Crypto Has a Purpose Problem |

Blockchain and cryptocurrency projects have struggled to articulate a clear, positive, inclusive mission statement. This may prove to be their Achilles heel.

I recently read the excellent book *The Infinite Game* by Simon Sinek. The idea of the book is that every organization must choose between having a finite vision or an infinite vision (by “organization,” Sinek is referring not only to companies but also smaller scale initiatives such as projects as well as larger scale initiatives such as nation states). A finite vision is one that’s narrow, short-term, clearly defined and easily measured: for instance, to develop a certain product, to capture X% of the market share of an industry, or to achieve a billion dollar valuation. Because they’re attractive and clearly defined, most organizations are built around such finite visions...

This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at

Surprising to hear that Ethereum has such a problem - I always felt that it was very clear. While I was at aeternity we tried to establish such a vision too, but also failed. I think the problem is too many cooks spoil the broth.

The infinite vision should be made clear at the start, and the people who are willing to join (even if their long term motivations are not the same) will appear. Otherwise, if you try to be inclusive, everyone will have a say and nothing will get decided as usual.

That was my personal vision for Ethereum, but sadly it’s not a vision that was shared by most of the people I met in the Ethereum community. Many of my fellow core developers were attracted to Ethereum because of the technological complexity and challenge. While I respect and identify with this feeling, it’s not a Just Cause. Many others were attracted by the idea of self-sovereign money or uncensorable applications. I can identify with these goals, too, but they’re also not a Just Cause mainly because they’re a negative rather than a positive vision: opposition to state interference rather than a vision for something novel and constructive.

That’s not a problem, there won’t be many people who really share your view. What’s important is that you are inclusive enough to let yourselves work together for the short time your missions are aligned. That way the mission grows faster than it would’ve otherwise if you were very strict about the shared vision.

1 Like

I’m curious what you meant by this - did you mean that you always thought Ethereum’s purpose was clear? If so, what did you think it was?

Yes, this is sort of it in a nutshell. I don’t think this work was done in the beginning of Ethereum and that now it’s probably too late. I think the vision that was painted was mostly technical (which is exciting to nerds but clearly insufficient), and the human side of the story was sort of fuzzy and not very well fleshed out and kinda “pie in the sky” - as we’re seeing with the reality of Ethereum and the things blockchain is being used for more generally today.

This is a very interesting point. Do you think an “infinite vision” can be inclusive enough to allow different groups with very different goals and purpose to come together for some time? Or do you think it’s more that my goal is clear to me, and that I should be willing to work with allies, in the short term, if doing so serves my purpose, without much regard to their purpose?

Ethereum was the same cryptoanarchist spirit from Bitcoin but now applied to a programmable blockchain, and seeing what could be built out of that. Throughout the years, the narrative changed to best advertise Ethereum to the public (distributed computer! web3… whatever… I don’t remember), but it was always cryptoanarchists trying to make the change they wanted with the power of a programmable blockchain.

Now you might say that’s not much, but it’s a lot better than what Ethereum competitors had. Because their purpose was clearly “ok Ethereum did well, we’re late to the party, how can we do the same thing but differentiate ourselves”. And this is, I argue, what kept most developers on Ethereum, because the anarchist “make the world different/better” spirit was clearly there, and the others were “we want to be an alternative to Ethereum”.

This “spirit” wasn’t planned, but it was so strong that it could’ve been.

  1. Aren’t these two the same thing? Your goal is your infinite vision…
  2. You won’t get far if you’re not inclusive enough to let other people work with you for the short time that your goals are aligned. If you’re long term aligned, that’s a happy coincidence. Anyway, that’s how the world works at large. Think of how you’d choose a life partner, or how businesses decide to do business with each other, same thing right?

In general I agree with this. I listed both some positive and some negative examples from other projects in the article. I do think some projects have done a decent job of leading with values and distinguishing themselves from Ethereum: Celo and Blockstack (which, to be fair, existed before Ethereum did) come to mind. But in general I think 95%+ projects fall into the category you describe, and even the ones that do have a clearer set of values and principles sometimes struggle to articulate them.

