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Focus: The Hidden Driver of Excellence

Dan Goleman & Melli O'Brien






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Focus: The Hidden Driver of Excellence

Dan discusses why focus is the key to excellence in any field and why we need to be aware of the effects of technology on our brains.

I'm your host Melli O'Brien and I'm so

delighted to be here right now with Dr.

Dan Goleman.

Dan is an acclaimed psychologist who's

received two Pulitzer prize nominations

for his New York Times articles on

behavioral science and the brain.

He's also the author of several books,

including my, one of my favorite

books of all time, the bestselling

book, Emotional Intelligence.

And he's just released a new book,

which I believe is going to be

groundbreaking, called Focus,

The Hidden Driver of Excellence.

Dan, thank you so much for taking this

time out for the Mindfulness Summit.

I know you're busy traveling

around at the moment, so I really

appreciate you taking the time out.

I'm glad I could be part of it, Melli.

Thank you.

Dan, why did you feel that right now

it was, it was so important to explore

the topic of focus and to, you know,

share those findings with the world.

Well, I think that because of technology,

because we're all constantly interrupted

and distracted by our devices, by our

Facebook, by our emails, by our texts,

that attention is under siege in a way

it's never been before in human history.

And that we need to become more

mindful about what we're doing.

People turns out are just not paying

attention to what they're doing about half

the time, according to data from Harvard.

It's so important because attention,

mindfulness, being present with what's

going on is the fundamental ability that

lets us be with the people we love, being

with the people that we're working with,

be attentive to what it is we're doing.

And as our mind wanders, and we don't

notice it wanders, we get carried away

and, you know, at work, our performance

suffers our relationships suffer.

So I thought it was time that we look

at the capacity of attention itself.

Mindfulness of course, is a way to,

to train attention, to make it to

cultivate the ability to be more present.


And your book title that, that our focus

is the hidden driver of excellence, why

is focus the hidden driver of excellence?

No matter what you're doing, no matter

what the domain you know, performance is

chess, golf, relationships, management,

mothering, it doesn't matter if you're

not present, if you're not focused on

what you're doing, you'll do it poorly.

However, the more you can focus,

the more you can be completely

absorbed in what you're doing, the

better your performance will be.

And, and research, shows that in any

domain, those people who are the most

excellent, who are the top, you know,

of the game, are the most focused.

It's a state called flow.

It's a state that champions,

that people who are superb at what

they do, experience spontaneously.

And the key to that state is

completely concentration, complete

presence, complete mindfulness.

And is, is flow the same

thing as mindfulness, or

are they a little different?

They're a little different.

Mindfulness is the technique that

we can practice to strengthen

the muscle of attention.

And as we become more and more

present and focused and mindful,

the state of flow can emerge.

Flow is a particular brain state.

It's a state of maximum neural harmony.

It's a state of heightened

cognitive efficiency.

It's a state where

people are at their best.

However, mindfulness is not the same.

Mindfulness is a pathway to flow.

So the more you practice mindfulness,

the more likely it is that you

would spontaneously go into flow?



And is it, is mindfulness the

formal training of, of how you build

this capacity to be more focused?

Is it the only way, or are

there other ways to train focus?

Well, mindfulness is a

particular kind of meditation.

My first book was called The

Varieties of Meditative Experience.

I looked at the range of different

ways of training the mind.

And mindfulness, which comes

from the Vipassana tradition

in Theravada in countries is a

technique that is quite powerful.

It's not the only way.

There are visualizations.

There are meditations on mindfulness.

There are a wide range of ways

to bring the mind to focus

and bring it to presence.

Mindfulness, however, seems to be the

one that that's, that is in vogue today.

And I think that's fine.


And I think part of the reason for

that is probably because of this huge

body of research that's developed

around that practice of mindfulness

through the, through the MBSR program.

There's, there's quite a

good body of research there.

So I think, as you say, it's quite

in vogue because of that research.

Well, MBSR, mindfulness-based stress

reduction was started by an old

friend of mine, Jon Kabat-Zinn.

