#111 – 20 Minute Playbook: Illia Polosukhin of NEAR Protocol and Unchain Fund

In Episode #111, we deconstruct Illia Polosukhin's peak performance playbook—from his favorite book to the tiny habit that's had the biggest impact on his life. Illia is the co-founder of NEAR Protocol and Unchain Fund. We cover why context switching is a necessary skill for founders, Illia’s recommended books, and the nuance of the Russian language in writing.
Last updated
August 13, 2023
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Illia Polosukhin raised more than $10M to help fund aid in war-torn Ukraine through his Unchain Fund.
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#111 – 20 Minute Playbook: Illia Polosukhin of NEAR Protocol and Unchain Fund


About Illia Polosukhin

“Find a mentor who's a few years ahead of you, like not too far, but like two, three years ahead of you, because those are people who still remember what they were doing in your position. And so they will be able to give you the most useful advice.” – Illia Polosukhin

Illia Polosukhin is Co-Founder of NEAR Protocol. NEAR is a layer-one blockchain that’s incredibly fast, has very low transaction fees, and is climate neutral—in part because of its Proof of Stake model.

It’s traded on crypto exchanges under the ticker symbol NEAR and has a market cap of just under $5B today. From 2020 through 2021, the developers working in NEAR’s ecosystem—building applications on top of their blockchain—quadrupled, making NEAR the 2nd fastest growing chain behind only Solana.

In this episode, Illia shares:

  • Why he loves running daily and how it helps him remember to just put one foot in front of the other to accomplish anything.
  • Why he loves the book Extreme Ownership by Jocko Willink, and how he applies the principles in it to his life and work.
  • Why he’s been fascinated with the concept of a Social Graph, how to build it into the NEAR protocol, and why it’s so important for building a better world in web3.
  • Why he thinks everyone should find mentors that are 2-3 years ahead of them in terms of where they’d like to be.
  • Why he’d tell his younger self to focus on speed and velocity—shipping quickly in everything that he does.


In this 20 Minute Playbook with Illia Polosukhin, we cover:

  • 00:00:00 – Introduction
  • 00:01:59 – Designing social graph in Web3
  • 00:04:01 – Why context switching is a necessary skill for founders
  • 00:05:51 – Finding mentors who are just a few years ahead of you in business
  • 00:10:56 – Building a great decentralized ecosystem requires high-level, small, agile teams
  • 00:13:29 – Books Illia recommends
  • 00:16:59 – The nuance of the Russian language in writing

Listen to the episode on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Overcast, Google Podcasts, Amazon Music, Castbox, Pocket Casts, Player FM, Podcast Addict, iHeartRadio, or on your favorite podcast platform. You can watch the interview on YouTube here.

Big Takeaways

  • Illia notes that while most people hate running, including himself, there’s no denying that it drills home the point that everything should be taken one step at a time. Whether in running or in building a company, though your vision may be huge (running a marathon, building a great company), working step-by-step is important.
  • Illia recommends the audiobook, Extreme Ownership: How U.S. Navy SEALs Lead and Win by Jocko Willink and Leif Babin. He believes that taking ownership of your projects and results is incredibly important in a decentralized environment in order for the whole ecosystem to thrive.
  • Illia reminds us to think twice before simply labeling things and people without understanding the full context of situations. He uses the example of people being frustrated with developers who are unable to fix a computer… “but you’re a developer!” Using a simple label on someone without thinking through context can be detrimental.

Books Mentioned

The following books came up in this conversation with Illia Polosukhin:

Selected Links

We covered a lot of ground in this interview. Here are links to the stories, articles, and ideas discussed:


Daniel Scrivner (00:05):

Hello, and welcome to another episode of our 20 Minute Playbook series, where each week we sit down with an elite performer from iconic founders to world renowned investors and bestselling authors to dive into the ideas, frameworks, and strategies that got them to the top of their field and keep them there today, all in less than 20 minutes. I'm Daniel Scrivner and on the show today, I'm thrilled to be joined by Illia Polosukhin, co-founder of NEAR Protocol. NEAR is a layer one blockchain that's incredibly fast, has very low transaction fees and is climate neutral, in part because of its proof of stake model.

