Pre-Order Considerations

My new nonfiction book, Considerations, will hit shelves on November 1, and is now available for pre-order through Amazon, Kobo, iBooks, and Gumroad. Considerations is a book about asking questions, attaining new perspectives, figuring out what you believe, and determining how these beliefs can help guide your actions

Because of my coffee pricing policy, the book costs a whopping $2.99.

If you pre-order the book and email me a receipt or some other proof-of-purchase, you’ll also receive 30 Days of Doing, free of charge (though it can also be had for $2.99 after the fact, if you miss this promotion). 30DoD is an action-focused, book-length email series, which covers similar topics as Considerations from a different angle, via emails delivered daily over the course of a month.

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Sentimentality and the Present

We calibrate our actions to happiness. That is to say, we generally do the things that we believe will bring us the greatest net happiness over time.

Unfortunately, the actions we take can result in less happiness and more discouragement, dissatisfaction, and despair. This commonly results from a misunderstanding of the relationship between sentimentality and the present.

Sentimentality is a prediction of how we’ll feel in the future. We prime for nostalgia by making a guess about the wants and feelings of a future potential self; one that maybe misses this restaurant or perhaps regrets leaving that relationship. We take photos to assuage these maybe hurt feelings, and cling to mementoes to ensure possible future longings have something on which to center.

A focus on the present, on the other hand, manifests as a greater concern about the here and now. It’s an embrace of the short-term experience — what’s actually happening, versus what may happen at some point — and makes no predictions. It’s the result of feeling, doing, and experiencing, rather than assuming, anticipating, and worrying.

It’s that last word in particular — worrying — that I associate most with sentimentality. People collect and maintain and stress over the strangest things, all in the pursuit of some potential happiness; some unknowable ‘maybe’ that will justify the storage space rented, the hours lost, the stomach acid churned.

And this is a shame, because such concerns inherently result in less attention available to spend on the present. Sentimentality often means ignoring those you care about now in hopes of having the right people around you someday. It means missing out on fully experiencing a moment today, in order to take the right series of photos to remind yourself what’s happened, tomorrow. It means collecting souvenirs of events at the expense of actually taking part in the action.

It’s no wonder, then, that sentiment is often a grossly distorted image of the past: it’s a picture taken by someone who wasn’t truly there; wasn’t fully experiencing that which they were photographing. It’s a xerox of a moment, lacking the fidelity of a true memory, and warping our perception of each new ‘present’ as a result. Because what ‘now’ could possibly compete with a blurred ‘then,’ with all the blemishes and scars softened by time and flawed remembering, all the context blinked away?

For me, a happy life is more about the present and less about sentiment. Reminders and keepsakes can still be acquired, but ideally only after the fact, not as a primary goal. To reverse that order is akin to photographing food without ever tasting a bite.

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Stack for Serendipity

I’m sometimes told that I published a piece of work at exactly the right time. A new book, blog post, or newsletter arrived at the very moment a reader was thinking about the same topic, and I helped provide the right words, insight, or even just a kick out the door to motivate them toward their next step.

I love when this happens. Not because I think I had much to do with them taking those next steps — I might help strike a spark, but they provide the fuel and stoke it into a fire — but because it’s an example of how we can perform what seem to be feats of magic just by approaching communication in a certain way.

‘Serendipity’ refers to a chance circumstance or happening that bears positive results. A blog post about minimalism published at the exact moment you’re thinking of simplifying your life can seem quite serendipitous, as if the world is trying to tell you something; to help you make some kind of decision.

I would argue, though, that there’s nothing mystical about such an alignment. It is, if anything, practical magic, in that you can calibrate yourself to catalyze more fortuitous flukes, and to garner more of your own. It’s all a matter of how you communicate and how you listen.

I try to stack the deck for serendipity by reaching out to people in myriad ways, though most people will only ever see one or two of these communication channels: the ones that apply to them. But by spreading messages in which I believe via different media, and even revamping the messages to be expressed at different lengths (a book and a tweet are very different delivery systems, but can achieve similar ends), I’m able to plant far more seeds in far more places, increasing the chance that some of them will grow.

