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The Happiest Day of Your Life

Thank you everyone. My thanks to President Pestello for having me here, the first commencement for both of us. It is an honor to be speaking to you all, and to receive my honorary doctorate from Saint Louis University. That is especially true considering the two other honorees here today, Anita Lyons Bond and Gene Kranz. There could be no better examples of the power of dreams, values, and courage that I am here to talk about. And thank you, Rex [Sinquefield], for that flattering introduction. However, he omitted one

important fact about me; that I was born in the Deep South, right next to Georgia. That is, in the Deep South of the Soviet Union, at the shores of the Caspian Sea in Baku, Azerbaijan, right next to the Republic of Georgia. I hope you can understand my Southern accent!

I also hope you have read about the USSR in history books. It is an odd feeling to think that most of you were not yet alive when the country I was born in ceased to exist in 1991. It’s always difficult to explain what it was like to be born and raised in a totalitarian country to those who have enjoyed the fruits of freedom and democracy from birth. To make a modern metaphor, I would say it was like being the only kid on the block whose family doesn’t have internet or television and your parents keep telling you how lucky you are not to have those things.

I have been visiting St. Louis frequently in recent years, as the city has become the world capital of chess, leading the way in education and at the competitive level. This is actually restoring an old tradition. You might not know that St. Louis hosted the first official world chess championship, back in 1886. It’s a great pleasure to be here for today’s special occasion, and to finally find out what a Billiken is.

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 Screen Shot 2015-05-19 at 10.40.32her. 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.

And for those of you who lost a parent or parents at a young age, as I lost my father when I was seven, your achievement here today reflects a special kind of strength. We are all shaped by absence as well as by presence.

By the way, as soon as this is over I have to hurry to New York for the graduation of my eldest daughter, Polina. And so, congratulations as well to all my fellow parents of graduates. Well done, parents! We did it!

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.

Watching the news, looking at the many problems and crises we face today, it’s easy to feel like a pessimist. Inequality is at record levels, there is uncertainty over the impact of all the new technology in our lives, there are worries about violence from terrorism and dictatorships. And although I spend a lot of my time analyzing and discussing these difficult issues, I am an optimist. I am an optimist because I believe we have the power to change things. We are not helpless spectators to economic cycles or the forces of history. We have the ability to take action, to change the course of the world. You, you all have that ability. By dreaming big and recapturing the spirit of risk and innovation we can do something about these problems instead of passively biding our time.

Dreaming of changing the world means being prepared to take risks, to sacrifice, and to fail, and to try again. When I retired from professional chess ten years ago to join the pro-democracy movement in Russia, many people thought I was crazy. And some of them told me so! I was still the number one player in the world, after all, and challenging Vladimir Putin’s dictatorship was far more complex than the black and white world of the chessboard. Of course I understood this. In chess we have fixed rules and unpredictable results. In Putin’s Russia’s phony elections it’s exactly the opposite.

I made this bold move because I realized that my own dream was not just about chess, but had always been about making a difference. I had accomplished everything I could in the world of professional chess, from world championship matches to battling against super-computers. I hoped I could still make a difference in Russia, and in human rights. I wanted to learn and contribute in other areas that fascinated me, like education, and human plus machine intelligence, and decision- making. I was 42 at the time, which tells you that it is never too late to dream.

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.

But what is intelligence, education, and effort without the guiding hand of morality? 483 years ago today, on May 16, 1532, Thomas More resigned his position as Chancellor to the King of England, Henry VIII. Three years later More’s downfall was completed with his execution, when More said that he died “as the king’s good servant, but God’s first.”

Thomas More was a complicated figure, a man of principle. As you might expect of a lawyer like More, in his novel Utopia he writes often of the law on his fictional perfect island. But instead of describing a flawless set of laws as he imagined them, More wrote that in an ideal society based on clear principles, many laws were not necessary. He wrote, “They have but few laws, and such is their constitution that they need not many.”

And so More’s Utopia also had no lawyers. Don’t worry, I’m happy to tell those of you coming from Scott Hall today that a world with no lawyers is only possible in Utopia.

How many laws we have is not the point. The world is a complicated place, far more complicated today than when Thomas More wrote his novel 500 years ago, and laws must keep up with the times. What has not changed, what should not change, what cannot change, is the need to base our laws, and our lives, and our dreams, on eternal human values.

We can fight for our values or we can trade them away for comfort and temporary security. This is a challenge for all of us in today’s globally connected world. Every day we make choices large or small: individuals, companies, entire nations. Are those choices guided by the values we treasure? Are we loyal to the principles of individual freedom, of faith, of excellence, of compassion, of the value of human life? Or do we trade them away, bit by bit, for material goods, for a quiet life, and to pass the problems of today on to the next generation?

These moral values are also the values of innovation and the free market, by the way. It is no coincidence that these founding American values created the greatest democracy in the world and also the greatest economy in the world. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus urged his believers to be a “City on a Hill”, a shining example to the world, a phrase used to describe America by John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan. I saw that America from the other side of the Iron Curtain and I can tell you that it mattered. And it matters still.

If America is to continue as a “light of the world” it will be up to you and to your generation to hold fast to these values and not to trade them away for a safe and stagnant status quo. Risk is not only for entrepreneurs. Risk is for anyone who will fight for these values in their lives and in the world every day.

On my sixth birthday I woke up to find an enormous globe next to my bed. It was the best present I have ever received. I had to rub my eyes to make sure it was real. My favorite childhood stories were the ones my father read to me about the voyages of Marco Polo, Columbus, and Magellan. Our favorite game was to trace the journeys of these great explorers across the globe. These are the last and fondest memories I have of my father, and this love of exploration was his greatest gift to me.

We have heard time and again that the frontiers have all been explored. And every generation likes to say that everything important or easy has already been invented. Unfortunately, believing this can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. If you think there is nothing new to discover, why try? Why take risks? Why leave the house? St. Louis was once the beginning of the unknown, the Gateway to the frontier. Imagine if the pioneers had stopped at the Mississippi, the way America hasn’t sent a man back to the moon since Eugene Cernan in 1972. We cannot turn back. We cannot stop. We must not settle for “good enough.”

Life is more complicated today, yes, but our tools are infinitely more powerful. It’s easier today to reach Mars than it was to cross the oceans in the time of Thomas More. At least we know where we’re going and how far away it is. Columbus and Magellan had no maps while everyone here has GPS. Can you imagine Columbus trying to get venture capital today? You want to go where? You don’t know? You don’t have a map? Today, you all have a device in your pocket that can instantly communicate with half the people on the planet and access every piece of information in human history. One iPhone has more computing power than all the computers NASA had combined, back in 1972. But raw computing power isn’t enough. We need human creativity and human ambition to make a difference.

There are still new frontiers today, and a limitless number of new inventions waiting to be discovered by people with the curiosity and courage to look for them, and the freedom to do so. It will require belief, hard work, and the values of innovation and liberty. It will require your belief, your hard work, and your ideas. You might say you aren’t ready for a new challenge right away, that you want time to relax, to celebrate, to rest on your new laurels. I’m sorry, but the world will not wait for you. The world needs you now.

Today you have fulfilled one dream, and tomorrow you set course on a new one. If you always have a dream, the happiest day of your life is never over. Thank you and God Bless.

– Garry Kasparov

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