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Black Box Thinking

The Surprising Truth About Success (And Why Some People Never Learn from Mistakes)

By Matthew Syed
12-minute read
Audio available
Black Box Thinking: The Surprising Truth About Success (And Why Some People Never Learn from Mistakes) by Matthew Syed

Black Box Thinking (2015) explores the ways in which failure, despite all the shame and pain associated with it, is actually one of our greatest assets. Full of practical tips on how to develop a healthy, productive relationship to failure, Black Box Thinking will put you on the path to success.

  • Psychology enthusiasts
  • Anyone who is sick of making the same mistakes
  • People who want to turn their failures into successes

Matthew Syed is a British journalist and Oxford alumnus, as well as a three-time Men’s Singles Champion at the Commonwealth Table Tennis Championships. He is also the author of Bounce.

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Black Box Thinking

The Surprising Truth About Success (And Why Some People Never Learn from Mistakes)

By Matthew Syed
  • Read in 12 minutes
  • Audio & text available
  • Contains 7 key ideas
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Black Box Thinking: The Surprising Truth About Success (And Why Some People Never Learn from Mistakes) by Matthew Syed
Synopsis

Black Box Thinking (2015) explores the ways in which failure, despite all the shame and pain associated with it, is actually one of our greatest assets. Full of practical tips on how to develop a healthy, productive relationship to failure, Black Box Thinking will put you on the path to success.

Key idea 1 of 7

People are afraid of failure because it compromises their self-esteem.

Children have a hard time admitting their mistakes. It’s practically automatic for them to deny doing things like drawing all over the walls, even when the evidence – the marker in their hand and the ink on their fingers – is indisputable. But are we that much different when we’re all grown up?

Not really. In general, people are highly averse to admitting that they’ve made a mistake. In fact, we hate admitting that we’ve made an error more than we hate making mistakes themselves!

A look at the criminal justice system makes this very clear.

In 1984, the advent of DNA testing enabled prosecutors to prove guilt beyond doubt. You’d think that this fool-proof technology would work the other way around, too – helping wrongfully convicted people prove their innocence. Unfortunately, it usually didn’t work that way. In most cases law enforcement simply wouldn’t admit that they’d made a mistake.

Take the case of Juan Rivera, a 19-year-old with a history of mental illness. In 1992, he was accused of raping and murdering an eleven-year-old girl, and sentenced to life in prison. Thirteen years later, a DNA test proved Juan’s innocence. But prosecutors wouldn’t budge, and it took another six years for his release.

So why is it so hard to admit mistakes? Well, admitting error compromises our self-esteem, especially when it’s about something important.

Those prosecutors from the Rivera case weren’t necessarily bad people. They may have simply wanted to cover up their mistakes.

Perhaps the hardest part of admitting mistakes is the first part – admitting to yourself that you’ve made one. This is especially true when the mistake is a big one, like sending an innocent person to spend 13 years in prison. Admitting such a horrible mistake instantly compromises your self-esteem, making it difficult to even live with yourself?

So, in all likelihood, the prosecutors truly believed that Rivera was guilty, and that there was some explanation for the negative DNA test that didn’t rule out guilt.

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