Summary of Black Box Thinking

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People usually view their own failures with shame and see others who fail as humiliated. When facing public condemnation due to a failure, many individuals and institutions yield to the self-serving need to cast blame on others, including the victims. Journalist Matthew Syed propounds a different view of failure. In addition to research on its utility, he includes personal anecdotes of failures and rebounds. He suggests applying aviation’s “black box” mind-set – drawing information from hard circumstances – to reveal new insights and spur progress. Many corporations already rely on failure-based testing to improve their products and services. Syed teaches that a rational approach to failure promotes the personal and institutional perseverance to inquire, innovate and improve. getAbstract recommends his unique guide to achieving success through fearless failure.

About the Author

British table tennis champion Matthew Syed began developing his insights about failure and success while competing in the Barcelona Olympics. The author of Bounce, he’s a columnist for the Times of London and co-founded the charity Greenhouse Sports to help disadvantaged youth.



The Stigma of Failure

Most cultures view failure with negative emotions. Political and corporate institutions and their leaders shun those who fail and expect them to feel deep personal shame. If that shame grows too traumatic for an individual to bear, the subconscious mind cuts and pieces memories together into an acceptably edited version.

Disasters spur public outcry to blame the culprits. That need to find scapegoats springs from empathy with victims and from the instinct to shame and punish someone for a devastating loss.

Factors that Foster Failure

Two real-life tragedies illustrate failure in action. In one, a flight crew failed to make a safe landing. In another, a medical team made mistakes in a minor surgery. Both accidents resulted in deaths that could have been avoided. Both prompted investigations that revealed striking similarities in how well-trained professionals tried to cope with impending failures.

Both teams’ leaders clung to their initial assessments. The airplane’s captain, who was sure he had to deal with a landing gear failure (though he didn’t), ignored the airplane’s dwindling fuel supply. The chief surgeon perceived his...

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