Daniel Scrivner (00:38):

It's traded on crypto exchanges under the ticker symbol NEAR, and has a market cap of just under $5 billion today. From 2020 through 2021, the developers working in NEARs ecosystem, that's everyone building applications on top of their blockchain quadrupled, making near the second fastest growing chain behind only Solana. In this episode, Illia shares why he loves running daily and how it helps him remember to just put one foot in front of the other to accomplish anything; why he loves the book Extreme Ownership by Jocko Willink and how he applies that principle in his life and work; why he's fascinated with the concept of a social graph and how to build it into the NEAR protocol and why it's so important for building a better world in Web3; why he thinks everyone should find mentors that are two to three years ahead of them in terms of where they'd like to be and why he'd tell his younger self to focus on speed and velocity shipping quickly in everything that he does.

Daniel Scrivner (01:35):

You can find the show notes and transcript for this episode at outlieracademy.com/111. That's episode 111. And you can follow Illia on Twitter @ILblackdragon. With that, let's dive in and hear Illia Polosukhin's 20 Minute Playbook. Illia, thank you so much for joining me again on 20 Minute Playbook. I really appreciate the time.

Illia Polosukhin (01:58):

Thank you.

Daniel Scrivner (01:59):

So this should be fun. In the next 20 minutes I'll ask 10 simple questions and the idea is to try to learn as much about you and a bit more about your background. And obviously we just spent a lot of time diving into what you're building at NEAR. For anyone that's listening, go and check out near.org and I'll share at the end of this a way to go and listen to that interview. But it was fascinating. We always start by asking for a recent fascination. What have you been fascinated by? What have you been thinking about recently that you can't get out of your brain?

Illia Polosukhin (02:30):

Honestly, social graph, how to design social graph in Web3. I think between Elon Musk and Twitter whole situation and then kind of from our side like with Unchain Fund, it's been a very needed component, like what is the... Because even when you think of engaging with someone, if you have their Twitter, you can go and see who else is following them. You know what they're saying, like you have this kind of interesting context on the person, which right now you don't anywhere else, like if you go on Telegram. And at the same time, it's fully controlled by Twitter. Somebody can close a person's account.

Daniel Scrivner (03:10):

They don't open that up and let you use it the way you'd like.

Illia Polosukhin (03:12):

Yeah. So it's kind of, yeah, like how do we transport that, make it programmable as well, like for developers to build on. And then at the same time, how do we do it? Because building is, it's challenging to build for scale, but it's possible. Getting people to use it is way harder. And so really trying to figure out what are the techniques we can use to get people to use something that's decentralized, that has kind of just inherent values, but maybe doesn't have face value that people will start using right away. So there's some ideas that I have that I'll be sharing soon.

Daniel Scrivner (03:47):

That's so cool. And I'm guessing that would show up as a primitive, that anyone in the NEAR ecosystem could use in whatever they're building.

Illia Polosukhin (03:54):

Exactly. Potentially any ecosystem, yeah. It's really kind of generic primitive. It uses NEAR account model just as a basis.

Daniel Scrivner (04:01):

That would be so cool to be able to have, I mean, even just as a developer, to be able to have that as a tool that you can freely be able to use, I think would be amazing. When you think about business leadership, and I know that might sound a little bit silly, but at the end of the day you founded, I think a really important project. You're still a big force in building it. When you think about that, building NEAR, all the things that you do, what do you think of as your superpowers? Obviously you have a very technical background. You obviously now do a lot of non-technical work, disconnecting people, helping spur innovation and people in the ecosystem. What are your superpowers and how do you use those daily?

Illia Polosukhin (04:37):

Originally, it was a lot of contact switching and it still is. I think when we're building the protocol and also building layer one is pretty much an impossible task. I really like every, every single time I see new people trying to build layer one, I'm like, well... And so you need to switch context a lot. I would be debugging some core protocol code and then answering to someone about a fundraise and then signing some legal documents and then discussing how do we set up a foundation and all this. And those just continues.

Illia Polosukhin (05:15):

And so I'm doing less of coding side, but a lot more than now I just work with a lot of projects at the same time, kind of potentially like 20 projects in one week, having calls with them, trying to help them and understand what they're doing. I think the fact that I'm technical is that I do know how protocol works is obviously allows me to be creative with solutions. So in a way kind of allowing, like suggesting people new ideas and ways how they can build on top of NEAR or how they can use NEAR for their problems. Yeah, those two are the main ones.

Daniel Scrivner (05:51):

No one's ever mentioned context switching, but it makes total sense, especially in the context of what you described having to, when you're, yeah, leading a project has a bunch of different pieces. You obviously need to have that as an ability. I want to ask a question around mentors or figures that you've learned from. These can be explicit mentors, people that you've worked with that you just admire and you learn a lot from. It can be people you don't even know, but that you kind of drawn from inspiration. Can you share mentors or figures that have had an impact on you in what you learned from them or the mark that they had on you?

