Joe Tsai ’82 Talks About the Importance of Humility

Brittany Sun '19
When you Google Joe Tsai’s name, the first thing that comes up is “a Taiwanese-Canadian billionaire businessman.” Tsai is co-founder and executive vice chairman of Alibaba Group, owns the San Diego Seals lacrosse team and the New York Liberty (WNBA), and, as 49 percent owner of the Brooklyn Nets, recently finalized a deal to purchase the remaining 51 percent. Yet, Tsai ’82 is a very modest person who genuinely encourages the importance of humility in leadership and life. 

Tsai credits a major part of Alibaba’s success to humility — a positive thread that runs through the senior leadership. 

“Very few [successful people] will tell you that humility is important,” Tsai says. “I think it’s critical in Alibaba because it gives us the ability to see our own weaknesses and helps us identify and find others who can fill the gap.”

Tsai did not always act in this manner, though. He reveals that there were two moments of humility that set him on his approach to life today. His first moment occurred during his time at Lawrenceville. Coming in as a First Former from Taiwan who barely spoke English, he tried out for the baseball team. However, he did not make the cut. Knowing that Taiwan was very strong in Little League baseball, he felt humiliated. 

So the following year, he decided to try out for Lawrenceville’s lacrosse team and made the junior varsity squad. 

“That’s how I got into lacrosse,” he notes. “I love the sport, but it's also the sport that gave me a huge setback and gave me a lot of humility,” he says as he begins to tell of another defining moment.

“My Fourth Form year, I made varsity lacrosse. And back then it was not very common for underclassmen to make the varsity team. But as a junior I made the team, and I was very, very proud of myself,” he says.

“Then, my humiliation moment came my senior year. During the spring there was another tryout and I was like, ‘I was on the team last year. It's going to be pretty easy.’ I went through the motions of the tryout. I think I even got a warning from the varsity lacrosse coach that I needed to work a little harder. But then when they posted the final list, I wasn't on it. So, I got cut from varsity lacrosse my senior year. That was probably the most humiliating — ‘a big failure’ moment for me during my Lawrenceville time. And thinking back, it was definitely a wake up call.”

After this experience, Tsai says he learned that anyone could arrive at a high point, but then could very easily slip back down if he or she did not work hard enough. Therefore, in college, Tsai was motivated to give lacrosse another shot. He attended Yale University and decided to try to walk on to the men’s lacrosse team. He trained hard to prepare during the fall, and eventually in the winter participated in tryouts for the team. He was elated to land a position on the team and even made Yale’s traveling squad. 

“So that's the story of the moment of not making something that you really want, suffering that humility, and then bouncing back from it,” Tsai concludes.  

He says that he is a strong advocate for people to be tested repeatedly. In this way, Tsai says people will encounter some failure — but that’s important to experience because “life is a repeated game… you’re going to fail sometimes, but then you better learn how to climb back up. You’re going to try to get better. And learning how to fail is absolutely the most important thing in life,” he emphasizes. 

“I think that’s a skill set: understanding why you failed and then trying to do something that’s different that makes you better,” he says. If someone wants to be successful and wants to make something work, he believes, it’s crucial to work diligently at it.

Tsai’s determination is so strong that he doesn’t get tired from the constant grind to improve. He believes that when people give themselves a goal to improve, tiredness won’t set in, especially when they can see measurable improvement. 

“The goal doesn’t need to be very ambitious,” he says. “You just say, I want to be better than I was yesterday.”

Tsai still is eager to improve in every way he can. As an example, he says that he is currently doing a lot of public speaking. He admits, “I had been a terrible public speaker throughout most of my professional life.” But he consistently tries to get better and actually “went on YouTube to look up speeches that Margaret Thatcher was making” to learn from her. 

Tsai concludes, “I just try to find ways to make myself better.” And that’s exactly what he does. 

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