I've know him since

before he was doing MBSR.

And his orientation is actually,

it comes from Korean Zen, that

was his training and from yoga.

And he brought them together and

really came up with what I think is

an ingenious way of introducing it.

The most compelling research on MBSR

actually has to do with effects and

with his original application was,

which was in the medical arena.

He told people, he asked people that,

the medical school, where he was

introducing this, send me your patients

that you can't help anymore, he said.

People with chronic disabilities

and, you know, cardiovascular,

diabetes, name whatever it was.

And the idea was that mindfulness

based stress reduction would help

them live better with the disability.

It didn't cure the disease.

Then a group at Oxford with John

Teasdale said, well, if it works so

well with medical patients, and it does,

particularly with chronic pain, let's

try it with people who are depressed,

who medications won't help anymore.

And he integrated it

with cognitive therapy.

And found that a mindfulness-based

cognitive therapy for depression

reduced remissions, that is having

another episode of depression, by 50%.

And it was actually better

than medications can do.

It was quite stunning.

At the same time he was doing that,

actually my wife, Tara Bennett-Goleman,

who's a seasoned mindfulness meditator and

was studying cognitive therapy, integrated

it for kind of the more everyday range

of self-defeating emotional habits.

And she's found it's

a very powerful method.

She has, her book was called, Emotional

Alchemy, How the Mind Can Heal the Heart.

She and I still do workshops together

on that because it's, it's not just

people with chronic pain, it's not

just people with serious depression.

Every one of us has a range of habits

we've learned in our relationships, in

our work life, whatever it may be that

might be, in some sense, self-defeating

and mindfulness is a crucial step in

being able to change those habits.

Because habit itself is implemented

through an unconscious part of the brain.

So in order to change it at all, we

have to bring it into our awareness.

And that's the power of mindfulness, is

that first crucial step in bringing a

habit out of the unconscious into a space

in the mind where we can work with it.

And I think that's true across the

board, that mindfulness lets us be more

intentional about what we do, whatever

we're doing, because we realize when we're

not paying attention and when we are.

That's fundamental.


It reminds me of that old Viktor Frankl

quote, which is, you know, between,

I think you know it, between stimulus

and response, that's the space where

we have the power to choose something.

So I think that mindfulness kind of

opens up that, that space where we

can choose whether we want to play out

our old habitual response or we can

choose something, something different.

There's another way of putting the same

idea, which is that mature is widening

the gap between impulse and reaction.

And mindfulness, if you put mindfulness

in between the impulse and the action,

you're going to make a better response.


I think one of the things that I

hear most, some of the, some of the

questions that I hear most often, I'd

love to kind of put to you, one of

the things I get asked a lot is, is

there a best way to, to train focus?

Is there, you know, do is, do

you feel that there's a best way?

What's your, what's your take on that?

Or is that different for different people?

There, it may be different

for different people.

If mindfulness doesn't suit you, you

might find walking with mindfulness.

Some, you know, some people

can't sit still that easily.

They get bored or fall asleep.

I used to fall asleep

when I started meditating.

I was student at the time,

I was sleep deprived.

And probably needed the rest.

Now yoga, mindful yoga is helpful.

It's good to find something that you

experience is beneficial and enjoy doing.

And mindfulness, I think is that.

Now in the book, Focus, I talk

about two levels of mindfulness.

One is within our own mind,

the other's interpersonal.

Empathy, being present to

the people that you're with.

And I think that that second

ability is cultivated through

loving-kindness practice.

I don't know if you've talked about

loving kindness, in this summit,

but it's extremely important.

In fact, the tradition from which

mindfulness was extracted, always combines

a setting, a session of mindfulness with

ending with the the wishing wellbeing

for yourself, for the people you love,

for the people you know, for people

you don't know, for people you have

difficulty with, for people in your

general area, for people everywhere.

And actually it trains the brain in a

different set of circuitry, which is very

important for empathy and relationship.

