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Developing Personal Projects

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Find out more about my exhibit Antarctica here.

As a fine artist, I advance my career with personal projects. Personal projects also create a clearer direction for and develop greater meaning in my life. My life would be unfulfilled without them.
You don’t need to have a fine art career to benefit from personal projects. Many commercial photographers find that personal projects re-energize them, add purpose to their lives and quite often lead to new assignments or whole new streams of income. Many amateurs, making images purely for the love of doing it, find greater satisfaction and personal growth through personal projects.
As an artist who mentors other artists in workshops and seminars, I’ve often been called to speak about the importance of personal projects; how to find them, start them, develop them, complete them, present them, and promote them.
Here’s an overview of what I share.
Define a personal project.
Defining a project is one of the single best ways to develop your body of work. When you define a project you focus, set goals, set quotas, set timelines, create a useful structure for your images, collect accompanying materials, and polish the presentation of your efforts so that they will be well received.
Focusing your efforts into a project will help you produce a useful product. A project gives your work a definite, presentable structure. A finished project makes work more useful and accessible. Once your project is done, your work will have a significantly greater likelihood of seeing the light of day. Who knows, public acclaim may follow. Come what may, your satisfaction is guaranteed.
Create a mission and set goals.
Define the purpose of your project and what you’d like to achieve through it. Many times, people adopt the mission and goals of others without first checking if those goals are personally beneficial. Some have professional aspirations, others don’t. Your goals will help you determine projects and timelines that are appropriate for you. The few moments (or hours) you spend clarifying why you’re doing what you’re doing and what you’d like to see come of it will save you hours, months, even years by ensuring that you’re going in the right direction – a direction of your own choosing. When you take control of your personal projects, you also take control of your life.
Make a plan to achieve your goals.
A plan will help make your project a reality. A simple action plan is all you need to get started. Action plans define the steps that are required to achieve completion. Action plans should be clear and practical. Action plans should be flexible; odds are, things will not go exactly according to plan and you’ll need to modify your plan to accommodate surprises, both pleasant and unpleasant. Reality happens. Grace happens too. Having defined what you need to accomplish, your unconscious will go to work on the task, generating many ideas. You’ll find yourself ready to make the most of unexpected opportunities as they arise.
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Read more on creating goals, projects, and next actions here.
Set a timeline.
A timeline can be used to combat procrastination and/or distraction and encourage you to produce work. Set realistic timelines. Unrealistic timelines simply produce frustration.
Identify where and when you’ll need and who will help you.
While many artists define and produce projects themselves, some artists engage a curator, gallery director, publisher, editor, agent, writer, or designer to help them realize a project, in part or in whole. Finding the right collaborator(s) can improve any project. Above all, seek feedback. Seek feedback from people with diverse perspectives whose opinions you value and trust. One thing you can always use, that you can never provide for yourself, is an outside perspective. People with different perspectives may identify ways to improve, expand, or extend the reach of your project. Remember, feedback is food for thought, not gospel. In the end, all final decisions are your decisions; it’s your project.
Stay focused and follow through.
You can work on multiple projects at a time. Be careful that you don’t get scattered. Starting projects is easy. Finishing them is hard. Make sure you’re working on the best project. List all your possible projects and identify the ones that are most important and the ones that are easiest to finish. If you’re lucky enough that the same project fits both criteria, focus all of your efforts there. Otherwise, you’ll have to strike a balance between what’s practical and what’s most important to you. Only you can decide this and the balance is likely to shift as time passes and circumstances develop. Look for a common theme among projects. Often your projects will be related. Focus your efforts in related areas. It’s very likely those areas have greater relevance for you than others. Your work will be perceived as stronger and more cohesive if your projects relate to one another, implying evolution.
What’s your project?
A project is a wonderful thing. It gives direction. It brings clarity. It increases productivity. It produces tangible results. It brings personal growth. It presents your work in the very best light. You and your work deserve this. Pick your projects well. They define not only how other people see you but also what you become. You are what you do. Take the first step today; make a commitment to create a personal project. (Write something right now – put your words somewhere where you’ll constantly be reminded of them and can continue refining them!)
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Find extended versions of this content here.
Now, let me speak in more specific and personal terms, as a way of sharing a few more of the insights I’ve found over the many years I’ve developed personal projects.
Plan to plan.
Many people refuse to plan, especially in creative fields where discovery is desired. They say, “Failing to plan is planning to fail.” Everyone needs a plan. Often, when you start a project, knowing you need to learn more as you go forward, you feel like you don’t have enough of the pieces to make a plan or you don’t have all of the pieces to make a complete plan. My recommendation is to start with a rough plan and continue to refine it as you go.
Find my collection of quotes on planning here.
Stay flexible.
The best plans aren’t written in stone. The best plans remain flexible. Flexible plans allow you to make course corrections along the way as you learn more about your subject, your medium, yourself, and your audience. Expect to update your plan. I find that, if I don’t update my plan during the development of a project, this a clear indicator that I haven’t found the insight(s) necessary to complete it. I expect to be changed, for the better, by the projects I engage in. I expect to grow.
It helps to have a mission.
You have so many options before you, and so many more will soon present themselves to you, that you’ll find it challenging to choose which project(s) to move forward on or which path(s) to choose during project development. Defining a mission for your creative efforts in general will help ensure that you stay on track. I don’t take on a project unless it contributes to my mission (what’s achieved), reinforces my brand (how it’s communicated), or makes a lot of money (how it’s supported).
