August 24

Apply ‘Blackbox Thinking’ to your guitar teaching.


This book is one of the best I have read and I’d say essential reading for anyone in business or really anyone trying to develop a system or process where they want to reduce the risk of failure. This of course applies to pretty much everyone. As a guitar teacher you don’t want your students failing and you don’t want your business failing. In Blackbox Thinking the author Matthew Syed uses a number of examples to make his point.  

He begins with Elaine, a 37 year old mother of two young children who goes in for a routine operation for a sinus problem. The surgery was considered safe and relatively simple. The surgeon had 30 years of experience and it was performed at a reputable hospital in the UK. Unfortunately a series of errors resulted in Elaine being deprived of oxygen for 20mins and after 13 days in a coma eventually died. Her husband Martin was told that it was an accident that couldn’t be helped. 

A report found that in the US alone 44,000 to 98,000 people die annually in hospitals from preventable medical errors. A Harvard professor estimated that approximately one million patients are injured per year from medical errors. Medical errors are the 3rd biggest killer after heart disease and cancer.

Syed then makes the comparison to aviation telling the story of how flying went from extremely dangerous in 1912 when 8 out of 14 US airforce pilots died in crashes. That meant you had a greater than 50% chance of death from flying if you were an airforce pilot. It continued to be around 25% deaths for a number of years. Today the odds of dying in a plane crash are about 1 in 8 million.  In 2012 there were 36.4 million flights worldwide and a total 210 deaths. 1 accident per 2.4 million flights. Every plane now has two blackboxes fitted. In the event of an accident the blackboxes are opened and the data analysed for clues.

Then there is the ‘scared straight’ program originally ran at Rahway State Prison. The idea was to take teenage offenders to the prison to meet some of the worst inmates in the hope of scaring them. It seemed like a good idea but was later found to have the opposite of it’s intended effect. Instead of scaring juvenile offenders into going straight it actually made them less fearful of prison and more likely to end up there.

The main points to the book were to point out firstly how success is largely about avoiding mistakes and secondly that most mistakes are avoidable but we need to be willing to admit our mistakes, analyse how and why they happened and to take steps to fix them. Even better, make the process of analysing mistakes a part of your culture. In the case of flying the blackbox allows air crash investigators to retrace the steps of the pilots to uncover errors and then find ways to prevent those same errors occurring again in the future. They are also have a policy of not penalising pilots for mistakes as long as they don’t try to hide them. Aviation has done an amazing job of reducing accidents to the point that flying is now the safest mode of transport. Healthcare on the other hand still continues to struggle with thousands of people dying every year from medical errors.

As guitar teachers we need to think about how we approach teaching. Most guitar teachers are not paying attention to their errors or worse, they are not admitting their mistakes. A great example are guitar teachers whose students fail to progress or quit before achieving any level of competency on the guitar. I am not saying that every student who takes up guitar and fails to progress is the fault of the teacher. What I am saying is in many cases teachers are responsible for the student’s failure. At the very least the teacher is partly to blame but in most cases the teacher takes no responsibility. 

The problem when teachers don’t accept at least some of the responsibility is nothing changes. We can’t become better guitar teachers if we are not willing to look at our failures. By analysing failure rather than dismissing it as unfortunate or out of our control or as someone else’s failure or worst of all, knowing we made a mistake and then covering it up we don’t can learn how to avoid the same mistakes in the future. Instead of reactively looking to shift the blame we should gather the facts and look at ourselves openly and honestly. 

When I was operating multiple guitar schools with approximately 20 teachers working for me the easy option was to blame the teachers I hired when things went wrong. Of course they were partly responsible but making them solely responsible without analysing the problem made me an accessory. By analysing each student as they did in aviation especially dropouts without blame I was better able to understand the problems and make changes to avoid them repeating those mistakes. Ultimately what you are aiming for are systems that make it almost impossible to fail. In aviation they redesign planes and procedures for pilots, crew, engineers, air traffic control etc. At G4 Guitar we redesign the teaching method and teacher training whenever we see mistakes happening. This is a never ending process by the way. 

Here are 9 additional takeaways from the book.

  1. Most people fear failure but failure is an opportunity to learn. See failure as a good thing. 
  2. Fail fast and often so you learn faster. Run experiments.
  3. Beckham mastered ‘Keep me ups’ after 3 years of daily practice failing thousands of times. Successful people seemed to embrace failure as an important part of the journey to success.
  4. Random Control Trials (RCT’s) are the best way to determine if something is working.
  5. Marginal gains. Work on small gains in different areas for cumulative effect.
  6. Counter-factual. The unknown facts that can’t be known because you can only look at what did happen rather than what could have been. Eg. Would you be happier today if you chose a different career?
  7. The ‘narrative fallacy’ leads us to believe a series of facts are all related and part of one story. You see this play out in conspiracy theories. Treat each event separately and when you see a connection test your theory. 
  8. Quantity trumps quality. Produce more to evolve faster. A good example is song writing. The more you write the more likely you are to produce something great.
  9. A premortem, is a strategy where you imagine your mission has failed, and then you  try to determine what went wrong.


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