Jack Ma turns 54 today: His Alibaba exit shows he takes his own advice

Jack Ma, founder and executive chairman of Alibaba Group in Shanghai China on Dec. 5th, 2017.
Justin Solomon | CNBC

Jack Ma has said your 20s are for learning, your 30s and 40s are for risk-taking and your 50s are for doing what you're good at and training others. It appears he's following his own advice.

A former educator, Ma announced on Monday that upon officially retiring from Alibaba, he'll devote most of his time to the Jack Ma Foundation and focus on topics related to education. He founded his organization in 2014 as a way to make improvements in rural China's educational system.

Today, the man known as "Teacher Ma" within Alibaba turned 54. Monday also marks a national Chinese holiday known as Teacher's Day.

Just last week, Ma had said that "some day, very soon," he would return to teaching and education. "This is something I think I can do much better than being CEO of Alibaba."

"I miss teaching very much. I came to the business field by accident," continued Ma, a man who was rejected from more than 30 jobs after college, in the years before starting Alibaba, including a job at KFC.

While the e-commerce company Ma founded is valued at more than $400 billion, Ma didn't start achieving career success until his 30s.

"In life, it's not how much we achieved, it's how much we've gone through the tough days and mistakes," Ma told a group of young leaders invited to January's 2018 World Economic Forum annual meeting in Davos, Switzerland. "If you want to be successful, learn from the other people's mistakes, don't learn from the successful stories."

As an alum of the Young Global Leaders network, Ma shed light on what the room of young adults should focus on within the next 30 years.

"When you are 20 to 30 years old, you should follow a good boss [and] join a good company to learn how to do things properly," Ma said.

"When you are 30 to 40 years old, if you want to do something yourself, just do it. You still can afford to lose, to fail," he added.

Soon thereafter, though, Ma recommended that people start prioritizing stability, family and the future generations.

Instead of diving into a new field or subject toward the later years in your career, he said, "when you're 40 to 50 years old, my suggestion is you should do things you are good at."

"When you are 50 to 60 years old, spend time training and developing young people, the next generation," Ma added. "When you are over 60 years old, you better stay with your grandchildren."

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Ma has said people in their 20s and 30s are "the luckiest" because they still have so much to learn.

Instead of setting your goals and aspirations based on others' success stories, Ma recommended making yourself your own competition. You can do this by imagining what you hope to succeed in 10 years, a method that worked for him.

"As a young boy — even today — I never thought I would be here," he said. "When I look back, every problem I met when I was a kid benefited me," Ma said.

"I failed so many times," he said. "24 of us interviewed for a KFC job, 23 got accepted, I was the only guy rejected," he explained.

Ma also discussed the time he applied for a "police job" with five other people. He was the only person from the group to be rejected. Another time, he and his cousin applied for jobs as servers at a four-star hotel. "We waited [in a] long queue for two hours," Ma said. Although his cousin got the job, he received a rejection yet again.

While he said his mother shook her head at him, he refused to feel discouraged, thinking, "I know this is a training course for me."

Though he says he felt like a failure before reaching his 30s, Ma never gave up. He made himself his own competition, pictured what he hoped to accomplish in 10 years and did everything he could to accomplish that goal.

"No matter how smart you are, you will encounter mistakes," Ma said. "You learn from mistakes not because you will be able to avoid mistakes when these mistakes come, [when] these suffers come, you learn how to deal with it, how to face it."

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