Book Review – Focus : The Hidden Driver of Excellence


Emotional Intelligence by Daniel Goleman was a book I have always been meaning to read after having heard rave reviews. During a trip to the Blossoms bookstore in Bangalore however, I was only able to find Social Intelligence and Focus, two of Goleman’s other titles. Since Malcolm Gladwell made famous the 10,000 hour rule in The Outliers, I have been a fan of the particular genre of science writing dealing with human psychology.My particular interest in the subject also stems from my quest to understand the confluence between the Islamic tradition and study of the human psyche.

One of the first books I read on the subject was Contemplation by Dr. Malik Badri, an eminent psychologist who has authored many books and articles about Islam and Psychology. Modern psychology tends to apply a more reductive approach to understanding human behavior vis a vis stimuli and response based on chemical interactions.  But I personally prefer a balance between the material and spiritual in understanding why humans behave the way they do and more importantly in bringing about positive societal change.

I digress though, which is something I tend to do a lot. I have also come to the painful realization that I’m too distracted. A seemingly first world problem but the constant deluge of information is something the modern society has to deal with as one of the side effects of a hyper connected world. As mobile devices get more ubiquitous, multiple notifications are constantly trying to grab our attention and the overwhelming streams of information are overloading our brain circuits and affecting how we deal with people and responsibilities. Add to that the age, at which children are introduced to internet devices getting gradually lower, it is of little wonder that experts fear an impoverishment of attention.

While Goleman talks about these phenomena in his book on Focus, the book itself seems to lack focus. Don’t get me wrong. I liked the writing which is a good mix of anecdotes, hard research and statistics along with relevant case studies that prevent the book from becoming too dry. Goleman does tend to talk about the various parts of the brain responsible for various functions a lot and I would prefer a diagram of sorts to keep the names in memory. No harm done however, the casual reader would sparsely remember the names of brain parts because it is the inferences that are more important.

That’s where the book lacks in focus. It starts out well by trying to explain how two distinct portions of the brain (the top down and the bottom brain) are responsible for regulating attention. Goleman tries to explain the value of allowing the brain to wander as a prerequisite for creativity and serendipitous connections. At the same time he explains how the control of the attention muscle so to say, helps improve how we approach and handle tasks. The book then goes into understanding of self-awareness as an important aspect of self-control and how emotions can affect what we focus on.

But as the book progresses, the connection between the theme of Focus with the topics of discussion becomes less apparent. There is chapter on systems thinking which is peppered with evidence of Goleman’s left leaning with his talk on environmentalism and quotes by Jeffrey Sachs. I personally fancy myself as systems thinker yet did not find anything of particular value in the chapter and observations on brain function that could help me be better at it. Social and Emotional intelligence becomes the highlight when talking about leadership skills and becoming a better leader. The issue of focus seems to be an afterthought.  While taking up business cases I have to admit I was looking hard for how the theme of focus fit in.

I would recommend the book for the first few chapters which provide valuable information on understanding the ‘Anatomy of Attention’ as Goleman puts it, along with training yourself in improving self-awareness. Some of the inferences on improving mindfulness are especially important for parents training their children to be less impulsive and more measured. The chapters on mindfulness can also be looked at in the light of Khushu’u (mindfulness) a very important aspect of salah or ritual prayers of muslims.

Overall the book is a bit disappointing considering what I was looking for in terms of managing attention in the age of distraction


Onward: How I Stopped worrying and taught others to love Coffee (Again!!!)


If you didn’t get enough of your coffee – there’s more pick me up here

Onward – The marching beat to which Horward Schultz, the founder, president, chairman and CEO of Starbucks Coffee orchestrated a comeback of the beloved coffee brand in the US. It is also the name of book that tells the story. Having just completed it, I thought I might just put down a few reflections that I could share.

To begin with, the book is an easy read, written in a near conversational style and telling a fantastic story of a has-been making his comeback. As the introduction states, the book is a story of the turnaround at Starbucks from the year before the 2008 recession to the year 2010.


