Focus: The Hidden Driver of Excellence


Dr. Daniel Goleman is an internationally known psychologist who lectures frequently to professional groups, business audiences, and on college campuses. As a science journalist Goleman reported on the brain and behavioral sciences for The New York Times for many years. His 1995 book, Emotional Intelligence was on the New York Times bestseller list for a year-and-a-half, with more than 5,000,000 copies in print worldwide in 40 languages, and has been a best seller in many countries. Apart from his books on emotional intelligence, Goleman has written books on topics including self-deception, creativity, transparency, meditation, social and emotional learning, ecoliteracy and the ecological crisis.

In Dan’s new book, Focus: The Hidden Driver to Excellence, he offers a groundbreaking look at our scarcest resource and also the secret to high performance and fulfillment: Attention. In the book he covers some of the science of attention and all its varieties, presenting a look at this overlooked and underrated asset and why it matters enormously for how we feel and succeed in life.

Dr. Relly Nadler: How did this book come about around focus; what is the back story?

Dr. Daniel Goleman: I wrote Emotional Intelligence in large part because there had been, back in the mid 90’s when I was thinking about it, an upsurge of new findings about the brain and emotions that had real implications for our personal lives, our work lives and for leadership. Because of that, I decided to write that book.

I found that the same thing is happen again with attention. All of the sudden in the last two or three years there is the upsurge of findings about how attention operates, why it is so vital for top performance and how it matters for leaders by implication.

Dr. Cathy Greenberg: It is fascinating that we are able to see so many wonderful connections between the neuroscience capabilities that we’ve been increasing along with our anthropology. I love where in the book you talk about the importance the anthropocene, the person that can see across some of these categories and industries from an anthropologist point of view. We have neuroscience we have anthropology, and so many other components. Tell us about why you found attention and focus among so many of these other traits to be important.

Dr. Daniel Goleman: It turns out that attention is embedded in any human talent, any expertise and any competence. So, what makes a leader a top 10% star performer begins with their ability to concentrate. If you cannot pay attention, if you can’t put your focus on your goals and what you need to do on the person in front of you, you can’t lead. It’s that simple; so it starts with paying attention.

Dr. Relly Nadler: In the book you are advocating that is the key driver. I just listened to a couple of your other interviews, one with Mirabai Bush, who we are going to have on the show, and you had talked about a study about when you are with someone and you put your cellphone out on the table; can you talk about that study?

Dr. Daniel Goleman: This gets to exactly why now, it’s not just the neuroscience that has brought attention to the forefront, it’s the fact that attention is a capacity under siege. It is under siege by the digital world; by our tech toys, by our phones, our tweets, Facebook, and roaming the web. Everything that distracts us is eating away at our attention. As I said, a leader needs that full attention in order to do or her best.

That was why I was talking to Mirabai about this study where if two people are getting together and one of them puts their cellphone on the table, it introduces an element of anxiety. Is that going to ring and take that person’s attention away from me, and that is what happens. There was a word introduced in 2007 in Time Magazine, it was “pizzled.” A combination of puzzled and pissed off. It was how people felt when the person you are with takes out their Blackberry and talks to someone else. You feel a little upset. That was 5 years ago. Now that is the norm. It is a little insidious the way things have shifted so that intrusions on full connection, intrusions on our personal concentration, our personal space and attention are becoming more and more common. That’s why I think we have to take full control of our attention, now more than ever.

Dr. Cathy Greenberg: You talk about focus aligning with emotional intelligence. You said you had to rethink that a little bit. What distinctions have you made this time?

Dr. Daniel Goleman: What I realized when I got into the neuroscience is the circuitry for attention is interwoven with the circuitry for emotions and managing emotions, particularly managing distressing emotions. Abilities like self-awareness, self-management, relationship awareness, and relationship management, which are the four main domains in emotional intelligence, could be reconceived in terms of attention. Self-awareness is placing attention on yourself, and self-management means using that attention to notice what is happening and to handle it. Social awareness, relationship awareness, empathy; that’s an act of attention. You only know what is going on with the other person when you are able to tune-in to them. You put all that together for the relationship skills; influence, persuasion, motivation; the things that are the more obvious, leadership competencies. If you don’t have that base and attention you are not going to be able to display the competencies.

Dr. Relly Nadler: Dan, it sounds like what you are saying in other ways, is that the attention is the fuel that really drives your emotional intelligence and all of those aspect; obviously if you don’t have the fuel it’s like a car that is sputtering and can’t go anywhere.

Dr. Daniel Goleman: That’s exactly right, it’s one of the things that happens; I was just writing a blog for Harvard Business Review this morning about that. Actually, sustained and fruitful attention which is what you need to bring to work and to get things done and get to your goals, actually consumes energy in the brain. The brain runs on glucose and it can run out. There are two ways to sputter with attention: one is because you are distracted and the other is because you are pushing it too far and too hard. You need to rest and need a way to recover.  Some companies are actually introducing nap rooms. A midday nap, as it turns out, reboots the brain; it’s like you woke up fresh in the morning.

Dr. Relly Nadler: Dan, we’d like to talk about the other side of attention, as I would say, when and how does the leader need to disengage from all the attention and all 0f  the activity and how will that affect their creativity and maybe their decision making?

Dr. Daniel Goleman: I don’t see it so much as disengaging as switching from one mode of attention to another. Every kind of attention, and there are many varieties, has a purpose, it has a function. I’ve been talking so far about the value of concentration; putting your attention where you want it to be and where you need it to be to get the job done. To tune in to people, to lead and so on.

There is another kind of attention which is actually the exact opposite of that which has its place and has its value. That is to let your mind wander, to let it go. As you say, to disengage, but disengage from that active, focused attention and let your attention roam. This turns out to be the best state for creativity, for solving creative problems, for innovation; insights that are fresh that no one has come up with yet. That’s not going to happen so much if you are in that high focused state because during that focused state, mind wandering is a distraction. So you need the time off on your commute home from work, that walk with the dog, that shower or whatever it is so that you can let your mind roam. The annuls of science and math are rife with stories of people who came up with brilliant solutions to problems they pondered for years during these off moments.

Where does your attention lie?

Learn more about Dan’s new book and what attention means to you. Get tips and tools to tune up your performance by listening to the complete recording of our discussion with Dr. Daniel Goleman, without commercials, above.





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