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Book Summary – Black Box Thinking: The Surprising Truth about Success (and Why Some People Never Learn from Their Mistakes)

Black Box Thinking - Book summary

Everyone makes mistakes. It’s how you respond to those mistakes that’ll determine whether you succeed or fail in the long term. Your ability to learn from failures will decide whether you repeat the same errors or successfully use them as building blocks to move ahead. In this book, Matthew Syed explains the surprising truth about success, how to harness the power of failure to grow, improve and succeed. In our free version of the Black Box Thinking summary, we’ve distilled and organized the key ideas in 2 parts: why we must redefine failures, and how to learn from mistakes.

Black Box Thinking: An Overview

To learn from failures, you need the right systems and mindsets. This is exemplified by the aviation industry and its progressive approach to failures. There’re 2 black boxes on an aircraft: one that records mechanical information (e.g. fuel levels), and another that records sounds in the cockpit (including the pilots’ conversations). During accident investigations, these black boxes provide holistic, unbiased information to uncover what happened, so corrective measures can be taken to prevent future accidents.

Pilots are typically rewarded (not penalized) for reporting mistakes. Accidents are investigated in depth and insights are shared throughout the industry to facilitate learning and improvement. In the book, Matthew Syed examines case studies from many domains and industries—from healthcare to aviation, non-profits and sports—to show why some people/organizations fail to learn from mistakes while others use them to improve and succeed.

We’ll now dive into a quick overview. Do get more details, tips and examples in our complete Black Box Thinking summary.

Part 1: Redefining Failures

In any society, there’s a tendency to avoid failures, especially when our self-image and professionalism are at stake.

Black Box Thinking summary_Shift from closed to open loop systems

Specifically, we can approach failures in 2 ways:

  • In closed-loop systems, people do not learn from failures. Data from errors are ignored, and the same mistakes get repeated over and over, often unknowingly.
  • In open-loop systems, data from failures are collected, examined and the resulting patterns/insights are translated into practical learning points to facilitate system-wide improvements.

In our full book summary, we elaborate on each of these key factors behind why human beings tend to avoid or deny failure:

  • Cognitive dissonance (the conflict we feel when our beliefs or self-image are threatened by our failures);
  • Anticipating and avoiding blame; and
  • Culture (how people may not even realize their evading their errors if cognitive dissonance and blame-avoidance becomes the norm).

We also look at various examples to illustrate the difference between close vs open loop systems.

In reality, failures are essential building blocks to success.  We see this in (i) any competitive or craft, where you can only gain mastery through repeated practice, and (ii) in science, where scientists constantly and systematically test their theories to confirm what they know, while seeking contradicting info that can disprove their theories.

The good news is, with the right systems and mindset, any person or organization can start to learn from mistakes.

Part 2: Learning from Mistakes

Closed loops are usually sustained by (i) people hiding their mistakes, (ii) reframing/justifying their errors, and (iii) interpreting data in a biased way. In our complete Black Box Thinking summary, we explain in detail on how to overcome these challenges.

Specifically, black box thinking is about cultivating 2 crucial components to empower people to learn from failure:

  • The right systems where mistakes are used to drive progress; and
  • The right mindsets to support these systems.

Here’s an overview of the key approaches elaborated in our complete 13-page summary.

Black Box Thinking summary_developing black box thinking

Developing the Right Systems

In complex environments, it’s impossible to know everything, and you’ll inevitably encounter failures and mistakes. Instead of pretending that you’re infallible or all-knowing, acknowledge your limits and build failures into your processes. Develop sound theories/plans, then test and evolve them using real-world feedback and control groups. Key approaches/methods include:

  • Cumulative selection (using trial-and-error to test many alternatives and weed out options don’t work);
  • Seeking real-world feedback, as early and frequently as possible;
  • Conducting randomized control trials (RCTs) to test the counterfactual;
  • Using the marginal gains approach to test and implement small changes that add up to create massive results.

Developing the Right Mindsets

Systems cannot work without people.  To shift mindsets, you must understand (i) why problems and failures are vital ingredients for innovation, (ii) why you need discipline and persistence, (iii) what’s a growth mindset and why it facilitates learning and (iv) how to develop a fair and transparent culture to support your systems.  We elaborate more on each of these points in our complete Black Box Thinking summary, along with specific tips and examples.

Getting the Most from Black Box Thinking

In this article, we’ve briefly outlined some of the key insights and strategies you can use to achieve desired change. For more examples, details, and actionable tips to apply these strategies, do get our complete book summary bundle which includes an infographic, 13-page text summary, and a 25-minute audio summary.Black Box Thinking summary - book summary bundle


This book is full of detailed empirical research, case studies and examples about successes and failures across a wide range of domains and industries. These include: aviation, healthcare, criminology, business, sports, politics and education. You can purchase the book here for the full details, or check out more resources/details at

[You can learn more about growth mindset from our Mindset summary.]

About the Author of Black Box Thinking

Black Box Thinking: The Surprising Truth about Success (and Why Some People Never Learn from Their Mistakes) is written by Matthew Syed–a British journalist, author, broadcaster and table tennis player. Syed was the top ranked table tennis player in England for nearly 10 years. He won many titles and reached his top international ranking of 25 at the end of 1998. Syed has worked as a commentator for the BBC and Eurosport, and as a journalist for The Times since 1999. He has also published several books.

Black Box Thinking Quotes

“If we wish to fulfill our potential as individuals and organizations, we must redefine failure.”

“When we are confronted with evidence that challenges our deeply held beliefs we are more likely to reframe the evidence than we are to alter our beliefs.”

“Failure is…a signpost. It reveals a feature of our world we hadn’t grasped fully and offers vital clues about how to update our models, strategies, and behaviors.”

“This is the paradox of success: it is built upon failure.”

“By finding the places where a theory fails, we set the stage for the creation of a new, more powerful theory.”

“Removing failure from innovation is like removing oxygen from a fire.”

Click here to download Black Box Thinking summary & infographic

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