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Mindful : December 2013
54 mindful December 2013 performance Such panoramic awa reness, alternating with his constant vigilance for a telling but rare signal, dema nds several varieties of attention—sustained at tention, alerting, orienting, and ma naging all of that—each based in a distinctly unique web of brain circuitry and each an essential mental tool. John’s sustained scan for a rare event represents one of the first facets of attention to be studied scientifically. Analysis of what helped us stay vig- ilant started during World War II, spurred by the milita ry ’s need to have rada r operators who could stay at peak alertness for hours. It was found that the operators missed more signa ls toward the end of their watch, as attention lagged. Current scientific study of attention goes far be- yond the study of vigila nce, since our at tention skills determine how well we perform any task. If they are stunted, we do poorly; if muscular, we can excel. This subtle faculty embeds within countless mental operations. A short list of some basics includes comprehension, memory, learning, sensing how we feel a nd why, reading emotions in other people, and interacting smoothly. Surfacing this invisible factor in effectiveness lets us better see the benefits of im- proving it a nd better understand just how to do that. We typically register the end products of atten- tion—our ideas, good a nd bad, a telling wink or inviting smile, the whiff of morning coffee—without noticing the beam of awareness itself. Attention, then, represents a little-noticed and underrated mental asset, which cognitive science studies in its many manifestations, including concentration, selective attention, and open awareness, as well as how the mind deploys attention inwardly to oversee mental operations. Vital abilities build on such basic mechanics of our mental life. For one, there’s self-awareness, which fosters self-management. Then there’s em- pathy, the basis for skill in relationships. These are funda mentals of emotional intelligence. And as we regard the world around us, we tune in to the com- plex systems that define and constra in our world. Such an outer focus confronts a hidden challenge in attuning to these vital systems: our brain was not designed for that task, and so we flounder. Yet systems awa reness helps us grasp the workings of an organization, an economy, or the global process- es that support life on this planet. A well-lived life dema nds we be nimble in all three kinds of focus: inner, other, and outer. In particular, for leaders to get results they need all three kinds of focus. Inner focus attunes us to our intuitions a nd guiding values. Other focus smooths our connections to the people in our lives. And outer focus lets us navigate the larger world. A leader tuned out of his internal world will be rudderless; one blind to the world of others will be clueless; those indifferent to the larger systems within which they operate will be blindsided. → To watch John Berger, house detective, track the shoppers wandering the first floor of a depart- ment store on Manhattan’s Upper East Side is to witness attention in action. In a nondescript black suit, white shirt, and red tie, walkie-talkie in hand, John moves perpetually, his focus always riveted on one or another shopper. Call him the eyes of the store. It’s a daunting challenge. There a re more than 50 shoppers on his floor at any one time, drifting from one jewelry counter to the next, perusing the Valen- tino scar ves, sorting through the Prada pouches. As they browse the goods, John browses them. John waltzes among the shoppers. For a few seconds he sta nds behind a purse counter, his eyes glued to a prospect, then flits to a vantage point by the door, only to glide to a corner where a perch allows him a circumspect look at a potentially sus- picious trio. What does he scan for? “It’s the way their eyes move or a motion in their body” that tips him to the intention to pilfer, John tells me. Or those shoppers bunched together, or the one furtively gla ncing around. “I’ve been doing this so long I just know the sig ns.” As John zeroes in on one shopper among the 50, he manages to ignore the other 49—and every- thing else—a feat of concentration amid a sea of distraction. We typically register the end products of attention—our ideas, good and bad, a telling wink or inviting smile, the whiff of morning coffee—without noticing the beam of awareness itself. Daniel Goleman is a psychologist and the author of Focus: The Hidden Driver of Excellence, from which this article is adapted. His other titles include Emotional Intelligence and Primal Leadership: Learning to Lead with Emotional Intelligence.