A kinder, gentler philosophy of success | Alain de Botton
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A kinder, gentler philosophy of success | Alain de Botton


For me they normally happen,
these career crises, often, actually, on a Sunday evening, just as the sun is starting to set, and the gap between my hopes for myself
and the reality of my life starts to diverge so painfully that I normally end up
weeping into a pillow. I’m mentioning all this — I’m mentioning all this because I think
this is not merely a personal problem; you may think I’m wrong in this, but I think we live in an age
when our lives are regularly punctuated by career crises, by moments
when what we thought we knew — about our lives, about our careers — comes into contact
with a threatening sort of reality. It’s perhaps easier now than ever before
to make a good living. It’s perhaps harder than ever before to stay calm, to be free
of career anxiety. I want to look now, if I may,
at some of the reasons why we might be feeling
anxiety about our careers. Why we might be victims
of these career crises, as we’re weeping softly into our pillows. One of the reasons
why we might be suffering is that we are surrounded by snobs. In a way, I’ve got some bad news, particularly to anybody
who’s come to Oxford from abroad. There’s a real problem with snobbery, because sometimes people
from outside the U.K. imagine that snobbery
is a distinctively U.K. phenomenon, fixated on country houses and titles. The bad news is that’s not true. Snobbery is a global phenomenon;
we are a global organization, this is a global phenomenon. What is a snob? A snob is anybody who takes
a small part of you, and uses that to come
to a complete vision of who you are. That is snobbery. The dominant kind of snobbery
that exists nowadays is job snobbery. You encounter it within minutes
at a party, when you get asked that famous iconic question
of the early 21st century, “What do you do?” According to how you answer that question, people are either incredibly
delighted to see you, or look at their watch
and make their excuses. (Laughter) Now, the opposite of a snob
is your mother. (Laughter) Not necessarily your mother,
or indeed mine, but, as it were, the ideal mother, somebody who doesn’t care
about your achievements. Unfortunately, most people
are not our mothers. Most people make a strict correlation
between how much time, and if you like, love — not romantic love,
though that may be something — but love in general, respect —
they are willing to accord us, that will be strictly defined
by our position in the social hierarchy. And that’s a lot of the reason
why we care so much about our careers and indeed start caring
so much about material goods. You know, we’re often told
that we live in very materialistic times, that we’re all greedy people. I don’t think we are
particularly materialistic. I think we live in a society which has
simply pegged certain emotional rewards to the acquisition of material goods. It’s not the material goods we want;
it’s the rewards we want. It’s a new way of looking at luxury goods. The next time you see somebody
driving a Ferrari, don’t think, “This is somebody who’s greedy.” Think, “This is somebody who is incredibly
vulnerable and in need of love.” (Laughter) Feel sympathy, rather than contempt. There are other reasons — (Laughter) There are other reasons why it’s perhaps
harder now to feel calm than ever before. One of these, and it’s paradoxical, because it’s linked to something
that’s rather nice, is the hope we all have for our careers. Never before have
expectations been so high about what human beings can
achieve with their lifespan. We’re told, from many sources,
that anyone can achieve anything. We’ve done away with the caste system, we are now in a system where anyone
can rise to any position they please. And it’s a beautiful idea. Along with that is a kind
of spirit of equality; we’re all basically equal. There are no strictly defined hierarchies. There is one really big problem with this, and that problem is envy. Envy, it’s a real taboo to mention envy, but if there’s one dominant emotion
in modern society, that is envy. And it’s linked to the spirit of equality. Let me explain. I think it would be very unusual
for anyone here, or anyone watching, to be envious of the Queen of England. Even though she is much richer
than any of you are, and she’s got a very large house, the reason why we don’t envy her
is because she’s too weird. (Laughter) She’s simply too strange. We can’t relate to her,
she speaks in a funny way, she comes from an odd place. So we can’t relate to her, and when you can’t relate
to somebody, you don’t envy them. The closer two people are —
in age, in background, in the process of identification —
the more there’s a danger of envy, which is incidentally why none of you
should ever go to a school reunion, because there is no stronger reference
point than people one was at school with. The problem of modern society is
it turns the whole world into a school. Everybody’s wearing jeans,
everybody’s the same. And yet, they’re not. So there’s a spirit of equality
combined with deep inequality, which can make for
a very stressful situation. It’s probably as unlikely
that you would nowadays become as rich and famous as Bill Gates, as it was unlikely in the 17th century that you would accede to the ranks
of the French aristocracy. But the point is,
it doesn’t feel that way. It’s made to feel, by magazines
and other media outlets, that if you’ve got energy, a few bright
ideas about technology, a garage — you, too, could start a major thing. (Laughter) The consequences of this problem
make themselves felt in bookshops. When you go to a large bookshop
and look at the self-help sections, as I sometimes do — if you analyze self-help books
produced in the world today, there are basically two kinds. The first kind tells you, “You can do it!