My mission is to “encourage conscientious creative interaction with our environment.”
Read my simple mission statement here.
The first time I went to Antarctica in 2005, I planned to make altered images. I was surprised that I had enough finished images by the end of the trip to exhibit a small body of images, that were comparatively unaltered. This represented a significant challenge to my brand. I found the challenge created to the public perception of my work in general was useful; rather than creating confusion, it clarified many things about my vision and my purpose, especially how I create images that are unaltered and altered in parallel with one another.
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Be prepared to be surprised.
You don’t have to know all the answers before you begin to work. You just have to know the most important questions. Creating is a matter of solving mysteries, of finding answers. You don’t have to solve a mystery completely; you just have to find a few answers that you can stand by. If you’re lucky, you’ll find new questions and new mysteries along the way.
The second time I went to Antarctica in 2007, I had a lot of questions about how to complete an unaltered body of work. How journalistic or cinematic should I be? Should I photograph everything I saw? Ultimately, I found a balance between my personal concerns and passions. I focused on climate. I returned with enough material to produce a book.
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Find the most current version of this ebook here.
Find your groove. Find your message.
Doing things consciously, repeatedly, and consistently brings mastery. Repeat your successes … and find meaningful variations on them. When you do this you give your work a theme and style, which communicate a message. When does a groove become a rut? Don’t worry about the rut too soon, most people don’t stick with one thing long enough to find a groove. They go off road, traveling anywhere and everywhere, by any and all means, and ultimately don’t end up anywhere in particular, much less a place to return to, a place they can call their own.
The third time I went to Antarctica in 2009, I expanded my body of work further adding relevant variety to the material. I searched the work I had produced to date and listed the missing pieces, as well as the ones I wanted to reinforce. Each voyage was significantly more productive than the previous one. I created a website to support and extend the project, which includes blog posts made live during the voyage and details my creative process.
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Explore my website Antarctica here.
Past projects lead to new projects.
Often the seeds of future work lie in present work. Themes that were unclear or latent, at the beginning of a personal project, once developed, lead to new lines of inquiry and more work. A creative life is never truly over. The best creative lives evolve; growing deeper, more complex and more sophisticated.
Now as I plant to return to Antarctica (Find out about my next Antarctica workshop here.), I’m developing my original idea of producing a body of altered images from a new perspective. As I recently sketched out this plan, once again, I realized much of the work is already done. I’ve been producing altered images with material from the region all along, but not presenting them in this way. Now my challenge is to develop them in a way that makes this collection cohesive and contrasts the collection of unaltered images in a useful way – or to move in an entirely new direction.
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Having developed an Antarctic body of work, I’ve also been developing an Arctic body of work, to create a useful comparison and contrast. I’d have gone to these regions sooner, but the opportunities came later. I learned I had to make the opportunity rather than wait for it – and that took another kind of planning, so did getting there at the right times of year. Now, like Antarctica, my Iceland and Greenland photography workshops are semi-annual traditions for me.
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Find a way to monetize your project.
Projects take time. Time is money. Don’t fall prey to the cliche that art and commerce are and should remain separate. If artists can’t make money with the fruits of their labors, then they need grants or patrons. Projects need funding. You often can’t do the work unless you can afford to do it. There are many expenses to consider – equipment, travel, production, collaboration, presentation, promotion, etc. You need to think about these things early in the development of a personal project or you may later find yourself without the necessary resources to finish it. So empower yourself with good business practices. You can be just as creative in business as you are in other arenas.
Prepare to make your work effective.
Even the best images will go unnoticed if they’re not presented and promoted properly. If you’ve spent a significant amount of time and resources to develop a personal project, you own it to yourself to see it presented well. This may be as simple as presenting your images well to yourself or as complex as promoting a publication and or exhibit, physically and/or virtually.
I’ve created my own exhibition / publication workflow. Framed exhibits are ready to ship with supporting biographies, statements, and press releases online. Complete bodies of work are supported by a portfolio of matted prints, also ready to ship, and a print-on-demand catalog. This makes producing, shipping, and promoting exhibits much easier, so I can readily respond to new opportunities at a moment’s notice.
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You can find PDFs of ready to ship exhibits here.
You can preview my current books here.
Make visible touchstones to guide your progress.
If you’ve got a personal project you want to complete, make a visible touchstone and keep it in one or more places where you can see it frequently. By doing this, you’ll be directing your conscious mind to focus on it and suggesting to your unconscious mind that this is a matter of importance – both will start to work on the challenge, even when you’re unaware of it. You will literally be sleeping on it. Many of the best ideas come during this period of gestation and incubation.
I print covers of unfinished book projects for developing series and display them in my studio.
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See the single ebook these two related projects produced.
Projects take time.
It’s unlikely that you’ll be able to finish a project in a day. Projects can take weeks, months, or even years to complete. Some projects are ongoing and never end, producing many milestones along the way (publications, exhibitions, commissions, etc). Some projects lie dormant for a period of time and then suddenly come to life again. Projects have a life of their own. Personal projects require commitment, but the depth of your commitment will be reflected in both you and your work and in the achievements you make with it.
I can’t recommend more highly that you start your own personal project – now.
Learn more about creative planning and goal setting here.
Learn more in my creativity and digital photography workshops.

