Get Ahead

LinkedIn co-founder to graduates: Friendships ‘may be your life’s most important work’

Reid Hoffman, author, businessman and co-founder of the networking platform 'LinkedIn', speaks at the DLD (Digital-Life-Design) Conference in Munich, Germany, 19 January 2015.
Picture Alliance

LinkedIn co-founder Reid Hoffman delivered the commencement address for Vanderbilt's 2022 graduating class on Thursday, where he walked students through the lessons he'd learned throughout his career.

Hoffman, 54, worked as COO at PayPal before going on to co-found LinkedIn in 2002 with two former colleagues. The platform, which Hoffman started in his living room, now has over 830 million members in more than 200 countries and territories, according to the website.

Hoffman says he wouldn't have been able to achieve such success without his friends.

"Making and cultivating and keeping close friends may be your life's most important work. Yes, your network is important, but more than that, friends will be absolutely central to your sense of happiness, connection and meaning."

Here are four "valuable" lessons Hoffman says he learned from his friends:

Appreciating other perspectives

Through a college friendship with a woman of color, Hoffman says he learned that he had no understanding of women's experiences in the world.

"One day, after we had known each other for a while, she said one of the kindest things anyone's ever said to me. She said, 'Reid, you seem to have no understanding of half of humanity.' She meant women. Because like a lot of young men, I got to college with approximately zero comprehension of women. And no one else had ever cared enough to tell me I needed help."

Hoffman's friend then invited him to hang out with her and her girlfriends, where he was able to learn firsthand about the experiences of women from different backgrounds. 

"Understanding that your experience may be very different from mine is an imperfect awareness, but it's helped me be a better friend, boss, spouse, investor, really every part of my life."

"When there's something important you don't know, real friends will tell you about it."

Realizing your purpose

After leaving college, like many recent grads, Hoffman says he was faced with the question "what do I want to do with my life?" 

He thought that answer would be solved at Oxford's philosophy department, but found himself dissatisfied with the program. Fortunately, a close friend helped him find his path.

"When he saw me struggling, he asked me this one question that was so simple, but it changed my life completely. He said, 'You want to put back good values in society at a real scale. Why do you think philosophy is your only path to do that? If academia wasn't getting me there, I should choose a different path that would. Don't sit there feeling like you don't know what to do. Go do something.' I'd never stopped to think of it that way."

Hoffman says that without friends "backing him up and egging him on," he wouldn't have been able to find his purpose. 

"Your friends can help you see what you can't see. They'll help you, you'll help them, and you'll all do better, and go further.

Saying "no" to yes men

We all seek validation or approval in one way or another. While it's good to have friends that support what you do, Hoffman says it's important to have friends that can tell you the truth, even if it may hurt.

"Friends will tell you not what you want to hear, but what you need to hear.," he told graduates.

After Ebay acquired PayPal in 2002, Hoffman says he was tired of Silicon Valley, and wanted to take a year off of work, despite his plans to create an economic social platform, which is now LinkedIn. A friend of his pushed him to cut his year-long vacation short, and to get started on bringing his idea to life.

"You have a team … Some of your key teammates are your friends. The ones you share your dreams and fears with are the people most able to help you get to where you should be going because again, friends will tell you not what you want to hear, but what you need to hear."

Helping your friends helps you

The most important lesson Hoffman says he's learned is that "your friends help you the most by letting you help them."

"Having friends who trusted and permitted me to help them has brought me greater joy than nearly anything else in my life."

Hoffman remembers helping a friend through a rough patch in his life, and the gratitude he felt afterwards.

"He had to put his full trust and faith in me, which was a great gift to me. Because by doing that, he showed me that I was the kind of person who was worthy of such trust. He showed me I was worthy. I've never forgotten that feeling. And that's how your friends help you most. By letting you help them. I want you to experience the same thing."

Check Out:

A 30-year Wall Street veteran on his best career advice to 'hack the system' to find success

AAPI employees often feel excluded at work—how companies can build more supportive, inclusive spaces

Tyler Perry: 'If you do what you love, you will work harder than you could ever imagine'

Sign up now: Get smarter about your money and career with our weekly newsletter