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This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Black Box Thinking" by Matthew Syed. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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Are you looking for a Black Box Thinking review? Where did Matthew Syed come up with the concept of “black box thinking”?

Black Box Thinking talks about how learning drives progress and why some institutions embrace learning from failure while others don’t. The concept of a black box comes from airlines that use black boxes as in-flight recording systems to track, analyze, and learn from.

In this Black Box Thinking review, we’ll cover the author, historical background, and critical reception.

Black Box Thinking Review

In Black Box Thinking, Matthew Syed argues that learning from failure drives human progress. It’s how we adapt to an ever-changing world, how we innovate in science and business, and how individuals and organizations improve. While modern society benefits from this tradition of rational learning (inherited from the ancient Greeks and the European Enlightenment), Syed explains that we still need to apply rational, failure-driven learning to our social institutions.

Namely, our politics, courts, and hospitals stigmatize failure and perpetuate a culture of false exceptionalism that prevents them from improving. If we neglect to improve our stagnating institutions, they’ll continue to take the lives of innocents—whether it’s death due to preventable medical error or wrongful conviction that leads to life in prison. 

Syed explains how certain organizations have distinct cultures and systems that promote learning, while others’ prevent learning. Fortunately, any organization can change its view of failure to transform its culture and systems, thus becoming a learning organization.

About the Author

Matthew Syed is a British journalist and author, as well as a former table tennis player. As the number one English player through the 1990s, he represented Great Britain in the 1992 (Barcelona) and 2000 (Sydney) Olympic Games. 

In an interview with F1 Champion Nico Rosberg, Syed discusses how his loss of a key Olympic match directly sparked his desire to examine mindset and performance psychology. His background as an athlete informs the examples in Black Box Thinking, from F1 Racing to soccer and cycling

Since the end of his sporting career in 2000, Syed has written for The Times, a London-based newspaper, and authored six books. Today, he also commentates for the BBC and Eurosport, mainly on sports, culture, and politics. He works with businesses to develop organization-wide growth mindsets—a topic he covers at length in Black Box Thinking— through Matthew Syed Consulting.

Syed has received numerous awards for his work, including:

  • Sports Journalist of the Year (British Press Awards, 2009 and 2015)
  • Number 1 Thought Leader and LinkedIn Top Voices in the UK (LinkedIn, 2016)
  • Best New Writer (British Sports Book Awards, 2011)
  • Best British Book Award in Children’s Non-Fiction (2019)

Connect with Matthew Syed

The Book’s Publication

Black Box Thinking was published in 2015 by Penguin Random House. This was Syed’s second book, after his debut Bounce—an international best seller on the role of talent and practice in success. Syed has since written two adult nonfiction books, The Greatest (2017) and Rebel Ideas (2019), and two children’s books—You Are Awesome (2018) and Dare to Be You (2020)—to extend his ideas about learning and growth to a younger audience. 

The Book’s Context

Historical and Intellectual Context

In Black Box Thinking, Syed draws from the work of Francis Bacon, a 17th century English philosopher who helped resurface the scientific tradition begun in classical Greece. Syed situates his argument as a continuation of this historical discourse on rationality, firmly supporting an empirical approach to learning and growth. 

He also references Karl Popper, an influential 20th-century philosopher of science who argued for an empirical approach to science and opposed inductive reasoning (inferring general laws from observations of a phenomenon). This perspective runs throughout Black Box Thinking, where Syed argues for an empirical, data-driven approach to learning from failure.

In short, Syed thoroughly supports the view that reason à la the European Enlightenment is humanity’s way forward. Steven Pinker, author of Enlightenment Now and Rationality, is perhaps the most vocal public intellectual espousing this view—that reason drives human progress, peace, and knowledge.

Black Box Thinking also overlaps with well-known books such as Grit (Angela Duckworth), Mindset (Carol Dweck), and Outliers (Malcolm Gladwell), with their shared themes of resilience, trial-and-error learning, and mindset-based success.

Finally, Syed introduces a nuance to learning from our mistakes—that neglecting to learn from failure is tantamount to moral irresponsibility. Specifically, he argues that it hinders the development of more effective social institutions, and that society must adapt through failure to keep pace with technological change. 

The Book’s Impact

While Black Box Thinking didn’t reach the same heights as his previous book Bounce (an international bestseller), it led directly into Syed’s subsequent projects: In an interview, Syed explains that parents reached out to praise Black Box Thinking and express their concern that their children needed to hear his message. In response, Syed wrote two children’s books titled You Are Awesome and Dare to Be You to bring his ideas to the next generation. 

The Book’s Strengths and Weaknesses

Critical Reception

Online Black Box Thinking reviewers praise Syed’s writing style as captivating, with well-told and broad-ranging stories to illustrate the ideas. Some call Black Box Thinking clear and concise, and they explain how its message has positively impacted their own relationship to failure. 

Black Box Thinking Reviewers who disliked the book complain that the main argument comes in the first two chapters, and the rest is repetitive. Others find Syed’s thesis obvious, saying that the book offers nothing new on the “why” of learning from failure, nor enough detail on the “how.” Some readers also complain that Syed’s examples include irrelevant details, causing the book to become unnecessarily fluffy. 

Commentary on the Book’s Approach

Syed builds his argument narrative-first: Each chapter features anecdotes that illustrate the main ideas, followed by a discussion of the principles. Many of these effectively demonstrate the argument, and Syed grabs the reader’s emotions with high-stakes tales of real-world failures and learning (or lack thereof).

Black Box Thinking contains a substantive argument for the importance of learning from failure as individuals and organizations. Despite this, Black Box Thinking reviews claim Syed often repeats the main point and the anecdotes begin to feel repetitive, adding only marginal value.

Black Box Thinking reviews say that toward the end, Syed takes on a mildly polemic tone, exhorting the reader about the gravity of the issue. This helps to drive his argument home, given his solid reasoning about our lack of empirical improvement systems in many areas of society. On the other end, the book ends with a collection of actionables that feel tacked-on, rather than well-developed.

Commentary on the Book’s Organization

Black Box Thinking reviews note that the book unfolds in six parts of two to three chapters each. Each part broadly discusses a component of Syed’s argument, ranging from the logic of failure (Part 1) to putting the ideas into action (Part 6). 

Within each part, the structure is somewhat unclear. Each chapter features three to five sections that loosely treat distinct ideas, but the prose returns to the main point: Learn from your failures. Because of this repetition, it’s difficult at times to identify and order the sub-points of the argument. In other words, the over-emphasis on Syed’s main point obscures the nuances of his argument.

Since each major part covers different aspects of the argument, it’s easy to dip back into the book to revisit various sections. This helps offset the difficulty of parsing Syed’s argument amidst the sea of anecdotes.

Black Box Thinking: Review and Book Context

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Like what you just read? Read the rest of the world's best book summary and analysis of Matthew Syed's "Black Box Thinking" at Shortform .

Here's what you'll find in our full Black Box Thinking summary :

  • How an organization’s culture and systems either promote or prevent learning
  • The steps for learning from failure in our complex world
  • How to shift mindsets around failure to promote a learning-oriented institution

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