Storytelling at Work
November 30, 2018
STORY: The Great Connector

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Storytelling for the Revolution
Storytelling at Work
Awake at the Wheel
Illustration: gapingvoid

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November 29, 2018
Jim Valvano ESPY Speech

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November 26, 2018
The Riches Under Your Pillow

Excerpted from this book
Mitch Ditkoff

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November 25, 2018
Helping Children Truly Understand the Moral of a Story

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As a so-called "thought leader"in the field of storytelling and an author of two books on the topic, Storytelling at Work and Storytelling for the Revolution, I tend to think that I am quite knowledgeable about the matter. And while this may true in some ways, a few months ago I had a chance to experience how little I really understand.

My epiphany was not sparked by newly released research or attending a storytelling conference or reading someone else's book on the subject. No. My epiphany was sparked by a most unusual suspect or should I say suspects -- 26 second grade students attending Al Siraat College, an Australian K-12 school, in the Islamic tradition, just outside of Melbourne.

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As part of my series of one-month residencies at Al Siraat, I had been invited by one of the school's most progressive teachers, the delightful Ms. Najma, to teach her second grade class how to write and tell stories.

Ms. Najma's invitation had come as quite a surprise to me, especially since I had never taught a second grade class before, my usual students being upwardly mobile movers and shakers from a wide variety of corporations. Not a single student in Ms. Najma's class has a corner office, reserved parking space, or high blood pressure. What they did have, however, was a noticeable twinkle in their eye and a whole lot of curiosity about what it took to become a writer and teller of memorable tales.

Up for the challenge, I spent the night before immersed in the process of figuring out what a three-week storytelling curriculum for 8-year olds might look like. I googled. I noodled. I made some lists. But in the end, it was clear to me that this was going to be an organic process and that all I really needed to come up with, in the moment, was a game plan for Class #1. The rest of the eight classes I had been asked to teach would take care of themselves.

Class #1 was a gas. Apparently, my quirky sense of humor, non-traditional approach to teaching, and willingness to begin the class with a juggling demonstration was more than enough to win the kids over. In just a few minutes I had them in the palm of my hand, or, if not the palm, then at least somewhere near my elbow -- close enough to maintain their attention for the duration or the class. They loved it. I loved it. And the aforementioned Ms. Najma loved it.

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Not wanting to overload them, I kept things as simple as possible, asking them to tell me why stories mattered, why stories were so popular, and what their favorite fairy tales were. Then I gave them a brief tutorial about the five elements of a story (i.e. protagonist, setting, plot, obstacle, and resolution) and a lively conversation followed. Boom! Victory! They got it!

A bow, a wave of the hand, and a promise to see them on Wednesday and I was out the door, quite a buzz behind me -- a roomful of 8-year olds psyched to be diving into the cool pond of storytelling.

Class #2 was not only gas. It was also a hoot. I read one of my own stories and after it was told, we deconstructed it together -- teaching, you might say, from the "inside out". Indeed, now that Ms Najma's second graders had listened to and observed a story being told, it was easy for them to respond to my questions -- and so they did, many hands going up and being waved in my face.

"Mr. Mitch, Mr Mitch... call on me. Call on me!"

Inspired as they were, I gave each of them a post-it pad and one instruction -- to think of a story they wanted to write and, as soon as they thought of it, to write the title of their story on a sticky note. Which they were all happy to do (even if this particular sentence is technically a sentence fragment and a teacher, somewhere, at this precise moment in time, is probably gearing up to correct me.)

Somehow, for an 8-year old, having a title for their story is extremely beneficial. Like having a handle for a cup, it provides leverage and a sense of power -- something all of us can use just a little more of these days.

Titles written, I asked each student to read their title to the rest of us -- which they did in a heartbeat. Wow! 26 stories were starting to take shape, 26 products of their imagination that would soon be written and read!