Similarly, I work hard to follow and connect with people who I believe have something to offer me, in terms of knowledge, life experience, perspective, or even just entertainment. The result is that I find myself benefiting from seemingly serendipitous moments all the time. There’s nothing magical about it: when I’m thinking hard about a particular topic, chances are someone in my carefully cultivated network has thoughts on the subject that can help me break through to some new inspiration or revelation.

That serendipity is not magic means we can stack the deck if we like, and benefit from such moments more frequently. It’s not something you can control in an absolute way — sometimes inspiration never comes, and sometimes it only arrives at the wrong moments — but you can adjust the odds so that the right ideas end up in the right places at the right time more often than seems likely.

Consider how you might stack for serendipity, and then make the investment. Not only will you hear the words you need to hear more frequently, but you’ll more often say the words someone else needs to hear, when they need to hear them, as well.

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I teach an online design class from time-to-time, and one of the things I try to instill in my students is that whitespace is their friend.

Whitespace looks luxurious. Look at a pennysaver-style ad sheet or tabloid, and you’ll see that every available inch has been filled with words and images and whatnot.

Look at a high-end fashion magazine or design publication, however, and you’ll notice that many of the pages are barely utilized. There are far fewer images, far less text, and a whole hell of a lot of empty space.

I should note that ‘whitespace’ needn’t be white; it’s a term that means there’s nothing there. An absence of design elements which, in turn, becomes a design element. Because although there’s technically nothing there — no images or text — that emptiness helps draw your eye to what’s most important on the page. The whitespace is an amplifier that says, “Hey, you, look at this thing over here. This thing that’s a thing.”

Whitespace is a statement, not about nothingness, but about somethingness. It’s an indication that the elements that have been presented are of vital enough importance that the entire page is focused on making certain you see them. That you focus on them and are not distracted by anything else.

There are parallels between the concept of whitespace and the surge in minimalistic philosophies and practices.

On a magazine rack filled with noise, it’s the stark, bold, focused imagery and text that stands out. In a world filled with clutter and distractions and opportunities galore, it’s the life of focus, clarity, and intentionality that stands out.

The resurgence of people building tiny homes, living out of carry-ons, and buying less of better is a testament to the fact that we’ve begun to view lifestyle whitespace for the luxury it is, rather than some kind of sacrifice. That we no longer see not filling every square inch of the page as an indication of not having enough to say.

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Public Pianos and Amplification

There’s a piano in a park not far from where I live in Prague. The park is the hub for a bustling tram station and metro line, and stretches out in front of a beautiful cathedral that people crowd around to photograph all day long.

But my favorite part of the square is one of the walkways leading toward the cathedral, where a piano has been placed. There’s an unadorned stool in front of the piano, and the instrument itself is somewhat gritty and aged. Yet that walkway has brought immense joy to me and thousands of other people who pass by it every day: some who sit down to listen before returning to work after lunch, some who stop for a few minutes between errands. Some people, like myself, go there for the express purpose of being the near the piano.

I usually sit near the piano for twenty or thirty minutes in the afternoon, and oh the things I’ve seen and heard during that short timeframe.

Music students taking turns at the ivories, working through tough songs they’re still learning, and basking in the applause from passersby.

Middle-aged tourists, taking the opportunity to show off an old skill, a little dusty from years of under-use, but clearly stoking the flames of a still-living creative passion inside them; they look ten years younger when they stand up after playing through a five song set.

Just today I saw a grizzled, paunchy homeless man sidle up to the stool, run his fingers along the keys with something very close to longing, and then play the most magnificent set of classical music I’ve ever heard performed live. By the time he was done, the audience of a dozen had turned into nearly a hundred, and he looked on the verge of tears when he realized people were applauding him and his performance.

A lop-eared child of six or seven was up next, and though he looked ready to wet his pants with nervousness, he played a few songs that, although simple, showed that he was very capable for his age. The climax of the performance was when the homeless man stepped back over and played a duet piece with the child, improvising over what the much younger pianist was comfortable with. All of it was caught on video (from two angles) by the child’s smiling parents.