Illia Polosukhin (06:24):

Yeah. There's been a few people. I would say that kind of at Google, all my managers were very interesting, very different people, which I learned a lot from, and all of them went out to start their own company, actually, all, like it was three different managers, all of them have very successful company right now. And so, yeah, really learning a wide variety from how to approach management of other people, how to approach this very more technical leadership as well. And so this is three different people. So those things have been really fundamental.

Illia Polosukhin (07:09):

I think for the past year I've had a mentor who's been kind of very helpful and I think kind of general sense, more of a recommendation for everybody else is find someone who's kind of few years ahead of you, like not too far, but like two, three years ahead of you, because those are people who still remember what they were doing in your position. And so they will be able to give you the most useful advice. And we can work with them kind of more closely on that.

Illia Polosukhin (07:43):

And so that's yeah, been doing that. It's been very helpful and kind of powerful. I'm not big on kind of idols where you're like, "Oh, that person is my idol" type of thing. Some people are interesting, I've read a lot of biography of other people, but it's more of like either situational, like how to resolve some situation or is their goals and interests are something that I should incorporate. That's kind of the things, the way I think about it.

Daniel Scrivner (08:17):

Yeah. Well, that's great advice as well too to find somebody who's two to three years ahead, in big part because they still remember what it's like to be where you are now, and they can obviously help you in that state, they can help you figure out what to do next. That's really powerful advice. Is there a favorite quote or anecdote you have about being a founder or engineer and in this, typically the idea here is there kind of a euphemism, is there a point of view, is there a quote you use to remind yourself, obviously for you, you're a founder, you're a technologist, you're an engineer, you have a bunch of different kind of inputs. Is there anything there? Is there kind of a point of view or a quote that you remember or you draw inspiration from besides the keep calm and build on, which you obviously share.

Illia Polosukhin (09:01):

Yeah. I think there's this pretty much in .ru internet, there's this kind of funny quote which is you're a developer, which people use every time is like, "Well, why my computer doesn't work? Why can't you fix it? You're a developer." And so I just love using that because it kind of encompasses this idea that people just put a label on things and then kind of just use that label independent of the context and not thinking of what is the specific things are. And I think just remembering to not do that and remembering how actually detrimental can that be is important. And yeah, I don't know. For me, every time I use it, it's kind of find interesting like sarcasm and death.

Daniel Scrivner (09:53):

That's so funny. I can only imagine how many of the 5,000 telegram groups you shared earlier you've probably shared that in. I want to start next with a little bit of a retrospective kind of question. And with this, the idea is the question that I want to ask is if you could go back to the start of your career and you could give yourself a piece of advice, or you could just whisper words of wisdom, or maybe it's even just a reminder that you'd give yourself back when you were first getting started, is there anything you would tell yourself and what would you tell yourself and why?

Illia Polosukhin (10:24):

Ship fast, honestly. That's the main things. I think it's, yeah, velocity, it will be hard. It's not easy. It will be hard, but it's about perseverance at that point. And then yeah, velocity is always an important piece because it's also like if you don't have velocity, then you lose momentum, you yourself then feel down as well. And so velocity is also kind of allows you to overcome some of your own mental blocks.

Daniel Scrivner (10:56):

Yeah. I love that. It feels like maybe the sports analogy would be train hard, but if you're building something, it's just ship fast. It's the same general idea. If you had to distill down your philosophy of building a company, and obviously just to be super clear, NEAR is not a company, it's a decentralized project at this point. So maybe a better phrased as if you had to distill your philosophy of building a great decentralized project or decentralized ecosystem, what would that be and how would you try to boil that down into a few words?

Illia Polosukhin (11:27):

High level, small agile teams that are kind of aligned on a single vision, aligned on a single global goal, but are able to execute independently. And so the funny part is it's not actually that different from Amazon's, and some extent some other successful companies. But yeah, I think for ecosystem it's especially true is that by decentralizing, you are able to execute faster because you have more of this different nodes in the ecosystem. They kind of running with their own speed, but then they're all independent. They can work together and they'll work together when it makes sense, but at the same time, they don't need to and so that leads for them to be able to run faster. Like coming from Google where you actually have a lot of the same concepts of open source internally. Internally, everyone can see everybody's code, you can kind of contribute to it, you can build on top of each other's services, but you need to get into this kind of company to be able to participate in that.