You can make it! Anything’s possible!” The other kind tells you how to cope with
what we politely call “low self-esteem,” or impolitely call,
“feeling very bad about yourself.” There’s a real correlation between a society that tells people
that they can do anything, and the existence of low self-esteem. So that’s another way in which something
quite positive can have a nasty kickback. There is another reason why
we might be feeling more anxious — about our careers, about our status
in the world today, than ever before. And it’s, again, linked to something nice. And that nice thing is called meritocracy. Everybody, all politicians
on Left and Right, agree that meritocracy is a great thing, and we should all be trying to make
our societies really, really meritocratic. In other words —
what is a meritocratic society? A meritocratic society is one in which,
if you’ve got talent and energy and skill, you will get to the top,
nothing should hold you back. It’s a beautiful idea. The problem is, if you
really believe in a society where those who merit to get
to the top, get to the top, you’ll also, by implication,
and in a far more nasty way, believe in a society where those
who deserve to get to the bottom also get to the bottom and stay there. In other words, your position in life
comes to seem not accidental, but merited and deserved. And that makes failure
seem much more crushing. You know, in the Middle Ages, in England, when you met a very poor person, that person would be described
as an “unfortunate” — literally, somebody who had not
been blessed by fortune, an unfortunate. Nowadays, particularly
in the United States, if you meet someone
at the bottom of society, they may unkindly be
described as a “loser.” There’s a real difference
between an unfortunate and a loser, and that shows 400 years
of evolution in society and our belief in who
is responsible for our lives. It’s no longer the gods, it’s us.
We’re in the driving seat. That’s exhilarating if you’re doing well, and very crushing if you’re not. It leads, in the worst cases — in the analysis of a sociologist
like Emil Durkheim — it leads to increased rates of suicide. There are more suicides
in developed, individualistic countries than in any other part of the world. And some of the reason for that is that people take what happens to them
extremely personally — they own their success,
but they also own their failure. Is there any relief
from some of these pressures that I’ve been outlining? I think there is. I just want to turn to a few of them. Let’s take meritocracy. This idea that everybody deserves
to get where they get to, I think it’s a crazy idea,
completely crazy. I will support any politician
of Left and Right, with any halfway-decent meritocratic idea; I am a meritocrat in that sense. But I think it’s insane to believe that we will ever make a society
that is genuinely meritocratic; it’s an impossible dream. The idea that we will make a society
where literally everybody is graded, the good at the top, bad at the bottom, exactly done as it
should be, is impossible. There are simply too many random factors: accidents, accidents of birth, accidents of things dropping
on people’s heads, illnesses, etc. We will never get to grade them, never get to grade people as they should. I’m drawn to a lovely quote
by St. Augustine in “The City of God,” where he says, “It’s a sin
to judge any man by his post.” In modern English that would mean it’s a sin to come to any view
of who you should talk to, dependent on their business card. It’s not the post that should count. According to St. Augustine, only God
can really put everybody in their place; he’s going to do that
on the Day of Judgment, with angels and trumpets,
and the skies will open. Insane idea, if you’re
a secularist person, like me. But something very valuable
in that idea, nevertheless. In other words, hold your horses
when you’re coming to judge people. You don’t necessarily know
what someone’s true value is. That is an unknown part of them, and we shouldn’t behave
as though it is known. There is another source of solace
and comfort for all this. When we think about failing in life,
when we think about failure, one of the reasons why we fear failing is not just a loss of income,
a loss of status. What we fear is the judgment
and ridicule of others. And it exists. The number one organ of ridicule,
nowadays, is the newspaper. If you open the newspaper
any day of the week, it’s full of people
who’ve messed up their lives. They’ve slept with the wrong person,
taken the wrong substance, passed the wrong piece of legislation — whatever it is, and then
are fit for ridicule. In other words, they have failed.
And they are described as “losers.” Now, is there any alternative to this? I think the Western tradition shows us one
glorious alternative, which is tragedy. Tragic art, as it developed
in the theaters of ancient Greece, in the fifth century B.C.,
was essentially an art form devoted to tracing how people fail, and also according them
a level of sympathy, which ordinary life would not
necessarily accord them. A few years ago,
I was thinking about this, and I went to “The Sunday Sport,” a tabloid newspaper I don’t
recommend you start reading if you’re not familiar with it already. (Laughter) And I went to talk to them about certain of the great
tragedies of Western art. I wanted to see how they would seize
the bare bones of certain stories, if they came in as a news item
at the news desk on a Saturday afternoon. I mentioned Othello; they’d not
heard of it but were fascinated. (Laughter) I asked them to write
a headline for the story. They came up with “Love-Crazed
Immigrant Kills Senator’s Daughter.” Splashed across the headline. I gave them the plotline of Madame Bovary. Again, a book they were
enchanted to discover. And they wrote “Shopaholic Adulteress
Swallows Arsenic After Credit Fraud.” (Laughter) And then my favorite — they really do have a kind of genius