There and back again – a tale by Howard Schultz

With a brief introduction to the history of Starbucks, Horward Schultz jumps forward to a few months before he returned to Starbucks as CEO after having relinquished the post when he became the chairman.What follows is the story of the journey of a company whom most critics dubbed as having its best years behind it to its return as one of the top retailers of coffee in a difficult economy.

Personally, I am not a big coffee shop fan. I am generally slow to new concepts (it took me ages to embrace facebook) and it did take me a while to warm up to the idea. As a student in India the high cost of coffee deterred me and there was always a lower cost option to hangout. But as time passed and friends grew more distant due to work and marriage, coffee shops like Coffee Day in India became an ideal venue to meet.

After reading the book Onward, I realized that Starbucks was the original coffee retailer that introduced the world to the now ubiquitous coffee shop as a lifestyle choice. Starbucks became an everyday ritual with which Americans started their day, an oasis for the afternoons and a mecca for conversation in the evenings.


The new third space?

The real differentiator that made this possible is the Starbucks Experience as its founder likes to call it. For many a coffee shop is not just about the coffee but the atmosphere that the store provides. While many retailers since have attempted to recreate such an experience with varying amounts of success, the coffee shop has become an indispensible element of modern life for the young and the old.

So how did it happen?

Well some of the clues are available in the book Onward. Howard Schultz might be a man of great business acumen however it is the human element that he brings to the table which permeates throughout the storytelling that seems to be his greatest strength. But before all that, there is passion. It is apparent from the book that the goal for him is the Starbucks experience. That the experience is monetized and generates profits in the millions is a separate story.

That Starbuck is at the end of the day a corporate entity that is answerable to its shareholders and will do what is necessary to keep generating profits is relegated to second place in the book. Howard Schultz tries to explain the human side of Starbucks, where the employees are called partners and are given stock options and health coverage from the early days of the company. A company where the raw materials are sourced ethically and in an environmentally friendly way. A company where profits and revenues are shared with those who need it like through their commitment to Bono’s RED campaign.

The book does talk about the difficult decisions made in closing stores and letting people go. Yet this kept to a minimum and the focus of the book is always Onward and the turnaround that is to come in the near future . While it makes a compelling story with an underdog and everything, for me the book is a description of a corporation that sells high priced and mostly unhealthy coffee and whose sales depend on consumers making a habit of consuming it.

But that’s just me personally. I think coffee shops are great places to hang out with friends if you aren’t looking for meeting up for dinner but I don’t agree that the coffee with high sugar content as a habit is great for health or the budget. Yet it isn’t just about the coffee but the whole experience which matters. In Howard Schultz‘s own words, Starbucks is not a luxury but an affordable necessity.

Don’t get me wrong though. If one is fair to Starbucks, they have initiated a host ofprograms that ensure that they are both planet and employee friendly. My grouse is not against the author or Starbucks per se. However I’m generally wary of corporations and the way they function within the economy – often with a tunnel minded vision to make more profits while disregarding the planet and its population.

Starbucks might honestly be an outlier in terms of its initiatives to source ethical coffee and provide employee benefits over and above the basics most company offer. But then the book is a description by the author and even though it offers some selected bouquets and brickbats from during its turnaround phase, I would take it with a pinch of salt. After all one may assume that the CEO would show a hint of bias in trying to show Starbucks in a favourable light.

To end some good corporate leadership advice distilled from the book.

  1. images

    This man loves Coffee

    As an entrepreneur be passionate about some part of the business, if not all of it. One may essentially not like one’s job wholly but would still find parts of it that they love and can really be good at.

  2. Communicate – If nothing else, the founder of Starbucks is a great communicator getting across ideas in a way people would listen and respond to – if he says so himself
  3. Have a great team – this I think is necessary as a leader, a because you aren’t going to know how to be good at every aspect of the job and b because even if you did you might not like doing it. (See point 1)

So those are my musings on the book.

Now I’m off to get my frappucino fix. J


Disclaimer or at this point a disclosure – I have been to Starbucks only once so far. I can only remember a Carrot cake I had there and not the drink