Stories, Musings & The Vision Thing

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Home as a Vessel of Memory

What can we learn from the artifacts of a life left behind? If walls could speak – what would they tell us?


from Minka, My Farmhouse in Japan

Perhaps every dwelling has a story to tell – but a memoir about an ancient Japanese farmhouse, and the American journalist and his Japanese friend who transformed it into a living symbol of craftsmanship and culture, captivated the imagination of filmmaker Davina Pardo – just as her short documentary, Minka, captured mine.



Davina Pardo from the Global Oneness Project site


Davina Pardo:

I was intrigued by the idea of telling a person’s story through their home, and of this particular house as a vessel of memory.


Minka was inspired by this book, written by American journalist John Roderick, who had a celebrated career with the Associated Press reporting on evolving political and cultural changes in China and Japan, following WWII. Minka: My Farmhouse in Japan, chronicles Roderick’s later years living in his adopted homeland, Japan, and the simple but elegant home constructed for him by his friend, Yoshihiro Takashita.


from Minka: My Farmhouse in Japan

Roderick reported for the AP over five decades. Tom Curley, AP president and chief executive noted:

John was equal part lion and bon vivant. The result was a courageous reporter, elegant writer and marvelous storyteller.

The AP honored him with the rare title of Special Correspondent. His reporting helped shape American opinion on China. Still, with all his accomplishments as a journalist, he lived a challenging and rootless existence.

John Roderick beside a photo of himself with Mao Zedong, taken in China, in 1946.

John Roderick beside a photo of himself with Mao Zedong, taken in China, in 1946. From the Sydney Morning Herald



In thirty years as an AP reporter and foreign correspondent, I owned nothing of real value and didn’t want to… Mine had been… a carefree, rootless, vagabond life.

After years of that “vagabond life,” he found himself longing for something missing – a sense of belonging and a place he could call home. He would find both in the land he once hated – Japan.

John Roderick’s Early Days

John Roderick was born at the start of WWI in rural Waterville, Maine, and orphaned at 16. He wrote for his high school and college papers and joined the Associated Press in 1937. Four years later, in “a day which will live in infamy,” Japan launched a sneak attack on Pearl Harbor. War was declared and Japan became a hated enemy.


A mixture of fact, fiction and propaganda… persuaded me, and millions of other Americans, that Japan was evil and the Japanese were monsters, buck-toothed, near-sighted, slow-witted, and cruel.

John joined the army and was sent to Yale to learn Japanese as an interpreter. The Office of Strategic Services recruited him and sent him to China. At the war’s end, John rejoined the AP and flew to Yan’an, the besieged capital of the Chinese communists, to cover Mao Tse-tung and his revolutionaries in their fight to take over China.

ap file 1946 with Mao Zedong

AP file photo of John Roderick with Mao Zedong

For seven months, Roderick lived in a cave alongside Mao and other Chinese communists leaders as they plotted to wrest power from the authoritarian government of Chiang Kai-shek. Roderick at first admired Mao and chronicled his rise. Later, he reported on the Chinese leader “turning from agrarian idealist to dictatorial tyrant.” For many in the West, it was Roderick’s journalism that helped part the bamboo curtain surrounding Chairman Mao and communist China.


AP photo Roderick in China

Roderick also covered the Partition of Palestine and early days of Israeli independence, and reported on the Viet Minh victory at Dien Bien Phu that seized control of Viet Nam from the  French. Often he found himself witness to a clash of cultures and ideology. Perhaps life in China would someday offer the opportunity for a more peaceful, reflective life.


I loved the Chinese and their culture so much I planned to end my career and retire in Beijing. When I lived there in 1947, it was a sleepy, dusty city of scholars, philosophers, and unfocused dreamers. I felt I had the qualifications—it didn’t take much— to become one of those dreamers.

Roderick and Japan

Then, in 1959, the AP sent him to report on Japan’s re-emergence as one of the world’s superpowers. Arriving in Japan, he began to see a former enemy with new eyes.