of their own, these guys — my favorite is Sophocles’
Oedipus the King: “Sex With Mum Was Blinding.” (Laughter) (Applause) In a way, if you like, at one end
of the spectrum of sympathy, you’ve got the tabloid newspaper. At the other end of the spectrum,
you’ve got tragedy and tragic art. And I suppose I’m arguing
that we should learn a little bit about what’s happening in tragic art. It would be insane to call Hamlet a loser. He is not a loser, though he has lost. And I think that is the message
of tragedy to us, and why it’s so very,
very important, I think. The other thing about modern society
and why it causes this anxiety, is that we have nothing at its center
that is non-human. We are the first society
to be living in a world where we don’t worship
anything other than ourselves. We think very highly of ourselves,
and so we should; we’ve put people on the Moon,
done all sorts of extraordinary things. And so we tend to worship ourselves.
Our heroes are human heroes. That’s a very new situation. Most other societies have had,
right at their center, the worship of something transcendent:
a god, a spirit, a natural force, the universe, whatever it is —
something else that is being worshiped. We’ve slightly lost
the habit of doing that, which is, I think, why we’re
particularly drawn to nature. Not for the sake of our health,
though it’s often presented that way, but because it’s an escape
from the human anthill. It’s an escape from our own competition, and our own dramas. And that’s why we enjoy looking
at glaciers and oceans, and contemplating the Earth
from outside its perimeters, etc. We like to feel in contact
with something that is non-human, and that is so deeply important to us. What I think I’ve been talking
about really is success and failure. And one of the interesting
things about success is that we think we know what it means. If I said that there’s somebody
behind the screen who’s very successful, certain ideas would
immediately come to mind. You’d think that person
might have made a lot of money, achieved renown in some field. My own theory of success — I’m somebody who’s
very interested in success, I really want to be successful, always thinking,
how can I be more successful? But as I get older, I’m also very nuanced
about what that word “success” might mean. Here’s an insight
that I’ve had about success: You can’t be successful at everything. We hear a lot of talk
about work-life balance. Nonsense. You can’t have it all. You can’t. So any vision of success
has to admit what it’s losing out on, where the element of loss is. And I think any wise life will accept, as I say, that there is going to be
an element where we’re not succeeding. And the thing about a successful life
is that a lot of the time, our ideas of what it would mean
to live successfully are not our own. They’re sucked in from other people; chiefly, if you’re a man, your father,
and if you’re a woman, your mother. Psychoanalysis has been drumming home
this message for about 80 years. No one’s quite listening hard enough,
but I very much believe it’s true. And we also suck in messages
from everything from the television, to advertising, to marketing, etc. These are hugely powerful forces that define what we want
and how we view ourselves. When we’re told that banking
is a very respectable profession, a lot of us want to go into banking. When banking is no longer so respectable,
we lose interest in banking. We are highly open to suggestion. So what I want to argue for
is not that we should give up on our ideas of success, but we should make sure
that they are our own. We should focus in on our ideas, and make sure that we own them; that we are truly the authors
of our own ambitions. Because it’s bad enough
not getting what you want, but it’s even worse to have
an idea of what it is you want, and find out, at the end of the journey, that it isn’t, in fact,
what you wanted all along. So, I’m going to end it there. But what I really want to stress is:
by all means, success, yes. But let’s accept the strangeness
of some of our ideas. Let’s probe away
at our notions of success. Let’s make sure our ideas of success
are truly our own. Thank you very much. (Applause) Chris Anderson: That was fascinating. But how do you reconcile this idea of it being bad to think
of someone as a “loser,” with the idea that a lot of people like,
of seizing control of your life, and that a society that encourages that, perhaps has to have
some winners and losers? Alain De Botton: Yes, I think
it’s merely the randomness of the winning and losing process
that I want to stress, because the emphasis nowadays is so much
on the justice of everything, and politicians always talk about justice. Now I’m a firm believer in justice,
I just think that it’s impossible. So we should do everything
we can to pursue it, but we should always remember
that whoever is facing us, whatever has happened in their lives, there will be a strong
element of the haphazard. That’s what I’m trying to leave room for; otherwise, it can get
quite claustrophobic. CA: I mean, do you believe
that you can combine your kind of kinder,
gentler philosophy of work with a successful economy? Or do you think that you can’t, but it doesn’t matter that much that we’re
putting too much emphasis on that? AB: The nightmare thought is that frightening people
is the best way to get work out of them, and that somehow
the crueler the environment, the more people will rise
to the challenge. You want to think, who would you like
as your ideal dad? And your ideal dad is somebody
who is tough but gentle. And it’s a very hard line to make. We need fathers, as it were,
the exemplary father figures in society, avoiding the two extremes, which is the authoritarian
disciplinarian on the one hand, and on the other,
the lax, no-rules option. CA: Alain De Botton. AB: Thank you very much. (Applause)