Class #3 was the day of my unexpected epiphany -- a lesson I will never forget. Not in this life and not in the next, if there is a next. Technically speaking, I was the teacher. But in reality, I was the student and the students were the teachers -- even if they had no idea that what I was just about to experience would be a life changing moment for me, as a teacher, writer, father, and storyteller.

For most second graders and, indeed, for most of the rest of humanity, stories are a kind of entertainment, a pleasant way to pass the time or be distracted from the "real world" -- especially since most of the stories we read or listen to are fiction. The real purpose of storytelling, however is not to distract, but to communicate a meaningful, memorable, message -- a timeless piece of wisdom that will evoke, in the reader or listener, increased awareness -- what most of us have come to know as "the moral of the story."

The seed. The teaching. The takeaway.

This is the topic I wanted to introduce to Ms. Najma's class of second graders -- how to increase the odds of the stories they wrote having some kind of meaningful message at it's core -- that what they were about to write had the potential to impact their readers in a positive way, and that even, as an 8-year old, they had the power to communicate something of great value to others.

At first, upon bringing up the topic, the students just looked at me blankly, like I was introducing them to geometry. Taking my cue from their obvious confusion, I floated out the titles of a few fairy tales and asked what they thought the morals or messages embedded in those tales might be. Bingo! They got it. The concept clicked. Game on! So I gave each of them another post-it pad (invented, by accident, by the way, in 1968) and asked them to write down the key message of their story.

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Two minutes. That's all the time it took them. Only 90 seconds longer than it takes for a kid to eat a cookie.

"Fantastic! That's great! Good job! Now, please stand up, come to the front of the room, and post the morals of your stories on the board."

Twenty-six students stood. 26 students found their way to the front of the room. 26 students posted, thrilled that their story's message was now, somehow, official. Then, at my instruction, they sat down on the floor, so I could, one by one, read each of the their morals aloud for everyone to hear.

It felt a bit like Christmas morning, 26 presents just about to be opened.

In no particular order, I removed the first sticky note from the white board and read it aloud.

"Don't be rude," I announced to the class. "OK," I added. "That's the first moral of someone's story: 'Don't be rude'. Now let's see what the second one is all about."

I pulled the second one off the wall.

"Don't be mean." And then I pulled a third, "Don't go outside." And a fourth, "Never talk to strangers." And a fifth, "Don't interrupt".

A definable, disturbing pattern was emerging. Every single moral was a negative one. Every message began with either "Don't" or "Never". One by one, I pulled each and every sticky note off the wall and read them to the class. And one by one, I began to understand what the 26 second graders in Ms. Najma's class really thought stories were -- cautionary tales. What not to do. What shouldn't be done. Behaviors that were either not permissable, dangerous, or bad.

Oops!

I could feel a great sadness welling up inside me. But at the same time, I could also feel a great opportunity, as I, again, read the first moral of the story aloud: "Don't be rude."

"Can anyone tell me another way the writer of this story could say the same thing -- maybe in a way that offered the reader a positive message?"

"Be kind?" one of the students offered.

"Yes. 'Be kind' is another way the moral of that story can be expressed. And do you know why delivering the message in this way is something you might want to try?"

"Because it feels better?" replied one of the kids. "Because it's not so scary?" said another.

"Exactly! You got it!" I responded. "And also because framing the moral or message of your story in a positive way gives the reader or listener something they can do -- a positive behavior they can try."

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Class over, I made a bee line to the office of Mufti Aasim, the spiritual Director of Al Siraat and the Head of Islamic studies. I wanted him to know what I had just experienced and I wanted his sage input.

His response was immediate.

He put his head in his hands, closed his eyes, and shook his head from side to side, lamenting about the phenomenon I had just described and the way in which society, schools, and parents have misused stories for far too long. Then, he asked if he could read me a few passages from the Quran which represented the essence of that holy book and how the true teachings of Islam focus on the bright side of what's possible -- what we can do, not what we can't.

