In part this book is aimed at helping readers become better at what they do. In this sense "Focus" is a sophisticated self-help book. Love what you do, do what you love and do it with focus and deliberate (and smart) practice and your life will be more rewarding.
In a larger sense this book is about saving the planet from the catastrophic threat of systems breakdown with reference to pollution, soil depletion and erosion, habitat destruction, global warming, etc.
The book is organized into seven parts. In the first, "The Anatomy of Attention," Goleman presents his ideas about "top-down" and "bottom up" drivers of behavior and how focus leads to "flow" which is "full absorption" in what we do. He makes a distinction between our attention being "hijacked" which leads to negative outcomes and our attention being deliberately allowed to drift, which leads to creative ideas. We find "balance" when we live our lives in harmony with periods of intense focus (but without undue stress) followed by periods of creative drift.
Goleman sees bottom-up drivers as coming from our more primitive brain modules and top down drivers as coming from the so-called higher brain modules such as the neocortex. These two systems must work in harmony for us to be successful and for us to be able to find and manage sustainable systems for the planet.
In Part II "Self-Aware" Goleman guides the reader toward seeing ourselves as others see us and gives a "recipe for self-control."
Part III "Reading Others" is mainly about what Goleman calls "The Empathy Triad," that is, three ways of being empathetic. Empathy comes from within ourselves and is partly the result of mirror neurons which allow us to feel what others are feeling. Interesting is the idea that sociopaths experience what others are feeling in their frontal lobes instead of in the limbic system. What this can lead to is the sense that the suffering of others is merely academic or verbal, which may be why sociopaths don't really care how anybody feels but themselves.
In Part IV "The Bigger Context" Goleman shifts to the "Patterns, Systems, and Messes" of the entire planet and what we can do to better understand what is going on. He argues that we suffer from "system blindness" leading to an inability to deal effectively with "distant threats" such as the earth's rising temperature.
In Part V "Smart Practice" Goleman shows us how to get better not just by putting in the highly touted 10,000 hours of practice but by practicing with a deliberate goal of improvement augmented with feedback.
Part VI is about "The Well-Focused Leader" while Part VII "The Big Picture" looks to how we can focus on the future and make things better for our children and grandchildren.
Goleman is as always both upbeat and caring. He is readable and you get the sense that he really cares about being a positive force for good in the world. The material in the book is mostly new and cutting edge. Goleman has done the homework and the field work as both a psychologist and a journalist. This is a book that reveals what contemporary psychology is about in a personal, hands on sort of way.
Some quotables (page numbers are approximate since I am reading an uncorrected proof):
"The signs of mental fatigue, such as a drop in effectiveness and [a] rise in distractedness and irritability, signify that the mental effort needed to sustain focus has depleted the glucose that feeds neural energy." (56) If you pay attention you can actually feel low blood sugar. It may make you shake a little.
"Self-awareness, then, represents an essential focus, one that attunes us to the subtle murmurs within that can help guide our way through life." (63) As Goleman writes a couple of pages later, these are "somatic markers" which are "sensations in our body that tell us when a choice feels wrong or right." The term is from neuroscientist Antonio Damasio, whose books I highly recommend.
"In the mind's arena, willpower (a facet of `ego') represents a wrestling match between top and bottom systems. Willpower keeps us focused on our goals despite the tug of our impulses, passions, habits, and cravings. This cognitive control represents a `cool' mental system that makes an effort to pursue our goals in the face of our `hot' emotional reactions--quick, impulsive, and automatic." (88)
What Goleman doesn't emphasize about self-control or willpower is that if you don't have it you are not likely to get it. He cites the famous study by Stanford psychologist Walter Mischel with kids trying to delay their desire to eat a marshmallow in order to get two later. The kids that were able to delay gratification did better in life than those who could not. The salient point however is that in follow up studies (as Goleman reports on page 87) the "'high delayers' who resisted the marshmallow at age four were still able to delay gratification, but the `low delayers' were still poor at stifling impulse."
"The longer someone ignores an email before finally responding, the more relative social power that person has. Map these response times across an entire organization and you get a remarkably accurate chart of the actual social standing. The boss leaves emails unanswered for hours or days; those lower down respond within minutes." (124) Goleman adds that an analysis of Enron Corporation emails revealed exactly this pattern.
Finally here is what I thought was the most fascinating factoid in the book. Computers searched an enormous number of keystrokes on Google for flu-related words like "fever" or "ache" to create an algorithm to predict flu outbreaks. "The resulting algorithm identifies flu outbreaks within a day, compared with the two weeks it typically takes the CDC to notice hot spots for the disease based on reports from physicians." (133)
--Dennis Littrell, author of "The World Is Not as We Think It Is"