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100 thoughts on “A kinder, gentler philosophy of success | Alain de Botton

  1. He never stopped talking for long enough to let the crowd laugh. It was kinda irritating.
    Brilliant ideas though

  2. He is absolutely brilliant! His philosophies resonate with me so much. The feeling of inadequacy, failure and shame that adulthood in this day and age seems to point out with such an intensity at times. Only make the already good journey hard to enjoy. By all measures, we are leaving in a pretty great time in the History of Humanity. Like many this days I have been trying Mindfulness at the center of my search to understand my kind of crazy;) visualization for my goals, positive thinking for my circumstances and forgiveness for myself and others. The ideas he expose on romance, religion/Atheism, pessimism and more are simply Genius! This for me is the missing link and confirmation to that voice in my head that told me It's not crazy to have "grandiose utopian dreams", specially when you break them down in practical applicable ways in each aspects of life. But what most people chase blindly and see as success this days is simply not align with the values of collaboration, community, kindness and the real desire of being good teachers and good students to the people we love. That is my take so far on what I have hear Alain saying in the past 3 days I discover him, only he says so much more with incredible fluency, eloquence and humor! Oh man intelligence it's so sexy 🙂 In my Bucket list now, find a smart English man to practice good English with and share some of our crazy together and maybe talk some senses into each other or not 😉

  3. This is exactly how I feel. After my bachelor degree in communication sciences I’ve got a mental break down. I felt completely shuttered by stress and anxiety. I was obsessed by LinkedIn and my resume. I quit my studies and think about starting engineering, then I changed my mind and attended a bachelor in economics. All I could read on LinkedIn was “requirements: at least economics or engineering BA” I speak 4 languages, I’ve got a lot of experiences in marketing and sales but isn’t enough. I didn’t focus on my studies and future and I’ve been eaten alive by anxiety of a perfect society. Thanks to this speech I’m now more relaxed. Success comes with constance and work.

  4. Interesting speech and a lot of good points. Why then, several years later, has de Botton set up "The School of Life" which is a commercial organisation taking money off people who are interested in EXACTLY what he is lampooning here: The ambition to become successful via a huge number of "how to" courses which exactly reflect everything he is criticising in this speech. His organisation either employs or sub-contracts a mind-boggling array of get rich quick "gurus" who peddle quick fixes in order to be successful, self-satisfied, rich, superior, happy, and generally feel "good" about themselves via avenues that are the diametric antithesis of the noble tenets of this speech. It shows clearly that great philosophical thoughts are instantly corruptable.

