Focus: The Hidden Driver of Excellence

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Focus: The Hidden Driver of ExcellenceFocus: The Hidden Driver of Excellence

Daniel Goleman
HarperCollins, 2013
311 pages


Daniel Goleman is an accomplished author of 13 books on topics such as emotional intelligence, leadership and creativity. His most recent endeavor is a thorough examination of focus — a form of self-control that is an important indicator of a child’s future success. Scientists have found that focus is every bit as powerful a predictor of adult financial success and health as were social class, wealth of family or intelligence. One famous study illustrating this point is the marshmallow research by Stanford University psychologist Walter Mischel, Ph.D., in which 4-year-olds were given a treat and promised another if they could hold off eating the marshmallow for 15 minutes while the experimenter ran an errand. The marshmallow test showed that children who could control their desires had better outcomes in life than children with lesser abilities to practice control.

In “Focus: The Hidden Driver of Excellence,” Goleman presents the complex workings of the brain for the nonscientist and describes how focus is nurtured, maintained and protected. Goleman is particularly critical of technology — the constant texts and Tweets and Web searches — that saps cognitive reserves and hijacks the limited focus the brain can muster. It is becoming more common for school and college administrators and educators to protect the learning environment by having students close laptops and put away cellphones during class lectures, discussions and other activities.

Goleman suggests rest is important when the mind tires and is unable to focus, but some activities are more restful than others. According to Goleman, “surfing the Web, playing video games, or answering email is not restful,” but a walk through nature or gazing at a picture of a soothing landscape helps to shut out the inner voice and running dialogue that consumes cognitive bandwidth that could otherwise be used to think deeply.

Another approach to helping young people strengthen their focusing skills is through curricula such as the Breathing Buddies program that has produced spectacular results at P.S. 112, an elementary school in New York City’s Spanish Harlem. Goleman observed one classroom in which the children were especially calm, focused and attentive. Several times during the day children get a favorite stuffed animal from their cubby, lie down on the floor, place the animal on their tummy and breathe — focusing on the animal as it rises on the inhale and descends on the exhale. Goleman describes how Breathing Buddies has helped students to regulate their emotions, and that has transformed this school into an oasis of learning, even in one of the more frenzied and harried parts of New York City.

Goleman describes how a student’s mind that is distracted by next weekend’s date or past actions is too invested in the future or past to be present in the right here, right now where learning occurs, and “will not have the staying power to understand fractions, let alone calculus. It is this chatter in our minds that is perhaps the greatest threat to focus.” When a student’s mind wanders from reading the textbook or listening to the teacher’s lecture, the opportunity for learning is lost. Goleman’s book shows how helping students to gain the self-control and self-awareness to refocus their awareness efforts is essential to academics. Youth workers can do this by introducing the concept of focus to children, providing opportunities during the school day to calm the mind and using transitions to help students refocus.

“Focus” is organized into seven parts beginning with a thorough presentation of the basics of attention and focus, which Goleman describes as the “neural capacity to beam in on just one target while ignoring a staggering sea of incoming stimuli, each one a potential focus in itself.”

The book’s other topics include information about self-awareness, the importance of focus on relationships and learning to read others, and the growth of brain games for developing focus.

Goleman employs a conversational and accessible writing style, even as he explains the complex inner workings of the brain and its many sensory and emotional distractions — the latter, if not controlled by the brain’s prefrontal cortex, leads to “obsessing over the same loop of worry,” which sounds a death knell to learning. The prefrontal cortex, the command center of the brain located behind the forehead, coordinates, communicates and guides the functions of different parts of the brain. It is responsible for higher cognitive functions such as planning, distinguishing right from wrong, determining what is socially appropriate and decision-making.

Learning about how the brain works and how to help young people increase their abilities to focus would help any youth worker today.