Why Alibaba’s Jack Ma says your first job is the most important

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Your first job may not always feel like the most inspiring. But according to billionaire businessman Jack Ma, it will be your most important.

If he could share one piece of advice with young people, that would be it, the Alibaba founder told an audience at the World Economic Forum in Davos.

“Your first job is your most important,” Ma said Wednesday during a session entitled “Meet the Leader with Alibaba Executive Chairman Jack Ma.”

That doesn’t mean it has to be your “dream job” — or even one you particularly enjoy, he continued. But it does have to be one where you can learn from others and stretch yourself.

“Not necessarily a company that has a great name, (but) you should find a good boss that can teach you how to be a human being — how to do things right, how to do things properly — and (you should) stay there,” said Ma.

That requires staying the course, allowing yourself time to figure out your strengths and where you want to end up — and all that takes time.

“Give yourself a promise: ‘I will stay there for three years.’ Then you start to move.”

Ma, who has been at the helm of the Chinese e-commerce behemoth for almost two decades, said he’s seen young workers often quit their jobs prematurely without allowing themselves time to bed in.

“It’s not good,” he said, mimicking people scrambling. “I’ve seen a lot of disasters.”

Ma’s comments mirror common criticism of the millennial workforce, which is accused of job-hopping and valuing workplace perks over longer-term career progression.

The 54-year-old’s advice reflects his own experience. Ma famously started out his career as an English teacher in Hangzhou, China before banding together with a group of co-founders in the late-90’s to create what would become one of the world’s most valuable companies.

“One of the reasons I survived for 20 years was because I was a teacher,” Ma said, referring to his career at Alibaba.

That formative teaching job, he said, helped him learn to identify talented people and inspire them to excel. Having that skill enabled him to build and manage a strong team at Alibaba, he noted.

“You always want your students to be better than you, to be a mayor, not in prison,” said Ma.

“When I hire people, I hire the people who are smarter than I am. People who four, five years later could be my boss. I like people who are positive and who never give up,” he added.

Ma, who announced last year that he will step down as executive chairman of Alibaba in September 2019, has said he hopes to return to his teaching career in the future.

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