Black Box Thinking by Matthew Syed

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My Rating: 6/10
Published or Updated On: 
November 12, 2022

Big Picture Thoughts

This book is edu-taining. It reads like a critique on society with some self help mixed in. It is not concise. These ideas were new to me when I first read them, but have been covered by many authors since.

The Main Ideas

  1. We need to change how we think about failure & mistakes in order to learn from them.
  2. The notion of a lone genius with a Great Leap Forward idea is largely a myth.
  3. Trial/error and marginal gains from feedback are the things that really create progress.

Summary Notes


Our culture HATES failure. The only thing we hate more than making mistakes is admitting them. We unconsciously feel the desire to hide our own mistakes (or spin them) while at the same time being quick to blame others for theirs. This kills forward progress in many ways.


"In the worlds of business, politics, aviation, and health care, people often make mistakes for subtle, situational reasons. The problem is often not a lack of focus, it is a consequence of complexity. Increasing punishment, in this context, doesn’t reduce mistakes, it reduces openness. It drives the mistakes underground. The more unfair the culture, the greater the punishment for honest mistakes and the faster the rush to judgment, the deeper this information is buried. This means that lessons are not learned, so the same mistakes are made again and again, leading to more punitive punishment, and even deeper concealment and back-covering."


Why don’t we test?

Narrative fallacy - Making erroneous guesses to fill in the blanks on things we don’t know. We assign different causes to the same reasons (example of English soccer coach being tough). Creating narratives is how we get by in life. It explains things with best guesses when we don’t have data. Narratives are our continuous attempt to make sense of the world - we focus on few events that did happen and not on the countless that didn’t. It’s extremely helpful for every day living. But dangerous for critical decision making. “In the absence of data, narrative is the best we have.”

This creates biases towards top down thinking (ivory tower solutions) rather than bottom up (feedback/data based solutions resulting from iteration) - we trust our hunches

“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 top-down over bottom-up. The second fallacy is the fear of failure. Earlier on we looked at situations where people fail and then proceed to either ignore or conceal those failures. Perfectionism is, in many ways, more extreme. You spend so much time designing and strategising that you don’t get a chance to fail at all, at least until it is too late… You are so worried about messing up that you never even get on the field of play.”

“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.”

“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.” End of the world cult examples.


If I want to becoming a great musician, I must first play a lot of bad music. If I want to be a world class architect, I must first design inefficient clunky buildings - babbinauex krumboltz

The difference is not 5 or 10%. It’s 99%.

Data can be misleading if you’re not measuring a randomized controlled trial. Example: blood letting fallacies

We don’t know the counterfactual without an RCT. RCT can be hard to conduct with big issues, so marginal gains is a good stepping stone (test one component at a time)

Marginal gains examples: British Tour de France coach, James clear

“Marginal gains is not about making small changes and hoping they fly. Rather, it is about breaking down a big problem into small parts in order to rigorously establish what works and what doesn’t.”

Marginal gains is about having the intellectual honesty to see where you are going wrong, and try something else

First test may reveal you need to be collecting more or different data, before you iterate

Success is a complex interplay between creativity and measurement, operating together, 2 sides of the optimization loop.

Creativity not guided by feedback is white noise.

Examples: Development economists, Mercedes f1

We have an allergic attitude to failure by nature. Proposition of this book: every error every flaw every failure is a marginal gain in disguise. Not a threat, an opportunity.

Fixed mindset vs. growth mindset. Examples: schoolchildren performance, university students self sabotage with exams, grit, predictors of success in military training.

Concept: Pre-mortem where the framing is simply “the project HAS FAILED.” Generate plausible reasons as to why. In the proposition, frame the failure is concrete, rather than abstract in order to change the way you think.

James Dyson - Dyson’s vacuum changed the game. His great leap forward wasn’t a brief moment of pure genius unavailable to the intellectually inferior. His idea combined two existing technologies to scratch his own itch (as is the case with many great inventors). He wasn’t the first to come up with this combination. Something like 3 other people already had patents. The difference that made him a billionaire was that he had the tenacity to iterate a prototype more than 5000 times and the insight to learn from each failure.

“Self-esteem, in short, is a vastly overvalued psychological trait. It can cause us to jeopardize learning if we think it might risk us looking anything less than perfect. What we really need is resilience: the capacity to face up to failure, and to learn from it. Ultimately, that is what growth is all about.”

Pixar Studios - Nemo and Toy Story scripts, highest earning animated films of all time, started out wildly different. The way they create such successful storylines is through rapid iteration and feedback from focus groups.

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