If Mufti Aasim and I were going to write our own moral to the story on a sticky note at that moment in time and place it on the nearest whiteboard it would have said something like "Speak your truth with love" or "Learn from your experiences," or "Life is full of choices."

And one of those choices, which I offered Mufti Aasim on the spot, was to substitute for the substitute teacher (me) on Friday and teach Ms Najma's class himself -- an opportunity to speak about the power and meaning of storytelling in the Islamic tradition.

This he did with great love, patience, clarity, and wisdom -- reading three stories from the Quran and asking the students to identify the real message embedded in each of the stories he told. And when, they framed those messages in negative ways, as they had been accustomed to doing, Mufti Aasim gently worked with them to help them frame the messages of those stories in positive ways -- what they could do instead of what they couldn't -- choices of thought and language that helped those 8-year old students more deeply understand the timeless wisdom embedded in the Quran and how each of them could live their lives in harmony with that wisdom.

A WORD TO THE WISE: If you are a teacher, parent, grandparent, big brother, or big sister and find yourself reading or telling a story to a child, please be mindful of the way in which you frame the moral of the story. Like the second graders in Ms. Najma's class, it is all too easy to default to the cautionary tale zone -- to use story as a way to control behavior -- to warn, instill fear, or make wrong. This is not the high path. This is the low road.

The real purpose of stories is to increase the odds of the reader or listener becoming discerning, making wise choices, trusting their higher self, tuning into wisdom, and understanding what it means to be a fully conscious human being.

Using stories like a stick to control behavior is not the way to go. It's a misuse of the sacredness of story and a misuse of your opportunity to help a still-forming human being tap into their higher self. And while it is true that many stories provide a context for children to make distinctions between "good and bad", the real opportunity we have as teachers or parents is to help the young ones think for themselves and make wise choices, not just robotically follow rules, warnings, or the instructions of their elders.

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Cookie photo: unsplash-logoFischer Twins

Al Siraat College
Mitch Ditkoff
Storytelling for the Revolution
13 brief storytelling videos

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November 19, 2018
STORYTELLING FOR THE REVOLUTION: The Introduction

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"Those who tell the story, rule the world." -- Hopi Indian saying

If you are wondering why I chose to call my book: Storytelling for the Revolution -- a title some people might think is incendiary, inflated, or overly dramatic, here's the reason: We need a revolution. We do. But the revolution I'm inviting you to join is not a political one. It has nothing to do with a change of government, laws, sanctions, or social structures. It has to do with a change of mind and a change of heart and a change in the way we communicate to each other.

It doesn't take a genius to recognize that the collective narrative occupying the airways these days is a dark one -- not all that surprising when you consider the sorry state of the world and the "if it bleeds, it leads" mindset of the media: Mitch Ditkoff5.jpgBad news sells. It's true. But bad news is not the only thing worth reporting on. Indeed, there is another kind of story that also needs to be heard -- one that rarely makes it to the evening news. And that story is revolutionary -- or could be -- the story of how each and every one of us is a broadcast station of insight, wisdom, and love, three phenomena that have the power to transform what is happening on planet Earth.

I am not suggesting you airbrush out the bad news to contemplate your navel. I'm not asking you to become apolitical. All I'm asking you to do is pay more attention to another kind of news -- one that can never be dominated by troll farms or spin doctors. And do you know what the reliable source of that story is? You. Yes, you!

Inside of you, there is another kind of story going on, another narrative, one that exists far beyond late breaking and this just in, one that too rarely gets told. I'm talking about the story of your life -- or, more specifically, the absolute Ground Zero of what you have learned and what you are learning, what you have felt and what you feeling, what you have seen and what you are seeing, even while the world burns down: Essence. Lessons learned. Insights. Moments of truth. Breakthroughs. Obstacles overcome. Personal tales of inspiration, kindness, resilience, love, meaning, vulnerability navigated, and the undeniable wisdom you have gleaned from your own life experiences. In other words, what makes you truly human, a homo sapien -- "the one who knows."

