focusReviewed by Sophia Chiu

Daniel Goleman, former science writer for the New York Times and author of Emotional Intelligence, explores the mental attribute of attention in Focus: The Hidden Driver of Excellence. He identifies attention—to one’s self, others in one’s surroundings, and the outer environment at large—and the ability to shift among them as an essential ingredient for success.

Goleman’s journey includes interesting highlights, from observing a house detective of a large department store scanning for shoplifters to finding out how the English-language translator for the Dalai Lama can translate 15 minutes at a stretch. Starting with the “anatomy of attention,” he outlines the neural circuitry that underpins the ability to pay attention (or often not, as the case turns out to be). Having some background in neuroscience would help, but is not strictly necessary. He then discusses attention to self, other, and outer in greater detail, and uses the example of effective leaders, mostly in business, to synthesize these concepts. He concludes with the idea that we need to pay attention to all these domains in order to have a well-functioning society and leave a habitable planet for future generations.

I think there is something in Focus for almost everyone, from those interested in improving educational practices, meditation and mindfulness, to those wanting to learn more about recent developments in neuroscience, business school topics such as leadership and vision, or just gaining a personal edge. The message is optimistic; most of these skills involving memory, self-awareness, empathy, and self-control can be honed, even taught to young at-risk schoolchildren and help improve their life chances. However, for a book about attention, not much has been paid to the transitions between parts and chapters. Instead of orienting the reader and reminding her about which part in the argument is being developed, the book seems to drift from point to point, although most of them are interesting. The book concludes with a grand appeal to focusing on complex global systems that seem disconnected from the rest of the text. Nonetheless, I think it offers a poignant reminder that the modern distracted life is not a well-lived one, but with an upbeat tone.

Rating: ★★★½☆ 

Review copy was provided free of any obligation by Harper. No monetary or any other form of compensation was received.