Jack Ma Knows Jack Sh*t

What the Chinese billionaire's recent visit to Manila taught us


(SPOT.ph) Chinese billionaire Jack Ma went to his computer the night before he was scheduled to give a talk at De La Salle University, where he was to receive an honorary doctorate, perhaps to buy a new shower-cap on mega-shopping site Alibaba, or perhaps to stalk an ex on Facebook or something. He told the forum the next morning: “I arrived late last night and tried to test the speed of the Internet. It’s no good.”



This was stunning, unprecedented, shocking news. It was headline news for CNN Philippines, Rappler, the Philippine Daily Inquirer, The Manila Times, GMA News Online, and even the Philippine Star (whose owner probably also owns the infrastructure that provided subpar Internet speeds to the richest man in China the previous night). We all collectively slapped our foreheads at the revelation. I had previously thought that this was perfectly ordinary and actors on streaming porn suddenly froze midway and held their positions like a yoga pose, or that singers on Spotify took quick 15-second breaks in the middle of a song. Philippine Internet speed turned out, after all this time, to be the problem. Thank goodness for Jack Ma and his gimlet-eyed observational skills!


But it doesn’t end there. The wisdom of Jack Ma is an endless font of observation, inspiration, and instruction. “You never know how much you can do in your life,” he once said. “If you’ve never tried, how will you know if there’s any chance.” Here he seems to be disagreeing with Yoda, or at least Lawrence Kasdan, who wrote the renowned Jedi sage’s most famous line, "Do or do not, there is no try." His most famous quotes, though, are of relentless optimism: “We will make it because we are young and we will never give up.” “Today is cruel. Tomorrow is crueler. And the day after tomorrow is beautiful.”



As one colleague put it, Jack Ma is a walking quote generator. A certain degree of introspection, plus a talent for speaking in aphorisms, helped give rise to the nuggets of wisdom that fall off him like lint. But the most important thing is that he’s the richest man in China, and that he got there by sheer perseverance and doing a lot of things wrong before he got it right. Ma is the American story of rags-to-riches, tenacity and working hard, and being rewarded for it. Because it’s the 21st century it takes place in China, but it’s still the capitalist dream warmed over.


It’s also an example of survivorship bias. For every Jack Ma, there are a thousand—or because we’re talking about China, probably millions—of businessmen who tried the same things, and with the same ruthless tenacity, but because of circumstances beyond their control, didn’t make it. Their quotes would be something like: “Keep trying. You have to keep trying. But even if I try my whole life, I still didn’t make it. Now I die of pneumonia with no money. Trying sometimes leads nowhere.” But no one’s going to put a laminated version of that on their refrigerator magnets, are they? “The day after tomorrow will be the cruelest of all and then you will have an accident and die.”



Many of us in the Philippines look to the taipans like Henry Sy and John Gokongwei and wonder what they did right to be able to come so far in one generation. Because they, unlike Jack Ma, are notoriously tight-lipped, the one conclusion that is often drawn is that there must be some sort of canny Chinese secret that they hold and are not sharing. But as with Jack Ma, and probably as with Warren Buffet and Elon Musk, aside from being very good businessmen and being very good at what they do, luck and circumstances played a very big part in making them what they are. The success of the Filipino-Chinese taipans was tied to the post-war economy and the ethnic segregation that they had to work with.


Survivorship bias can lead to frustration on the part of those who feel that they ought to be making it but aren’t; but it can also lead to wrong conclusions—as statistician Abraham Wald pointed out in the most famous story used to explain survivorship bias, that of looking at the wrong parts of the plane to reinforce against enemy fire. Focusing on successful people and trying to replicate the actions they took under different circumstances; or even worse, trying to replicate those circumstances. For a complete picture what we should also be doing is looking at the lives of unsuccessful people so that we know what to avoid, what went wrong, what their mistakes were. But their words are rarely framed as inspirational quotes, so we don’t get to hear from them.



What do the rich and successful know about life? About the same as you and me. “Wisdom lies in places where we often aren’t looking.” When it comes to saying the bloody obvious, I’m just as good as anyone else.

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