Focus: The Hidden Driver of Excellence

date Aug 1, 2014
authors Daniel Goleman
reading time 11 mins

Like muscles…

Attention works much like a muscle use it poorly and it can wither; work it well and it grows.

Reality and focus…

how we deploy our attention determines what we see. Or as Yoda says, “Your focus is your reality.”

The difference in obsessing and fruitful reflection…

The biggest challenge for even the most focused, though, comes from the emotional turmoil of our lives, like a recent blowup in a close relationship that keeps intruding into your thoughts. Such thoughts barge in for a good reason: to get us to think through what to do about what’s upsetting us. The dividing line between fruitless rumination and productive reflection lies in whether or not we come up with some tentative solution or insight and then can let those distressing thoughts go or if, on the other hand, we just keep obsessing over the same loop of worry.

Being immune to emotional turbulence

Since focus demands we tune out our emotional distractions, our neural wiring for selective attention includes that for inhibiting emotion. That means those who focus best are relatively immune to emotional turbulence, more able to stay unflappable in a crisis and to keep on an even keel despite life’s emotional waves.

Disengaging attention

The power to disengage our attention from one thing and move it to another is essential for well-being. The stronger our selective attention, the more powerfully we can stay absorbed in what we’ve chosen to do:

Creative flow happens when…

One key to more flow in life comes when we align what we do with what we enjoy, as is the case with those fortunate folks whose jobs give them great pleasure. High achievers in any field the lucky ones, anyway have hit on this combination.

Trusting your bottom-up moves

As world-class champions attest, at the topmost levels, where your opponents have practiced about as many thousands of hours as you have, any competition becomes a mental game: your mind state determines how well you can focus, and so how well you can do. The more you can relax and trust in bottom-up moves, the more you free your mind to be nimble.

Emotional resilience

Emotional resilience comes down to how quickly we recover from upsets. People who are highly resilient who bounce back right away can have as much as thirty times more activation in the left pre-frontal area than those who are less resilient.

What’s mind wandering good for?

Among other positive functions of mind wandering are generating scenarios for the future, self-reflection, navigating a complex social world, incubation of creative ideas, flexibility in focus, pondering what we’re learning, organizing our memories, just mulling life and giving our circuitry for more intensive focusing a refreshing break.

Everyone has access to same info, so what differentiates?

In a complex world where almost everyone has access to the same information, new value arises from the original synthesis, from putting ideas together in novel ways, and from smart questions that open up untapped potential. Creative insights entail joining elements in a useful, fresh way.

Eureka from Archimedes, apple falling on Newton and Einstein riding on light beam?

Good days for insights had nothing to do with stunning breakthroughs or grand victories. The key turned out to be having small wins minor innovations and troubling problems solved on concrete steps toward a larger goal.

Creative insights

Creative insights flowed best when people had clear goals but also freedom in how they reached them. And, most crucial, they had protected time enough to really think freely. A creative cocoon.

Paul Graham or Elon Musk’s shower thoughts?

Where do our thoughts wander when we’re not thinking of anything in particular? Most often, they are all about me. The “me” William James proposed, weaves together our sense of self by telling our story fitting random bits of life into a cohesive narrative.

Meditation - observe your own chatter. “Watch the Thinker”

It’s not the chatter of people around us that is the most powerful distractor, but rather the chatter of our own minds. Utter concentration demands these inner voices be stilled.

Emotional reactivity and the daily erks

Emotional reactivity flips us into a different mode of attention, one where our world contracts into fixation on what’s upsetting us. Those who have difficulty sustaining open awareness typically get caught up by irritating details like that person in front of them in the security line at the airport who took forever to get carry-on ready for the scanner and will still be fuming about it while waiting for their plane at the gate. But there are no emotional hijacks in open awareness just the richness of the moment.

Above all, be true to yourself

George Lucas’s insistence on keeping creative control despite the financial struggle that it entailed for him signifies enormous integrity and, as the world knows, it also turned out to be a lucrative business decision. But this decision wasn’t motivated by the pursuit of money; back then ancillary rights meant selling movie posters and T-shirts, a trivial source of revenue. At the time, everyone who knew the film industry warned George against going out on his own. Such a decision requires immense confidence in one’s own guiding values. What allows people to have such a strong inner compass, a North Star that steers them through life according to the dictates of their deepest values and purposes?


There’s an intriguing relationship between self-awareness and power: There are relatively few gaps between one’s own and others’ ratings among lower-level employees. But the higher someone’s position in an organization, the bigger the gap. Self-awareness seems to diminish with promotions up the organization’s ladder.

Avoiding Groupthink…

Another antidote to groupthink: expand your circle of connection beyond your comfort zone and inoculate against in-group isolation by building an ample circle of no-BS confidants who keep you honest.