Japan Times photo


“I expected to find the city peopled with the cruel and unattractive stereotypes of wartime propaganda… After years of hating the Japanese, I suddenly found them attractive, intelligent and enthusiastic about democracy and its freedoms… I was willing to stop thinking of the Japanese as enemies and tentatively consider recognizing them as friends.”


from Minka, My Farmhouse in Japan

Among his newfound Japanese friends, Roderick became close with a young man, Yoshihiro Takishita (Yochan), who shared a similar rural upbringing and nostalgia for a simpler time.

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Yoshihiro Takashita (Yochan), from Minka: My Farmhouse in Japan


Yochan was not an ordinary young man. For one thing he had an American sense of humor, an ability to laugh at himself, and a disdain for conventions. His relationship to his parents, and to me, could be described as affectionate, leavened with a large dose of bantering.

As their friendship grew, Yoshihiro’s family also befriended John and even found him a home – a 250-year-old hand-built farmhouse, with a thatched roof held together by wooden pegs and joinery.

Screen Shot 2015-12-22 at 4.38.54 PM

from the Minka site

It was located in a distant hamlet, about to be abandoned and washed away by flooding. With Yoshihiro’s encouragement, and not wanting to disappoint the Takashita family, Roderick said “yes” to the farmhouse and the price of 5,000 yen.


5,000 yen in those days was the equivalent of fourteen U.S. dollars. I could hardly believe my ears. Hate it though I did, and though I didn’t want it at any price, I recognized that this drafty but magnificent old house was worth considerably more than that.

Roderick’s Minka Home


Roderick’s minka was built in 1734, photo from the Minka site

From a review of Roderick’s book:

Roderick graciously bought the house, but was privately dismayed at the prospect of living in this enormous old relic lacking heating, bathing, plumbing, and proper kitchen facilities. So the minka was dismantled and stored, where Roderick secretly hoped it would stay, as it did for several years.

But Roderick’s reverence for natural materials and his appreciation of traditional Japanese and Shinto craftsmanship eventually got the better of him.


from Minka, My Farmhouse in Japan

Before long a team of experienced carpenters were hoisting massive beams, laying wide wooden floors, and attaching the split-bamboo ceiling. In just forty days they rebuilt the house on a hill overlooking Kamakura, the ancient capital of Japan.


from Minka, My Farmhouse in Japan

From these humble beginnings, Roderick’s minka has become internationally known and has hosted such luminaries as President George H. W. Bush, and Senator Hillary Clinton.

Yoshihiro Takashita

Craig Mod 2

Yoshihiro Takashita photo by Craig Mod

Yoshihiro took charge of reconstructing the minka.


I was an amateur, but I knew it had been done in Japan before, many times. Those old houses were built by carpenters who were really architects as well as craftsmen.

A few years after the minka was built, Yoshihiro married and, encouraged by John, developed a successful business in Japanese antiques. He became a leading architect in reconstructing Japanese farmhouses and eventually rebuilt over forty minkas, including elaborate projects in Argentina and Hawaii.


My kind of Japanese minka farmhouse is a shrine… All I know is that there is some kind of mystery of the space of these houses that gives a kind of healing power. It’s very comforting.

The Japanese government honored Roderick with its Order of the Sacred Treasure. In his later years, he adopted Yochan to insure their minka would be passed on to him when John died.


from Minka, My Farmhouse in Japan

Roderick, thinking back on his relationship with Yochan and his family, wrote:

It was the beginning of a relationship that has lasted more than forty years. The Takishitas have become my surrogate family, Yochan my adopted son. Because of them, our lives have changed and my long journey to Japan, which began in unreasoning hatred, has turned to love.

Screen Shot 2015-12-22 at 4.39.09 PM

from the Minka site


from the Minka site

Davina Pardo’s Film, Minka

As Roderick’s health declined, Davina Pardo flew to Japan, hoping to capture his story, but John passed away a few days before she arrived. It fell to Yochan to tell the story of his friend and adopted father, John Roderick, and his beloved minka home.

minka_davina_pardoGlobalOnenessProject_photoDavina Pardo:

“We had always thought of it as a film about memory, but the tone changed; it became more of an elegy to John and a story about loss. Otherwise, our sense of the house as a metaphor for a relationship stayed consistent.”



