Few people expect to change the history of the world, but in some way you all will. It is up to you to decide if you will change the world with your presence – or if it will change in your absence.
You often hear in chess and other sports that “this player is more talented” but “that player works harder.” This is a fallacy. Hard work is a talent. The ability to keep trying when others quit is a talent. And hard work is never wasted. No matter what career you end up in, or even if you have a dozen different careers, the hard work represented here today will never be wasted. Your being here shows that you have that talent and it will serve you well no matter how you decide to make a difference in this world. Human beings cannot upgrade our hardware, that’s our DNA. But with hard work we can definitely upgrade our mental software.
See the speech.