Review Your Creative Plan Annually

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One of the things I do at the beginning of every year is review the accomplishments of the past year.
I take my projects list from the last year and color code it, assigning one color for done, one color for soon to be done, and another color for not done.
I want to know what happened. It feels great to see a list of everything that got done, especially when you get a significant surprise windfall. It can also be disappointing to see what didn’t get done, especially when the items that weren’t accomplished are important. Seeing it the items collected in one place is always revealing.
I want to do more than just see clearly what happened. I also want to know why things happened.
I find the vast majority of things that got done were things I identified as important and scheduled time for – wishing won’t make things happen. If something great and unexpected happened, I want to know why it happened, so I can make similar things happen again. If at the end of the year, I’ve completely rewritten my plan for the year, but it’s been substantially improved, I’m delighted.
If something important didn’t happen, I want to know why. I want to learn from my failures.  How many items are close to being done? (A calendar date can sometimes be arbitrary.)  Was something delayed for an important reason? Will the delay make it more successful? Did I not see the problem clearly? Were my expectations unreasonable? Did I not perform at peak? Did I overextend myself, taking on too many projects? Did I not allocate enough resources? Did I have the wrong team? Was the timing not right?  Did I get distracted? What I can do to avoid this in the future? How can this apply what I learned on one project to my other projects?
This yearly review helps me mentally consolidate everything I’ve accomplished and everything I’ve learned. Often, while I’m doing this review, I learn more things and find more ideas. At the end of the review, learn from my failures and repeat my successes. I want to know if I’m on track and moving forward toward my long term goals.
With those insights fresh on my mind, I make a new projects list for the next year.  (I copy last year’s list and delete everything that got done or is no longer relevant, add new items but be careful not to add an unrealistic number, and prioritize them.)
What plans will you make for your creative life now?
Learn more about creative planning and goal setting here.
Learn more in my creativity and digital photography workshops.