Sages, Masters, and Elders may be the most historically recognized "keepers of wisdom." but they are not the only ones. The rest of us are, too. The thing is -- we don't always know it. Our wisdom is often invisible to us. It is hiding. Unseen. Unacknowledged. And unexpressed. And where our wisdom is hiding, more often than not, is in our stories -- much like water is hiding in underground springs.

Everyone has wisdom inside them. Everyone. Everyone has learned something profound, soulful, and timeless in this life. Everyone has something meaningful to share and when they share it in the form of story, they have the potential to spark wisdom in others. Like, for example, the following story -- a brief retelling of an old Zen tale.

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Once upon a time, in feudal Japan, there was an old monk living in a monastery deep in the mountains. Ever since he was a small boy he had lived in this monastery and was considered by his fellow monks to be a most extraordinary soul. Every morning he would awake at 4:00 am and meditate for two hours. Then he practiced calligraphy and prepared breakfast for the other monks. Every afternoon, he read the sutras and, when he wasn't chanting mantras or writing haiku, he worked in the garden. Silently, of course.

Years passed. Seasons came and went. And so did his youth. But no matter how much effort he made, the enlightenment experience he was so diligently seeking never came. And so one day, in his 70th year, he decided to leave the monastery and return to the world. "Why should I continue with all these spiritual practices," he asked himself, "if they are not helping me reach my ultimate goal?

Needing to earn a living, he soon got a job as a sweeper in a local cemetery. Every day he went to work. And every day he swept.

And then, one sunny day, three years into his new, non-monastic life, a stone he had just swept off the path smashed into a tree and split in two. And when it did, something in him split in two, cracked wide open -- the kind of open that never closes again. Everything, suddenly, became totally clear to him. The enlightenment he had been seeking for 50 years had finally happened. Just like that.

The 40 stories in Storytelling for the Revolution are 40 stones splitting in two -- 40 examples of spontaneously occurring moments of truth -- awakenings, both large and small, none of which have ever made it to the evening news. Some of them are from my own life. Some are from the lives of others. They are, metaphorically speaking, a kind of DaVinci code that offers clues to the encrypted wisdom lurking just beneath the surface of our life -- the hard-to-communicate essence that ultimately defines what it means to be fully alive.

My book is not an autobiography. Nor is it a memoir. I share my stories not to call attention to me, but to call attention to you. All I'm doing is getting the party started -- your party -- a chance to take a look into the mirror of story and see, reflected back to you, parts of yourself that may have been hidden from view.

This is why I have written this book. Rather than give in to the despair, despondency, and disillusionment that has become the world's default position these days, I've decided to do everything within my power to reclaim the collective narrative for the greater good -- to revolve around a different sun -- the one that lights up our lives from the inside. And it all begins with story

You don't need to be an anthropologist to figure this out. Deconstruct any scripture, sermon, or TED talk and you will find story. That's how most meaningful messages are conveyed. Even the neuroscientists agree. When storytellers share their experiences, the same parts of the brain that light up in the storyteller upon telling their story, light up in the listener upon hearing it. "Mood contagion" it is called. "Somatic states". "Neural coupling"-- the phenomenon of one person transmitting not only information about X, Y, or Z, but also the experience.

The question isn't whether or not storytelling works. It does. The question is: "Are we going to step up and tell our stories?"

Every day, when a friend passes you on the street and asks "Whassup?" you have a choice to make. You can talk about your aching back, the weather, or the latest political catastrophe, or you can elevate the conversation by telling a story that matters. All you need to do is be yourself, choose wisely and seize the moment.

To help you make your way towards the front lines of storytelling, I've included, in PART ONE, 40 stories for your inspiration and delight -- 30 memorable "rock splitting moments" from my own life and ten classic teaching tales, many of which have been told for centuries. Each story is followed by a question to consider so you can apply its message to your own life. PART TWO is a Field Guide, complete with tips, tools, and techniques for how you can become a better, more confident storyteller. Or, if you really want to go for it, how you can become a storytelling revolutionary on the front lines of your own life -- a sacred activist of insight, wisdom and love.