It’s remarkable to me how much value can be created by so simple an act as installing an old piano in a public place. The effort required to get it there, and the effort required to cover it up when there’s rain, is amplified a thousand times by the joy it creates for those who play it, those who listen to the music played on it, and those who walk by, smiles on their faces, enjoying the novelty of a neighborhood that has a public piano. That part of the park just feels different, even when there’s no one playing. And though I’m certain it’s not easy making sure the piano itself is taken care of (there are pianos all over town, their presence instigated by a local man and several businesses he’s recruited to sponsor their upkeep), the investment pays an incredibly high dividend.

It’s worth keeping in mind that this is an example of amplified effort from the real world; a world of atoms and distances and potential destroyers of property around every corner. Amplification is even more feasible — and requires a far smaller investment, with the potential for even greater results — online. We live in a world where we have the ability to communicate with a significant portion of the global population, and that’s a powerful thing.

So the question is this: what is your public piano project? What is it that you can do that will allow you to invest a little effort or money or whatever, and that will result in an astronomical payoff for humanity?

Answer that question, and help others do the same. Sometimes the most creative and beneficial thing a person can do is figure out how to enable others to be creative in a beneficial way.

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Philosophical Fluidity

It’s possible to have a preference, act counter to that preference, and still have a good time.

A high-end chef, for example, needn’t dine on the finest cuisine in order to enjoy food. She’s equally likely to savor a feast at a four-star restaurant, or relish one served up by her local Denny’s, so long as she’s in the proper frame of mind to do so. And neither experience is more or less legitimate than the other, in terms of her own satisfaction, so long as she is, indeed, satisfied. Thankfully (for our wallets in particular, in the case of high-end dining), how much we enjoy that which we experience is largely up to us.

I call this concept ‘philosophical fluidity’ — the idea the you can believe strongly that, say, long-term, constant travel is paramount to a happy lifestyle, and still be happy staying put for a while, traveling no further than the grocery store. I would argue that being able to stop and live differently, while still having a good time and finding value in the experience, doesn’t display a lack of enthusiasm for travel; it’s demonstrates a belief that we benefit from a given stimuli or situation — or don’t — based almost entirely on our own decision to do so.

Now, this is not a new concept. Philosophers have been musing on the existence and substance of happiness for longer than we’ve had the letters to record their thoughts on the subject. But the concept of ‘taste’ is something that has evolved over the years, and has become more impactful because of the technologies we have available today: particularly those we use to interact, relate, communicate, and present ourselves and our beliefs to the world.

Where once taste was an indication of breeding or social status, today, it’s become an integral part of every person’s brand. The logos we wear and the food we eat (or don’t eat) and the coffee we drink (and how it’s prepared, and by whom) and the artists we listen to and the shade of the hardwood floors in our homes…so many things we use to define ourselves, both to ourselves and to others. So many passions! Which is wonderful, except that in presenting them as indicators of taste or identity, we aim for purity in message — ease of communication — and as a result blind ourselves to certain other aspects of the world.

Consider pop music. It’s a common pastime for the music industry intelligentsia to bash on anything too popular, too massive, too disseminated and widespread. Too viral. The idea is that anything so all-encompassing must also lack substance, because if such music truly said something, it wouldn’t appeal to so many people. There may be some truth to this idea, but consider that by deciding ahead of time that pop music is inherently bad, such people cut themselves off from a whole industry’s-worth of potential experiences. They may even hear the music from time-to-time, but because they’ve decided that it’s not for them — it’s not good — they can’t enjoy it. If they did, their brand as someone with taste in music might be called into question. Theirs is an identity defined by which aspects of the world they’ve decided to ignore.

It’s possible to believe that graffiti is generally disruptive visual clutter, while still allowing yourself enjoy a particular piece that speaks to you. What might initially seem weak-willed and flip-floppy — you said you didn’t like graffiti! — is actually a matter of allowing yourself to be round, not flat. Complex, rather than simple and easy to describe.

The result of such taste-complexity is that your image is more accurate, but you don’t fit as cleanly within a tribe. The record store guru who doesn’t hesitate to recommend pop to customers when warranted may be looked down upon by some underground-only believers within the industry. I would argue, however, that those who would apply strict, black-and-white guidelines to themselves or the world are latently reducing society’s complexity, and resultingly, simplifying to the point of worthlessness the many facets and dimensions we need to be fulfilled.

