Book Review – Focus : The Hidden Driver of Excellence

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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

The Story of the Two Books

Alhamdullilah I was recently published in Young Muslim Digest, a Bangalore based magazine in print for the last 3 decades. I have included the article in full here and you can access the same and other great sections like the editorial and letters to the editor at http://www.youngmuslimdigest.com

If you are reading this, chances are you live in a city; you are currently inside a building with both adjustable heating and lighting and oblivious to much of the natural world around you. You aren’t alone, millions around the world, increasingly live in urban areas due to the greater economic opportunities they provide. Yet financial security through urban living has its pitfalls; as our world gets increasingly urbanized, humanity is getting increasingly isolated from the marvels of nature and the simple life of the past.

A recent trip to a sea-side city in India afforded me an opportunity to wonder and marvel upon the Creation of Allah (swt). For what else can one do, when one is humbled by the pristine beauty in front of him? The shores each different from the other in appearance – some with clear water, others with angry waves, bordered by beaches covered in white or red sand, lined by sheer cliffs in some and surrounded by rocks in other, the sheer diversity of hues and colours takes one’s breath away. Having grown up in a sea-side town, the very nature of the beach from the soothing sound of waves to the cool breeze at the shore to the spectacular view of the sunset has always encouraged me to marvel at the creation of Allah (swt).

Yet, beaches are only a glimpse of the wide earth that Allah (swt) has created, and as one travels through the land one is, indeed, bound to be awestruck by the nature of His creation. Living as we are in cities, limited to glancing upon some trees in parks and roadside, we are isolated away from the beauty and wonder of the earth which serves an important purpose – to make the observer aware of Allah (swt) and His Perfection. Allah (swt) says in the Qur’an:

“Indeed, in the creation of the heavens and the earth and the alternation of the night and the day are signs for those of understanding.” (Chapter Aal `Imran:191)

He then explains that the people of understanding are those who remember Him often.

Contemplating on the fact that both the revealed verses and the creation of Allah (swt) is referred to as Ayah, the scholars of the past termed the creation as a Kitab al-Manzur (The Visual Book) and the revealed Ayah as Kitab al-Mastur (The Written Book). It is often said that the greatness of scientific inquiry during the Muslim Golden Era was due to the scientists’ curiosity of wanting to know how Allah (swt) made the physical realm work. The deeper they looked into this aspect, they more their faith grew, in the same way as the Prophet Ibraheem (asws) and his reflection over the heavenly bodies that he witnessed day and night. As time passed though, for various social and political reasons, the prominence of the Muslims fell away.

Comparing the breakneck speed of today’sscientific development to the days of the past, Muslims often wish that we could go back to the dominance of the old. After all, if our scientists were teaching the world then, why not today? The answer to this lies in the fact that the science of our forefathers in Islam and the science of today are built on completely opposite world-views. Whereas, in the past, science was based on increasing one’s faith in Allah (swt), today’s science, bereft of its connection with God, is increasingly used to challenge faith in Allah (swt).

People could argue that science and morality are two separate philosophies, and are necessarily distinct. Indeed, that was the argument between the church and the scientists which led to the end of the domination of one over the other. Post this fission, starting in the early 1800s, the technological advances that have taken place are simply astounding. Sample this: it took humanity a mere 150 years to go from inventing mechanized transport vis-à-vis the steam engine, to putting a man on the moon using rocket engines.

Divorced from the Divine Reality though, humanity, beginning from Europe, took economic progress through scientific achievement as the new purpose of life. MuhammedAsad’s words, in Road to Mecca, are evidently timeless when he said:

“The average European – whether democrat or communist, manual worker or intellectual – seemed to know only one positive faith: the worship of material progress, the belief that there could be no other goal in life than to make that very life continually easier or, as the current expression went, ‘independent of nature.’ The temples of that faith were the gigantic factories, cinemas, chemical laboratories, dance-halls, hydroelectric works; and its priests were the bankers, engineers, politicians, film stars, statisticians, captains of industry, record airmen, and commissars.”

Indeed, the world of today offers unparalleled luxury and, perhaps, the only difference between the world Asad described to us then and the one we inhabit today would be the definition of the European extending to a wider segment of the world.

But every fairy tale has a dragon as the villain, and so does this extraordinary tale of human genius and inventiveness. The earth today has become an exceedingly uncertain place to live in. Issues like global warming, climate change, polluted environment and depleting resources make headlines today. The attempted subjugation of the planet to expedite the path of economy and progress is rapidly coming back to haunt us. Extreme weather conditions, worsening food and water security and cities rendered unliveable due to pollution are the global problems that humanity has to contend with now.