Planning Your Creative Success


Plan for success.
I don’t make New Year’s resolutions. I make those kinds of commitments at any time of year, whenever it becomes clear they’re necessary. But I do make plans at the beginning of every year. I review my Mission, Goals, Projects, and Actions lists. While I do this at the beginning of the year, this isn’t the only time I do it. I also do this every time I find something significant has changed in my life. Doing this helps me clarify where I want to go, make sure I’m on the path to getting there, outline the steps necessary to get there, and set realistic timelines. Doing this consistently has helped me more than double my productivity, in a meaningful way. It has also helped me make tough decisions when I’m faced with too many choices. It’s not that I didn’t have a life’s calling before I wrote my mission. It’s just that I wasn’t clear about it. Now I am. As a result, I feel personally empowered. To find my mission took a lot soul-searching, a little time, and it’s still a work in progress.
Make your plan.
Whether you’re engaged in your creative life professionally or simply as a vehicle for personal growth (an important distinction to make), I recommend you make a creative plan. If you do this, you too will find both your productivity and fulfillment will increase, in a way that’s meaningful to you. Having defined what you need to accomplish, your unconscious will go to the work of fulfilling it, generating many ideas over time. You’ll find yourself ready to make the most of unexpected opportunities as they arise. Put this all in writing using your own words. Writing increases retention 72%. If you write something down, you’ll be 75% more likely to take action on it. Remember, while other people can help you discuss and refine your plan as it develops, no one can do it for you. For you to truly understand and benefit from it, you have to do it. More importantly, for it to be right for you, it has to be yours.
Break it down into clear manageable pieces.
Set a mission (why you’re doing it), goals (what outcomes you want), projects (the big things you do)(set goals for 1 year, 2 years, 3 years, 5 years, and end of life) and actions (the small steps you take to getting your projects done)(detail your 1 year next actions list) for your creative life. You’ll have one mission, several goals, many projects, and innumerable actions.
Many people use a metaphor of varying altitude to describe the relationship between these parts; the mission is cruising altitude where you see the big picture while the actions are on the runway where you see more specific details. Moving from why to how to what, the higher levels are inclusive of all the lower levels, while the lower levels point toward achieving the prime directive. The specific words you choose for the higher levels are often more important than the words you choose for the lower levels, so it’s likely you’ll revise them many times. As you drill down, the items get more concrete, specific, timely, and numerous. For this reason, many people find that the most difficult part of the plan to do is the simplest, least detailed, but most abstract portion – the mission. Some like to work bottom up, rather than top down, because they can sink their teeth into something more concrete. You can work it either or both ways – top down or bottom up.
However you get there, make sure that when you arrive that your mission really resonates within you and is something that you would consider an inner calling, not something generated out of today‘s particulars and practical realities. A mission should call you to a higher ground of your own choosing and activate new inner resources along the way. Many find that by aligning their efforts with something greater than themselves (i.e. service to others), they do better work and derive more satisfaction from it than they could have first imagined.

I review my past year’s progress before I set a new year’s projects and action lists. Over time, I’ve found I’ve become more realistic about how much to take on and how long it will take to get things done. (But don’t be afraid to dream big! Blue sky thinking is important for connecting with your deepest values.) I always find a few things on my list that have been postponed (and I ask why) and a few get dropped altogether – because I decided to prioritize even better opportunities along the way. I also find that things get added to my past year’s list that weren’t on it at the beginning of that year. It’s important to be open to new opportunities along the way. For that reason, I recommend you review your lists periodically, especially when new major projects are considered. You’ll find this process gets easier every time you do it. The first time you do it is always the hardest; it requires a lot of soul searching and some setting up; once you find your answers and you set up your system it’s much easier to do the next time. A plan is a work in progress. The best plans are be flexible and evolve over time as you grow your vision with new information and perspectives.

The plans you make are there to further your progress. But if you don’t make plans, life just happens and you may not make the time for the things that matter to you most. Make that time.

What plans will you make for your creative life?
Start now!
Read more in my free PDF ebook Make Plans.
Learn more about creative planning and goal setting here.
Learn more in my creativity and digital photography workshops.
David Allen does an excellent job of describing this process in his books Getting Things Done and Making It All Work. I highly recommend them. They changed the way I live my life. And they’ve helped me be even more effective and fulfilled. But don’t wait to read his books to get started! Just get started!