Ready? I hope so. It's time to gather around the fire and begin...

On Amazon now
The book website
MitchDitkoff.com

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November 18, 2018
A Ferrari Tia Maria

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Once a seeker came to a Rebbe, a guru, a venerable spiritual counselor. He arrived in his red Ferrari, roaring to a stop by the front door.

"So, great teacher," he began. "Tell me the secret to a happy life."

"That is your car?" the teacher asked, looking out the window.

"Yes. A Ferrari Dinu Lipatti." He accented the Italian.

"Well," the teacher said, "please, take your Dinu Lipatti and drive it around the block. When you come back I'll share with you the secret to a happy life."

The cynical seeker roared out of the circular drive, around the block, 0.625 miles and, in a few seconds, returned to the home of the teacher.

"So," he said. "I did what you asked. Now, what is the secret to a happy life?"

"A bicycle," the teacher said.

"A bicycle is the secret to a happy life?"

"The bicycle is not the secret. But there is a bicycle in the garage. Ride it around the block."

The seeker did so.

"Nice neighborhood," he said on his return. "Lovely houses. A lovely house, is that the secret to a happy life?"

"You look like a healthy man," the teacher said. "Can you run? Run around the block."

The seeker ran. When he returned, he said, "The trees. I hadn't noticed them before. Beautiful trees. This is it, then? Being one with nature? That's the secret to a happy life?"

"Take a walk," the teacher said. "Walk around the block."

The seeker walked.

"I understand now," he said. "Slow down. Slow down and appreciate everything. I've missed so much, racing, running from one thing to another. The secret to happiness is to slow down."

"One more thing," the teacher said. "Do you know how to crawl?"

The seeker did not respond. He sat in his chair, contemplating what it might be like, to crawl around the block, 0.625 miles.

"Yes, you're considering it," the teacher said. "Do you know what it is to be still? Imagine how much you've already received, stage by stage, slowing down, slower and slower. Imagine how much more you might receive if you could only be still."

They were still together for an undetermined while.

"Now, I have a favor to ask," the teacher said. "I’ve never been in a Dinu Lipatti."

"You want a ride?"

"I want the keys."

COMMENTARY

Words take one only so far.
When one has reached so far,
one must suspend words
and be still an undetermined while.

This story opens the door to everything.
All the rest is commentary.
But then everything opens the door to everything,
and everything is commentary.
These words almost make sense.
Almost.
Too much sense, there would be no contest,
nothing to contest.
So, almost is adequate.

The most I can do
is bring you to the edge of stillness.
The rest is the release of you.
Not up to you, the release of you. No hurry.
Perhaps I can keep you entertained until release happens.

AUTHOR: Mitch Chefitz

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November 14, 2018
A Dream Story for Crazy Times

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A few years ago I had a dream that has stayed with me -- one that seems to be very relevant to these crazy times we now find ourselves in.

In the dream, I was in a diner, sitting at the counter and waiting for my food to come. I sensed something odd going on behind me, so I swiveled around and could tell that poisonous gas was entering the room through the heating vents on the floor -- even though it was colorless and odorless. One by one, people started falling off their chairs and dying. I'm not exactly sure how I did what I did next, but I found a way to slow my breathing way down and extract just the good oxygen from the air and not breathe the poison. Knowing I was in real danger, I stood up slowly, turned around, continued breathing slowly, and exited the diner.

I was the only one to get out alive.

Methinks this is the choice we all have these days. There is so much toxicity, so much poison in the air, on so many levels, that it's easy for anyone of us to take it all in indiscriminately and lose our life. And yet, each of us has the potential and the power to extract the life-giving force from the mixture of good and bad. It's a choice. We get to CHOOSE what to focus on, what to take in, how to stay conscious, and what to let go of. Choice. We all have a choice.

