Mathew Syed – Black box thinking

We will see that blame is, in many respects, a subversion of the narrative fallacy: an oversimplification driven by biases in the human brain.

There’s no point in failing and then dealing with it by pretending it didn’t happen, or blaming someone else. That would be a wasted opportunity to learn more about yourself and perhaps to identify gaps in your skills, experiences or qualifications.

Almost every society studied by historians has had its own ideas about the way the world works, often in the form of myths, religions and superstitions. Primitive societies usually viewed these ideas as sacrosanct and often punished those who disagreed with death. Those in power didn’t want to be confronted with any evidence that they might be wrong. As the philosopher Bryan Magee put it: ‘The truth is to be kept inviolate and handed on unsullied from generation to generation. For this purpose, institutions develop –mysteries, priesthoods, and at an advanced stage, schools.’ 1 Schools of this kind never admitted to new ideas and expelled anyone who attempted to change the doctrine. 2 But at some point in human history this changed. Criticism was tolerated and even encouraged. According to the philosopher Karl Popper, this first occurred in the days of the Ancient Greeks, but the precise historical claim is less important than what it meant in practice. The change ended the dogmatic tradition. It was, he says, the most important moment in intellectual progress since the discovery of language.

It turns out that many of the errors committed in hospitals (and in other areas of life) have particular trajectories, subtle but predictable patterns: what accident investigators call ‘signatures’. With open reporting and honest evaluation, these errors could be spotted and reforms put in place to stop them from happening again, as happens in aviation. But, all too often, they aren’t. It sounds simple, doesn’t it? 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.

Studies have shown that we are often so worried about failure that we create vague goals, so that nobody can point the finger when we don’t achieve them. We come up with face-saving excuses, even before we have attempted anything. We cover up mistakes, not only to protect ourselves from others, but to protect us from ourselves. Experiments have demonstrated that we all have a sophisticated ability to delete failures from memory, like editors cutting gaffes from a film reel

a closed loop is where failure doesn’t lead to progress because information on errors and weaknesses is misinterpreted or ignored; an open loop does lead to progress because the feedback is rationally acted upon).

This, then, is what we might call ‘black box thinking’. fn8 For organisations beyond aviation, it is not about creating a literal black box; rather, it is about the willingness and tenacity to investigate the lessons that often exist when we fail, but which we rarely exploit. It is about creating systems and cultures that enable organisations to learn from errors, rather than being threatened by them.

Science is not just about confirmation, it is also about falsification. Knowledge does not progress merely by gathering confirmatory data, but by looking for contradictory data.

It is by testing our ideas, subjecting them to failure, that we set the stage for growth.

Even the most beautifully constructed system will not work if professionals do not share the information that enables it to flourish.

We cannot learn if we close our eyes to inconvenient truths, but we will see that this is precisely what the human mind is wired up to do, often in astonishing ways.

‘Cognitive dissonance’ is the term Festinger coined to describe the inner tension we feel when, among other things, our beliefs are challenged by evidence. Most of us like to think of ourselves as rational and smart. We reckon we are pretty good at reaching sound judgements. We don’t like to think of ourselves as dupes. That is why when we mess up, particularly on big issues, our self-esteem is threatened. We feel uncomfortable, twitchy. In these circumstances we have two choices. The first is to accept that our original judgements may have been at fault. We question whether it was quite such a good idea to put our faith in a cult leader whose prophecies didn’t even materialise. We pause to reflect on whether the Iraq War was quite such a good idea given that Saddam didn’t pose the threat we imagined. The difficulty with this option is simple: it is threatening. It requires us to accept that we are not as smart as we like to think. It forces us to acknowledge that we can sometimes be wrong, even on issues on which we have staked a great deal. So, here’s the second option: denial. We reframe the evidence. We filter it, we spin it, or ignore it altogether. That way, we can carry on under the comforting assumption that we were right all along. We are bang on the money! We didn’t get duped! What evidence that we messed up?

Festinger’s great achievement was to show that cognitive dissonance is a deeply ingrained human trait. The more we have riding on our judgements, the more we are likely to manipulate any new evidence that calls them into question.

