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Book Review of: Focus

The Hidden Driver of Excellence

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Review of Focus, by Daniel Goleman (Softcover, 2013)

(You can print this review in landscape mode, if you want a hardcopy)


I am pleased to see this book that advocates focus and explains why it matters. In our society, the "fad" of inattention is wreaking havoc. It's no doubt a driver of the growing stupidity epidemic, because its effect is essentially that of turning off the brain. The other pernicious effects and costs are too numerous to mention here. But consider just one, which is a major cause of death in the USA....

Inattention is a major cause of vehicular collisions. I don't like calling them "accidents" because they nearly always arise from poor decisions rather than mere chance. If drivers all considered driving "a full time job" the way most driver safety programs admonish us to, the number of vehicular collisions would drop dramatically.

Focus is what makes the laser so powerful. A laser beam is nothing more than focused light. Following this review, I provide some more perspective on focus for those who want to read it. This review really needs to be about what Goleman says on the subject. Who is Daniel Goleman? He's the author of the seminal work, the excellent book "Emotional Intelligence". That particular book has been life-changing for many people.

I think this book falls short of that book in terms of life-changing effect, even though the topic itself could have resulted in surpassing the previous work that way. Still, it's a valuable addition to the literature and is certainly worth reading. Especially if you think you don't have issues with focus. That very estimation of your abilities probably means you have a real weakness in this area.

Why does this book fall short? The writing style is good, though it could be improved. So it's not the writing style that gives me this feeling. It's the injection of so much irrelevant material, and it's material that shows a preoccupation with a particular topic that relies on irrationality rather than analysis for acceptance. I am not implying that Goleman himself is irrational. Most rational people hold some views arrived at irrationally.

The problem I'm getting at here is Goleman's own book on focus lacks focus. How's that for an object lesson? That is not to say the book is poor; it would just be much better if the author had focused on the topic of focus.

The subtitle says focus is the "hidden driver of excellence." He doesn't really make the case for that claim in the book, though he clearly show that focus is essential. Maybe if he'd have used the available page space to make this case instead of pontificate on his personal political positions, he'd have made this case.

But I doubt that outcome is really possible. From all the evidence I have seen, the issue is whether you have a lack of focus or not. I see "lack of focus" as the "hidden driver of poor performance." It's not that focus will make you excel. It's that focus is one of several requirements for excellence. If it's not there, you don't excel.

Now, let's look a little deeper into the book.

I had never thought of focus as inner, outer, or other. Goleman presents it as falling into one of these three categories. It does make sense, and this understanding can improve the ability to use focus to achieve positive outcomes. So I've updated my view of focus to this way of seeing it. Goleman explains the differences between these, and provides examples to help illustrate.

He also claims that high achievers use all three. Again, he presents examples. In his examples, a given person is weak in one area of focus so does not excel. I think generally this need for focus in all three areas is true, but what about autistic people? They are autistic precisely because of how they focus and don't focus. Some are extremely high achievers. Perhaps this is the exception that proves the rule, because unless you are autistic you're going to need all three types of focus (or so it seems to me). I cannot think of any other exceptions. I can think of plenty of cases that support Goleman's contention here.

Something he hits upon is "mindfulness." That is probably the most accurate and most widely used term for this concept. But it also goes by many other names, such as "being in the moment" or "being fully there." To me, mindfulness is the difference between being fully human and being some sort of automaton or zombie.

If you think about it, you will realize that mindfulness is not a skill that needs to be developed. We all have it from birth until it's eradicated from us by dysfunctional systems in our society. Watch a child at play. Watch a cat at play. Watch a wild predator stalk its food. Mindfulness is something we lose.

We can restore it, if we set out to do so. Goleman provides provides some excellent advice for restoring it. Though I think his view is it wasn't there to begin with and the evidence shows otherwise.

Goleman doesn't elaborate on removing or avoiding the things that destroy mindfulness. One of the most pernicious brain deadeners is television. The best solution there is not to have television, and indeed younger people tend not to do television. The brain deadener of choice for younger people is the "smart" phone. Talk about an ironic name.

We are all on a sliding scale for how much focus we can bring to bear on a given task and for how long. Some people may be at the 100% level (sadly, I cannot report myself as having attained that). From my own observations, which are hardly scientific, I'd say that the percentage of people who get a passing mark here is about 25 and dropping. Make your own observations and see what you come up with.

How many times do you hear someone typing while you are talking with them on the phone? How often are you misunderstood? How often must you repeat yourself? How much of a conversation consists of filler, clichés, and platitudes? How often do you come across mistakes that arise simply from not paying attention? How often do you exhibit these symptoms to others?

As you think about this, you may conclude that getting help with increasing your own focus (and mindfulness) is pretty important. This book will provide that help. But only if you give it your full attention rather than skim it.

This book consists of 21 chapters spread across 258 pages. In addition, it has an excellent resources section and significant notes.


My perspective on focus

The concept of focus is something I have taught for years, and it is central to my presentations on time management. Also, I'm a climber and lack of focus in that sport can be lethal. In climbing, it is literally "focus or die."

Many years ago, I taught martial arts (I hold a fourth degree black belt). I have taught various styles, including Kung Fu, Karate-Do, and Tae Kwon Do plus some western boxing and Greek wrestling. In all of these styles, there's a concept that everyone learns and that the best martial artists consistently hone. Guess what concept that is.

For the various construction trades, guess what admonition keeps coming up time and again in safety talks and in trade publication articles on safety? That's right, focus on what you are doing. In fact, this was the underlying concept of two articles that incidentally were published just as I began reading this book.

Some flaws in Goleman's book

Goleman provides a great deal of solid information. But he also strays into the misinformation area.

One example of this is he states that bodybuilders do crunches to get the six-pack. Shawn Phillips, the author of Absolution, has a phenomenal midsection and he does not advocate crunches to get it. Getting a great six-pack involves training the whole body. I've had a six-pack for my entire adult life, and I personally advocate the front squat as the primary exercise for this purpose. I don't do crunches.

So he doesn't know bodybuilding, and that's OK. The point he illustrated with this mistake is still valid. And it's true that bodybuilders do "something" to get the six-pack.

A much larger error was his irrelevant and persistent references to "global warming." I won't argue against the poor case presented thus far by the "we need to tax you to save the planet" folks, as that goes way beyond reviewing the book. But on this topic I will say three things.

  • First, methane is something like 12 times the greenhouse gas that carbon is. Green plants like trees and lawn grass emit methane. So if we are really going to get serious about greenhouse gases then we need to eradicate green plants. Do you see the problem, here? We'd also need to eliminate ants, termites, and ruminating animals--all big producers of methane. Of course, with no green plants that "problem" will take care of itself.
  • Second, we humans are doing immense harm to the planet's ecosystem via waste and pollution. This "global warming" thing has all the signs of being yet another act of misdirection that the big polluters are using to distract us from any real progress on the very real problems they cause. This way, they can continue to externalize their costs.
  • Third, if we approach things from the standpoint of reducing waste and pollution, we will solve the "global warming" problem anyhow. So no need for drastic new taxes and other non-solutions.


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