That is to say, if there’s only one ‘correct’ type of music to listen to, you’ll never be exposed to incredible examples from other genres or artists or whatnot because you’ve already dismissed them. Any data you receive after having made that decision will be filtered through that bias.

Music, food, and graffiti are some of the simplest examples I could give here, but I offer them because they’re also the easiest to understand. The real problem with philosophical inflexibility is that is keeps us from considering other perspectives, other value systems, collections of data compiled in cultures beyond our own, and things of that nature. Having rigid belief systems means that we are disallowing ourselves to learn, to change our minds, and to grow in any meaningful way.

Philosophical fluidity as much as anything, is an excuse to find the good — the value — in anything that we see. It’s an excuse to sit down at that diner in the middle of nowhere and appreciate the ambiance, despite the greasiness of the food and the chalky taste of the coffee. It’s incentive to hear a pop song and not immediately dismiss it as trash; to allow yourself to dance to it, if you feel like dancing. It’s a structure that allows you to consider the viewpoints of others and see where they’re coming from, before knee-jerk passing judgment on who they are and what they believe.

Philosophical fluidity is an excuse to have a good time no matter what’s going on in your life, and to enjoy the hell out of whatever life throws at you. So enjoy. Have fun. Dance. Happiness is the potential consequence of everything that happens to you: you just have to decide to experience it.

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On Message

The main difference between a person and a well-known person is the story they tell about themselves.

This applies to celebrities, internet thought leaders, and even sports stars and the like. The ones with the better stories tend to be the ones who capture the world’s imagination; or at least that of a measurable segment of the world.

‘Better story’ in this context means the story with the clearest message. Some of these people have million-dollar marketing budgets to help promote them, but all that money is wasted without a compelling and understandable message to spread. Maybe the message is ‘this person is an underdog who climbed their way to the top,’ and maybe it’s ‘this person is a real jerk, but the kind you love to hate,’ or perhaps it’s ‘this person stands for something, and here’s why they do so.’ In every case, however, their words, their actions, and their media (PR efforts, blog posts, Instagram feeds) support the story they’re telling.

Of course, all other things being equal, the musician with the larger budget behind them tends to win out. But generally all other things aren’t equal, because many of those who’re struggling their way to the top fail to tell a clear story, and don’t present within their story a clear, compelling message. Even if some label picked them up and threw money at their album, they wouldn’t necessarily be any better off. A garbled message is a garbled message, no matter how loud it’s shouted.

This isn’t to say that one should fall into the trap of always being ‘on message.’ Such a tactic is the branding equivalent of hitting someone over the head with a hammer: it’s unnecessarily aggressive, and tends to do more harm than good. Being perpetually on message flattens a person, and reduces them to the status of a one-trick cardboard cutout, rather than a capable, well-rounded person who’s focusing their energies on something that’s important to them.

Before spending a bunch of money on marketing, advertising, and PR efforts, it’s best to take a step back and clarify who you actually are, what you actually believe, what it is you stand for (or won’t stand for). Essentially, why anyone else should give a damn about who you are, what you do, and what you have to say.

Sort that out and you’ll find you speak more clearly, because there’ll be far less noise distorting your message. And when you enunciate your message in this way, you may find that having your voice heard, and amplified, is a far easier task than most of us make it out to be.

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Threats and Opportunities

There’s a tool in the entrepreneurial utility belt called a ‘SWOT analysis.’ The acronym stands for strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats. The idea here is that by identifying which factors — internal and external — fit within these four different boxes, it’s possible to get a better view of the environment in which you’re playing.

The SWOT, like any other tool, can be useful if applied correctly. I would argue, however, that we quite often (whether formally through a tool of this sort, or instinctively) tend to see more threats and fewer opportunities.

Which is a shame, really. Because to a creative person who’s paying attention, threats are always potential opportunities.

