Subtraction - From Philosophy to Action

A Trilogy of Thoughts on a Subtractive Communications Strategy

The Ethereum Foundation has a unique philosophy. The approach of subtraction resists the natural tendency of organizations to grow and accumulate power. The Ethereum Foundation wants to distribute opportunities to the Ethereum community and tries to matter less as Ethereum and the ecosystem grow.

As a content writer and part of the Ethereum Foundation’s Devcon and communications team, I've been recently asking myself these questions:

How can the philosophy of subtraction guide a communications strategy? How can we create and curate content in a subtractive way?

The following series of 3 texts will be a personal exploration of these questions. The texts will cover 1) The Philosophy of Subtraction, 2) Content Creation and Curation, and the third text attempts to bring both together to 3) An Approach of Subtractive Communications.

Philosophy of Subtraction

Subtracting is essentially taking something away. This can be a challenging concept, especially in a world of abundance and in a culture that seems to value more over less. When we feel empty or lonely, our instinct might be to fill the void with more people, more hobbies, more distractions, instead of sitting with the pain and then subtracting what might be causing this feeling of emptiness in the first place. In our pursuit of happiness, we often think about what we can gain, what we can add to our lives. More money, more possessions, more recognition. But often, happiness lies in the subtraction - letting go of toxic relationships, reducing the time spent on unfulfilling jobs, or trimming down material possessions that weigh us down.

The same applies to power: We have witnessed the accumulation of power to reach goals. A profound manifestation of the philosophy of subtraction is in the redistribution of power. When an individual voluntarily steps back from a position of authority, allowing others to step in and make decisions, they are subtracting themselves from the equation, thus redistributing power.

Why subtracting?

Removing a central source of power may likely cause (temporary) chaos, as someone or something, once perceived as stable and secure, disappears. Individuals in societies often rely on authorities for decision-making, some may even find it rather comfortable to place their faith in a centralized authority. The subtraction of such a decision-maker could lead to instability and insecurity, potentially followed by a series of poor decisions, as those who suddenly need to make decisions and think independently find themselves thrust into unfamiliar territory.

In his book Antifragile, Nicolas Taleb discusses how systems can benefit from disorder. A system that lost its secure point of guidance might struggle first, but it can potentially benefit from this stressor, and gain diversity and resilience. Using the parallel to biological systems that are evolving, removing a central power can be likened to a biological mutation. Initially destabilizing and disruptive, this environmental stress forces the system to react and can foster a range of responses and adaptations. Different ideas, perspectives, and strategies emerge. This diversity, in turn, increases the system's resilience. Like a species with a diverse gene pool, a system with a variety of decision-makers is better equipped to adapt to changes and withstand future shocks. Subtracting a central point of power can result in a more robust system, better capable of enduring uncertainty and chaos.

Filling the Gap

When a person with power is stepping back, and is consciously leaving a gap, when there is suddenly an unoccupied space with open access, most likely, someone will step up and want to fill this position of power.

Subtraction can lead to unexpected outcomes, or even something you fervently hoped would not transpire. An example of this can be seen in the aftermath of the French Revolution, which aimed to subtract the monarchy from the equation. However, the immediate consequence was not a peaceful transition to democracy, as many had hoped. Instead, it led to a period of intense political turmoil and violence, culminating in the rise of Napoleon Bonaparte and the establishment of an empire.

Maybe it was the force with which the subtraction occurred that resulted in a bad outcome. But even if you step back voluntarily from a position of power, it is inevitable that someone or something will fill the gap. So how can you ensure that the subtraction of a point of power will lead to more diversity and that your attempt to distribute power will work?

Subtracting - When and how much?

Deciding when and how much to subtract when you're a leader or a caregiver can be tricky. As a parent, for example, you want to support your child, but also let them learn independence and self-reliance.

The Ethereum Foundation uses the metaphor of gardening the Ethereum ecosystem. The Foundation is in a unique position to foster long-term growth and success for Ethereum and the ecosystem, equipping the community to stand on its own, much like parents prepare their children.

Albert Ni, a long-time supporter of the Ethereum Foundation, offers a framework for deciding when to step back and when to step in. He suggests doing the 10% that wouldn't organically occur – tasks no one else might undertake due to an imbalance of effort and immediate rewards, yet that are beneficial in the long run or address urgent problems that need to be solved. The remaining 90% should be about nurturing the ecosystem's capacity for self-help, promoting sustainable solutions, and helping build a system for long-term and decentralized solutions.

Stories and Self-Authorship

In the case of stories, you’ll notice the author always has to leave out and subtract something. A story cannot exactly reflect reality. It matters who gets to tell a story, and who gets the chance to share their point of view.

Subtraction is also about removing biases. When we subtract our ego, our biases, and listen to what is really there, listen to the stories of others, we might come closer to the truth, and are able to see a more diverse reality.

How can we support people who depend on us in crafting their own narratives, and at the same time, develop individuals that are empathetic to listen to the stories of others, and thus see and create a more diverse and resilient reality?

The Basic Tools

How can an organization support the self-authorship of others? Which tools do they need to write their own narratives?

After providing the basic needs, you will need to provide all the other skills that are required to survive and succeed in our society. Answering which tools those are, is reaching far beyond the limits of this essay. What I am sure of is that these tools and skills are physical, emotional, and mental tools. They include motivation, curiosity, eagerness, empathy, resilience, and the ability to handle frustration. In a way, the Ethereum Foundation is providing two basic needs, funding in the form of grants, and legitimacy in the form of public support. Funding helps you to survive, and legitimacy helps you trade with others.


The philosophy of subtraction isn't just about less; it's about strategically stepping back to allow others to step forward. It is about supporting growth, encouraging self-authorship, and fostering diversity. Subtraction isn't merely an act of removal - it's an act of trust, letting go, and giving rise to a richer, more inclusive, and resilient reality.

What are the basic needs for content writing, curating, and publishing? How can an entity of power subtract to let others grow and garden a flourishing ecosystem of quality content? Parts 2 and 3 of this small personal series, will try to come closer to answers to these questions.

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