  5. He is my favorite modern philosopher now. Not too serious despite his serious chosen subjects. Recently, I am listening to Jordan Peterson and for my break, I go back to Alain de Button.

  6. One of the most honest videos I've every watched. You sir have condensed so much information in this video that if there's book by you, I would like to buy many copies to gift it to my loved ones. Thank you good sir

  7. I learned that lesson about materialistic people being in need of love and attention when I was 15. And I learned in church of all places.

  8. God: "Oh man, it's been nearly 2,000 years since we sent someone down there. They're getting pretty mean and miserable, those humans"
    Angels: "Yep. I think it's time"
    God "What can I do differently this time? They weren't very nice to Jesus"
    Angels: "Well, you could make it so he doesn't know who he is. Maybe drop the magic because it's a giveaway. Actually, you could just send someone really insightful who makes people feel better about themselves, and encourages them to be nicer to others at the same time?"
    God: "Genius. We can get him to address the things that are making people anxious, guilty, depressed, unfulfilled, bored, miserable and jealous and help them to see what it means to be human and make peace with it and themselves".
    Angels: "Perfect. What shall we call him?"
    God: "Alain"

  9. There was a time in history that people of power were the only ones that could speak, be heard and respected.
    In our times of internet and available data (think quality), it’s NOT easy to appear in front of millions (thanks to YouTube) and deliver a message that is not opinionated, based on years of research and persuasive.
    Well Done!

  10. Bullshit. Meritocracy does not imply any kind of "social darwinism" or the like. It's an expression in contrast to unfair favoritisms such as nepotism. Generosity towards those more unfortunate is not at odds with meritocracy.

  11. I really liked the talk, but I wish he paused between sentences. It felt like he was rushing to get through a lot of words in a short time.

  12. God I hate this line of argument. Why does Alain get to talk at TED? If meritocracy is bad than I don't have to listen to him… or climatologists… or my privileged doctor.

    Just because some people are lucky/unlucky does preclude working to deserve something.

    But sure, let's give out degrees and Phds via lotto.

  13. I got 3 millions USD inheritance. I'm not proud of it because firstly it is from my dad secondly money success is not a true success. I recently realize that an intelligent philosopher living in a caravan is more successful than a billionaire who serves no benefit to the others. However, in order to deal with a snobbish culture, I will engage with people in conversation on material things instead of intellectual things. The general people are shallow and materialistic. Those are common acquaintances and I would not consider them as friends.

  14. Unexptected (,/'_'.)
    https://chrome.google.com/webstore/detail/threelly-ai-for-youtube/dfohlnjmjiipcppekkbhbabjbnikkibo

  15. Watching this video reminds me of many videos of "the school of life" channel on youtube. The same accent, same styles

  16. Own idea of success. I indulged and ate too much, now I'm suffering from indigestion. I'm so emotional at this very moment and I want to know if we are really responsible to define success on our own?

  17. So, yanking a shirt right out of the package and throwing it on without pressing it doesn't appear to have a bearing on success.

  18. I wish more of the most influential people on this planet actually listened to Alain de Botton. Imagine how great the world could be.

  19. Great talk, hate how brits and many in the west talk about the caste system without knowing the original purpose in ancient times – ironically which was a time when people were actually peaceful.

  20. Wow, the world has changed a lot in 10 years. Now it's identity politics that's important, not merit.

  21. This is literally all school of life videos in a crash (apart from the relationship videos) 🙂

  22. Wise man and amazing talk.
    I also believe that everyone's goal is to be happy, but we're told that a certain type of success will make us happy

  23. Capitalism by design cannot produce contentment

    Because it is inherently designed to perpetuate discontentment

  24. I love this video for various reasons. One being the candidness and honesty in his explanations.

  25. I was inspired by Alain's talk, and embarked on my own journey to share my story about re-defining success. And like Alain, I shared it on the TED Stage: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tmc6HohWVCs

  26. Its humbling that Alain could have a career crisis when he seems like he's made it. Ha, what is making it? A symptom of my anxiety to think this way

  27. We need to accept the fact that no matter how well
    off we are, we did not get there by ourselves and we will not be able to
    sustain it by ourselves.  While the fate
    of the economy is to a large extent governed by institutions,  as individuals we have never the less, options of augmenting economic predicaments. Beyond the risk that a drastic inequality
    may amplify the potential for a financial crisis, it may also bring about political
    instability.  In fact, equality appears
    to be an important ingredient in promoting sustained growth.