I see the fear in my peers’ eyes and words every single day. Many of those who work in publishing are unnerved by anything new and potentially threatening (strange for an industry supersaturated with creative people). If there’s an adjustment in who holds the power, a new distribution media, or a new gimmick announced by Amazon, something like 90% of the publishing world starts declaring that the sky is falling. The response is seldom, “Interesting, let’s see what we can do with this new state of affairs.” Instead, it’s often, “This new thing is bad and the old way was clearly better. I, for one, won’t stand for it.”

But the thing about threats and opportunities is that they don’t care that you don’t approve. They simply are, and will be whether you’re enthused or enraged.

Much better than knee-jerk alarm, I think, is to establish what you think is most ideal only after assessing what might be done within your new environment.

Okay, so let’s say Amazon has released some newfangled publishing product that will kill your existing business model and make you far less money per month. How could you use this new product to do business? Or how could you work alongside it? How could you work counter to it, using their new program as an example of what you’re not?

These are productive questions because they turn a threat into something that could help you. Sure, this new thing could just as easily not help you, and it could be that your industry — or your way of operating within it — is on the cutting block, and that this truly is a death sentence to your way of life, philosophy, or whatever.

But even if that’s the case, calm assessment from the standpoint of finding opportunities rather than things to be scared of / enraged about is the better solution. Because if you take a good, long look and there’s no possible gain to be found, you’ll know that it’s time to start honing another skill set and learning another trade. Or time to build something of your own, which will cause the source of the current threat to look at you with alarm, wondering if its own days are numbered.

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Not Our Histories

When there’s conflict in the world — and sadly, there very seldom is not — it’s important to remember a few things.

First, recognize that the people catalyzing conflict are generally not the majority in any given instance. It’s usually a militant group, a collective of extremists, or government officials who decide which outsiders are allies and which are enemies. They decide who is good and who is bad, and when and where violence will be used as a tool for political/economic/philosophical gain. They draw the lines in the sand, and tell us the people on the other side of those lines are different.

They yell ‘fire’ when they think it’s in their interest to take something from across the lines, or when things aren’t going well for them on their own side.

I can’t think of a single moment in history where all the non-military civilians in a country got together and invaded another country. Civilians in general want to live calm, peaceful lives. Violence occurs when those up top (or those who aspire to be up top) use those below as resources in order to gain more resources.

Second, as I just mentioned, those who are killed and killing are generally being used as expendable resources, and as such are victims or killers not because they did anything wrong or because the person on the other end of their gun/rocket/bayonet did anything wrong. These otherwise normal, decent human beings are acting based on fears — whether valid or manufactured — which have been trumped up by the same people who sent them into combat (people, by the way, who are unlikely to ever fire a gun, or look into the barrel of one).

The people who start wars, who terrorize, who kill without remorse, are the ones who need watching. The soldiers on the ground, the citizens in the crossfire, the corpses that results on both sides: they have far more in common with each other than with those who are handing them weapons or using them as human shields.

Finally, remember that the histories of ‘our people’ are not our histories. They are the experiences of people from our countries, from our faiths, who hold the same passports we hold, but that doesn’t mean their experiences apply to us.

That someone from my country killed someone from your country (or vice versa) at some point in history does not make us enemies. If we assume that it does, we’ll all have no choice but to be at each other’s throats. Forever. Till there aren’t any throats left.

I was having a drink with a Russian friend the other night, when news about rocky Russian and US relations flickered across the bar’s TV screen. We both looked at it, grimaced, and clinked our glasses together. What relevance does such a thing have to us? Are we supposed to give a damn about the priorities of these people who see us as nothing but foot soldiers to forward their violent causes and power-grabs?

The thoughts outlined above have pathetically little weight for anyone who’s currently in a conflict zone, and I know that. I am truly sorry if you’re stuck in the middle of a conflict that isn’t yours; a conflict based on someone else’s bravado, fear, or ignorance.

If you’ve got a gun pointed at you, I’m so sorry that you’ve been put in a position where that seems to make sense to the person who is holding it. If you’re the one holding the gun, I’m so sorry that you’ve been put in a position where that seems to make sense.

Let’s please remember that all casualties of conflict between humans are unnecessary casualties. We become so embroiled in the emotion of good guy versus bad guy, big army versus little rebels, people who look like me versus people who don’t, that it’s easy to forget this. People fight and die because other people convince or coerce them to do so. There needn’t be a single human death at the hands of another human if we don’t allow it to happen.

