Many comparisons have been made between Jack Ma or Lei Jun (Xiaomi’s founder and CEO) being the “Steve Jobs of China”. Yet Jack Ma and Steve Jobs can be seen as very different, maybe opposite role models. Why?
Genius versus determination
Steve Jobs and Jack Ma have a lot in common. Both are drop-outs, Steve Jobs left college and spent some time collecting trash cans for money, while Jack Ma failed the university entrance exam twice and most of his job applications were rejected, including KFC.
Most importantly, they both set their eyes on game-changing technologies that they recognized way before their peers: personal computing in the case of Steve Jobs, and the potential of the Internet in China in the case of Jack Ma.
However, one thing sets them apart, one thing which has been the cornerstone of many of Jack Ma’s interviews: failure.
It is true Jobs sometime failed, he was thrown out of Apple to which he came back 12 years later. But this failure is not ordinary men failure: it is an epic failure. After becoming multi-millionaire at 25, he lost the company he had built, only to later bring it back to its former glory and building Pixar on the way.
Jack Ma’s failures were of a different kind. They were failures as we know them: failure to pass exams, failure to get jobs, failure to successfully launch a business. His path appears as a bit less heroic as it lacks all the bumps of Steve Jobs’ story. But it is incredibly inspiring because what differentiates Jack Ma from most of Western or local entrepreneurs were his ability to brush-off failure. Maybe because of his experience as a teacher, he knew that he was learning as he failed, and he learned his way into success.
Does age matter?
Another very distinctive feature of Jack Ma’s success was the point of his life when it occurred. Steve Jobs was 21 when Steve Wozniak first put together the Apple I. And many other stories (Google, Facebook, Tesla … you name it) come corroborate this idea: genius is revealed young or is never revealed.
Jack Ma’s story is giving another take on that: you can achieve late, and it is actually okay. He was 35 when starting Alibaba, with no proper IT knowledge or significant start-up capital. It might actually be beneficial to be a late-bloomer. Jack Ma’s path is more elegant than many as his life experience enabled him to step down when he thought it was the right thing to do, unlike Steve Jobs or Larry Page which had to be shown the exit or forced into “adult supervision”.
A matter of luck?
Of course what links both Steve Jobs and Jack Ma is also the fact of having been at the right moment at the right place.
Here, Steve Jobs luck can also appear as a bit more significant. He didn’t build the Apple Computer, Steve Wozniak did, and the appearance of Wozniak seems as a bit of a Deus Ex Machina in Jobs’ life which propelled him toward success.
Jack Ma was also lucky, but he was simply in the right place in history, with the right skills to catch the opportunity. His skills were not unique: many others had them, yet he was the one to succeed.
In both cases, luck was part of the equation, but Jack Ma’s luck is much more applicable to our own life. We too can spot interesting trends and seize these opportunities. We too will fail and will have to keep moving forward. We too can reach success through this determination, which might not make us the richest people in the world, but hopefully help us living a life we can consider more meaningful.
This is not to say Steve Jobs’ story isn’t inspiring. His spiritual approach to building beautiful objects and designs was a turning point in hardware and software design. However, Jack Ma is giving us something more: he is giving us tools, simple principles we can apply to our life.
And in this sense he is more of a role model, not necessarily because he closer to the person we want to be, but because he represents a more attainable ideal of an inspiring leader.