Published on Apr 11, 2021

Solving at different levels of the stack


Certain principles about learning just make sense. My favorite one comes from the meme king himself.

it is important to view knowledge as sort of a semantic tree — make sure you understand the fundamental principles, i.e. the trunk and big branches, before you get into the leaves/details or there is nothing for them to hang on to.

I love this trick for learning because it is simple, easy to remember and practical in use. By learning the basics of a subject, I feel much better equipped to learn more advanced concepts. Most of the time, repeatedly learning & practicing the basics can be much more useful than trying to tackle more sophisticated concepts. For example in brazilian jiu jitsu, being good at guard defense and passing is more important than learning more advanced techniques. Of course, you need more advanced techniques to progress but you can’t build on your game if you are not good at those basics.

The same applies to business of course. If you’re working on a M&A deal, knowing the principles behind valuation is useful on all deals. You might need to be good at more advanced concepts on more complicated deals but you need to be good at basic valuation for every deal.

Problem solving at different levels of the stack

I love this concept of building on a foundation or different levels of the stack.  I believe it has wider applicability than just learning. It can help solve thorny disagreements between a leadership team.

In many arguments about a proposed course of action, the disconnect seems to be on issues at different levels of the stack. One person is arguing that we should expand into a new market for instance while another is arguing that more investment in product development is needed.  What’s useful in this case is to level set the problem and go back to a foundational understanding of the situation. In most cases, the argument is about the size of an iceberg while only seeing what is above the water. What’s lurking beneath the surface is the difficult and messy problem of human psychology.

Above and below the water

The biggest issues that lie beneath the surface

  • Personal motivation: do they want to get promoted? Are they on their way out of the company?
  • Incentives: are the incentives aligned between the people arguing? Does one person stand to gain more than the other? Is ego getting in the way?
  • Cohesion: does the team get along and like each other? Is there underlying resentment that’s getting in the way?

Then of course there is the actual business question at hand to solve. In my experience that is the 10% above the water. The larger issues are the foundation of a problem are as usual the thorny people problems. Similar to the learning analogy, these problems are the trunk and big branches. Without solving those first, the rest of the arguments fall like leaves with nothing to hold on to.

By identifying the problem at the right area of the stack, there is often a much faster resolution to a problem. This implies asking the tough questions first.

Suggested articles



Jun 22, 2023

After 8 great years at The PNR, I’ve decided it’s time to move on. This was obviously not an easy decision to make but I could not be happier to be leaving at a time where the company is in great ...


I’m sorry, Dave, I’m afraid I can’t do that

Mar 26, 2023

Why exponential curves are hard to understand


Reflections on the past year

Jan 02, 2023

This past year has been a fun one. I met a bunch of cool new people, spent time in the mountains with friends, had fun at work and enjoyed life with my wife.