How 'Black Box Thinking' can help you through a separation

Originally published on 4th November 2021 at 3:38 PM
Reading time: 5 mins
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Everybody wants to be successful. It’s no surprise then, that business-related self-help books are...well, big business. You don’t have to look far to find a list of motivational titles that claim they’ll help you ‘reach your potential’, ‘breakthrough the glass ceiling’ and ‘shoot for the moon’. Trust me, I’ve read plenty of them in my time and I can tell you, hand on heart, they’ve definitely helped me fast track my career. More importantly, they’ve helped me more as a parent than I could have ever imagined.

Having gone through quite a difficult separation in March 2019, one book particularly resonated with me. ‘Black Box Thinking: The Surprising Truth about Success’ was written by British journalist and broadcaster, Matt Syed and tackles the idea of failure. More specifically, how to learn from it in order to shape a more positive future.

Thinking inside of the Black Box

As a society, we’re obsessed with the idea of being successful. But what does it actually mean?

Something I’ve always found a little odd is how intrinsically linked our idea of success is with our careers, our wealth and our social status, but in its purest form, to be successful is simply to achieve a goal.

We often have ideas in our heads of what the path to a fulfilled life looks like. For me, it was always to find a job I loved, meet somebody and settle down, buy a house and have children.

By the age of 26, I’d ticked all of those items off the list and, following the birth of my beautiful daughter Evie, you’d have thought I’d have considered my life a success.

The reality? My partner and I were growing increasingly unhappy as a couple. By 2019, our relationship broke down, we separated and we started on our co-parenting journey.

I’d failed. All that hard work building towards a goal and all-of-a-sudden I found myself back at square one.

I’ll let you into a little secret: It was one of the most difficult times in my life, but also one of the most valuable ones.

You see, everybody fails at one stage or another. It’s how we learn from our mistakes that’s so important.

Healthcare vs aviation

In his book, ‘Black Box Thinking: The Surprising Truth about Success’, Matt Syed explores how our approach to failure can positively or negatively impact our future decisions.

In particular, Matt tackles two distinctly different sectors: Healthcare and aviation.

Whereas within healthcare failure is treated with resistance and fear, in aviation failure is treated as something to be learned from, with airplanes required to carry two black boxes so that any errors or mistakes can be catalogued and learned from in future - hence the term ‘Black Box Thinking’.

Failure is therefore de-stigmatised.

In business, if we can create a culture of positivity that encourages, embraces and responds to mistakes, we can all learn from it and move forward quickly.

The same can be said in relation to our personal lives and, in particular, in relationship separation. Whether you’re the ‘leaver’ (the person who ended the relationship) or the ‘left’ (the person left behind after the leaver...well, left), you have the power to look at why the relationship failure happened.

That’s what I did.

In the immediate aftermath of the separation, I found myself throwing blame in the direction of my ex, like most people do. I didn’t want to accept personal responsibility and found myself blaming things that were beyond my control, “There had been a complication in our relationship, caused by the fact that my ex did..[Insert excuse].”

I just couldn’t accept that the life I’d worked towards had failed.

Does your ego get in the way? Probably.

Of course, we all like to think we’re accepting of failure and learning from our mistakes, but it’s not always as easy as it might first seem.

Sometimes our ego gets in the way.


It’s to do with something called ‘cognitive dissonance’ – a term used to describe the conflict we feel inside when something we believe is challenged by contradictory evidence.

After all, it’s not nice to admit we’ve failed and, often without even realising we can reframe situations, invent new justifications and explanations and in some cases, ignore the truth altogether.

Matt says, “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”

But what can I learn from failure?

So, here’s what we know so far:

  • We can either embrace failure and learn from it, or deflect failure and risk failing again
  • We need to be very wary of our ego, because it will affect our decisions if we let it

Relationships are never perfect and sometimes being able to recognise that being apart is the right thing to do. It allows us to reflect and learn from the mistakes we made in the past in order to shape our future relationships. It’s important to take the time to look at everything leading up to a ‘failure’ objectively. If we took our feelings and emotions out of the situation, we can consider what we’d do differently.

For example, when I first separated with my ex and the immediate feelings of blame subsided, I began to recognise times when I didn’t help our relationship.

I could have been more supportive.

I could have been more present

I could have done better.

We all have the ability to take a step back and recognise our shortcomings on a daily basis.

Having the presence of mind to view your behaviour objectively, see when you could do things better and learn your lesson is invaluable.

The crucial part is to keep an open mind and embrace feedback and honest conversations. Only then will you be able to recognise a path for bettering yourself. Nobody’s perfect, but taking the time to learn from your shortcomings will make you pretty damn close.

Since the separation, I’ve met somebody else. Those hard lessons from my previous relationship helped me find a relationship that was far better suited to me, and we’ve been able to cultivate a relationship that makes us both happier than we’ve ever been before.

We found success from failure.


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