Here’s the film. It runs 15 minutes, so find a quiet time to watch.

I love the gentle pace and sensibility of this video, the moments of stillness and the use of natural sound. The imagery too, evokes the simple beauty of the minka as Yochan, with a gentle dignity, tells us John’s story and the story of their home. There’s sadness there, a sense of loss and the memory of joyful times, too. More so, as narrator Yochan brings a sense of distance and respect that gives the piece an elegaic quality.

I think the minka and friendship with Yochan and his family finally gave John a sense of belonging and served as a relief to the hurly burly of life as a foreign correspondent.

When I first saw this film, I felt like I was being welcomed into a space that sheltered an extraordinary friendship. John Roderick came to Japan with a certain trepidation and found instead a sense of place, a home and something deeper… love.

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from the Japan Times


I saw that the backbone and resolve of Japan lay… in the enduring values of the villages: hard work, communal spirit, fatalism, love and respect for nature, superstition, religious fervor, and a refusal to admit defeat no matter what the odds they face.


I hope you enjoyed the video and this post. Please send me your comments and share your thoughts. And thanks for reading.

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a view from their minka, from the Minka site





Viktor Koen’s Steampunk Illusions

Viktor Koen’s steampunk visions populate a world of intricate illusions. He delights in making the physically impossible seem likely and predictable. Steampunk, conceived as a genre of science fiction, envisions a retro futuristic world powered by steam and the machine age.


detail from movie poster for Metropolis

Think of  Fritz Lang‘s Metropolis. In some sense, steampunk is a counterpoint or perhaps alternative universe to our own ever-digital, virtual world. Steampunk these days is often more about fashion, design and a look, like the one Viktor Koen is wearing.


Viktor Koen, from the TedxAthens site

His visual mix of the familiar with the fantastic is intriguing, graceful and strange – but all his images are quite carefully constructed, giving them an air of authenticity.

D.P.Toy No.19.72

D.P.Toy No.19.72

Perhaps you might see his creations as a commentary on our cultural icons of childhood, or a somewhat menacing satire exploding nostalgia and sentimentality.

D.P.Toy No.05.72

D.P.Toy No.05.72

Are we looking at the work of an adult exploring child’s play, a commentary on contemporary society, or just the musings of a fantastically gifted but peculiar artist?

D.P.Toy No.03.72

D.P.Toy No.03.72

However you want to categorize it, we’ve encountered Viktor Koen‘s work many times, perhaps without realizing it. Here are just a few mainstream examples:


cover of the NYT Book Review


Cover from Huffington Post Magazine




Cover for the NYT Dining Out Section

He’s an amazingly prolific and sought after graphic and visual artist, creating illustrations for major publications and personal work that juxtaposes images and ideas to make a point. He comes from a mix of cultures – born in Greece, trained at the Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design in Jerusalem, Israel, with an MFA with honors from the School of Visual Arts in New York City.


Viktor Koen in his studio, photo by Max Eternity

But, be warned, if you’re intrigued by what you see, you may find yourself spending hours wandering through the myriad images that haunt his website or at other sites that display his creations.

D.P.Toy No.40.72

D.P.Toy No.40.72

Because he’s so prolific, I thought I’d just write about two of his series, a fabricated collection of strange playthings he calls Dark Peculiar Toys and his Toyphabet. These two barely scratch the surface of what he’s about, but they do illustrate two recurring themes in his work – typography and mashups of the weird and wonderful.

Here’s Viktor, from an interview in Art Digital Magazine, talking about what led to his exhibit of Dark Peculiar Toys

I’m a toy collector.  I go to flea markets and fight with children over a bin of toys.  There’s no better excuse to buy toys, but to work on a series of toys.  I have a great time playing with them visually.

D.P.Toy No.10.72

D.P.Toy No.10.72

My father was an industrial designer and he gave me some of his old books and diagrams, and I retooled it to match the fictitious toys.  The whole project was very playful.  I always wanted to have these dark toys.

D.P.Toy No.20.72

D.P.Toy No.20.72

A lot of these are trial and error.  The juxtaposition of the sweet and something very wrong is something I always look for.

