Focus – The Hidden Driver of Excellence by Daniel Goleman

Book Review by Daniel R. Murphy

Title and Author:  Focus – The Hidden Driver of Excellence by Daniel Goleman

Synopsis of Content:

This book is about how we pay attention to the world around us and to what we do. It is about how we focus on things, or fail to. It is also about the consequences of how we focus or fail to, from how it affects our personal achievement and performance to how it may affect the fate of human kind.

Goleman begins by explaining how we pay attention, how we focus and how we make fundamental decisions based on an overview of the anatomy of our brain. He explains the difference between “bottom up” thinking, where our more primitive brain (the amygdala) drives basic reactive thought and instinct based fast thought, such as what drives us (food, sex, emotion) and the slower “top down” thinking that emanates from our more advanced pre-frontal cortex or executive functioning brain. Critically to understand how these work one must also understand how they conflict and how they complement one another. Understanding the way the brain works helps us understand and influence whether we merely react or whether we control our thought.

The book then goes on to explore a somewhat eclectic selection of brain functions and attributes that form our thought processes. He explores how we perceive others, or “read” them; the role of empathy in our thinking; how we perceive patterns or fail to; how we act upon immediate threats but largely ignore distant threats; and how these thinking patterns help us to succeed and to fail.

He discusses how not the amount of practice but the quality of practice defines how proficient we are. He challenges the 10,000 hour myth, in which it is argued that a talent or skill is developed to proficiency with 10,000 hours of practice explaining that proficiency and mastery require quality practice for many hours.

He then applies these ideas to what makes a more effective and well-focused leader and ultimately how our success or failure to apply these ideas may well spell survival or death to human civilization.

What I did not like about this book:

The book starts out examining how we think and learn without an apparent agenda. In the end there clearly is an agenda. Goleman does not merely prescribe how our focus can make us succeed as leaders but in the end how it can cause us to fail as a species due to what he argues is our Achilles heel: our apparent inability to adequately recognize long term threats and act in the present to avoid them.

In doing this he advances an argument that our failure to recognize the ultimate environmental threat we face (primarily human driven climate change) may well lead to our destruction. He offers little to suggest how we overcome this fate, if indeed it is our fate.

What I found useful about this book:

Despite its shortcomings the book is an excellent introduction into how our minds work in terms of attention and focus and how that influences what we achieve or fail to achieve. It teaches how a complex interrelationship between our more primitive thinking and our more sophisticated thought processes can work together to be very effective.

He also provides some insight into the crucial role that emotions can play both to our detriment and to help us succeed more effectively. He also explains how we can be more effective as a leader by understanding these aspects of our brain and using that knowledge to control what we do and how we do it.

Ultimately the book is about what we pay attention to and how we do so. It is about how our use of focus can help us and our failure to be aware of it can hurt us.

Readability/Writing Quality:  

The book is well written and well organized. The writing is stimulating and engaging. He makes the reader think and helps the reader to understand disparate concepts that work as a whole.

Notes on Author:

Daniel Goleman is a former science journalist and author. He also speaks publically. He cofounded the Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning at Yale University and now at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

Other Books by This Author:

Leadership: The Power of Emotional Intelligence

The Brain and Emotional Intelligence

Emotional Intelligence

Creative Spirit

In all Goleman has written 13 books related to emotion, the mind and leadership.

Related Website:

Three Great Ideas You Can Use:

  1. Our thinking is driven by two different brain functions, a bottom up primitive process centered in the amygdala and a more sophisticated reasoning process, or top down process, driven by the pre-frontal cortex. Understanding how these different forms of thought influence us can help us to be more effective in our thinking.
  1. It is possible to train ourselves to focus more intently and intentionally which can protect us from more turbulent emotional thought. This can reduce anxiety and other emotional functions that are defeating.
  1. While focus and disciplined thought are important and helpful to us daydreaming and unfocused thought also play a vital role in creativity and problems solving. It is critical to use both types of thinking.

Publication Information:  

Title and Author: Focus – The Hidden Driver of Excellence by Daniel Goleman

Copyright holder: 2013 by Daniel Goleman

Publisher: Harper Collins Publishers, NY.

Get the book here:

Wishing you well,

Daniel R. Murphy
Educating people for building wealth, adapting to a changing future and personal development.