Illia Polosukhin (12:38):

But because of this, you have this very closed mindset in the sense that you have so much staff internally that it's really hard to go outside. It's hard to listen to a customer. It's hard to work with somebody externally. And so a lot of the philosophy that ideally want in the ecosystem, obviously it's evolving beyond me in many ways, is this open Google model, is like the same kind of everybody shares the same goals. There's the same culture, but it's open, anybody can join. And also as a person who's working on any of this kind of teams, you're open to ideas, open to working with users and this community. And so in turn, you're not fixed into like, "Hey, I need to work with this other team on doing blah" if that doesn't make sense. So you can always do something differently.

Daniel Scrivner (13:29):

Yeah. I love that way of describing it as like the open Google model, which obviously makes sense when you share some of that context. And I love too using the word node because obviously in the blockchain sense, it kind of works. You've got nodes in terms of computers and compute power, but there's also the kind of human aspect of what you're building in the ecosystem and having a bunch of nodes that can all make independent decisions, but are aligned on where they're going. It's super powerful. Is there a book, article or paper that you love that you think more people should read? And obviously, we're talking about crypto, you can point to a specific crypto paper if that's it. You can also just share a general book and it can even be one of those biographies. What comes to mind?

Illia Polosukhin (14:06):

Extreme Ownership, listen in audiobook.

Daniel Scrivner (14:10):

That's a very good one. And that really makes sense for the decentralized model. I want to ask one more question. I typically don't do this. Was that a major, I don't know, input or an inspiration that you drew on when you were thinking about this decentralized community and ecosystem you're building, or is this more just around NEAR in particular or just a general philosophy?

Illia Polosukhin (14:32):

You mean the book, the Ownership?

Daniel Scrivner (14:33):

Yeah, yeah, yeah.

Illia Polosukhin (14:35):

No, I think it's more general philosophy. I think generally the people who take on ownership of things become owners and in a way, like I think in decentralized world, it's more important than in centralized world because in centralized world, kind of all rolls up to potentially the final owner to CEO or to whatever. In the decentralized world, you don't have final owner. So in a way, every person or every of this kind of sub project or what original hub or whatever is an owner of themself. And so they need to take on ownership in a way for the whole ecosystem. And so that's important, I think, to propagate that as a culture. But I think it's important even in... As they've shown in the book, it's important even in a very centralized entity like Army to have that. And so...

Daniel Scrivner (15:26):

Yeah, pairs really well with, I'm right now in the middle of Skin in the Game by Nassim Taleb and he's a polarizing figure. Some people like him, some people don't like him. I think the fact that he wrote an entire book examining skin in the game and because it's very tightly coupled with Extreme Ownership. It just saying if you have to share both on the upside and downside of your decisions, you're going to make much better decisions and you're going to I think approach things very differently. Okay, a few final questions. One, is there a tiny habit or practice that you do that has had a positive impact on your life? Or maybe is there a tiny habit that has had the most positive impact on your life? This can be meditation, it can be starting out your day in a certain way. What comes to mind?

Illia Polosukhin (16:11):

My start of the day is very boring. Just get a coffee. I think nothing super like can point out. I think running is probably one of those things that is definitely a, I think a lot of people hate running including me, but the process of one step at a time is true about everything. And so running is kind of a really good example of that where it's, yeah, you want to run this long distance marathon, half marathon, whatever, but it's still one at a time. It's one step at a time. So it's the same if we're building company, building a project, building anything. Yeah, your vision is huge, but you need to do things one step at a time. So not be afraid of that.

Daniel Scrivner (16:59):

Yeah. I love that for you it's got like a philosophical intake. What is your favorite way to waste an hour? And I think what we're getting at there is like a guilty pleasure and it can be a nerdy, guilty pleasure. It can be reading. It can be what comes to mind and what's your favorite way to waste an hour?

Illia Polosukhin (17:18):

For a while I was reading a lot of kind of science fiction, fantasy type of books. And yeah, usually like, to limit night waste time, so I don't like spend whole night reading, I would read one chapter at the time from... So there's like this website where authors actually publish one chapter per some period of time. And so you read few books in parallel one chapter at a time. And so you limit the scope of your time because the book doesn't exist yet.

Daniel Scrivner (17:53):

Yes, that's right. You're literally getting it in real time. It's almost like block by block. A chapter by chapter.

Illia Polosukhin (17:58):

Right. Exactly.

Daniel Scrivner (17:59):

Do you have a favorite science fiction book?

