A focus on oneself, on others, and on larger trends in one’s environment are the three key patterns of thinking that Daniel Goleman suggests are necessary for being successful in any endeavor. Goleman, a science writer, author of Emotional Intelligence, and an expert in the field of social and emotional learning, details inner, other, and outer focuses, how we can cultivate a focused mind, and why these three focuses are critical to success in his 2013 book, Focus: The Hidden Driver of Excellence. With the smooth integration of psychosocial and neurobiological attention research and practical examples of ways to cultivate focus in everyone (from kindergarten children to doctors, monks and top executives) this book is ideal for anyone who is burdened by today’s persistent distractions in our technology-imbued world or who works with others in need of focus.
Inner focus is the ability to understand and capitalize on one’s own strengths and emotions. Accomplishment comes to those with the discipline to engage in deliberate practice by concentrating during training, correcting errors, and following the advice of an expert coach. Goleman sites Walter Mischel’s famous marshmallow test in which nursery school age children who were able to reallocate their attention from a sweet treat at hand so that they could receive a larger reward later were found to have more executive control. The related Dunedin study found that young kids who could resist temptation were healthier, wealthier, and more likely to be law-abiding citizens decades later than the kids who did not have this self-control. When Mischel’s original marshmallow test participants’ brains were scanned years later while they resisted temptation, those who delayed gratification had more activity in the right inferior frontal gyrus of the brain, a region associated with controlling thoughts and actions. Those who succumbed showed activity in the ventral striatum, which is a key part of the reward pathway.
Goleman describes aids to help children cultivate inner focus. For example, some students are given a “biodot” to wear during tests. This device changes color as blood flow underneath the skin changes to alert kids when they have become anxious and thus may need to take a calming break to think more clearly.
Cognitive empathy (reading others’ thoughts) and emotional empathy (understanding people’s feelings) help us build rapport with others and feel compassion. This other focus is a critical skill across professions—executives who listen to their coworkers are less likely to be resented; surgeons with more caring and less domineering voices are less likely to be sued. Goleman sites Tania Singer’s work showing that when we empathize we feel the other person’s pain on a physiological level; the same brain region that is activated for feeling our own pain—the anterior insula—responds to feeling the pain of others.
Successful people hone what Goleman refers to as outer focus. They are forward-thinking, and they make decisions to increase efficiencies across whole, interconnected systems—even when the components of those systems are distant from one another in space or time. This kind of system thinking generally does not come naturally. Some of the most intractable problems we face today, such as global warming, are ones that require system thinking. Because outer focus is so critical, Goleman argues for teaching children systems thinking in schools. For example, an integrated lesson about pollution and environmental issues could be taught across science and social science disciplines.
Goleman emphasizes the importance of attention that is deliberate and effortful (top-down) because in a focused state people are generally happier, and they produce better work. However, he does acknowledge the value of fast-paced automatic attention (bottom-up). Mind wandering, our default mode of thinking, can offer flashes of insight that solve complex problems we are passively pondering. It has been associated with creativity.
Every person is or can be a leader, whether of a giant corporation or of one’s family. Goleman argues that to lead effectively we must integrate inner, other, and outer focus. We must be able to listen to our own instincts and to be able to push ourselves to engage in high-quality practice. We must be able to read others’ thoughts and emotions to ensure that those we lead feel satisfied and fulfilled. Finally, exceptional leaders vigilantly monitor emerging trends. They understand how their organization affects and is affected by those trends. They see the critical goals, direct others’ attention to those goals, and possess the courage to look past the immediate in order to make the decisions that are best in the long run. A brilliant leader utilizes his focused mind to lead with passion.
Goleman, D. (2013). Focus: The hidden driver of excellence. Bloomsbury Publishing.