Mastery of delayed gratification…

Bottom line: kids can have the most economically privileged childhood, yet if they don’t master how to delay gratification in pursuit of their goals those early advantages may wash out in the course of life.

Meditation - awareness of ourselves

Executive function includes attention to attention itself, or more generally, awareness of our mental states; this lets us monitor our focus and keep it on track.

Connected people…

Hyperconnected folks are typically the most influential: an organization’s social connectors, knowledge holders, or power brokers.

Big data questions…

book that encourages those who manage big data projects to ask questions like these: Are we defining the right problem? Do we have the right data? What are the assumptions behind the algorithm the data gets fed into? Does the model guiding those assumptions map on reality?

Cluelessness to our own threat

This obliviousness to the systems around us has long puzzled me, particularly as I’ve investigated our collective cluelessness in the face of a threat to our species survival posed by our daily doings. We seem curiously unable to perceive in a way that leads us to prevent the adverse consequences of human systems, such as those for industry or commerce.

Complex understanding

“Much of the time,” Sterman notes, “people attribute what happens to them to events close in time and space, when in reality it’s the result of the dynamics of the larger system within which they are embedded.” The problem gets compounded by what’s called the “illusion of explanatory depth,” where we feel confidence in our understanding of a complex system, but in reality have just superficial knowledge.

Negative data does not lead to betterment

I used to think that complete transparency about the negative impacts of what we do and buy knowing our eco-footprints would in itself create a market force that would encourage us all to vote with our dollars by buying better alternatives. Sounded like a good idea but I neglected a psychological fact. Negative focus leads to discouragement and disengagement.

Incremental improvements

The key idea: keep making improvements, so that our handprint becomes bigger than our footprint. At that point we become a net positive for the planet.

Mere 10,000 hours not enough…

psychologist whose research on expertise spawned the 10,000-hour rule of thumb, told me, “You don’t get benefits from mechanical repetition, but by adjusting your execution over and over to get closer to your goal.”

Smart practise

Smart practice always includes a feedback loop that lets you recognize errors and correct them which is why dancers use mirrors. Ideally that feedback comes from someone with an expert eye and so every world-class sports champion has a coach. If you practice without such feedback, you don’t get to the top ranks.

Amateurs vs. experts

And this is where amateurs and experts part ways. Amateurs are content at some point to let their efforts become bottom-up operations.


You’re told to keep your focus on one thing, such as a mantra or your breath. Try it for a while and inevitably your mind wanders off. So the universal instructions are these: when your mind wanders and you notice that it has wandered bring it back to your point of focus and sustain your attention there. And when your mind wanders off again, do the same. And again. And again. And again.

Positivity and perceptions

Positive emotions widen our span of attention; we’re free to take it all in. Indeed, in the grip of positivity, our perceptions shift. As psychologist Barbara Fredrickson, who studies positive feelings and their effects, puts it, when we’re feeling good our awareness expands from our usual self-centered focus on “me” to a more inclusive and warm focus on “we.”

Positive goals…

Talking about your positive goals and dreams activates brain centers that open you up to new possibilities. But if you change the conversation to what you should do to fix yourself, it closes you down

Positive:Negative ratio

Analyzing hundreds of teams, Losada determined that the most effective had a positive/negative ratio of at least 2.9 good feelings to every negative moment (there’s an upper limit to positivity: above a Losada ratio of about 11:1, teams apparently become too giddy to be effective). The same ratio range holds for people who flourish in life


Mindfulness strengthens connections between the prefrontal executive zones and the amygdala, particularly the circuits that can say “no” to impulse a vital skill for navigating through life

Leadership difference - pacesetters

Pacesetters tend to rely on a “command and coerce” leadership strategy where they simply give orders and expect obedience. Leaders who display just the pacesetting or command style or both but not any others create a toxic climate, one that dispirits those they lead. Such leaders may get short-term results through personal heroics, like going out and getting a deal themselves, but do so at the expense of building their organizations.

Self-awareness and influences

With high self-awareness, she adds, you can more readily develop good self-management. “If you manage yourself better, you will influence better,”


Play equals trust, a space where people can take risks. Only by taking risks do we get to the most valuable new ideas.

Change takes time…

“We did case studies of how long it took for a change that was initially unpopular to become the new, accepted status quo. Our data shows the range is nine to six months.”

Leadership and time frame

Even leaders of great companies can suffer a blind spot for the long-term consequence if their time frame is too small. To be truly great, leaders need to expand their focus to a further horizon line, even beyond decades, while taking their systems understanding to a much finer focus. And their leadership needs to reshape systems themselves.

Initiative - the long journey

Start the task even if it will not be fulfilled within your lifetime. This generation has a responsibility to reshape the world. If we make an effort, it may be possible to achieve. Even if it seems hopeless now, never give up. Offer a positive vision, with enthusiasm and joy, and an optimistic outlook.