People who do that kind of loving

kindness practice systematically,

just as mindfulness makes you more

concentrated in the present, that turns

out to make you more present to other

people, more empathic, more attuned, more

likely to help them if they're in need.

And I feel the best way to train

the mind is to combine both.

Do you know that?

I would have to say, somebody asked me

the other day, do you see any themes

coming up, you know, as you're doing

all these interviews during the summit?

And I said, I think the big one is

compassion, combining self-compassion and

compassion for others with the practice.

There has really been so much of an

emphasis on how important that is.


And I I've just finished a book.

You have, you may not know about it.

It's called A Force for Good: The

Dalai Lama's Vision for Our World.

Oh wonderful.

It just came out.

Now the Dalai Lama, of course, embodies

compassion, encourages mindfulness.

He says, the first step is getting your

destructive emotions under control.

This is a very good tool for that.

The second, he says, is a

dogma and ethic of compassion.

And then after that, you have

to act, he says, it's not enough

to keep your own house in order.

The world is in disorder

and we all can do something.

We all should act now.

And his version of compassion

is surprisingly muscular.

I was really amazed.

It's not just being nice to people.

One thing is he sees is compassionate,

is looking at public spirit,

corruption and collusion and bringing

transparency and accountability.

Oh, that's a, that's

almost a political act.


He says dirty business, dirty

politics, dirty religion, to be

precise, we have to clean it up.

He says our economy is extremely unsure.

The gap between rich and poor

has been growing for centuries.

And we have to have a more

compassionate economics.

Businesses should do good, not

just, well, not just make money.

He says we all can help the needy,

but you know, find ways to help

those in need also help themselves.

He says you know, the earth is

our house and our house is on fire.

The environmental crisis is

something where we all can bring

mindfulness to our daily habits,

to what we buy ,to what we do.

It's another arena for compassion,

understanding that we're all the same

human being beneath surface differences.

You know, the world is full

of conflict and intergroup

struggles and prejudice and bias.

Mindfulness is a powerful

tool for dealing with that.

And he's not saying we should all

do all of this, but each of us has

some sphere of action where we can

influence things for the better.

And he says, take your mindfulness

and compassion on the road.

It's not enough just to

get your own life together.

We all have a responsibility

for each other.

I'm very inspired by his message.

And I think, you know, as you're saying

that too, it occurs to me that you

know, what, what I've found through

cultivating compassion also is the

courage to see what's difficult to see.

Because it's very easy to

kind of be very overwhelmed.

We live in difficult times, Dan.

Like, you know, I really, I was

having a conversation with someone

recently and just saying, Hey, being,

being human and being on this planet

these days is not easy because it's

kind of overwhelming, you know.

They're saying, you know, that the

planet's in danger and all of this,

and we've got technology and it's

really overwhelming and it's, it's

tempting to, to just shut it out and

stay in your little world and put one

foot in front of the other every day.

But I feel like what compassion does is

gives me permission to feel what I feel

and, and to comfort and soothe myself as

I can knowledge the difficulties of life.

And that gives me the ability to

kind of take whatever action I can.

I feel that's how compassion kind

of works in my own life anyway.

So yeah.

That's true.

I think that in, in a way it takes

courage to act with compassion.


But the other thing it says is,

don't take on the overwhelming

task, just take small steps.

If each of us, if 7 billion of

us take small steps together,

that's a very giant step.

So we can do it in our lives

with whatever leverage we have.

Even looking at the things we

buy and making better decisions.

You know, there's a wonderful website,

for example, called the skindeep.org,

which analyzes the ingredients in

personal care products, shampoo,

lip balm, whatever it may be.

My shampoo can have 50 chemical

ingredients I've never heard of.

It looks at each of those ingredients

in the medical databases and tells

you if they're related and how

they might be cancer causing, or

they might disturb the ecosystem.

And it rates the toxicity of brands so

all of a sudden we can be mindful of what

we buy and we can make choices, healthier

choices for us and for the planet.

