Book Summary: Black Box Thinking by Matthew Syed

Quick Summary: Black Box Thinking is a new way to get ahead in a world that’s becoming more complicated and changing rapidly. It’s important implications not only in sports but also in business, politics, parents, and students. In other words, for all of us.

Don’t let your mistakes get you down. Instead, learn from them and use what you learn for the future. Get an outsider’s opinion, learn what you can from it, and use what you’ve learned.

The aviation industry shows us that if you find that “black box,” look at what’s in it, and change the way you do things in the future, the overall standards can be raised significantly.

You do not have to read the entire book if you don’t have time. This book summary provides an overview of everything you can learn from it.

Black Box Thinking Book Summary

Lesson 1: People are afraid to fail because it makes them feel bad.

Children have a hard time admitting when they’re wrong. They almost always say they didn’t do anything, like paint all over the walls, even when the evidence is clear, like the marker in their hand and the ink on their fingers. But do we really change that much when we grow up?

Actually, no. In general, people don’t like to admit when they’ve done something wrong. We hate admitting we made a mistake even more than we hate making mistakes ourselves.

This becomes very clear when you look at how the criminal justice system works.

In 1984, DNA testing allowed prosecutors to prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. One might think that this technology, which cannot be tampered with, could also help people who’ve been wrongly convicted prove their innocence. As a rule, however, this isn’t the case. In most cases, law enforcement didn’t want to admit that they were wrong.

Take the example of 19-year-old Juan Rivera, who’s a history of mental illness. In 1992, he was found guilty of raping and murdering an 11-year-old girl and sentenced to life in prison. After 13 years, a DNA test proved Juan wasn’t guilty. But the prosecution didn’t let up, and so he’d to stay in prison for another six years.

Why is it so hard to admit you were wrong? Well, admitting we were wrong hurts our self-esteem, especially when it’s about something important.

People who worked as prosecutors in the Rivera case weren’t always bad. They might have just wanted to hide what they did wrong.

Maybe the hardest part of admitting you made a mistake is the first step, which is to admit it to yourself. This is especially true when the mistake is big, like when an innocent person is sent to prison for 13 years. When you admit to making such a terrible mistake, it hurts your self-esteem right away and makes it hard to live with yourself.

So, it’s likely that the prosecutors really thought Rivera was guilty and that there was a reason why the DNA test came back negative that didn’t completely rule out guilt.

Lesson 2: Failure hurts, but it is a necessary step on the road to recovery.

It is very hard to admit when you are wrong. But we must face failure and recognize that it diminishes our chances for success.

Failure is more than just feeling bad; it’s a sign that something is wrong. And when you know something is wrong, whether it’s your attitude or the way a company is run, you have a chance to change it.

Think of it this way: every missed basket in basketball is technically a mistake. You must have misjudged or made a mistake. Maybe you held the ball wrong, hit it too hard, or jumped awkwardly. Every time you miss the basket, you know you did not make a perfect shot.

You’ll get better and succeed in the long run if you change your behavior based on what you learn from misses. From all those misses, you learn how to do it right the next time, such as how you hold the ball and how you jump, so that you can eventually score.

The same thing happens in nature. Species change over hundreds of thousands of years, with each generation passing on changes that help the species survive. It’s almost as if each species records the things that almost killed it so that the next generation is better prepared.

A group of biologists at Unilever used a similar method to try to develop a nozzle that would not clog. They came up with a total of 449 designs and chose the best from each set until they found the best nozzle.

Lesson 3: If you can’t admit you were wrong, you’ll never get better.

Imagine a world where no one admits to their mistakes or learns from them. In such a world, mistakes would be made over and over again, with very bad consequences.

A patient lives or dies, a plane lands or crashes, so it’s often easy to tell if someone did their job well or not. The trick is in the explanation: Is this failure due to a mistake or not?

But it’s not always clear that changing one’s actions will change anything that happened. Would the patient have survived if he’d been treated differently? If the plane had landed in a different place, would it have crashed?

Because this is so vague, it’s easy to avoid taking responsibility for mistakes. But if you can’t admit your mistakes, how can you learn to do better next time?

In the medical field, mistakes are so bad that doctors and nurses rarely admit to them. As a result, the same mistakes happen over and over again, which has a long-term negative impact on patients’ health. According to studies, at least 40,000 people die each year in the United States due to medical errors.

In some areas, however, it’s impossible to make mistakes. For this reason, progress is almost never made in these areas.

For example, so-called “sciences” such as astrology haven’t changed at all for hundreds of years. Astrological predictions cannot be disproved because the assumptions on which they’re based are too vague.

Bloodletting is another good example. This was a common method of treating people before clinical trials became standard in the 1800s.

Doctors drew blood from their patients to try to cure or stop disease. Although this weakened patients when they needed their strength the most, doctors did this for over 1700 years. They didn’t know they were killing their patients because they never tested the method.

Lesson 4: If you want to learn and grow, you’ve to let your ideas fail.

We tend to think that the world is easy to understand and simple. Because of this, we often don’t feel the need to test our ideas. But then we can’t find out if these theories are true or not.