Einstein seems prescient when he said: “No problem can be solved from the same level of consciousness that created it.” We, as humanity, are attempting to right the wrongs of the past; yet, we continue to do so within the narrow and limited vision of economic development. Efficiency, encouraged through penalties and taxes, is touted as the solution to all ills that would still allow unabated economic growth. The natural environment continues to be viewed as a resource to be exploited without any metaphysical significance.

Yet, as Muslims who understand the deeper implications of the natural world, it is imperative upon us to contribute urgently to the discourse of environmental responsibility. Living within a culture and atmosphere that denies God itself, it is the natural environment which can help us in contemplating over His existence and our duties towards Him. This relationship, however, extends in both ways. Only through contemplating God, the temporal nature of this life and the eternal abode of Hereafter, can we truly protect the environment from our greed for prosperity.

To give or not to give

BBC had a show sometime back called “Britian’s Biggest Hoarders”.  The show documented the lives of two individuals who had the habit of hoarding stuff and the effect of this habit on their spouses and children. Their houses were stuffed with things (sometimes from 30 years ago) like sardines in a tin can, leaving just enough room to sit and sleep. The condition is apparently called Compulsive Hoarding where the individual keeps acquiring items and perceives these items to have a higher value than their actual value. Such people can rarely bring themselves to discard these items even if they can’t make use of it anymore.

Why am I going on about this condition?

In preparing for my wedding next month, our apartment is being repainted. Ours is not a very large place and every day the painters do up one room. The painting process though has made me realize the amount of things we have. Before painting a room, my mum and I empty the stuff that can’t be covered up and move it to another room or the hall or wherever convenient. A few days of this juggling about has made me feel as if there is no end to things we have.

As I look around and see things that vary in size, shape, value, utility and age, I know why I need some things but what to do with others I can’t figure out. Some things I can remember when I got them, others I have no clue why they are here.  Some things hold sentimental value and others are just plain rubbish. Yet somehow I feel it is impossible to clean them out. In taking decisions about keeping, discarding or giving away an item, we always seem to side with keep it over chuck it. Somehow we always feel that this might be useful some other time.

Don’t get me wrong, we are the average household with the average number of things acquired over the years and we keep giving away stuff/ throwing them off as and when required. But when the issue of doing it all at once has come upon us, the task seems infinitely more difficult. We are handicapped in, India (depending on where you are) as compared to the west because of the lack of centralized and easily accessible services (both profit and not for profit) to get rid of stuff. This definitely adds to the bias but what bothers me is well known verse in the Quran and incident in the Prophet’s  life.

Allah says in the Quran  in the Chapter of the Cow

Righteousness is not that you turn your faces toward the east or the west, but [true] righteousness is [in] one who believes in Allah , the Last Day, the angels, the Book, and the prophets and gives wealth, in spite of love for it, to relatives, orphans, the needy, the traveler, those who ask [for help], and for freeing slaves; [and who] establishes prayer and gives zakah; [those who] fulfill their promise when they promise; and [those who] are patient in poverty and hardship and during battle. Those are the ones who have been true, and it is those who are the righteous.[2:177]

Notice how He says that piety is not just doing the outward rituals but it is to truly believe in Him and His commands. The belief then should cause the believer to do things in spite of its obvious difficulty. In this verse the first of such acts is to give from wealth you love to those who need it.

I am reminded of the incident where in preparation for the Battle of Tabuq, the two closest companions of the Prophet  competed to see who would give away more for Allah’s sake. Umar ibn Al Khattab gave away half his wealth and thought that would be enough. But when he saw Abu Bakr give away all his wealth Umar realized he couldn’t surpass Abu Bakr.

When the Prophet  asked Abu Bakr what he left for his household, he replied Allah and His Apostle, indicating his reliance in Allah’s providence. Today when I look at an old watch that nobody uses, I still loathe giving it away because I think I can fix it and use it again. This being items not in use, I wonder when will I be able to give away a watch that I am using to someone else who needs it. May Allah give you and me strength.

Hurricane Sandy’s wake

In the modern world where happiness is directly associated with the amount and value of our possessions, Allah still provides us opportunities to reflect. After Hurricane Sandy, millions of people lost their belongings and possessions, besides being in mortal danger. In Syria, people everyday wake up to the fear of destruction of their homes and families. These are just incidents in recent memory and there will always be many more to look towards and think about.

In spite of knowing the limited value of material things we hold on to it as if we are to live forever. The process of letting go is hard but working towards it is our real purpose. To end I would like to give you a quote by Imam Ahmed who was once asked –

” Can a man be extremely wealthy and still be modest?”

He replied, ” Yes, As long as he carries his money in his pocket and not in his heart “

I Pray that Allah makes it easy for us to give for His sake from that which we love. Ameen.

PS : Last year I was able to take part in Charity Week 2011 being in London through the Imperial College Islamic Society. This year seemed to be much bigger and better than last year (preview below). May Allah bless all the people who gave, the people who organised and the orphans who shall benefit. Ameen