Heather Hansen – Dancing To Draw



Having studied Theatre Design in Washington and Butoh dance in Japan, Heather Hansen’s passion knows no bounds. Inspired by Gutai action painters during her time in Japan—artists that famously threw mediums like paint or clay at canvases in post-war Japan—Heather creates life-size, symmetrical drawings capturing dance permanently on canvas. “I work to refine my kinetic drawing to something graphically and intentionally essential,” Hansen explains as we lounge in the backyard of her New Orleans home in the Marigny. “Charcoal allows me to record each gesture as it’s happening. You can see the story.”
“Dance has been a little overlooked in the arts, in part because it’s a little bit ephemeral,” she points out. “Music is too but it’s different, you can keep a tune in your head. With dance, people usually say, ‘Oh that was beautiful or that really made me feel something.’ They don’t remember the movements. They don’t have anchors for it. I’m primarily interested in finding ways to anchor dance.”
Find out more about Heather Hansen here.
View more performing arts inspiration here.

Borrow Lenses – Or Any Other Photographic Equipment Of Your Dreams


You can get discounts on rentals if you’re a member of my workshop alumni or my enews Insights.
Check the last issue of Insights or email info@johnpaulcaponigro.com.
I’m impressed! Short of winning the lottery and owning any and every piece of equipment you want, BorrowLenses is a dream come true. Reading online reviews can only go so far. There’s nothing like actually using the equipment. BorrowLenses lets you use the equipment of your dreams, in great condition, with lightning fast delivery and first-rate customer service. BorrowLenses helps me make more informed equipment purchases; I buy the equipment I buy with more confidence – after I’ve tested it. BorrowLenses has saved me money by helping me decide not to make certain purchases.
How does BorrowLenses work?
Shop for Photography & Videography Gear

  • Browse the largest online selection of photo and video gear
    available for rent on BorrowLenses.com.
  • Choose your rental duration, whether or not you want insurance.

Have It Shipped or Pick It Up

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    you want it shipped to your home or any UPS store or picked-up locally at one of dozens of locations across the US.

Shoot to Your Heart’s Content

  • Your order will arrive on the day you specify.

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It’s fast and easy!
Rent a lot? Become a BorrowLenses member.
You can also purchase used equipment at a discount.
Find out more about how to BorrowLenses here.
Browse BorrowLenses’ inventory here.

Cultures On The Edge – Modern Technology Empowering Ancient Ways – Chris Rainier – TEDx


“In a world so motivated by the future, how can we use modern technologies to capture the wisdom off the past?
Using the power of photography, Chris Rainier National Geographic Society Fellow takes us on a journey to cultures that are using modern technology smart phones, computers, cameras, and video to both preserve their quickly disappearing ancient traditions, as well incorporate traditional knowledge with cutting edge technology to find sustainable solutions for the pressing
global issues.
Traveling the planet for over thirty years, Rainier has been in a race against time – to document ancient communities struggling to save their ways of living for future generations. Now with the advent of technologically driven storytelling and social media – he focuses his energy on helping empowering indigenous communities to gather around the “fireplace” of the web to tell on a global level, socially important story’s for the survival of the planet – story’s of what it means to be alive and human in the 21st Century.
As a National Geographic Explorer and Photographer, Chris is most acclaimed for his documentation of Endangered Cultures around the globe. He is also Director of The Last Mile Technology Program, preventing traditional cultures from being left on the wrong side of the Digital Divide.”
Learn more about Chris Rainier here.
Read my conversation with Chris Rainier here.
View more 12 Great Photographs From Great Photographers.
View more in The Essential Collection Of Documentaries On Photographers.

How To Avoid Over Sharpening

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Identifying and developing a sensitivity for the artifacts digital sharpening produces will help you choose a sharpening method and what settings to use during any stage of your sharpening workflow. You can easily see the artifacts digital sharpening produces by overdoing it. Apply a filter like Unsharp Mask at maximum strength and look closely at what happens.
Following are the seven most common digital sharpening artifacts.
1. Noise
2. Exaggerated Texture
3. Visible Light Halos

4. Visible Dark Lines
5. Loss of Highlight Detail
6. Loss of Shadow Detail
7. Increased Saturation
These artifacts can be reduced in one or more ways.
Read more on Digital Photo Pro.
If you know what to look for, you’ll know what path to choose and how far down it to go. Training your eye for what to look for and understanding the upper limits of what other people find to be naturalistic, or at least not distracting, is the first step to developing your unique sharpening style. The second step is learning how to produce certain effects and avoid others with the tools at your disposal. Once you’ve taken these steps, you can take the third and final step, knowledgeably putting craft in the service of your vision to make compelling visual statements. Enhancing detail is one area of expertise that’s well worth mastering for all photographers.
Learn more in my digital photography and digital printing workshops.

