From Career Ladder to Jungle Gym: Reid Hoffman's Commencement Address at Babson College

Seniors graduating last weekend from Babson College, the entrepreneurship-focused campus just outside Boston, were treated to a commencement speech from someone who’s got to be one of their biggest heroes: Reid Hoffman, the billionaire co-founder, executive chairman, and former CEO of LinkedIn. (He’s also an author, a venture investor with Greylock Partners, a member of numerous corporate and advisory boards, and a frequent man about Boston.)

In keeping with the mission of LinkedIn and the theme of his recent book, The Startup of You, Hoffman argued in his address that old ideas about stepwise career progress are dead, and that all workers today need to think more like entrepreneurs. “Whereas we used to have a career ladder, now we have a career jungle gym,” Hoffman said. “You need to climb sideways and sometimes down; sometimes you need to swing and jump from one set of bars to the next. And, to extend the metaphor, sometimes you need to spring from the jungle gym and establish your own turf somewhere else on the playground.”

The speech gave an interesting glimpse into Hoffman’s mind—and into the mindset recent college graduates will need to adopt if they hope to start new businesses or dive into the startup scene around Boston, the Bay Area, and other innovation hubs. We asked Babson College for permission to reproduce the address in full. Here it is. (For a video of the speech, scroll to the end of the text.)

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I recently co-authored a book called The Startup of You. I know that you all know this, because in honor and respect of your achievement of graduating today, I have gifted a copy to each of you. In it, I began with a quote from Mohammed Yunus. I will begin today with the same quotation:

“All Humans were born entrepreneurs. In the caves, we were all self-employed. Finding food, feeding ourselves. That is how human history began. As civilization came, we suppressed it. We became “labor” because they stamped us “You are labor.” ”

I begin with this quotation because entrepreneurs are important. Here in the U.S., we have always known this because we have an entrepreneurial nation.

We have founding “fathers” of the nation; in parallel, entrepreneurs are founders of companies.

The vast majority of people in the U.S. are descendants of immigrants who took a huge gamble to cross an ocean and come to a new land; in parallel, many entrepreneurial companies emerge from immigrant founders and immigrant talent who come here to build these companies.

The American dream is the ability to make your own destiny, through hard work, perseverance, and some combination of intelligence and luck. In parallel, new entrepreneurial companies succeed on the same basis.

Generally, many people think of entrepreneurs as the (relatively few) individuals who take their own isolated path initially away from society. Few entrepreneurs succeed, but when they do they create products, companies, and jobs for many others. These products, companies, and jobs are part of the ongoing health of a society.

And this is really important; just consider the current unemployment rates. We wish that we had more entrepreneurs creating more businesses.

However, in the modern world, entrepreneurship is even more important than the creation of companies and jobs.

Entrepreneurial talents, skills, and mindsets now apply to all jobs and professions. This is new, brought about by the accelerating change in the world from globalization and technology.

In the last decades, there was a notion of pursuing a career ladder.

You would graduate from a good college – like you are today – and you would select from a set of employers who want you to join the first rung of a career ladder. You might have some choices around industry – finance, transport, technology – or function – sales, marketing, finance, product development – but fundamentally you would seek and choose a path.

In choosing a path, you would then work at one or more companies, and work your way up the steps of a career ladder or (if fortunate) a career escalator. Inevitably, with some hard work and a little luck, you would retire leaving room for the next generations to ascend the steps of their career.

However, due to the changes in a globalized and accelerating world, the notion of a career has changed. Whereas we used to have a career ladder, now we have a career jungle gym. Success in a career is no longer a simple ascension on a path of steps. You need to climb sideways and sometimes down; sometimes you need to swing and jump from one set of bars to the next. And, to extend the metaphor, sometimes you need to spring from the jungle gym and establish your own turf somewhere else on the playground.

And, if we really want the playground metaphor to accurately describe the modern world, neither the playground or the jungle gym are fixed. They are constantly changing – new structures emerge, old structures are in constant change and sometimes collapse, and the playground constantly moves the structure around.