  28. How I loved the talk about meritocracy… Is it clear, or is it another crazy idea, that, – yes, we've done away with the caste system, we've left behind the inequality of access to opportunities defined by the origin… – do we still face the last one?… – What's key point of being successful and promoted in career… – outstanding talents and workinghard in arts and sports,… – what about success in other areas… – How smart and fast in right decisions you can be…-? – It is also depends on hardworking and talents… – What king of talents?… – Your intellectual abilities?… – Do everyone really can be equally successful in developing their… – Intellectual abilities..-?..or it is never can be a fare race… -?

  29. I'm 59 now and I am happy to say, I determined at a young age I would never let anyone else determine my definition of success. I have been driven all my life by a need to understand consciousness, particularly my own of course, that is what has occupied my mind and I'm very happy with the results!

    I'm retired and living comfortably in the Great American Southwest and I'm looking forward to living the next 25 years with even more gusto than I did my first 59. So much JOY!

  30. I'm glad he did this talk. Some people have survived and that is their biggest accomplishment because it took most of their attention and a great deal of strength. Nobody may even know what they've been through. It's hard to get a great education and be at the top of the totem pole when you've struggled most of your life to live.

  31. Life does not serve us before existing, it does not serve more after having existed. But why on earth have I been made to endure a life of annoyances, suffering, wars, unbearable heat, and all that to finally die? Thank you, mom and dad! Do you get less bored with my suffering?
    Meritocracy is a stupid idea because no one has asked to exist, and therefore no one is what he is by his own will. When we talk about meritocracy we are talking about people who would have manufactured themselves at their own request and who would win or lose in social life because they would have voluntarily settled in the meritocratic world. No one has asked to exist, let alone to participate in a competitive world. Nobody asked to stay afloat in the vast unhealthy human ocean.

  32. Will you marry me Alain? (Is using your first name without knowing you at all too forward?) No strings attached! You can just interview me as an American Loser for your next bestseller, and in exchange you can comfort me with your intellectually charged wisdom and accompanying common sense.

  33. Getting
    Why are we suffering always thought we are affluent enough to be dressed and fed compared to our ancestors?because we are in a different society,as the history shows,each society has its advantages and dis,we pay attention to the spirit of equality and meritocracy,which is nearly impossible ,and here the bad spectrum of it has shown and is making us lose our happiness and humanity.that means the standard of success publicly is somehow a poison for someone,yet they just drink it without a break and eventually die for it.So it is so significant that we define our own philosophy of success as we know the secular success is depended on many coincidences and yet will make us lose something we don’t know.The world is running by relative things,even the things we think high of .

  34. I am ending my PhD studies in Brazil. My country is a mess now, our democracy is falling apart and everyone is hopeless, including me. I feel lost and I feel a loser. This mensages make me think better about my situation.

  35. He pointed out various things that I thought I already knew pretty well, but his stringenity transported the message better than any book quote. I found it funny how humans evolved to one enourmous failure-crown, unfluencung and depriving each other while we're equipped with individual thoughts, opinions and values. We should've done better all along..what is always holding us back..the fear among one another?

  36. You can't talk about success without also talking about 'value', I found it odd he didn't mention this can of worms but maybe he saved that for another talk?

  37. wow, that was truly impressive, straight to the point! I should have discovered this talk ten years ago, as it was published, but what the heck, now is soon enough…

  38. Wow 👏👏👏👏👏👏👏👏👏👏👏👏👏👏👏👏👏👏👏👏👏👏👏👏👏👏👏👏👏👏👏👏👏👏👏👏👏👏👏👏👏👏👏👏👏👏👏👏👏👏👏👏👏👏👏👏👏👏👏👏👏👏👏👏👏👏👏👏👏

  39. I thought the video was in French because of his name. Disappointed ☹️
    But his voice saved my life 💃🏽

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