The Chocolate Cake Principle


This is a rerun of a post first published in 2015

It’s impossible. I can’t do it. (…) I’m not good enough.” There’s a progression in the excuses we find at times to say a problem can’t be solved or a challenge overcame. It usually tends to go from “the problem’s fault” (too big, too complex, impossible to solve, etc.) to “our personal lack of talent or worthiness” (not good enough, not made to solve this, not born to have that, etc.). Progression also plays a role in how problems unfold; being in fact the by-product of a series of events or the result of a certain set of actions. That same sequence (or progression) principle applies to most “10 steps to…” lists that provide solution paths to improve a specific situation or solve a given problem.

How can you solve a problem or overcome a challenge if you don’t know where and what made you stumbled over in the first place? How good is a solution if it doesn’t come with context?

Here’s an approach I often use to identify the pain point, the bottleneck or the faulty piece in a situation that a friend, a company or even myself struggle with. I call it the Chocolate Cake Principle. At its core, there’s the progression or “sequence factor” mentioned above.


Let’s say you have this very basic chocolate cake recipe at hand. It asks for a list of common ingredients that you need to put together, following a simple set of steps. Step A: get the “fat base” ready – with the butter, the eggs and sugar. Step B: add “the powders” – including the flour and cocoa. Step C: stir in “the liquid”, meaning the milk. Step D: once everything is well mixed, spoon the batter in a pan and send it to the oven. So the Fahrenheit degrees can work their magic. Or will they?

It’s actually possible for this recipe not to work. The cake doesn’t rise, it’s over baked, stays too liquid or else. What happened? Where did it fail?

If you’ve been through the whole process of preparing the cake yourself, it’s easy to do the following: go back to the different steps you’ve taken, pin point where things didn’t work, what was the cause, and either start again from scratch (with an improved understanding of “Step B”, for instance), or keep that new knowledge in mind for the next time around. So the problem of finding yourself with a non edible cake won’t repeat itself. That is when a problem arises as you go, because things unfold accordingly.

Often, though, we come across a problem or challenge that we haven’t seen coming. It simply pops up on our path, and we didn’t play a role in its coming, or had no word to say about it. We simply have to try deal with it. That’s where the Chocolate Cake Principle comes handy.

Inspired by my past cooking failures, reverse engineering and the art of storytelling, the Principle rests on the idea of working a problem or challenge backward. That is, writing from end-to-start the storyline of what made a problem occur or a challenge pop up in the first place. Just like a recipe’s instructions make for the storyline of a cake to pop out of an oven, once baked.

Questions like “Why is it a problem?”, “What part of the whole problem do I struggle the most with?”, “In what context does it occurs / happens?”, “What does this problem feeds on / What does it need to keep on being a problem?” or a statement like “It wouldn’t be a problem if ______” are useful to kick start the writing / problem solving process. Once you have that first answer, keep on pushing.

Keep on pushing back. The goal is to get enough pieces or steps written down that, when their put back in what would be a chronological unfolding order, you can actually see / understand what went wrong, where. Because the faulty piece of the puzzle then becomes self-evident. You forgot to add that pinch of salt to the flour and baking powder mix, during “Step B” for instance.

Still, you might be able to pin point where things “went South”, have a good (but not a precise) idea of what didn’t work out, but no clue about how to change that faulty piece. So things would work out successfully next time. Working the recipe backward can provide you with just enough insight for asking help. Because by now, you know for what part of the problem or challenge you need help with. At least, more than if you had stayed passive and said “It didn’t work”.


A few weeks ago, I had a discussion with my god-daughter. She hates mathematics. “I can’t do it” or “I’m not good at it” are her favorite ways to tell me why. Her answer didn’t change that day. So I went for another strategy; the Chocolate Cake Principle. “What do you struggle the most with when doing math?” Algebra. “What precisely in algebra is the most difficult part for you to understand or do?” When there’s an “x” or a “y” in the equation. I can’t find its value. My god-daughter had just told me where her math problem occurs, and what she is stumbling over. Together, we had found the faulty piece, her pain point with mathematics.

I didn’t end up telling her how to find the value of “x” in any algebraic equation. Still, when I compared what would be for her how to successfully solve her problem with algebra to writing backward then forward the preparation process of a chocolate cake, her eyes lit up. “Do you think that it will be easier for you to get better at doing algebra or solving other types of problems in the future?” Her answer was “Yes”. Simply because she now knew how to identify where and what didn’t work out; the pain point, bottleneck or faulty piece in a problem or challenge. Moreover, she now had the ability to quite precisely know what to ask help for, when needed.


As British scholar and essayist Isaiah Berlin once said, “To understand is to perceive patterns”. Known patterns can be changed or made better. That’s what the Chocolate Cake Principle is about. First, letting you find where and what made you stumbled. Then, giving you enough insight to identify a solution path that will help solve the problem you faced and prevent a similar one to hold you back again in the future. Something “10 things to do” lists can’t provide.

In itself, the “Chocolate” part of the Principle has no real value. Except maybe providing your taste buds a sweet taste of success when you get to solve a problem or overcome a challenge.

Now, whether you love chocolate or not, in what type of situation do you think the Principle I just told you about would serves you most?

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Photo credits: Alexander Dummer

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