It is better to watch what billionaires do and not simply listen to what they say

Ma is an admirable man, but the idea one’s career should start gliding into oblivion after 50 is foolish when people need to work longer

When Jack Ma handed out some career advice to a group of young leaders the other day people were bowled over.

“Wow,” said one after a video of the internet billionaire’s appearance at Davos was posted on Facebook. “I just simply love this guy.”

“Awesome,” said another.

“Spectacular,” said one more.


I was taken aback myself when I had a look at Mr Ma’s tips for success.

The founder of the Alibaba ecommerce juggernaut began by telling his youthful audience they were basically clueless.

“When you are 20 to 30 years old you don’t know what you’re doing. You have a lot of ideas. You think you can do anything. But actually you can’t.”

This is a beguiling view. I have thought it myself when meeting an especially bumptious 20-year-old. The trouble is, it is not true.

Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg was 23 when he landed on the Forbes list of billionaires. John Collison, co-founder of the Stripe internet payment firm, was 26, just two months younger than Snapchat co-creator Evan Spiegel. And these are just the billionaires, not the millionaires.

To be fair these juvenile moguls are outliers. But Ma had more.

He said young graduates should also know that their first job is crucial. They need not join a big, well-known company. Instead they should “find a good boss that can teach you how to be a human being”, then stay in the same job for at least three years.

He pointed out that he had learned a lot from spending six years as a teacher after graduating.

I can see it makes sense to stick around one good company with one good boss early in life, rather than flitting endlessly from job to job. Yet this assumes it is easy to find such a firm, let alone a generous employer.

Rules for later life

I was lucky to have a superb boss in my first newspaper job in my 20s. But by far the best advice he gave me was to leave a year later and join a bigger paper, which I did.

Where Ma really lost me though, was when he set out his rules for later life. “When you are 30 to 40 years old, if you really want to try to do something yourself, try it.

“When you’re 40 to 50 years old, just focus on the things you are good at. When you’re 50 to 60 years old, enable young people to do better.”

Then came the worst. “When you’re over 60 years old spend time with your grandchildren.”

Ma is an admirable man but this is tosh. The idea that one’s career should start gliding towards oblivion after 50 is foolish at a time when people need to keep working longer than ever. It also fuels the depressing notion that older people have had it.

Admittedly, it often feels that way in a world full of lists of the 20 best writers under 40 and the 30 tycoons under 30. Yet if we bothered to count up all the 50 trailblazers over 50 we would find an impressive list.

Harland Sanders was 66 when he went into the franchising business in earnest, creating the Kentucky Fried Chicken empire. Ray Kroc, the super-sized force behind McDonald's, didn't open his first restaurant until he was 52.

Peter Mark Roget was 73 when he published his eponymous thesaurus.

Career path

So where does Ma get these ideas? The answer, it seems, is Jack Ma. The advice he dished out in Davos eerily matches his own career path.

He started building Alibaba in his 30s, switched from CEO to executive chairman in his late 40s, and, at 54, is about to step down to concentrate on philanthropy.

The real lesson to be learned from him, and so many other self-made billionaires, is his relentless self-belief.

Another person might have been crushed by an early life like his, which was in some ways a case study in rejection. He says he failed to get into everything from the local police to KFC and Harvard. He also once confessed he had no clue what Alibaba’s business model was. None of it mattered.

His tireless faith in himself propelled him to become China’s richest man. Doubtless it also explains why he thinks his own career path is one we all should follow.

The truth is, billionaires can teach us a lot. But it is better to watch what they do, not simply listen to what they say. – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2019