D.P.Toy No.16.72

D.P.Toy No.16.72

From Viktor’s Artist Statement about the exhibit

I photographed toys and objects that I collected through the years and travels, some of them parts of my personal childhood, and then mixed and matched them for hours. While this was a different form of play, the magic was the same.

D.P.Toy No.15.72

D.P.Toy No.15.72

A year after his Dark Peculiar Toys exhibit was launched, he used some of those concepts to create a mashup of the alphabet in his exhibit Toyphabet. He loves typography and finding just the right combination of alphabetical form and toy imagery was more difficult than you might think.



Viktor, from his Artist’s Statement:

Since typography is an addiction of mine and fusion a second nature to me, illustrated type became a natural extension of my work. The challenge of preserving the integrity of the type forms made the process of mixing and matching a complicated one. The result was characters with unexpected symbolic attributes, true to the original point of the series – that children are formulated way too early to the troubles ailing their parents.

I think there’s some part of us that enjoys being teased  about strange possibilities – like when we muse about an especially vivid dream. I think one of the attractions of Viktor’s work is how it seems so natural and strangely authentic while clearly it is not. The intricacy of the constructions makes us curious to find out more.

D.P.Toy No.09.72

D.P.Toy No.09.72

His work conjures an eclectic group of emotions and, while I wouldn’t want to encounter any of these object creatures in”real life,” they still tease the imagination with interesting possibilities. Maybe that’s the attraction of Viktor’s steampunk visions. We spend so much time plugged in to one machine or other, perhaps his creations point the way to the burgeoning cyborg in all of us.

D.P.Toy No.18.72

D.P.Toy No.18.72

At any rate, his work helps us see the world differently and for that we can be cautiously thankful. No, it’s not a lovely vision, but it does seem to echo the impermanence of our times and the hyper-wired world we find ourselves navigating.

So what do you think about his work? Do you like it? What does it conjure up for you? Leave a comment and share your thoughts.




The Courage to Fail

Courage and Failure

It takes courage to embrace the possibility of failure. It isn’t failure itself, but the fear of failure that keeps us from stretching or going beyond our comfort zone. When something inside us suggests the possibility of “yes,” fear of failure compels us to say “no.” Fear of failure makes us anxious and uncertain. We do what we can to avoid it – take the safe route and stick to what’s expected. And we tell ourselves that taking the safe path is the reasonable thing to do. It certainly seems reasonable. But it can also be about listening to the fear.

paper bag thinking.com2

From the site

On the other hand, we can see that our lives are about the choices we make. Which path do we pursue? What do we bring with us on the journey? Courage helps us face our fears – face the anxiety of the unknown and go forward. Courage is about embracing risk and accepting that our choices may include the possibility of failure.

“Living My Most Fearful Self”

If you’re not familiar with her work, I’d like to introduce you to Debbie Millman.

Debbie Millman from The Great Discontent website

A prolific designer/educator/author/interviewer, Debbie has been exploring the creative life in terms of risk, failure and courage. From an interview on The Great Discontent website:

From the Portable Talks website

My first ten years after college were experiments in rejection and despair. I knew that I wanted to do something special but, frankly, I didn’t have the guts to do anything special. When I graduated, I didn’t feel confident enough, optimistic enough, or hopeful enough to believe that I could get what I really wanted. I wasn’t living what I would consider to be my highest self—in fact, I was probably living my most fearful self.

She goes on to talk about the role serendipity played in her life.

My whole life has been one thing leading to another, leading to another, and then another. It has been completely circuitous and mostly unplanned. Lately, I have been thinking a lot about these chance encounters: those elusive happenstances that often lead to defining moments in our lives.

Those Elusive Moments of Serendipity

Many of the amazing opportunities I’ve had in my career came from those same elusive moments of serendipity. More than that, the best assignments were the ones that scared me – the occasions when I said “yes” and then had to draw my own road map on how to get it done.

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Title capture from the PBS series “Mini-Dragons’

I was once asked if I would go to Japan to teach the NHK TV documentary team how to craft their stories in the feature documentary style. I would have to show them how to structure their documentaries without narration or talking heads and to create dramatic visual scenes with a beginning, middle and end – in other words, to show, not tell the story. I knew from the start I would be walking into polite but hostile territory and that it would be an enormous challenge to make it work, but I said “yes” despite the fact that I’d never done anything like that before.

