Book Review: “Focus: The Hidden Driver of Excellence” by Daniel Goleman


I bought this book because I want to sharpen my ability to focus, and also because I have a lot of respect for Daniel Goleman’s important work on emotional intelligence.

I finished it a little bit disappointed, feeling like I knew some interesting facts about how focus works and can work, but without much in the way of useful information about how to increase my own focus.

I already knew that mindfulness is a good and valuable skill to train. I already knew that certain video games targeted at brain functions could train the brain in good ways rather than bad–I’ve used Lumosity, an online arcade of “good” video games since 2012 (with inconclusive results).

And I needed a couple of days to recover from Goleman’s report of the shocking “Dunedin Study” which basically showed that without willpower, there is a very good scientific chance a person is screwed for life–poverty and depression at best, criminality at worst.

Definitely plausible, but very hard to swallow as a person who has struggled with willpower for thirty years.

But perhaps that’s unfair–perhaps I came to it with too much expectation that it would provide me with neatly-packaged self-help platitudes and programs.

Goleman is a deep-thinker type, with his motivation for writing split–I’m speculating–30%/70% between actively improving readers’ lives, and passively sharing some really interesting thoughts and research.

And some of it is indeed really interesting. The analysis of “top-down” vs. “bottom-up” brain processing is applicable many times over the course of every day. (Although it’s also covered in slightly different terminology in Charles Duhigg’s “The Power of Habit”).

Also good–though like Dunedin, also worrisome to anyone who’s not a superstar at something–is his discussion of how the value of practice is largely negated if the practicer is daydreaming or doing whatever it is imperfectly.

Finally, there is the funny meta-problem that many reviewers on Amazon rightly point out, that the book itself is somewhat unfocused.

It seems to roughly follow a “small to large” progression, starting with the inside-the-brain processes, and ostensibly “zooming out” to look at how focus works on larger scales like person-to-person, then analyzing large data systems, and so on.

But the transitions between sections are far from smooth or intuitive, and there were a couple of times when I wondered if I was still reading the same book. Then again, maybe I wasn’t focusing.

And while this isn’t an issue for me, Goleman concludes on a slightly political note by arguing that the highest form of focus humankind could muster right now is to stop doing things like harming the planet and increasing the wealth gap.

These may indeed be very important to deal with, but it seems incongruous with a totally even-handed look at “The Hidden Driver of Excellence”.

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