Modern careers need to deal with this constantly changing environment – where the playing field changes, your competition changes, and your tools change.

The mindset of committing yourself to the path of a ladder or escalator and working your way up the steps is now a bad strategy.

What are the tools and the mindset for the flexibility and adaptability of the new jungle gym and the career playground? Entrepreneurship! Everyone needs to think like an entrepreneur – even if still only a few will be starting new businesses.

Fortunately, for you here today, for you graduates of Babson, you have already focused on learning entrepreneurial skills. You have the bias to action rather than elaborate planning. You understand that you need to create your work, your jobs, your career.

These skills will serve you well – both for the businesses that you may start and also in helping others in society learn to think like entrepreneurs.

For entrepreneur-ing, there are hours of advice and insight – indeed you have already studied this for years. I have only one to highlight today.

Build your network and always think in networks. Networks help you find your way; they create a sonar map of intelligence, expertise, information, and insight. Your allies, your connections, can help you navigate the large number of challenges that can derail a startup company.

Networks also help amplify your chances and magnitude of success. Just as much as they can help you avoid minefields of potential failure, they are also essential to finding the path to success – where the opportunities are, how to achieve those opportunities, how to take the intelligent risks for breakout results.

And there are foundations of your network here in this tent, around you today. As a personal example, my first job came from the roommate of a good friend of mine (and who is now also a good friend) from my university; my serious career inflection at PayPal came from a good friend from my university who co-founded the company.

And your networks are not just the people you know and who know you; they are also they people that they know, and further the people that they know.

Life is a team sport. And, as much as entrepreneurs look like individuals who explore the desert by themselves in order to find riches, they are actually successful based upon their ability to find, build, connect, and collaborate with important networks. Entrepreneurs succeed based upon their connection with networks.

And, this leads me to our key theme for today. Entrepreneurs are massively important for society. Not just because they create companies and jobs – although those are both seriously important. Not just because entrepreneur-ism is the toolset for how all of us should pursue our work and careers – although the toolset is essential for modern professional success.

Entrepreneurs are massively important for society because they help build the institutions in which we live. And as the modern world continues to accelerate, adaptability and invention become even more important.

Building great companies and products is essential. Every professional having the tool set to navigate the rapidly evolving jungle gym is critical. But we also need entrepreneurial toolkits in government, ngos, and how we think about the relationship between society, institutions, and people. And we should think about innovation using technology – which is what entrepreneurs specialize in.

For example, government aims to enable a platform that empowers its citizens to pursue life, liberty, and happiness. Consider if we had free online platforms for vocational skills, basic entrepreneurship classes, and key modern skills like deploying various technologies. Why free? Free because we want to empower everyone who wants to try with these basic toolkits. Then we would further empower each individual to make their own contribution. Consider if we had the online equivalent of driver’s licenses – how many more services entrepreneurs could build online. And these are just two specific examples.

Entrepreneurs are leaders. They lead in creating new products and companies, by crossing into the ground of the unknown. As the world changes, everyone will need these skills for their individual lives. But, now it means even more: we need entrepreneurial leadership in the evolving the platform of society that we share. So, entrepreneurs need to and can go further. We need to elaborate our entrepreneurial skills also to the evolution of society.

Here we are in a country with a great history of entrepreneurs. And here we are in an institution that focuses on these critical skills.

So what does this mean for you, graduating class of Babson 2012? As you go forth from this day, remember that you are leaders and pioneers. In creating new businesses, you are helping society evolve. In sharing what you know as entrepreneurs with others, you help them adapt to the modern world. Most of all, when you have the opportunity, remember to help rebuild our social platform – the framework where we all operate. Better platforms lead to much better entrepreneurial businesses.

Because if there’s one thing that entrepreneurs know, it is that an individual can change the world. And change the world at scale, when you engage your networks for magnified results.

Class of 2012: congratulations! You have just shipped your next product – you! – into the world. Now it’s time for your next play. Good luck.


Wade Roush is the producer and host of the podcast Soonish and a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @soonishpodcast

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