A Summary of Black Box Thinking…The Surprising Truth To Be Successful

4 minute read


We all yearn to be successful. Despite the difference in the end goal which defines success for each and everyone of us, there are some simple basics which we must adhere to. You might be a Doctor, an Athlete, a Businessman…., but the concepts explained as Black Box Thinking by Matthew Syed would be really helpful for you to shape and guide your self towards success. This article would be focussing on summarizing some of the key elements presented within this valuable book.

If we want to be successful what should we do?

Success is not over night, it would require significant effort and commitment. And even though you have the required commitment and motivation, you may find yourself falling short. The simple but the surprising truth about success is “learning from failure”.

This might seem really simple. But Matthew illustrates the idea effectively using real world examples. The healthcare and aviation industry is introduced at the beginning, where real world scenarios are analyzed to identify important truths about success.

In the healthcare industry, annually 400,000 fatalities are caused by preventable medical error in the United States alone. This is equivalent to two Jumbo Jets falling out of the sky everyday.

Due to the errors made by Doctors a significant amount of lives are lost. When the two industries are analyzed at the early days, the aviation industry also incurred heavy losses due to the complexity of air travel. But as time progressed, these accidents were reduced significantly since they focussed on analyzing previous failure using the Black Box, identifying the root causes, eliminating them and disseminating the knowledge to all related parties in the world. Thanks to this approach today we are able to travel without much hesitation.

Healthcare is also a very complex industry, which may be more complex than aviation. Although, it should be noted that still the death toll is significant which occurs from medical error. This could be identified, as mainly due to the lack of a proper learning mechanism from failure.

Hence the importance of a Black Box Approach, where feedback about failure is identified and worked through in a open loop compared to a closed loop system which ignores the mistakes and failure.

Some people never learn from their mistakes. This can be identified through Cognitive Dissonance where people find their mistakes threatening to admit. Admitting to their failure undermines their ability and authority, thus people focus on covering up their mistakes and those mistakes are never surfaced. Mistakes are never learned resulting in the mistake recurring again & again…

Such examples in the criminal justice court system are presented where, innocent people are imprisoned and the reluctance towards the correction due to the concept of cognitive dissonance. This could be identified as a major constraint to achieve success.

Finally the book identifies the concept of Marginal Gains, where a small problem is separated into small pieces and efforts are combined to learn from minute failure and achieve success. The stories of Team Sky, the British professional cycling team, Formula one racing teams, and athletes such as Michael Jordan are presented to understand how they have reached success using this concept. They all learned from their failure, and failed on a number of occasions. The story of the invention of the Vacuum Cleaner by James Dyson after 5126 failed prototypes is also presented along with several other technology based innovations. The importance in the examples lies within the fact that in which ever the industry, occupation that you are working on, the Black Box approach is universal towards success. The phenomena of the Blame Game is also presented, where in some cases the focus is solely on blaming individuals for failure rather than the effort to identify the root causes in order to learn from failure.

In summary this is a good read to identify the key elements required to achieve success. The concepts are explained using real life examples which makes it an interesting read to gain knowledge on different aspects of the world history and success / failure stories enabling us to learn from the mistakes and shape our lives through a Black Box approach to achieve success.