The world is big and scary, so it’s logical that we look for simple explanations wherever we can find them. Think back to the practice of bloodletting. Medieval doctors believed that people who died were simply destined to die. These people were so sick that even donating blood couldn’t save them.

Even though it’s hard to admit, the world isn’t simple. There are often many reasons why things go wrong. If you simplify things, you can’t figure out the world because you can’t test your theories.

Medieval doctors never tested how well bloodletting worked because they’d no reason to. They already “knew”, or thought they knew, why the patients had died.

But when you let ideas fail, you make room for new ones, which leads to progress. No matter how reasonable an idea seems, you can’t be sure it’s true unless you test it.

A randomized control test (RCT) is one way to test a theory. In a RCT, you test something against a control group that helps you figure out why something didn’t work.

For example, if you wanted to find out if bloodletting worked, you might divide ten people with the same disease into two groups: the bloodletting group and the control group. The group that gets the phlebotomy gets it, while the other group gets nothing.

If everyone in each group dies, you don’t know enough about phlebotomy to make a good decision. But if everyone in the bloodletting group dies, but half the people in the control group die, then you’ve to admit that bloodletting isn’t only useless, but also dangerous.

Lesson 5: Failure can lead to great ideas and help you improve a complicated process.

It can be annoying to fail. But it can also make you think about problems in a new way. And with this new way of looking at things, new ways of solving problems emerge.

Often great ideas arise when there’s a problem or when something has gone wrong. Failure itself makes you find a solution, so you can see it as a way to make progress.

Think of ATM. John Shephard-Barron came up with the idea when he forgot to go to the bank for money one day. In other words, he didn’t have the money he needed when he needed it. But because he failed, he came up with a new idea: a machine that dispenses money even when the banks are closed.

Failure helps us not only to find new ways to solve problems, but also to fine-tune complicated processes by showing us how a problem is made up of smaller parts.

The more difficult it’s to fine-tune a process, the more complicated it’s. When things are complicated, it’s harder to figure out exactly what went wrong.

Let’s say you want to help improve education across Africa. How can you tell if your help is getting there? Just looking at the scores doesn’t tell you much because the problem is too big to know what caused a change.

But if you allow yourself to fail on a small scale, you can find out what strategies work and then apply them on a larger scale.

For example, a group of economists in Kenya wanted to make the schools there better. They started by monitoring grades at different schools and trying out different interventions to see if they helped students perform better on tests.

The first thing they thought of was giving out free textbooks. But they soon found that schools that didn’t get that help did just as well. So they tried a number of other things. Finally, they found a solution that actually worked: drugs to get rid of worms.

Lesson 6: Once such a solution is prepared on a small scale, it can be tested on a larger scale.

To reach its full potential, one must be willing to fail.

If you want to get the most out of failure, it is not enough to know in your head that it is good. You should also try to do well with it.

If you can not handle failure and instead try to avoid it, you will fail more than you need to.

People who are afraid of failure often make things harder on themselves than they need to be.

For example, the author recalls that some of his classmates, the “cool kids,” used to go out partying the night before exams. These students were so afraid of not meeting expectations that they did things that took away their fear of failure. If they did well on the exam, everything was fine. But if they failed, they could say it was because of the all-night drinking.

It is clear that this is a terrible way to get better. To grow, you have to be willing to fail and take responsibility for that failure. Failure is a good teacher, so you have to be willing to learn from it. But even the best teacher in the world can not help you if you do not listen.

To learn from mistakes, you have to spend time and effort thinking about what went wrong. People would rather bury their heads in the sand than face their mistakes, which is sad. This is a big problem because the way we think about failures often affects how well we do in life.

A group of psychologists at Michigan State University conducted an experiment that demonstrates this fact. Children participating in the experiment were divided into two groups: those who believed they were born smart and those who believed they could become smarter through practise.

Each group was given tasks that became increasingly difficult, so that the children would eventually fail. The experiment showed that children who believed they could improve learned from their mistakes and did better on the next test. The other children, who believed their intelligence could not change, simply gave up.

Final Words

It’s hard to admit that you were wrong. But if you want to reach your full potential, you have to not only admit that you make mistakes but also see them as steps on the way to success. In fact, you can’t get better if you don’t fail.

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Black Box Thinking Quotes

“Learn from the mistakes of others. You can’t live long enough to make them all yourself.”


“It is partly because we are so willing to blame others for their mistakes that we are so keen to conceal our own. We”


“Failure is rich in learning opportunities for a simple reason: in many of its guises, it represents a violation of expectation.6 It is showing us that the world is in some sense different from the way we imagined it to be.”

Read our larger collection of the best Black Box Thinking quotes.

About The Author

Matthew Syed is a columnist and feature writer for The Times of London and frequently contributes to the BBC as a radio and television commentator. His previous book, Bounce, was an international bestseller. He has won numerous awards for his journalism and is an in-demand public speaker for organizations such as Goldman Sachs, BP, Rolls-Royce, and Oxford University.

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