Because what we, you know, shampoo

our hair with washes into the water

system and animals and organisms

are exposed to the same thing.

So compassionate for ourselves in

that concrete way, it turns out to

be compassion for the earth too.

So that's a very easy, small step any of

us could take toward a better environment.

And, you know, it escalates from there.

I love that.

It's, it's, it's I feel like there's

simple, practical things that, the little

things that we do every, every day,

as you say, the way we eat, the way we

consume, the way that we live our daily

lives, it's not only affecting us, but

everything is interconnected in that way.


The other

If you just decide to buy only organic

foods when you can, or non-GMO,

you're in the earth actually, as

you're, you know, taking away the

economic power of those approaches.


You can't really, you can't really

help one without the other, can you?

When you help yourself, you, you

help the planet, when you help

the planet, you help yourself.

So, yeah.

The other thing that I get asked a

lot in fact, I'd say it's one of the

most common kind of things that I

first hear people say when they're

on retreat or doing a course on, on

mindfulness is, you know, I can't do it.

I've just, my mind is

wandering all over the place.

I've got such a busy mind.

I, I just can't meditate.

What would you say to if somebody

made that comment to you?

I would say that's the

first sign of progress.

What that means is you've noticed

how active your mind actually is.

But when we're tuned out of the mind,

when we're mindless, that goes on

all the time, we just don't notice.

We're driven by it.

So the first thing that happens

in mindfulness is you notice how

chaotic and busy it is inside there.

So that's great.

Just keep going.

So you're succeeding.

You're not actually failing,

you're succeeding in that moment.

And then what do you think is, you

mentioned before that there were

some studies at Harvard about how

much we're actually lost on autopilot

as opposed to being in the moment.

And there was a talk, if that was

the same research that I'm aware

of with Matt, Matt Killingsworth.

He made a link between fulfillment

or happiness, whatever word you

want to use, and, and the ability

to be present in the moment.

So as you see it, what's the link

between focus and fulfillment?

It turns out that the research shows

when the mind wanders, it tends to

want worry, in preoccupation and things

that are bothering us and upsetting us.

So there's a correlation between how much

your mind wanders and how unhappy you are.

So you could see mindfulness as another

path to happiness because it minimizes

all of the internal angst that goes on.


And in that research, it seemed like

the actual act of being present in the

moment in itself was fulfilling in itself.

Would that be fair to say?

Mindfulness can be fulfilling in itself.

Don't expect.

My feeling is that you're setting

yourself up for disappointment.

Right, if you have the expectation.

For the practice to feel a certain way.

It's like, you know, the

attention is a muscle of the mind.

And every time you notice that the

mind is wandering and bring it back,

you're strengthening that muscle.


It's like going to the gym, you know.

And if you workout with a set of weights,

you may be bored while you're doing that.

You may not enjoy it, but you're

still strengthening that muscle.

It works the same.


So it'd be more, in that context, it

would mean more like saying, if you are

mindful over time, you're more likely

to get mentally fit, which has a certain

feeling to it, I guess, over time which

would be similar to going to the gym over

and over again, then you're just fit all

the time with that kind of repetition.

You just have a certain

level of fitness there.


And the same with the mind and that

fitness itself becomes, it means that

you're more likely to have times of

feeling good or energized, of happiness,

but it's not going to happen instantly.

And it may not happen during

the session of mindfulness.

We keep going.



One of the things there's a lot

of buzz around at the moment, I

think is, is mindfulness in the

corporate world and, and, and really

integrating mindfulness into work life.

If you were in charge of a large

organization, say a multinational

organization, what kinds of policies

and procedures would you like to

put in place so that people could

focus more and have less distraction?

I think that there are couple of

things that managers can do to

facilitate mindfulness of work.

One is to encourage people

to practice mindfulness, to

strengthen the muscle of attention.

The second is to make them aware

that multitasking is a myth.

The mind doesn't multitask, that

when you switch from one thing to

another, you lose effectiveness

in the thing you switched from.

