I used to work at Alibaba, a Chinese and multinational technology conglomerate, for a few years. The founder of the company, Jack Ma, was somewhat of a legend. There was no cult of Jack Ma inside the company, but a high level of respect and appreciation. A lot of stories were passed from mouth to mouth about the ‘labors of Chief Ma,’ or Teacher Ma as we would call him back then. And one of the stories was about his socks…
Once during a company outing event, my old boss told us this story. It was the early years of Alibaba, and word about the new B2B platform spread quickly. Jack was already a rich man and had moved from a home office in his Hangzhou apartment to a new headquarters. And still, Jack was traveling a lot to meet local officials and directors face to face.
My old boss’s old boss was traveling together with Jack Ma around China to conduct business and sign agreements with local businessmen to enroll them in Alibaba.com. On one of those business trips, they were sharing a hotel room. That’s another company tradition, where for the sake of economy and team spirit, same-gender colleagues would share a twin-bedded room.
And every time after a day of long meetings and dinner in a restaurant, Jack Ma would go back to his hotel room, take off his socks, and wash them in a sink by hand.
The next morning, he would put them on, conduct business, go back to the hotel room by night, and wash them again. He could afford dozens of socks and have his laundry taken care of by somebody else, but he kept it to a minimum and did his laundry himself.
This story might be apocryphal and may never have happened. But what is important is the message. The act of personally “washing socks” reflects a sense of frugality, humility, and a hands-on work ethic — a humble and down-to-earth approach to life, despite one’s success.
Jack Ma’s Chinese name is 马云 (Ma Yun), and inside the company people would call him 马总 (Chief Ma) or 马老师 (Teacher Ma). Coincidently, since my Chinese name is 马玉玺 my students would call me Teacher Ma as well.