Focus: The Power of Paying Attention

An interview with Daniel Goleman about his new book, Focus: The Hidden Driver of Excellence

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We text while we’re driving, check our email in meetings, post photos of meals before we eat them. Americans are now known around the world—well, to waiters in France, at least—as the people who are “glued to their personal devices.” Does all this digital engagement compromise our ability to focus on what’s really important in life? What’s it doing to—and for—our kids? How does our brain keep us from seeing the big picture? Can meditation offer us relief?

These are the kinds of questions considered by psychologist and longtime Buddhist practitioner Daniel Goleman in his latest book, Focus: The Hidden Driver of Excellence. Like his runaway best seller Emotional Intelligence, this one was inspired, he says, by “a burst of new findings, particularly in neuroscience.” In this case, the science provided a “framework for understanding, for instance, what mindfulness is doing for us,” along with a wealth of evidence for attention’s vital role in our success and well-being. And in a neat coda to both Focus and Emotional Intelligence, Goleman discovered that the neural networks for empathy, self-awareness, and attention are interwoven in the brain. Therein may lie the key to the promise of the new book’s title and subtitle.

What follows are highlights of two phone conversations between Goleman and Tricycle’s editor-at-large, Joan Duncan Oliver. “Dan’s focus was unwavering,” she says. “Our connection kept breaking up, but he never lost the thread, even with me continually braying, ‘Can you hear me now?’”

—Joan Duncan Oliver, Editor-at-large


You seem to use focus and attention interchangeably. Are they the same? “Focus” is the word I’m using to cover attention in all its aspects. Mindfulness is one variety of attention, one way to focus. Concentration is another. Open awareness is another. Sensory awareness is another. Daydreaming is another. Each is a discrete way to apply focus, a different way that focus can manifest.

For example, when we’re being mindful, we’re using our mind to monitor our mind, in order to keep our attention in a particular stance—noting with an equanimous awareness what is arising in the mind. If we start to be too concentrated, then mindfulness reminds us to break that trance of absorption and become mindful of what’s arising in the mind. If we start to daydream, which is another attentional stance, then we can bring back our awareness into the mindful mode of paying attention. So knowing the different modes of attention can help us maintain mindfulness itself.

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