My Conversation with the excellent Reid Hoffman

This one is better than the other available conversations with Reid, here is the transcript and audio.  Here is part of the CWTeam summary:

Reid joined Tyler to talk about all these leverage points and more, including the Silicon Valley cultural meme he most disagrees with, how Wittgenstein influenced the design of LinkedIn, mystical atheism, what it was like being on Firing Line, why he’s never said anything outrageous, how he and Peter Thiel interpret The Tempest differently, the most misunderstood thing about friendship, how to improve talent certification, what’s needed from science fiction, and his three new ideas for board games.


COWEN: If we think of Peter Thiel and Elon Musk, they could arguably, by the standards of many people, be called weird. I’ve reviewed all the books you’ve written and a lot of your public talks. I can’t recall you saying a single thing that’s outrageous in any way whatsoever. Why aren’t you weirder?

HOFFMAN: [laughs] Maybe I mask it better. That’s my Straussian element, that I hide my weirdness. I would say that a little bit of it comes down to a theory about what is the right way of evolving discourse.

I think I probably do have a variety of views that people would think is weird. I, for example, think of myself as a mystical atheist, which is neither the full atheist category nor any religious category, but some blend in the middle. Or the fact that I actually think that the notion of capitalism is one of the world’s leading interesting technologies, but it’s not a particularly good philosophy, and you’d think that’s odd for an entrepreneur or an investor, and so forth.

So I have areas where I would say groups of people would think I’m weird. I may not highlight it because I tend to always speak in a way to, how do I think I help us make the most progress? And I would only say the weird things if I thought that was the thing that would result from that.

COWEN: So there are weird things that are in your mind?

HOFFMAN: Yes, yeah.


COWEN: How did your interest in the late Wittgenstein influence the construction and design of LinkedIn? I’m sure they ask you this all the time in interviews.

HOFFMAN: [laughs] All the time. The question I’ve always been expecting. I would say that the notion of thinking about — a central part of later Wittgenstein is to think that we play language games, that the way that we form identity and community, both of ourselves and as individuals, is the way that we discourse and the way that we see each other and the way that we elaborate language.

That pattern of which ways we communicate with each other, what’s the channel we do, and what’s the environment that we’re in comes from insights from — including later Wittgenstein, who I think was one of the best modern philosophers in thinking about how language is core to the people that we are and that we become.

COWEN: What else from philosophy influenced the construction and design of LinkedIn?

Recommended.  For help in arranging this Conversation I am very much indebted to Ben Casnocha.


The stuff about Wittgenstein reads like gibberish to anyone familiar with Wittgenstein.

Or it is classic Wittgenstein! (Or in the words of one critique of LW: “Wittgenstein’s reputation for genius did not depend on [his] incomprehensibility alone.”) More here:

"your interest in the late Wittgenstein": dear God that's bad English. Unless all you meant to do was inform the world that Wittgenstein is defunct. In which case why not go the full Monty Python?

Scholars of Wittgenstein generally separate his work into his early and late periods because he radically changed his thinking about philosophy partway through his life. So reference to 'late' Wittgenstein just refers to his later views, not that fact that he's dead.

Hoffman name drops Wittgenstein the same way Thiel drops Girard.

Girardean memetic competition naturally leads to Paypal
Wittgenstein's language-game naturally leads to LinkedIn.

Did Nietzsche's ubermensch lead to Uber?

2 much focus on specific people versus their specific ideas. Wrong framing and mindset.
Good ideas/analysis are the search objective, not personalities.

Someday, at the end of a long path filled with striving to find the best, Tyler will have a superb conversation, not merely excellent ones.

Wittgenstein's reputation has endured many slights but to blame him for the design of LinkedIn is surely the deepest cut of all.

Just curious: has anyone who has heard of Wittgenstein (early or late) ever heard of Mikhail Bakhtin (whose brother Nikolai conversed with LW at Cambridge and is said by some to've helped LW move from the logical positivism of the Tract. to the speculative Phil. Investigations)?

Mikhail Bakhtin's work is the subject of a separate academic industry devoted to his "dialogical principle", discourse theory, and notions of "intertextuality" in literary studies and to his theory concerning metalinguistics (or translinguistics), among the other few subjects MB took up.

