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”.

Dashed off Quickly

I don’t have a ton to add to this great Grammar Girl post about parentheses vs. dashes vs. ellipses– (…?) only that I used to be profligate with parentheses and am not anymore, aside from emoticons which I should probably grow the hell up and stop using.

No, I like dashes now when I want to slam the brakes on a train of thought, throw another little one down, and then pick  the first one back up. And only when I read GG’s article just now did I realize why I made the transition from quieter parentheses to loud, dramatic dashes…

Because that’s how my brain was changing. Thanks to the increasing role of the internet in my life twelve-odd years ago, interruptions became the rule of law in my brain–and as the linked article (which you should go read now) explains, dashes communicate interruption like a champ.

So I wonder as all our minds become ever more interrupted, will the parentheses survive? Will quiet, gentle interruptions become a thing of the analog past?

If it ain’t broke…

“1. (Also to fix up.) To prepare (food or drink.) You must fix me a drink, Fanny Trollope said in her Domestic Manners of the Americans (1839); and Bret Harte, an American writer, in a work of 1891, wrote Mother’ll fix you suthin’ hot. The use is familiar in BrE, but when used is still regarded as a conscious Americansm.”

-Fowler’s Modern English Usage

I’ve always found it irritating when fix is used to describe the preparation of food or drink. I wonder why. I suppose it’s just a completely superfluous use of a word that works really hard and really effectively throughout the rest of the language.

Why make it work overtime where its services aren’t even needed? To describe the various actions you take to turn a bunch of ingredients into a bouillabaisse or gin fizz, make  is fine… dare I say better, with its connotations of creating.

Yet fix sticks around. And no one is the worse for it, so I ultimately file this away as a usage pet peeve that I have no grounds for proselytizing about.

I am curious about the geographical distribution of fixing things that end up in someone’s mouth. The Fowler’s entry suggests it’s America-wide, citing uses by Norman Mailer and Bret Harte (who is Californian as far as his writing is concerned, and I had to Google to be sure he was a different person from “The Hitman”).

And also southerner Eudora Welty, which aligns with my idea of where the word is used this way–thinking of my good buddy from the south who has fixed me a cocktail or two over the years, and they’ve all tasted good, which I guess is all that matters.




Something that evokes Christopher Marlowe is “Marlovian.”

Something that evokes Saul Bellow is “Bellovian.”

Something that evokes George Bernard Shaw is “Shavian.” (That one is great.)

Something that evokes Edgar Allen Poe, is, I guess, “Poevian.”

These are kind of funny, right? Or at least peculiar. They remind us that words will never just exist on a page, because while there’s nothing inherently weird about reading “Shawian” or “Poeian,” there certainly is something weird about saying them.



I Wrote a Feature for a Food Magazine


Waitresses dancing at Pyongyang restaurant
Download the article for the explanation of this picture.


If you are part of the iPad set, please use it to grab this free download of Honest Cooking’s inaugural feature-length magazine and check out my article on dining at a North Korean restaurant. It may or may not be viewable on other platforms.

How Good Content Can Avert Tragedy



“(Theodore) Dreiser in some ways, some of the time, is one of the worst writers who ever lived. An American Tragedy, for instance, is an endless  book with terrible sentences like ‘He found her extremely intellectually interesting.'”

John Gardner, quoted in The Writer’s Chapbook, ed. George Plimpton

For all the times John Gardner’s acerbic proto-snark bothered me in college, it was nice to have some validation that I was not out of my mind when I found Theodore Dreiser’s writing to be horrible.

I clawed through An American Tragedy in an elective 20th Century American Lit course in my final semester, mind fully blown that such a poor stylist was still required reading. I looked quickly through Sister Carrie and found the same shit. He wasn’t funny! He wasn’t clever! Reading his clodhopper sentences felt nauseously like riding in the backseat with a student driver at the wheel.

Nothing like cruising through say, The Great Gatsby in the same class.

Hey, let’s see what John Gardner has to say about that! 

“Fitzgerald is a good example–a fine stylist. But he never quite got to the heart of things.”

I’m not going to touch the substance of this, the thing about the heart of things, but those are some fighting words. Granted, Gardner was the dean of haters  in American letters so on some level it’s just part of his schtick to be such a bastard. Like those restaurants where they’re famous for being mean to patrons–which, like Gardner, are trading more on the attitude than the quality of what they’re serving.

Anyway, I appreciate this for drawing the line between content and style in any writing, especially having eventually seen that I was not “getting” Dreiser at the time, not seeing that he was saying important and true things. (I think Fitzgerald was too, but whatever). And this ends up being Gardner’s point:

 “What (Dreiser) does morally, that is to say what he does in terms of analysis of character and honest statement about the way the world is, is very good.”

So I’m only mentioning this here because this content/style tension is in all kinds of writing. You can always have one without the other. Ideally you get both but if you have to pick one you pick content. Otherwise the writer has had a little fun, but ultimately has wasted everyone’s time.

Don’t Let Functional Variation Torch Your Thanksgiving Turkey


5.31 It is fairly common in English for nouns to pass into use as verbs; it always has been.

The Chicago Manual of Style

Maybe, but it’s also fairly annoying. This occurs to me as the holidays loom and I resolve that if anyone “gifts” me anything next month I’m going to spit eggnog in their face.

In fairness, it’s subjective which noun-to-verb functional variations work and which don’t. Yes, I Google and friend like any red-blooded American who wastes too much time online, and I don’t think twice about handing you the rake so you can rake the toilet paper those little punks rolled our house with.

A good article in More Intelligent Life presents this fun factoid:

“Some lovers of the language deplore the whole business of verbing (Benjamin Franklin called it “awkward and abominable” in a letter to Noah Webster, the lexicographer, in 1789). . .”

If he wasn’t a fan of this sort of manipulation, I wonder how the elder statesman would have reacted to Philadelphia’s “Benergy” fiasco. I digress…

What do you think separates a good noun-verb functional variation from a ridiculous one?