Sophie Johnson writes:

Published on the 11th of September 2015, I pre-ordered Black Box Thinking after reading an article about it a few weeks earlier in the Times Magazine, which printed some excellent extracts. I was fairly confident that this was going to be my type of book.

It is basically about our attitude towards failure and how reluctant we are to acknowledge it and learn from it.

Common themes recur throughout the book, including aviation (the clue’s in the title!), healthcare, education, business and sport.

The title derives from the fact that the aviation industry is exemplary when it comes to learning from its failures, which is why the safety record for commercial airlines is so good and has improved so quickly.

It has been encouraging to read this book, as I have always felt that our first attempt at something should by no means be our only attempt, whether it is launching a new business or learning a new skill like playing a musical instrument. The odds of succeeding at something on your first attempt are surely very low, so why wouldn’t do all you can to learn from it, dust yourself off and keep trying until you get it right?

Black Box Thinking promotes resilience, persistence and hard work over protecting self-esteem and trying to appear perfect.

I was surprised to see common examples that – looking back – I can relate to in my own life.

Syed refers to a study that found that female students who get consistently high grades at primary school and are regarded as highly capable, are often the most devastated by failure.

I immediately realised that I was not alone in my reaction to changing schools as a child. I was one of those pupils who, it seemed, could do no wrong in primary school. When we had a class ‘election’, and I volunteered to stand as a candidate for my political party of choice, I won. When I auditioned for the school play, I got the main part. I tended to get top marks and win awards with relative ease.

So it came as a big shock to me in my first year at secondary school that I was no longer automatically top of the class or ‘the chosen one’. I had a new level of competition to deal with that I wasn’t used to, and I didn’t know how to cope with what seemed like some sort of fall from grace.

On the flip side, something that I have always seen as a negative or a failure, is a story that my mum has often recounted over the years. From a very young age, I started to have piano lessons. I had two older sisters and I wanted to do whatever they did. After what I imagine must have been a few years of teaching us all, apparently our piano teacher told my mother that one (or both, I can’t recall) of my older sisters was innately musically talented but that I wasn’t, however with hard work I was becoming proficient at playing the piano.

Having just read Black Box Thinking, I now think that this is one of the achievements in my life that I should celebrate, as it is something I had to work hard at. Music might not be a natural talent for me (yet this has always offended me as I love music more than anything!), but I passed grade VIII on the piano and grade VII on the violin at the same time as studying for my A Levels. So… go me!

Towards the end of the book, Syed recounts a personal experience of taking his finals as a student of Oxford University. Obviously, he and his contemporaries were all highly intelligent, hard-working people, who were poised to go on to successful careers. The night before the final exams started, however, a group of them chose to go out drinking until late in the night and therefore take the first of their exams with hangovers.

Syed says that he can now understand why they did this: subconsciously, they needed a reason to explain things if they did not get the high marks expected of them. There must have been immense pressure on these young people to prove all they had worked towards in their academic lives.

They were terrified of failure. By going out drinking, they could explain to themselves and the world that their results weren’t all down to their academic ability. There were additional factors that had contributed to their performance.

I thought back, as I read about these students, to one of the greatest career opportunities I was given, almost a decade ago. I was promoted to Deputy Creative Director and given a team of people to manage. I was responsible for the creative output of the team.

I can see now that I subconsciously did a few things that had the potential to sabotage my position. It seemed that at the moment of my greatest professional opportunity, I was making decisions in my personal life that could negatively affect perceptions of me and therefore my career success.

It is refreshing to look back at these aspects of my education and career, with the help of this inspiring book, and take heart. I am motivated to build on my resilience, to work harder, and to fear failure less.

It reinforces my instinct to be brave and bold. I may have got a little carried away with the number of tweets I wrote whilst reading this book, but I think it is testimony to how much I have gained from reading it.

Of course, it’s not just about what I have learnt personally from Black Box Thinking; there are far wider implications for the world: healthcare, politics, education, criminal justice… Syed includes great examples of how hypotheses should be tested in all walks of life so that we can measure how successful programs and systems might (or might not) be, rather than make assumptions and thus potentially stand in the way of real learning and real progress.

I think anyone who reads it will find it interesting and useful, as it covers such broad topics. Highly recommended.


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