Saturday, July 15, 2017

Book Review: 'Black Box Thinking: Why Most People Never Learn from Their Mistakes—But Some Do' by Matthew Syed



A rigorous examination of “the underlying processes through which humans learn, innovate, and become more creative”

According to Matthew Syed, there is “something deeper and more subtle at work, something that has little to do with resources, and everything to do with culture” when people commit the same errors again and again and yet again. These errors have “particular trajectories, subtle but predictable patterns” (i.e. signatures) that can be avoided by open reporting and honest evaluation. “It sounds simple, doesn’t it? Learning from failure has the status of a clichĂ©. But it turns out that, for reasons both prosaic and profound, a failure to learn from mistakes has been one of the greatest obstacles to human progress.”

Syed wrote this book to explain how to recognize these patterns of error. He examines how people tend to respond to failure, as individuals, as businesses, as societies. “How do we deal with it? How do we react when something has gone wrong, whether because of a slip, a lapse, an error of commission or omission, or a collective failure” as so often occurs, especially in large and complicated organizations. Given that, “learning form failure [and then taking appropriate corrective action] takes on a moral urgency.”

As Fyed explains in his eloquent as well as insightful narrative, there are valuable lessons to be learned from such organizations as well as from individuals that include (in alpha order) David Beckham, Jason Dyson, Drew Houston (Dropbox), Google, Michael Jordan, Gary Kasparov (versus Deep Blue) Libyan Arab Airlines, the Mercedes F1 team, Barry Scheck, Andre Vanier and Mike Slemmer, Nick Swinmurn, and Unilever.

These are among the several dozen passages of greatest interest and value to me, also listed to suggest the scope of Syed’s coverage:

o Accidents and aviation (Pages 8-9, 19-20, 20-27, and 27-31
o Health care and errors (9-11, 17-19, and 49-50)
o Bloodletting (13-14, 154-156, and 161-162)
o Juan Rivera (60-65, 70-71, and 82-83)
o Wrongful convictions (63-71, 77-85, and 114-117)
o Criminal justice system (65-71 and 114-121)
o Iraq War: Blame (73-74 and 90-94)
o Cognitive dissonance (74-77 and 86-107)
o Denial of DNA evidence (78-83)
o Self-esteem (88-89 and 97-99)
o Economics (94-97 and 129-131)
o Reforms and criminal justice system (115-117 and 118-121)
o Structure of systems that learn from failure/Testing (125-149)
o Scared Straight program (150-154 and 159-167)
o Creativity and innovation (182-213)
o Blame (217-249)
o Libyan Arab Airlines Flight 114 (217-219 and 221-225)
o Blame and business (225-231
o November Oscar incident (239-249)
o Mindset (257-261, 264-265, 270-272, and 287-288)
o Entrepreneurship and failure (269-272)

No brief commentary such as mine can possibly do full justice to the value of the information, insights, and counsel that Syed provides in abundance. However, I hope I have at least indicated why I think so highly of him and of his brilliant work. Be sure to check out, also, his previous book, Bounce: Mozart, Federer, Picasso, Beckham, and the Science of Success.

Here is a brief excerpt from Black Box Thinking that is representative of the superior quality of his material. Here are some lessons to be learned from Syed on perfectionism:

“The desire for perfection rests upon two fallacies. The first resides in the miscalculation that you can create the optimal solution sitting in a bedroom or ivory tower and thinking things through rather than getting out into the real world and testing assumptions, thus finding their flaws. It is the problem of valuing top-down over bottom-up.

“The second fallacy is the fear of failure…You spend so much time designing and strategizing that you don’t get a chance to fail at all, at least until it is too late. It is re-closed loop behavior. You are so worried about messing up that you never even get on the playing field.”


For those who are curious to know why most people never learn from their mistakes and are eager to avoid being including among them, this really is a “must read.” I agree with Matthew Syed that the term “failure” should be used only in reference to mistakes, errors, screw-ups, etc. from which nothing of value is gained. Think of failures as precious opportunities to learn, especially those opportunities to learn what you may think you know but in fact don’t.


Editor's note: This review was written by Robert Morris and has been published with his permission. Like what you read? Subscribe to the SFRB's free daily email notice so you can be up-to-date on our latest articles. Scroll up this page to the sign-up field on your right. 

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