Black Box Thinking

by Matthew Syed

Troy Shu
Troy Shu
Updated at: February 23, 2024
 3 min read
Black Box Thinking
Black Box Thinking

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What are the big ideas?

  1. Embracing failure as a learning opportunity is crucial for personal and organizational growth and creativity.
  2. Creating an open culture in organizations where mistakes are seen as chances to learn can lead to better results and innovation.
  3. Society often has a double standard towards failure, blaming others while excusing personal mistakes, which can hinder learning and growth.
  4. Practicing and failing in controlled environments is important for preparing for real-world challenges and achieving success.
  5. People often struggle to accept their own mistakes due to cognitive dissonance, leading to missed opportunities for learning and improvement.


Learning from Failure to Foster Progress and Creativity

  • “[Black Box Thinking] is about the willingness and tenacity to investigate the lessons that often exist when we fail, but which we rarely exploit.”
  • “A failure to learn from mistakes has been one of the single greatest obstacles to human progress.”
  • “Only by redefining failure will we unleash progress, creativity, and resilience.”
  • “When people don’t interrogate errors, they sometimes don’t even know they have made one (even if they suspect they may have).”
  • “If we wish to fulfill our potential as individuals and organizations, we must redefine failure.”

The Importance of Open Systems and Cultures in Organizations

  • “It is about creating systems and cultures that enable organizations to learn from errors, rather than being threatened by them.”
  • “[Black Box Thinking] is about creating systems and cultures that enable organizations to learn from errors, rather than being threatened by them.”
  • “The problem was not a lack of diligence or motivation, but a system insensitive to the limitations of human psychology.”

Society's Contradictory Attitude Towards Failure

  • “Society, as a whole, has a deeply contradictory attitude to failure. Even as we find excuses for our own failings, we are quick to blame others who mess up.”
  • “It is partly because we are so willing to blame others for their mistakes that we are so keen to conceal our own. We anticipate, with remarkable clarity, how people will react, how they will point the finger, how little time they will take to put themselves in the tough, high-pressure situation in which the error occurred. The net effect is simple: it obliterates openness and spawns cover-ups. It destroys the vital information we need in order to learn.”

The Role of Practice and Preparation in Success

  • “In effect, practice is about harnessing the benefits of learning from failure while reducing its cost. It is better to fail in practice in preparation for the big stage than on the big stage itself.”
  • “The more we can fail in practice, the more we can learn, enabling us to succeed when it really matters.”

Cognitive Dissonance and the Challenge of Accepting 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. We simply invent new reasons, new justifications, new explanations. Sometimes we ignore the evidence altogether.”
  • “Cognitive dissonance occurs when mistakes are too threatening to admit to, so they are reframed or ignored. This can be thought of as the internal fear of failure: how we struggle to admit mistakes to ourselves.”


  1. How can I change my view of failure to see it as a chance to learn and grow?
  2. What can I do to make sure I learn from my mistakes instead of ignoring them?
  3. How can creating an open and learning-focused environment in my workplace or community help us all improve?
  4. Why do I sometimes blame others for their mistakes but make excuses for my own, and how can I change this?
  5. Why is practicing and making mistakes important before facing big challenges?
  6. How can I recognize when I'm ignoring my own mistakes due to fear of failure, and how can I overcome this?

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