Daniel Goleman begins “Focus: The Hidden Driver of Excellence” with a scene of John Berger, house detective for a Manhattan department store, as he moves among a crowd of shoppers, scanning, scrutinizing, zeroing in on the likely shoplifter.
This specific kind of attention — a “sustained scan for a rare event” — was first studied at the height of the Cold War, when the U.S. military went on the alert for a nuclear attack.
Then Goleman depicts a different kind of focus: He sees a woman who is taking her daughter on a ferry to a vacation island; the little girl is hugging her fiercely, but the mother is oblivious to water or island or daughter as her attention stays riveted on her iPad.
Goleman writes about research into many facets of focus — attention, comprehension, memory, the ability to bring back wandering thoughts, and so on. He also describes the by-now familiar diminution of our attention span that is related to our constant, fidgety engagement with digital media.
But the chief aim of his book is to relate focus to everyday excellence, showing how we can train our brains to pay attention as we would train muscles to run and to use that training to succeed in personal and professional arenas. Perhaps the most interesting chapter is called “Brains on Games,” in which the field of science that gave us Angry Birds is trying to develop gadgets that calm you down.
To try out a piece of “breathware” from Stanford’s Calming Technology Lab, he has his four grandchildren play an iPad game called Tenacity, in which they advance by attuning their screen taps to their breathing. As one teacher says, “With calming tech, we’re asking how we can bring more balance to the world.”