Psychologists often point out that self-justification is not entirely without benefits. It stops us agonising over every decision, questioning every judgement, staying awake at night wondering if getting married/ taking that job/ going on that course was the right thing to do. The problem, however, is when this morphs into mindless self-justification: when we spin automatically; when we reframe wantonly; when failure is so threatening we can no longer learn from it.

intelligent people are not immune from the effects of cognitive dissonance. This is important because we often suppose that bright people are the most likely to reach the soundest judgements. We associate intelligence, however defined, as the best way of reaching truth. In reality, however, intelligence is often deployed in the service of dissonance-reduction.

As the philosopher Karl Popper wrote: ‘For if we are uncritical we shall always find what we want: we shall look for, and find, confirmations, and we shall look away from, and not see, whatever might be dangerous to our pet theories. In this way it is only too easy to obtain . . . overwhelming evidence in favour of a theory which, if approached critically, would have been refuted.

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.

Often, failure is clouded in ambiguity. What looks like success may really be failure and vice versa. And this, in turn, represents a serious obstacle to progress. After all, how can you learn from failure if you are not sure you have actually failed?

When we are presented with evidence that challenges our deeply held beliefs, we tend to reject the evidence or shoot the messenger rather than amend our beliefs.

Criticism surfaces problems. It brings difficulties to light. This forces us to think afresh. When our assumptions are violated we are nudged into a new relationship with reality.

Zagreb art tours: Meštrović gallery

There are a couple of highlights for art enthusiasts when visiting Zagreb, and the gallery of Ivan Meštrović should be on top of that list. 

Parking in Tuškanac, I brought along my little one tucked in his stroller to the hills of Gornj Grad. As usual the warm terrace of Didov San restaurant was tempting but the priorities have been set for the pampering of the eyes and not the stomach. 



Gallery visit: Menci Clement Crnčić

One of the nicest things about Zagreb is the multitude of small museums and galleries scattered around the city, especially in Gornji Grad. Recently I visited the gallery showcasing the works of of Menci Clement Crnčić, and it is simply stunning.

Crnčić established himself as a marine artist with a series of paintings of the Istrian peninsula and the Adriatic coast. He was one of the founders of the first private painting school in Zagreb, which grew to become part of the Academy of Fine Arts, Zagreb. He taught there until the end of his life. He became a member of the Yugoslav Academy of Sciences and Arts in 1919, and was the Director of The Strossmayer Gallery of Old Masters from 1920-1928. (Wikipedia)

Check it out at Klovićevi Dvori Gallery, Jezuitski trg 4

16. 2. — 8. 5. 2016

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Desiging Broken Shadows

As mentioned earlier, I was happy to be part of the team bringing Broken Shadows to the light (pun intended)

I wanted a touch of geometric symmetry of Square Kufi and to try using it in Lain Alphabet. My target was to present something more sophisticated than a normal font and of course that the design is tailored specifically to the title, while maintaining the appeal to an international audience.

And it all begins with the pen and paper.


And then it turns out into this:

Broken effect

Broken Shadows by Tarek Refaat

I’m glad to post here that my friend Tarek Refaat has finally published his new book. Last Thursday was the unvailing and it was welcomed with great enthousiasm.

I hope you will like the design of the cover title, it is one of my trials in discovering usages of the Kufi script.

Stay tuned for the work progress!





BSCRTourButtonTitle: Broken Shadows


Author: Tarek Refaat


Release Date: April 8, 2016


Publisher: Red Sands Publishing


Genre: Thriller, Crime, Suspense, International


Book Description:

Broken hearts and dark shadows, will love ever find its way back to them?

Fifteen years ago, Heidi Aasar fled the country, hoping to make sense of the chaos that

surrounded her. A burned ex-operative, she refuses to continue hiding in the shadows.

She now has the chance to right the wrongs of her dark past. Determined to find a way to

redeem herself, she must first fix the loose threads she left behind so long ago.