Illia Polosukhin (18:01):

A lot of science fiction I read is in Russian. And so there is like, Monday Starts on Friday book or Monday Starts on Saturday, which is kind of a classic Strugatsky brothers book from classic Russian science fiction. There's a really interesting book, which probably, I mean, this one is already probably, I don't know how many people know, but there's some that I really like which there's no English translation, so it doesn't really matter. But yeah, I think so far if we talk about kind of hard science fiction, the Russian one has been better quality then... To be clear, I like Heinlein. I like all those as well. Asimov is really good. Foundation is obviously a really good, but yeah, there's definitely something about Russian language because it's so much richer actually that still gets me hooked.

Daniel Scrivner (19:09):

Do you think that would ever be successful to try to translate that to English? Or do you think it would be a significant challenge?

Illia Polosukhin (19:16):

I think some things are translated, but I think the problem is it's kind of a combination of, I mean, I think like Strugatsky is problem that it's a previous era, it's USSR era science fiction. It's like the context there is probably will be lost now, even I think like just like I'm already probably last generation that was understanding what was going on there. I think the part of it is also just like, again, from my perspective, English is very to the point, which is great for business, it's amazing language for business. Even with my kind of Russian speaking, Korean speaking colleagues who sometimes speak English.

Daniel Scrivner (19:58):

Just to get to the point.

Illia Polosukhin (20:00):

Yeah, because it is just like the terminology is present, there's no terminology. But from perspective of kind of describing a scene and creating this feel of presence, I feel Russian has more power. And so, yeah.

Daniel Scrivner (20:16):

That's so cool. I hope at some point it gets translated, hope semi-successfully so I can read it. We'll see. Last question. What is the most important lesson you've learned so far in life or business? So if you just had to have one takeaway to share with people.

Illia Polosukhin (20:33):

One step at a time is-

Daniel Scrivner (20:34):

It's universally applicable.

Illia Polosukhin (20:37):

It's the same as like velocity keep shipping one step at a time. It's all the same.

Daniel Scrivner (20:41):

It all points to each other. It's like self-referencing.

Illia Polosukhin (20:45):

Exactly, yeah.

Daniel Scrivner (20:45):

Well, thank you so much. That's the perfect note to end on. Everyone listening, watching, you can learn more about what Illia's been building along with a many, many, many others for the last four plus years, which is NEAR Protocol at near.org. You can also follow them on NEAR.protocol. You can join their chat at near.chat. And if you're a developer listening, you can jump in and learn more on NEARs developer docs at docs.near.org. And you can also follow Illia on Twitter. You share a bunch of great stuff @ILblackdragon, which is a great handle by the way. So thank you so much, Illia. I appreciate the time.

Illia Polosukhin (21:18):

Thank you.

Daniel Scrivner (21:19):

Thank you so much for listening. You can find the show notes and transcript for this episode at outlieracademy.com/111. That's episode 111. For more from Illia, listen to episode 108, where he joins me on our incredible founder series to go deep on the NEAR Protocol, which is valued at just under $5 billion today and is the second fastest growing blockchain behind only Solana.

Daniel Scrivner (21:44):

In that episode, we cover why proof of stake beats proof of work, including why Illia is always looking to build technology that's more efficient, being able to do more with less; how NEAR approached scaling and why they went through three separate designs, all of which failed before arriving at the sharding method that they use today; how NEAR is building a global decentralized community that includes regional hubs located around the world from Europe to Africa, all of which include their own accelerators, developer grants, community education, and events; what it's like to found a project and take it from a small centralized team to a decentralized community of hundreds of thousands of people located around the world; and how Illia raised more than 10 million to help fund aid in war torn Ukraine through his Unchained Fund.

Daniel Scrivner (22:30):

You can also find videos of all of our interviews on YouTube at youtube.com/outlieracademy. On our channel, you'll find all of our full length interviews as well as our favorite short clips from every episode, including this one. So make sure to subscribe. We post new videos every single week. And if you haven't already, follow us on Twitter and LinkedIn under the handle Outlier Academy. Thank you so much for listening. We'll see you right here with a brand new episode next Friday.

On Outlier Academy, Daniel Scrivner explores the tactics, routines, and habits of world-class performers working at the edge—in business, investing, entertainment, and more. In each episode, he decodes what they've mastered and what they've learned along the way. Start learning from the world’s best today. 

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Daniel Scrivner and Mighty Publishing LLC own the copyright in and to all content in and transcripts of the Outlier Academy podcast, with all rights reserved, including Daniel’s right of publicity.

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