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Black Box Thinking

By Matthew Syed





In this book, Matthew Syed explains why he believes that failure is an essential element of success. Using the example of aircraft black boxes, he makes the point that the mechanical details and pilot conversations captured on flight recorders provide unbiased information that can be used to understand what happened in the event of an accident. Crucially, this information is used to prevent future accidents as black box content is studied, learned from, and important lessons are applied to make improvements. He believes we should all apply ‘black box thinking’ to all aspects of life, and he showcases examples and case studies from a wide range of industries and different domains to demonstrate that there can be no growth in ourselves as individuals unless we are prepared to make, and then learn from, our mistakes.

My Top 3 Takes from the Summary

  • People hate admitting to making mistakes. In fact, we hate admitting to having made a mistake more than actually making the mistake.

  • Failing can be upsetting, but failure can inspire different perspectives. Seeing things in a new light brings the potential to see new solutions.

  • Attempting to hide from failure instead of facing up to it will only result in failing again – and failing more often than is necessary. 



A Progressive Approach to Failures


The title of Matthew Syed’s book reflects the progressive approach to failures exemplified by the aviation industry. Black boxes provide a wealth of information on everything from fuel levels to cockpit sounds and conversations, meaning they offer hugely important insights into what actually happened in the event of an accident investigation. Aviation accidents are studied in great detail, and every finding is shared across the whole industry to ensure that lessons can be learned at every level, and improvements made wherever needed to prevent future accidents.


An interesting point that’s noted from the aviation

industry is that pilots are typically rewarded for

owning up to and reporting mistakes made, rather

than being penalised for errors, and it’s this approach

the author believes we would all benefit from adopting

both professionally and personally. The main message

in the book is that failure can be used to our advantage,

and it is in fact the key to progressing in life and

ultimately succeeding


However, there’s no getting away from the fact that people hate to admit to mistakes. This is something that’s clear to see from an early age, with a classic example being a child denying they’ve drawn on the walls even though they’re caught red-handed with ink on their fingers and a marker in their hand! The same aversion to admitting mistakes stays with most of us throughout life, and this can have disastrous consequences, something the author illustrates clearly with a range of case studies.

In one study, the dangers of failing to admit to mistakes in the criminal justice system are highlighted. The advent of DNA testing in 1984 made it possible for prosecutors to prove an individual’s guilt beyond any doubt. This should also have made proving a wrongfully convicted individual’s innocence equally fool-proof, but history tells us otherwise. In 1992, a 19-year-old man with a history of mental illness was sentenced to life in prison after being accused of raping and murdering an 11-year-old girl. His name was Juan Rivera, and 13 years into his sentence, a DNA test proved his innocence. Even with the existence of this proof, it took another six years before Juan was released from prison. Why? Because the prosecutors refused to admit to making a mistake. This may be a fairly extreme example, but it demonstrates that having to admit to making a mistake is often a hard thing to do, especially when the mistake made is a big one.



Failure as Feedback


Failing to face up to and understand failure can only ever stand in the way of success. Having to admit to making a mistake compromises your self-esteem, but failure can be more than just a source of personal shame, it can be an indicator of something being wrong. Until something is recognised as wrong, it can’t be corrected, and Matthew Syed uses basketball to help explain this. He suggests that every basket missed when playing basketball is technically a failure, indicating that you are perhaps miscalculating your jump, holding the ball awkwardly, or using too much force, but until you accept and acknowledge that you’re failing to achieve a perfect shot, you can’t make the adjustments needed to make improvements. Adjustments made according to the feedback you’re getting from failure allow you to ultimately succeed. When you look at it this way, you realise that all those missed shots were providing the information you needed to be able to make a perfect shot. He sums this point up nicely by saying, “If you can’t admit your mistakes, then you’ll never progress.”



The Right Systems and Mindsets


The author asks us to imagine living in a world in which no one ever admits to making mistakes or learns from their failures. Mistakes would be repeated, and the consequences would be drastic. Where there has been success or failure can be clear to see, such as in the medical profession where a patient either lives or dies, or in aviation where the plane either lands or crashes, but the answer to the question of whether this failure was due to a mistake, or not, is not always so clear cut. Would the patient have lived if a different treatment had been given; would the plane have crashed if landed at a different location? The potential for vagueness in answering these questions is what makes shirking responsibility for mistakes possible – and often easy – but if no one ever admits to mistakes, how can anyone ever learn and do better next time?

Failures are building blocks to success, but to learn from failures, you need the right systems and mindsets.