My most recent book of stories

PHOTO: unsplash-logoR. Mac Wheeler

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November 10, 2018
Ditch the Grammar and Start Teaching Storytelling Instead

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Great article from THE GUARDIAN on the need for schools to pay more attention to teaching storytelling to kids instead of so much focus on grammar. My experience, exactly! What's a few dangling participles between friends? Or, in the famous words of a grammar-poking Winston Churchill: "This is something up with which I will not put."

Chris Learns a Lesson (from Ms. Najma's second grade class)

Storytelling for the Revolution
MitchDitkoff.com
The power of personal storytelling workshop

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Learning to Face Your Opponent

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Sometimes, in life, a single word or a single sentence can make a huge difference -- an unexpected communication that penetrates to the core of your being and then radiates from the inside out for the rest of your life. I had one such moment 35 years ago when I was a novice Aikido student in Los Angeles.

Here's what happened: In the dojo, while practicing a new technique with my partner, my teacher walks over to me, observes briefly, looks at me, and utters these eight words: "You have to learn to face your opponent."

I had no idea what she was talking about and just looked at her blankly. Then she stepped forward and gently rearranged the way I was standing, noting that I was standing a bit too obliquely from my partner -- a posture I had taken that was eventually going to require me to OVERCOMPENSATE in order to complete the move, an action that had the potential, she explained, to injure my partner and myself due to all of the unnecessary twisting and turning likely to happen.

In other words, the way in which I had positioned myself in relationship to my partner was off. I was not facing my partner head on. I was being too indirect, about 10 degrees "off to the side" and it was this indirectness, my teacher explained, that had the potential to cause injury. Whoa!

As I let her words sink in, I knew exactly what she was talking about. The wisdom embedded in her eight words cut to the core of my being. What she observed in me at that moment was a very penetrating expression of how I had been living my life -- especially my relationships. Somehow, I was a little bit off... too indirect.. a little out of whack.. skewed to the side. In other words, I wasn't really engaging others as directly as I needed to and it was my indirectness that was contributing to a whole bunch of negative consequences -- some very subtle -- that I had to deal with.

This is one of the amazing things about Aikido or any inner practice that a person commits to. You get to see where you are at and where you are not at. The feedback is immediate. It's humbling. It's confronting. And it's not always easy to take in. But if you are open to the moment and willing to learn from it, much lifelong wisdom can be gleaned.

I am still imbibing this teaching from 35 years ago delivered to me in less than 20 seconds. I am still learning how to be in right relationship to the people in my life -- not oblique... not indirect... not off to one side, and, at the same time not in their face. In Aikido, there is a word for this -- "Hanmi" -- the stance one takes in relationship to the "other."

With whom, in your life, might you need to adjust your stance? Who are you being too indirect with? Who might you be crowding? Who do you need to face? And what, if anything, can you do this week to take the healthiest stance you can take -- so both of you can practice and no one gets injured in the process?

MitchDitkoff.com
Storytelling at Work

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November 08, 2018
How Futuristic Storytelling Can Grow Your Business

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Most "storytelling" in businesses, isn't. Usually, it's just a lame approximation of what real storytelling is about. But when people go beyond "same old, same old," magic happens. Here's a cool example of what's possible. HINT: It has something to do with five science fiction writers.

Image: Jesse Ditkoff
Storytelling for the Revolution
Storytelling at Work
The Mothership

Posted by Mitch Ditkoff at 10:25 PM | Comments (0)

November 05, 2018
Checking in with Chekhov

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November 03, 2018
STORYTELLERS: Speak Your Truth!

Excerpted from this book
MitchDitkoff.com

Posted by Mitch Ditkoff at 03:45 PM | Comments (0)

ABOUT THE BLOG

Storytelling at Work is a blog about the power of personal storytelling – why it matters and what you can do to more effectively communicate your stories – on or off the job. Inspired by the book of the same name, the blog features "moment of truth" stories by the author, Mitch Ditkoff, plus inspired rants, quotes, and guest submissions by readers.

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