I agree on the strength of the Ethereum vision, and that it happened sort of by accident, but I think it was always too vague, which has proven to be a problem. Using dope af tech to “make the world different/better” is just not specific enough to actually stand a chance of achieving that goal, IMHO! What sort of change do you want and how do you expect to bring it about?

Good point, it’s definitely similar to how these decisions get made, but I think different people go about this decision making process differently. For instance, I think some people are okay temporarily aligning with those who are at cross-purposes in the long term if it serves their goals in the short term. Would you exchange hacking lessons with a brilliant, skilled hacker if you knew that they worked for the intelligence agency of a country that was repressing its people en masse using technology? That sort of thing. (Or you could replace “intelligence agency of a country…” with, like, Google or Facebook or Amazon or …)

I guess there’s a difference between having a different vision but aligning for some time, which is definitely how things usually work (the happy coincidence), and temporarily aligning by chance with someone who’s working towards something that’s contrary to what you believe in, which I think is probably a bad idea.

Oh, this is a hard one. Mostly it is a change in my financial situation. But world wise, I think the world doesn’t value certain things enough, partially because the only kind of value it can describe adequately (with numbers) is monetary value. I don’t know exactly how, but blockchain can definitely shake things up, instead of perpetuating the current system. So I am happy to work in this space.

Yeah I wouldn’t work for an organization which I don’t agree with, which is why I like working in the blockchain space - I’m not interested in perpetuating web2, and I miss the old web. At the same time, to be able to choose this is definitely a privilege, not a principle that one should live by. You gotta do what you gotta do to survive or get ahead. People who view this as a principle instead of a privilege are always Western in my experience, they are always more idealistic.

So yeah, I probably would take classes from that brilliant hacker. And I probably would take a tip or two from Donald Trump on how to sell to a crowd, as much as everyone loves to hate on him. Think about it - while everyone else is busy being principled, I’m getting ahead. Maybe it perpetuates the current system, yes - but I live to grow stronger one day.

EDIT: not sure if I’ve actually been in such a situation so far!

Thanks for sharing your answer. I really enjoyed reading it, and it gave me food for thought. (I wrote about mine in this post.)

I agree strongly with your sentiment that “the only kind of value [we] can describe is monetary value” - that’s one of the big problems with capitalism and our obsession with numbers like GDP. The Economist has written a lot on this topic, here are a couple such articles:


Andrew Yang has also written and spoken quite a bit about this, e.g.:

Also agree on your sentiment regarding privilege and principle, that’s a good one. It’s a privilege to be able to put principles first!

It’s interesting to hear that you’d take classes from the unethical hacker and from Donald Trump on selling to a crowd, but you wouldn’t work for an org. that you don’t agree with - I’m curious, what’s the difference, to you?

That was probably the best article I’ve read on that subject. Thanks.

Hmm, in the first case I am working with/being taught by, whereas in the second one the organization is obviously profiting from my work!

By the way, I really like how all your articles are consistently meaty and substantial. How do you do it, do you have a process for writing blog articles? I’m starting a blog of my own around token engineering, I’m not sure where to move this discussion…

That’s interesting. I have to give this some more thought! I agree that there’s a difference, but I might push back by saying that, even if you’re only “working with/being taught by,” the other party might still benefit from the arrangement - from the legitimacy you lend it by agreeing to be a student/intern/whatever.

Thanks for reading! I have a loose process. I write for an hour every day, and I force myself to publish something every week. That’s about it. It’s a new thing and I expect it will continue to evolve - I hope to eventually write a book, maybe as soon as next year if I can get my act in gear!

Token engineering is super interesting and super important. What are your plans for writing about it now? Feel free to start a new thread in this forum if you think we should move the conversation elsewhere :slight_smile: