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

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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”.

Seven-Month Review, Part I

 

It’s been seven months since I decided to leave my previous vocation and build a writing and editing business. I’m happy with how things have gone so far, while also acutely aware of how much more there is to do.

The greatest challenge has been staying focused, both “in the moment” (no Facebook!) and on crafting a long-term strategy that is open to questions but immune to doubt.

I’ve written a couple of posts on here before about the first prong of that pitchfork, the struggle for short-term focus. I can’t imagine there’s any characteristic more predictably found in successful freelance writers. Successful anyone, for that matter. But those of us who manage ourselves are particularly screwed if we drool away minutes and hours chasing after every blip that tempts our brains.

There are a lot of solutions offered for this major problem. Three interesting ones are described in this Harvard Business Review article. I’ve been trying some of the mental tune-ups over at Lumosity.com.

Nothing is a magic bullet, but I am pleased to have the motivation to focus better. My livelihood depends on it more than ever.

Ironic Blog Post

 

“It’s doubtful that anyone with an internet connection at his workplace is writing good fiction.”

-Jonathan Franzen

Good anything. To the millennials Franzen may be the angry old coot across the road whose house always looks better covered in toilet paper, but I dare anyone to deny the idea behind what he says up there, if not the empirical fact.

For writers, the internet sucks–in every sense of the word. It sucks willpower, sucks time, sucks quality. OK, it blows the networking game open and it makes 97 of every 100 facts in existence available at a click. Which is great–so great, the beast’s powers of distraction must be incredible to outweigh those benefits.

And they are. Do you write better or worse because of the internet? Tabbed browsing is not conducive to fully-formed ideas. It is channel surfing on amphetamines. Where is this going, where is this taking us?

I appreciate the lulz inherent in posting about this on a blog, but it’s been a long popcorn brain day I need to put to bed.

 

KFKD

“I need to bring up radio station KFKD, or K-Fucked, here. . .Out of the right speaker in your inner ear will come the endless stream of self-aggrandizement, the recitation of one’s specialness, of how much more open and gifted and brilliant and knowing and misunderstood and humble one is. Out of the left speaker will be the rap songs of self-loathing, the lists of all the things one doesn’t do well, of all the mistakes one has made today and over an entire lifetime, the doubt, the assertion that everything that one touches turns to shit, that one doesn’t do relationships well, that one is in every way a fraud, incapable of selfless love, that one has no talent or insight, and on and on and on.”

-Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird

Please to forgive the long quote. It’s all there because it’s such an important thing to recognize. Its nail-through-the-heart correctness strikes at the root of every bad work habit writers have. And it’s wise enough to make one look past the irritating cords of neurosis that almost strangle Anne Lamott’s great book on the craft.

No matter what the writer is writing, his memories and fantasies are swirling around his brain along with the plasma from which he eventually pulls the next sentence. They can be valuable in supporting roles, but once they’re allowed to mug for the camera the show’s over. Go check Facebook and your e-mail and Twitter again. Come back and try again in an hour. . .  past the deadline.

If it’s been a while since you read Bird by Bird, dust it off.  It will put KFKD on hiatus for at least a moment.