I wonder how we might convince the powerful that it’s not okay to use people as resources, and I wonder how we might keep these spenders of human life from achieving power in the first place.

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The Relativism of Advice

Good advice can be a difficult thing to acquire, though you wouldn’t know it from perusing the how-to section at a bookstore, reading the opinion section of the newspaper, or browsing just about the entire internet.

There’s advice everywhere. Advice on money, on work, on relationships, on food. Advice about how to spend your time, how to raise your kids, how to travel or work out or edit a photograph.

And some of this advice is good. For someone, at least.

Because although it’s wonderful to have so much advice, much of it is lacking a very important block of text, which I think would solve those on the receiving end a lot of time:

This advice is applicable to me, the author/blogger/columnist. If you are exactly like me in every way, in terms of gender, economic upbringing, education level, physical archetype, genetic predisposition, and every other variable a person might have, including experiencing everything I’ve ever experienced and having the same parents as me, this will probably work pretty well for you. Otherwise, results will vary.

I think this is something most of us know, but it’s easy to forget in the moment when we’re promised something we want. When someone waves a temptation in front of us, and doesn’t just offer to give us what we want (which would seem fake), but offers to tell us how to get it for ourselves (which feels more legitimate), we’re prone to ignore that little voice that says, “How can this possibly work for everyone?” We even ignore the secondary voice that adds, “If it worked, wouldn’t everyone be wealthy/raise perfect children/have rippling six-pack abs?”

What we’re failing to take into consideration is the context in which the advice is given.

I think most advice is given with good intentions, I really do. But I also think that — although it’s important to be optimistic about our efforts — sometimes we set ourselves up for disappointment when we ignore the fact that the guy promoting the fitness shakes is a professional fitness model, with all the habits, history, and genes that go along with a profession of that kind.

I’m almost embarrassed when I have to add the above stipulation to advice I give, because it comes across as me being negative.

In emails and when giving talks, audience members often ask me how they can travel the world full-time the way I do. I have to admit that I have no idea: I know how I did it, but I also have a set of skills that can be utilized from anywhere, a network of friends and connections I’ve been cultivating for years, and preferences that allow me to enjoy the difficulties of travel, where others might find only discomfort.

All I can honestly do in these situations is advise people on things that would likely be handy tools, should they choose to use them. Skills they can learn, research they can do, people they can meet.

It’s more truthful, but I also know it’s less exciting for those who receive this kind of advice. They want me to tell them exactly how to do it; a silver bullet. A ten-step plan to reaching their dreams. And when they don’t achieve what they hoped to achieve, they assume it was their own fault. Maybe they messed up step six? Who’s to say?

In many cases, I think definitive advice is faulty from the beginning. Not because the people divvying it out are scam-artists, not because the people receiving the advice are no-talent dreamers, but because the conversation the two are having isn’t the one they should be having. Instead of saying, “Here’s how you do this,” and then declaring the path the advice-giver took to be the correct option, maybe it would be better to step back and identify what the steps actually accomplished, and how they might be accomplished through other means.

I’m able to travel full-time because I have work I can do from anywhere, assets I’ve built that allow me to bring in money even when I’m not working, and connections I’ve made through blogging, meeting folks around the world, and helping people out whenever I can.

Rather than telling people to do exactly what I’ve done — learn to write, publish books, learn to do design work and some web development, start a blog and have people vote on where you move every four months — I might tell them to acquire skills that are useful in the online economy. To think about assets they could work on, and to figure out how they want to travel, which will determine what kind of connections they’ll want to make.

This concept is not about holding back advice: it’s about giving practical, actionable, versatile advice that can be utilized by anyone, no matter their situation. Otherwise, in order to be truthful, I’d have to tell everyone who asks me how they can do what I do that they should start by being white, male, about 5’10″, born in the US, left-handed, etc.

The world is full of advice, and much of it is useful when put in the right hands, but also essentially worthless when put in any others.

Consider the context of advice, whether you’re giving it or receiving it, and adjust what you say or take away as a result. If we all do this, we might find that the conversations we have become far more valuable as a result.

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