28 Great Quotes On Open-Mindedness

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Enjoy this collection of quotes on Open-Mindedness.
“We all operate in two contrasting modes, which might be called open and closed. The open mode is more relaxed, more receptive, more exploratory, more democratic, more playful and more humorous. The closed mode is the tighter, more rigid, more hierarchical, more tunnel-visioned. Most people, unfortunately spend most of their time in the closed mode.” — John Cleese
“Minds are like parachutes — they only function when open.” — Thomas Dewar
“Where there is an open mind, there will always be a frontier.” — Charles F. Kettering
“One change always leaves the door open for the establishment of others.” — Niccolo Machiavelli
“When one door closes, another opens. But we often look so regretfully upon the closed door that we don’t see the one which has opened for us.” — Alexander Graham Bell
“Creative experiences can be produced regularly, consistently, almost daily in people’s lives. It requires enormous personal security and openness and a spirit of adventure.” — Steven Covey
“One never goes so far as when one doesn’t know where one is going.” — Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
“It’s amazing what ordinary people can do if they set out without preconceived notions.” — Charles F. Kettering
“Without an open-minded mind, you can never be a great success.” – Martha Stewart
“I’m looking for a lot of men who have an infinite capacity to not know what can’t be done.” — Henry Ford
“I consider it my job to nurture the creativity of the people I work with because at Sony we know that a terrific idea is more likely to happen in an open, free and trusting atmosphere than when everything is calculated, every action analyzed and every responsibility assigned by an organization chart.” — Akio Morita
“It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.” — Aristotle
“I had an immense advantage over many others dealing with the problem in as much as I had no fixed ideas derived from long-established practice to control and bias my mind, and did not suffer from the general belief that whatever is, is right.” — Henry Bessemer
“Science at its best is an open-minded method of inquiry, not a belief system.” – Rupert Sheldrake
“At the heart of science is an essential tension between two seemingly contradictory attitudes–an openness to new ideas, no matter how bizarre or counterintuitive they may be, and the most ruthless skeptical scrutiny of all ideas, old and new.” – Carl Sagan
“Anthropology demands the open-mindedness with which one must look and listen, record in astonishment and wonder that which one would not have been able to guess.” — Margaret Mead
“Sit down before facts like a child, and be prepared to give up every preconceived notion, follow humbly wherever and to whatever abysses Nature leads, or you shall learn nothing.” — Thomas Huxley
“I had an immense advantage over many others dealing with the problem in as much as I had no fixed ideas derived from long-established practice to control and bias my mind, and did not suffer from the general belief that whatever is, is right.” — Henry Bessemer
“The best weapon of a dictatorship is secrecy, but the best weapon of a democracy should be the weapon of openness.” – Niels Bohr
“If your everyday practice is open to all your emotions, to all the people you meet, to all the situations you encounter, without closing down, trusting that you can do that – then that will take you are far as you can go. And then you’ll understand all the teachings that anyone has ever taught.” – Pema Chodron
“If we open our hearts, we will also find open hearts – it is always mutual.” – Abbot Leo von Rudloff
“Life is your art. An open, aware heart is your camera. A oneness with your world is your film.” – Ansel Adams
“An artist’s duty is rather to stay open-minded and in a state where he can receive information and inspiration. You always have to be ready for that little artistic Epiphany.” – Nick Cave
“The spirit of jazz is the spirit of openness.” – Herbie Hancock
“I’m someone who is open-minded to new experiences because they teach you new things.” – Marilyn Manson
“The trouble with having an open mind, of course, is that people will insist on coming along and trying to put things in it.” — Terry Pratchett
“Now there’s a man with an open mind — you can feel the breeze from here!” — Groucho Marx
“By all means let’s be open-minded, but not so open-minded that our brains drop out.” – Richard Dawkins
Read more in The Essential Collection Of Creativity Quotes