Focus: The Hidden Driver of Excellence, by Daniel Goleman

October 16, 2013 6:41 pm

‘Focus: The Hidden Driver of Excellence’, by Daniel Goleman

Review by Adam Palin

Focus: The Hidden Driver of Excellence, by Daniel Goleman,HarperCollins/Bloomsbury, $28.99/£18.99

Please concentrate. Your ability to focus productively is being undermined by the daily bombardment of emails, text messages and audio-visual stimulation. This threat demands our at­tention, Daniel Goleman writes, because focus is the secret of success. A psychologist, former science journalist at The New York Times and author of bestselling book Emotional Intelligence, Goleman appears to have the measure of his readers. In Focus, he cleverly emp­loys short chapters littered with case studies to en­gage professionals swimming against a tide of electronic correspondence. Goleman’s prem­ise is that our ability to block out the massof digital distractions is diminished by the “cognitive exhaustion” they cause. Without finding ways to be focused, we cannot help but be distracted.

Mindlessness – when your thoughts are al­ways wandering – is potentially “the single biggest waster of attention in the workplace”, he says. Developing its opposite – the increasingly popular trait of mindfulness– by training the brain to pay complete attention to the current moment is crucial. Mindfulness al­lows us to concentrate on what is important, and not be distracted by the noise around us.Involuntary – or “bottom-up” – neural processes cause the mind to drift and, in particular, to be distracted by visual stimuli. To counter this habit, we need to apply intentional “top-down” focus, which “offers the mind a lever to manage our brain”. This battle bet­ween top and bottom processes matters because our capacity to apply full at­ten­tion – “neural lock-in” – is a great mental asset.

High achievers, Goleman writes, master three types of focus: inner, other and outer, which he calls “triple-focus”. “Inner” focus des­cribes self-awareness; “oth­er” relates to em­pathy; and “outer” focus refers to awareness of our environment.

But do not despair if you cannot imagine how to break your compulsion to check emails every few minutes.

Focus, Goleman writes, can be developed: “Think of at­tention as a mental muscle that we can strengthen by a workout.”

To develop greater cognitive control, we can exercise our minds through methods such as “single-pointed concentration”, including meditation.

“Smart practice”, as Goleman calls it, must also include rest and positivity. Thinking positively stimulates openness to new ideas and objectives.

For business leaders, the need for mindfulness is particularly acute, the writer says: “Leadership it­self hinges on effectively capturing and directing the collective attention.” This involves focusing on developments outside the organisation, as well as at­tracting and directing the attention of people inside and outside the organisation.

In illustration, Goleman contrasts the suc­cess of Apple’s late chief executive Steve Jobs with the leadership of BlackBerry, its struggling rival. Upon his return to Apple in 1997, Jobs streamlined its strategy to focus on just four products, each designed for specific markets. This, Goleman writes, dep­ended on a vigilant attention to what consumers were looking for to chart Apple’s course. By contrast, BlackBerry failed to respond early enough to the iPhone era and its domination of the corporate phone market crumbled.

Goleman, however, questions the purpose of achieving true focus without worthy objectives that extend beyond our own personal ends.

He concludes by considering how our cognitive bias towards present concerns means we “lack the sufficient bandwidth” to recognise existential threats – specifically the one posed by climate change. After all, in 2009 he followed up Emotional Intelligencewith Ecological Intelligence .

This lofty epilogue partly betrays the book’s own focus. Nevertheless, Goleman has provided a highly readable manifesto for turning our smartphones off once in a while.

About bambooinnovator
Kee Koon Boon (“KB”) is the co-founder and director of HERO Investment Management which provides specialized fund management and investment advisory services to the ARCHEA Asia HERO Innovators Fund (, the only Asian SMID-cap tech-focused fund in the industry. KB is an internationally featured investor rooted in the principles of value investing for over a decade as a fund manager and analyst in the Asian capital markets who started his career at a boutique hedge fund in Singapore where he was with the firm since 2002 and was also part of the core investment committee in significantly outperforming the index in the 10-year-plus-old flagship Asian fund. He was also the portfolio manager for Asia-Pacific equities at Korea’s largest mutual fund company. Prior to setting up the H.E.R.O. Innovators Fund, KB was the Chief Investment Officer & CEO of a Singapore Registered Fund Management Company (RFMC) where he is responsible for listed Asian equity investments. KB had taught accounting at the Singapore Management University (SMU) as a faculty member and also pioneered the 15-week course on Accounting Fraud in Asia as an official module at SMU. KB remains grateful and honored to be invited by Singapore’s financial regulator Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) to present to their top management team about implementing a world’s first fact-based forward-looking fraud detection framework to bring about benefits for the capital markets in Singapore and for the public and investment community. KB also served the community in sharing his insights in writing articles about value investing and corporate governance in the media that include Business Times, Straits Times, Jakarta Post, Manual of Ideas, Investopedia, TedXWallStreet. He had also presented in top investment, banking and finance conferences in America, Italy, Sydney, Cape Town, HK, China. He has trained CEOs, entrepreneurs, CFOs, management executives in business strategy & business model innovation in Singapore, HK and China.

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