Right systems: It’s impossible to know everything or to get everything right all of the time. Rather than pretending to be all-knowing or infallible, choose to acknowledge your limits and build failures into systems and processes for learning and developing. Methods of doing this might include trial and error to test theories and weed out what works and what doesn’t, seeking feedback frequently, and using a marginal gains approach to test and implement small changes that can add up to massive improvements in results. A team of Unilever biologists did exactly this when they set about designing a nozzle that would not get clogged up. They produced 449 designs in the process, taking the best design from each stage of development until they eventually created the most effective nozzle.

Right mindsets: Systems can only work with the right attitude to make them work. This means understanding that failures are an essential element of innovation; that making improvements takes discipline and persistence; and that adopting a growth mindset will facilitate learning. In other words, black box thinking.

Without the right mindset, failure will always be viewed negatively and therefore can’t be used to make improvements. In some professions, mistakes are so unacceptable that they will rarely if ever, be admitted to or reported. It’s estimated that around 40 000 people die each year in the US due to medical mistakes, and as these mistakes are not admitted to at the time, they are then repeated. In other fields, failure is effectively impossible, and therefore progress becomes equally impossible. A good example of this is found in astrology or other pseudo-sciences.


No progress has been made in these fields in centuries, and this is simply because the assumptions underpinning astrological predictions are too vague to be considered a success or failure. As the author puts it, “ To learn and develop, you have to subject your theories to failure.” Another example used to illustrate this point is the historical practice of bloodletting. This was common before the introduction of clinical trials in the 19th century, and it involved doctors draining blood from patients in an effort to cure them of whatever ailment they had. Of course, all it achieved was further weakening of the patient when they most needed their strength, but the doctors doing it had no idea they were harming their patients because the practice was never put to the test – not for 1700 years!

Unless theories are tested, we deprive ourselves of the opportunity to discover if they are true or false. The world may have moved on from the practice of bloodletting, but the author believes we still tend to see the world as simple, and easily understandable because in a ‘big and scary world, it’s in our interest to look for simple explanations to things. The medieval doctors practising bloodletting chose to explain the death of a patient as the person simply having been too far gone to be saved. However, the world is not that simple, and simplifying things in this way can only prevent us from making true sense of the world by testing our theories. The doctors never tested the validity of their bloodletting treatment because as far as they were concerned they had no need to; they believed they already “knew” why the patients died. Only by putting ideas to the test can you be certain of their validity.


Embracing Failure


Fear of failure can be an unnecessary barrier to success. Matthew Syed uses the example of his old classmates who had “cool kid” reputations. They’d go out partying the night before sitting exams and he believes this to have been because they feared not living up to expectations. Partying provided a buffer against potential failure; if they did well in the exam, all well and good, but if they failed, they had the late night and alcohol to blame for their poor performance. Clearly, adopting this attitude is not a positive way to develop or improve performance because no responsibility for failure is being taken. Failure can be a valuable teacher, but only if you choose to take responsibility and learn from your mistakes. Unfortunately, many of us continue to bury our heads in the sand rather than face up to mistakes made, but the important point the author wants the reader to take on board is that reaching our full potential in life requires a willingness to embrace failure, and it’s our attitude to failure that will ultimately determine our success.





Matthew Syed promotes ‘black box thinking’ as a new approach to finding an edge in a competitive world, and growing and developing as an individual to realise your full potential. The book is packed full of empirical evidence gathered from an array of sources, making it an interesting as well as informative read, and the core message in the text is that the key to success is a positive attitude to failure. In short, we can’t grow and progress in life unless we’re prepared to make mistakes and learn from them.





The author illustrates his points with a wide variety of real-world examples and case studies across a range of fields, including aviation, sport, education, business, criminology, healthcare, and politics. Through these examples, he paints a clear picture of how success really happens, combining his own experiences with cutting-edge research to help the reader understand the right systems and the right mindsets to drive growth and progress.



Bio of Author


Matthew Syed is one of the world’s most influential thinkers in the field of high performance in a fast-paced and fast-changing world. In his previous career, he was the England table tennis number one, a ranking he held for almost a decade. Today, he is a multi-award-winning journalist for The Times, a highly-acclaimed keynote speaker, and a regular contributor to television and radio. Through his work, he aims to help individuals and organisations understand the intimate connection between mindset and high performance, thereby helping everyone to unlock untapped potential. 

Black Box Thinking by Matthew Syed, 2016, ISBN: 978-1-473-61380-5 is available to buy at Amazon.


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