COWEN: What is the early influence on your thought that you feel you have and other major figures in Silicon Valley maybe don’t? Because a lot of people have played board games growing up, right? A lot have read early science fiction. But you’re different. Is there more New England in you? Or what’s the missing variable?
HOFFMAN: Well, it might be that the missing variable is that I deeply value intellectual work and public intellectual work, that I found —

Tyler knows this guy is awful, but it's not his style to ever say so. It's the usual cheap line to criticise LinkedIn, but for me the amazing thing is that someone as awful as Reid Hoffman has managed to do anything of note, even if it is irritating.

COWEN: Let’s say you call up a reference. What question or questions do you ask that other skilled people do not?

HOFFMAN: One is, what’s this person’s greatest weakness and challenge?

COWEN: But doesn’t everyone ask that?

HOFFMAN: I would say that people most commonly misunderstand about friendship that they think that it’s strict loyalty to the other person. So if you ask most people about friendship, they would say, “Well, I’m loyal to Bob or to Sue.”
And actually, in fact, I think what you are is loyal to the person’s aspirational better self. For example, you discover your friend is a serial murderer. Are they still your friend? “Oh, no, no, I’ll help hide the body.” It’s like, “No, no, of course not.”

" neither the full atheist category nor any religious category, but some blend in the middle. Or the fact that I actually think that the notion of capitalism is one of the world’s leading interesting technologies, but it’s not a particularly good philosophy"

These are the most mainstream positions on these issues in Silicon Valley.

Golly, it gets worse. "Let’s say you call up a reference." What the bugger does that mean?

"what’s this person’s greatest weakness and challenge": challenge? What the hell does that mean?

Weird complaints. Do you always speak in grammatically perfect English?

I speak in English, usually, French if I must. I don't speak in gobbledygook and self-indulgent obscurities.

You must be a lot of fun at parties.

I don't go to parties.

Per Wiki "bugger"
"In the US, particularly in the Midwest and South, it is a slang but not offensive noun meaning 'small critter.'

Would you care to clarify your sentence?

I think this may be an example of American English vs British English. For Americans, the sentences are pretty clear:

"Let’s say you call up a reference."

The "you" in that sentence is an employer who's evaluating an applicant for the job, and calls up one of the applicant's "references" -- usually their current or a former supervisor, whose name the applicant put onto the application form. The employer asks the reference how well the applicant did at his former job.

Yeah that's a lot of implied context, but yes that's all contained in the phrase "call up a reference".

"what’s this person’s greatest weakness and challenge"

It's common, even stereotypical, for the interviewer to ask the job applicant what their greatest weakness is (because the interviewee has presumably spent the whole interview talking about their strengths). But even Americans in interview situations recognize that it's a little insulting to ask someone to describe their greatest weakness. A common American euphemism for "weakness" or "fault" is to call it a "challenge". This has also by now become a cliche, e.g. instead of calling someone dumb or stupid, you pretend to be courteous by avoiding those words and instead call the person "mentally challenged".

So in that quote, the interviewer is softening the tone of the question a little by supplementing the word "weakness" with the word "challenge". It doesn't change the meaning of the sentence but is a way of trying to make it seem more polite.

Thank you for the translation. I'm so old that I can remember when many Americans spoke English: their own English, of course, but readily comprehensible. But it would seem that California won.

"This one is better than the other available conversations with Reid": now that's what I call clear English. Rather scathing, but at least it's clear.

Hoffman learned the diversity of human experience by doing farm work in high school. He maintains that technology is the best lever for improving society, though he does say that technology companies eventually have an obligation to interface with the society that they seek to change. So at root he is a technologist. Probably he has a fairly flat view of society, and not much real sense for how to improve material conditions for most people. Still smart, of course, and honest enough to admit that PayPal benefited from timing and luck as much as vision and execution.

COWEN: You’ve once said that you feel you’re operating at 60 percent of your talent or capacity. At what percent are our top colleges and universities operating at?
HOFFMAN: This will be an unpopular answer because I have a bunch of friends who are great leaders in these institutions, but I would generally say probably about 30 percent.
COWEN: Thirty percent? So they’re at 30 percent, and Silicon Valley can’t beat them, as talent certifiers? [Zing!]
COWEN: How useful is five-factor personality theory to you?
HOFFMAN: I don’t even know what five-factor personality theory is.

That's surprising for someone working on job matching and talent certification. File under: I/O Psyche is underrated.

" I/O Psyche is underrated"

This might be true, but I wonder if it's useful more for the education and training it gives (thinking about organizations, survey research, statistics, etc.) than for having real answers or better theories than other fields do.

The questions were effective, and Hoffman was willing to engage with them. CWT 2020 is off to a strong start. Good luck.

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