“Black Box Thinking” by Matthew Syed
Part 1: The Logic Of Failure
Learning from failure has the status of a cliché. But it turns out that, for reasons both prosaic and profound, a failure to learn from mistakes has been one of the single greatest obstacles to human progress.
A closed loop is where failure doesn’t lead to progress because information on errors and weaknesses is misinterpreted or ignored; and open loop does lead to progress because the feedback is rationally acted upon.
At a collective level, at the level of systemic complexity, success can only happen when we admit our mistakes, learn from them, and create a climate where it is, in a certain sense, “safe” to fail.
Failure is rich in learning opportunities for a simple reason: in many of its guises, it represents a violation of expectation. It is showing us that the world is in some sense different from the way we imagined it to be.
Learning from mistakes is not a drain on resources; it is the most effective way of safeguarding resources.
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.
Without access to the “error signal,” one could spend years in training or in a profession without improving at all.
Part 2: Cognitive Dissonance
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.
Progress in most human activities depends, in large part, on our willingness to learn from failure.
It is those who are the most publicly associated with their predictions, whose livelihoods and egos are bound up with their expertise, who are most likely to reframe their mistakes — and who are tush the least likely to learn from them.
Avoiding failure in the short term has an inevitable outcome: we lose bigger in the long term.
Intelligence and seniority when allied to cognitive dissonance and ego is one of the most formidable barriers to progress in the world today.
Part 3: Confronting Complexity
Closed loops are often perpetuated by people covering up mistakes. They are also kept in place when people spin their mistakes, rather than confronting them head on. But there is a third way that closed loops are sustained over time: through skewed interpretation.
When we are presented with evidence that challenges our deeply beliefs, we tend to reject the evidence or shoot the messenger rather that amend our beliefs.
Part 4: Small Steps and Giant Leaps
If you break down a big goal into small parts, and then improve on each of them, you will deliver a huge increase when you put them all together.
The world is too complex to figure everything out from your armchair. The only way to be sure is to go out and test your ideas and programs, and to realize that you will often be wrong. But that is not a bad thing. It leads to progress.
Success is about creating the most effective optimization loop.
Success is a complex interplay between creativity and measurement, the two operating together, the two sides of the optimization loop.
At the level of the system and, increasingly, at the level of the organization, success is about developing the capacity to think big and small, to be both imaginative and disciplined, to immerse oneself in the minute of a problem and to stand beyond it in order to glimpse the wider vista.
Without a problem, without a failure, without a flaw, without a frustration, innovation has nothing to latch on to.
When our assumptions are violated we are nudged into a new relationship with reality. Removing failure from innovation is like removing oxygen from a fire.
Winners require innovation and discipline, the imagination to see the big picture and the focus to perceive the very small.
Part 6: Creating a Growth Culture
Mental toughness and heart are a lot stronger that some of the physical advantages you might have.
One can admit to a minor flaw in order to avoid admitting to a much more threatening one.
When you regard failure as a learning opportunity, when you trust in the power of practice to help you grow through difficulties, your motivation and self-belief are not threatened in anything like the same way. Indeed, you embrace failure as an opportunity to learn.
When we are fearful or being wrong, when the desire to protect the status quo is particularly strong, mistakes can persist in plain sight almost indefinitely.
The difference between science and previous ways of trying to find out truth is, in large part, that scientists are willing to test their ideas, because they don’t regard them as infallible… You have to put questions to nature and be willing to change your ideas if they don’t work.
No one can possibly give us more service than by showing us what is wrong with what we think or do; and the bigger the fault, the bigger the improvement made possible by its revelation.