A successful business owner, Nadim Mohamed Sharaf has done his best to move on after

his heart was broken fifteen years ago. In his mind, he has everything he could ever want

or need at his fingertips. Until the moment Heidi makes a sudden reappearance in his life.

It’s then everything around him changes.

A chain reaction of events soon turns Nadim and Heidi’s lives upside-down. Forced to

confront the turmoil brewing between them, they must put aside their differences if they

are to survive another day. The choices they’ll have to make will define the outcome of

the lives they lead.

Will they be able to overcome their painful and chaotic past? Or will the pain and

heartache consume them in the long run?


(Purchase links are not yet available.)






AFTER A LONG DAY AT WORK, Nadim stood in his office,

observing Cairo from the seventeen stories high window. The streets below were

crowded. He could see the people rushing to get back to their homes, eager for a little

respite from a hard day’s work.

Cabs pulled up to the curb along the two-way street to pick up clients and those eager to

get away from the ensuing chaos. People scurried about like rats trapped inside a maze.

Some greeted others in a timely fashion, while others grew surly and shouted obscenities.

Nadim smirked and shook his head. He was used to this scene spreading out before him.

It wouldn’t be long until he joined the ‘rats’ trapped in their own chaotic mazes. The

thought of making his way home appealed to him.

His mind wandered, trapping him in another maze. A maze that took him back fifteen

years. One that brought back memories he’d spent a lifetime trying to avoid. Memories

he wished he could forget, once and for all.

Nadim thought he’d forgotten all about her, the one woman who’d broken his heart.

She’d meant everything to him. He would have given her the world if she’d asked him to.

During his high school days, he’d been known as a playboy. A sweet-talker who’d gotten

exactly what he’d wanted. Charming and attentive, every girl in school came to him for

advice about guys. Most of them ended up hooking up with him.

He’d experienced the same throughout college and work until he’d met her. Beautiful and

brazen, she’d wrapped him around her finger. She’d drawn him in like a moth to flame,

inciting his baser desires. In the end, she’d played him like a smooth violin, cutting its

strings with a scalpel so that it made no noise, whatsoever.

Nadim growled with annoyance. He never thought he’d ever see her again. After fifteen

years, the bane of his existence had popped up in his life once more. Heidi had recently

dropped by his office for an interview.



Tarek Refaat is an Egyptian author born in October 1980. He comes from a family that

has diverse cultural roots, and has spent most of his adulthood between Saudi and Egypt,

until finally settling in Egypt.

Tarek is an avid reader of history, and has been into writing since a very young age. He

loves to describe the thoughts and feelings he’s experienced through words. He has

written poetry and prose, and decided as of 2009 to move forward into stories and novels.

Tarek has previously been published, and has also self-published. He views writing as his

aim to reach as many people through his thoughts, and provoke positive and hopeful

energy through his stories.








Calligraphy exhibition in Croatia recap

The Croatian capital witnessed a celebration of the fusion of Arabic calligraphy and music in December 2015 organized by the Egyptian embassy in Zagreb on the occasion of the day of the Arabic language . Egyptian artists participated with their work under the theme of songs by the iconic Um Kalthoum. Here is the recap:



The Art:

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The TV coverage:


The People:

  • Mohamed Abdel Aziz (curator and main mentor of the exhibition) : (Behance)
  • Ahmed Abdelhameed (Behance)
  • Hamada Al Roba
  • Hassanein Mokhtar
  • Hatem Arafa (Facebook – Behance)
  • Nihal Ramzy (Behance)
  • Doha Badr Eldin
  • Ahmed Abdel Mohsen
  • Ramy Essam
  • Hedaya Mostafa
  • Basma Kater
  • Kareem Marghany (Facebook)
  • Somaya Saber


البلاد - زنقة

سَأَضْرِبُ في طُولِ الْبِلاَدِ وَعَرْضِهَا أنالُ مرادي أو أموتُ غريبا
فإن تلفت نفسي فلله درُّها وَإنْ سَلِمَتْ كانَ الرُّجوعُ قَرِيباً

الإمام الشاقعي

(من موقع أدب)