When you go back, you have to work,

work up to the point again where

you were before you dropped it.

And the third thing is to realize

that people who are knowledge workers,

who work with their mind, need a

period in the day when they have no

distractions, when there's protected time.

They don't have meetings, they don't

have to take phone calls, they don't

have to answer texts or emails.

That's the most productive

time of the day.

And it's a kind of a creative cocoon.

And managers can help people have that

time by understanding it's important.

So I think those are three

different ways you can facilitate

mindfulness in the workplace.


And I just have one one

final question for you.

And this is the same question that I'm

asking everybody who's taken part in the

Summit, and that is, you know, they, they

say that mindfulness has gone mainstream.

I think it hasn't really

gone mainstream yet.

I think the idea is

becoming de-stigmatized.

I think it's, you know, it's,

it's becoming kind of trendy.

But I'm wondering what would happen

if mindfulness were to truly hit

kind of a critical mass where say

half the population were practicing.

And I'm curious to know what kind of

a world you think that would create,

how things could be different.

I actually see, see that as a very

possible future because of what's called

social emotional learning in schools.

I think the big breakthrough is

not going to be in the workplace.

It's going to be in how we teach

our children because attention

itself is a crucial line of

development, just as emotion

self-regulation is, just as empathy is.

Children learn these abilities

in a developmental sequences as

they go from, you know, birth

through adolescence and so on.

And it's been underrated and

ignored in our culture's attention.

And now that it's being disrupted

so terribly, we have to get very

serious about helping our children

learn to be attentive and mindful.

They can't learn if they're not.

They can't manage their own

emotions, if they're not.

They can't get along with other kids

with other people, they can't cooperate

or be good team members if they're not.

You know, going into adulthood.

So I think that the real mainstream,

although it's great, it's happening in

organizations, will come when we, when

our educational systems recognize that

a child's ability to pay attention in

class is fundamental to the mission of

the school to help the child to learn.

And when schools everywhere adopt

programs that help children get

better and better at paying attention.

What we call mindfulness is

one form of attention training.

There are many other forms.

And as this becomes a given in education,

and I think it should, it's such common

sense when you think about it, then

we'll see real mainstreaming over time.

And what do you think, how do you

think that would change things?

What kinds of changes would you expect

to see in a generation growing up

with much more of an ability to, to

be fully present for their lives?

I think the key actually is coupling

mindfulness with cultivation of kindness.

If we don't do that, it could

go in the wrong direction.

Being mindful, being effective if you're

selfish is not a great boon for society.

Sorry, it's not.

Let's,let's get that

straight, mindfulness people.

What matters is kindness.

Mindfulness plus kindness

creates a better world.

Mindfulness plus a bigger ego,

better job, more money, more

power, no empathy is a disaster.

We don't want to go in that direction.

So if we couple mindfulness with kindness.

I think we'll have a better future.

Dan, thank you so much for your time.

And I want to take this opportunity to

thank you from the bottom of my own heart

for the work that you've done in your

life, because it's really profoundly

touched my own life and my partner, Matty,

and I'm sure that I speak on behalf of

many people who are watching this as well.

So thank you so much for the work that

you've done and, and continue to do.

Melli, I thank you for

putting this together.

I really appreciate it.

I think you're doing wonderful work.

Oh, thank you.

Yeah, it's my pleasure.

And I obviously highly recommend

that everybody watching this checks

out Dan's books, I just finished

reading Focus and I, I loved it

and I'm going to read it again.

And Dan, is there anywhere else

that people should go if they want

to find out more about what you do?

Thank you.

There's the website, morethansound,

one word, morethansound.net as well.

I have a lot of materials,

videos, and audios and books that

you can't find anywhere else.

So morethansound.net.

And also you might enjoy this

new book, A Force for Good: The

Dalai Lama's Vision for Our World.

Oh, that's going to be

next on my reading list.

And Dan, thank you and wishing you all

the best on your continued journey.

Thanks, Melli.

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