- Billionaire investor and LinkedIn cofounder credits part of his success to his unusual high school education in Vermont.
- At the Putney School, manual labour is taken as seriously as academic work.
- Hoffman struggled socially, but learned to approach life outside of traditional career paths.
At the Putney School in Vermont, graduating students customise their diplomas, decorating them with images that reflect their personalities and passions. Billionaire investor and LinkedIn cofounder Reid Hoffman adorned his with drawings of “cross-country skis, a soccer ball, books, and Dungeons & Dragons,” according to the school magazine the Putney Post.
Putney is a boarding school that sends its students to top schools around the country, but it’s the antithesis to the type best remembered by the film “The Dead Poets Society.” At Putney, students receive a “progressive education” that skips Advanced Placement classes but teaches manual labour skills like carpentry and blacksmithing. Students explore nature through mountain climbing clubs and learn how to paint or sculpt.
In a recent interview for Business Insider’s “Success! How I Did It” podcast, Hoffman said that, “I think it really led me to the view that you could actually, in fact, kind of construct your own path because there were lots of paths available.”
The roots of his career as an entrepreneurial icon and teacher began at Putney, where, he said, there was “a very pragmatic kind of ‘work on solving the problem’ versus ‘being an expert within a discipline.'” He is grateful for learning that you could take “This kind of entrepreneurial focus on a personal life,” and that he didn’t have to associate his future self with a single title like “product manager,” “artist,” or “lawyer.”
Hoffman would go on to study computer science at Stanford and philosophy on a graduate level at Oxford, and he is grateful that he didn’t follow a path to an MBA or law degree before getting into business.
Hoffman was born in Palo Alto, but moved frequently around the country as a kid. By the time he was ready for high school, he said, “I got bitten by a kind of independence.” He considered more traditional elite boarding schools like Phillips Academy in Massachusetts, but in addition to high-level academics, Hoffman was attracted to Putney’s chance to learn “blacksmithing, and woodworking, and working on the farm, and art, and a bunch of things that I wouldn’t otherwise have had experience to do.”
The Putney Post interviewed some of Hoffman’s classmates and teachers in 2009 for a profile, and the consensus was that Hoffman was “socially awkward” but very intelligent without being condescending or sarcastic.
Hoffman told that magazine that, “It was kind of like ‘Lord of the Flies,'” referring to how school kids could be cruel to someone who enjoyed quietly living in his thoughts, the way Hoffman did.
That’s not to say, however, that he was a shut-in. He was on the cross-country team, played pick-up soccer games, and helped rebuild a house on Putney property in Nova Scotia (an activity he still lists on his LinkedIn page).
Hoffman’s adviser Tom Wessels told the Putney Post that Hoffman wasn’t a “prodigy,” but was “way beyond his years intellectually.”
Hoffman’s school roommate and fellow Drungeons & Dragons fan Reed Searle noted Hoffman’s incredible imagination. “Did I see Reid starting and building company after company, linking human beings globally over the web? No.” he told the Putney Post. “But, it didn’t surprise me either.”