It was a great time of personal growth. I stretched the limits of what I thought I could do and ended up surprising myself. Yes, it was difficult and challenging and often I was running scared, but it taught me that it’s more important to say “yes” and accept the fear than take the safe route, avoid failure, and drift into boredom and mediocrity. I’ve done both and doing the scary thing yields better results – when you work at the edge of your comfort zone you feel better about yourself and more alive. It’s also more fun.

A Cool Video on Failure, Safety and Courage

I want to get back to Debbie Millman and her video “Fail-Safe” exploring risk, failure and courage. There’s a link to it a little farther down the piece.

From the Adobe Inspire website

I really like the video’s message and its simple but effective approach to telling a story – her story really. Here’s a quote that launches the story:

From the Adobe Inspire website

I lingered at the intersection peering deep into my future and pondered the choice between the secure and the uncertain, between the creative and the logical, between the known and the unknown.


I think many of us can harken back to a moment when we confronted a choice about which direction to embrace – the easy or difficult path. Underlying the uncertainty was our fear of failure v. our willingness to embrace risk. Looking back, she talks about her own fear of failure and insecurity, the choice she made and where it led her.


From the Adobe Inspire website


I feel like everything I’ve done has required some risk. I don’t think you can achieve anything remarkable without some risk.

Her video “Fail-Safe,” is from the Fast Company Design website via the Inspire.Adobe site.

You can click on the link to watch the video here.

The Road Less Traveled

We often admire entrepreneurs, leaders who show courage and other risk-takers. Still, it takes gumption and grit to say “yes” instead of “no.” site

From the Die Line website

Risk is actually a rather tricky word because humans aren’t wired to tolerate it very much. The reptilian part of our brains wants to keep us safe. Anytime you try something that doesn’t have any certainty associated with it, you’re risking something, but what other way is there to live?


It’s a lot easier to look back at your life and evaluate your decisions than be standing at a crossroads and know which way to turn. As I told my kids growing up, it’s more important to make a decision. If it turns out not to be a good choice, then you can correct it with another decision. I’ve also found that taking the hard road, embracing the difficult route that causes you to stretch and push your comfort level, yields a more satisfying outcome. Yes, you may stumble, make mistakes and perhaps fail. But echoing Debbie Millman, how else do you learn and grow?

I’ll let Robert Frost make the final argument:


Robert Frost from the Heavy Laden Bookshelf website

The Road Not Taken

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;


Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,


And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.


I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.


Have you faced similar issues or choices? What’s your experience? Leave a comment and let me know.


Exploring the Creative Process – Michael Wolff

What’s the creative process all about? That’s the question designer and creative thinker Michael Wolff has been exploring. After a long and luminous career, he appears in a number of videos talking about inspiration, creativity and making an impact. I’d like to share some of his insights about the creative process – his ideas speak directly to anyone trying to find an innovative way to meet a challenge or solve a problem. As he comments at


Michael Wolff from

The task of designing has too often become one of persuading people to absorb some facts and think positively about them, rather than to evoke feelings of interest, pleasure, empathy, delight or inspiration. If we could move our clients into story telling, we’d be able to tell their unique stories and trust people to decide if it’s an interesting story to them or not. 

In other words, building empathy and forging an emotional bond are key to communicating with your audience. It’s not just about ideas or information – if you don’t create a personal connection, you’ll quickly loose their attention. In making a video, for example, one of your primary goals is to help the viewer build an emotional bond with your subject. The same is true in documentaries, commercials or political spots. Once you like or feel good about the person, then you’re ready to learn more or hear what they have to say. When I work on video projects, I put a lot of effort into making that first impression a good one.

Life-Times photo

Life-Times photo

I recently watched a video profile of Michael Wolff from Intel’s Visual Life series that I’d like to share with you. By hanging out with Michael as he wanders his townhouse, makes tea, peruses his wardrobe of colorful shirts and prepares a meal, we get a sense of how everyday moments of life are a reflection of his way of looking at the world, and thinking about design and the creative process. Produced by m ss ng p eces, the video shows great attention to detail, with lots of well-chosen closeups to ponder as you accompany him through his day.

I like the video’s unhurried pace. As Michael talks about paying close attention to the world around you, the video’s style – lingering on closeup images that echo his words – works elegantly with what you’re seeing and hearing, and gives you time to absorb and reflect upon his thoughts.

Some Observations on the Creative Process

Michael Wolff talks about the value of a holistic education. I’ve found that useful too, in this age of specialization. Often, something I’ve learned in one area aides my ability to explore and understand another. Also, creative people need variety to grow and flourish. Once you master something it no longer holds the same fascination and seduction that first drew you to it. Specialization easily leads to boredom – and boredom dulls the creative process.


from the website

Michael goes on to describe “three muscles of seeing” – curiosity, appreciation (what I would call mindfulness) and imagination. In Michael’s view, creativity underpins innovative solutions to problems – that’s one reason we should value the creative process. If we hope to develop creative solutions to meet our challenges, how do we get there? That’s where Michael’s three muscles come in.


Curiosity – asking “Why?” – is the first step on the path to understanding. Being curious allows you to dig more deeply, challenge conventional wisdom and discover underlying issues or facts that can clear the way to more elegant solutions. Instead of making assumptions based on what you already know, asking “Why?” can lead you to surprising answers and insight. Michael Wolff likes to clear his mind of assumptions, start out fresh and ask questions. Asking “Why?” can help you uncover information that might otherwise be overlooked or ignored. As Michael said in the video:


from the website


“Everybody knows that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. What few people realize is it’s only through the parts that the whole gets delivered. I see “seeing” as a muscular exercise, like I see curiosity. It’s a kind of being open, really: if you walk around with a head full of preoccupation, you’re not going to notice anything…”

 Appreciation (Mindfulness)

I live in a cornucopia of sight, smell and sound we call the city, but most people passing by focus their attention on a little electronic device and shut out everything else. In a sea of sensation it’s difficult to practice mindfulness and be open to the ever-shifting environment.

I speak from experience. For years, each weekday morning I would leave home, earbuds in place, and let my music provide a bouncy soundtrack for my morning walk to the metro. One day I realized I was so intent on the music powering me to my destination, I was blocking out everything. No birds, no wind rustling the leaves, no footsteps, no traffic, no rush of everyone else scurrying to work. So I reversed course, left my iPod at home and began to observe the day.

There was so much to take in. Now I often pause to watch the little dramas playing out around me, like the time I saw a robin chase a squirrel up and down a tree, across a lawn and into a hedge – and then strut back like some mini-macho cowboy who just rode the rodeo bull.

Mindfulness lets you be open to experience without preconception or judgement. The less you prejudge, the more likely you can find an innovative response to the problem at hand. Steve Jobs liked to take walks to mull over problems. Walking gave him a quiet space to explore, consider and ponder. Also, being mindful leaves you open to receive what others have to offer.


Curiosity and mindfulness spark the imagination. Giving your imagination full flight can lead to break-through solutions. The three together are the wellspring of creativity. Michael Wolff would also encourage you to give up your ideas. As he puts it, if you don’t hang on, if you let them go, then you create the space for new ideas to bubble up. Your first idea may not necessarily be your best, it may just be the first step on the way to getting your creative juices flowing.

On Michael Wolff’s website you’ll see some pithy thoughts about design and the creative process along with a series of favorite cartoons. It’s well worth a visit. Two thoughts in particular stand out: MichaelWolff


Goodbye to letting the data decide. And a warm welcome back to reflection, intuition and judgement. Great leaps forward come from asking the right ‘big’ questions. That’s why I always start thinking with not knowing any answers.

If you want more, Michael explores creativity and his approach to his work here and gives a slide show of his past designs and a talk about branding and dealing with clients here.

I like his reminder to keep an open mind, to question assumptions, to give yourself time to explore and then delve deeply for answers. To all of that I would add this – be quick to listen and slow to speak.

So what’s your experience with the creative process? Do you find Michael Wolff’s ideas useful? Do you like what he has to say? Leave a comment and share your thoughts.

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