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Still having problems -- "greatness", self-comparison, etc.
August 17, 2013 4:36 PM   Subscribe

I initially felt better after last week’s question, but everything came back... I think the answers last week (which were very helpful, by the way) helped me resolve specific career questions, but not the underlying emotional issues. I’ll try to explain it better this time.

I’m not worried so much about fame as it is about “greatness”. That is, I want my achievement/contribution to be “great”, and I’m more concerned with recognition in intellectual circles than among the general public. I spend most of my time reading biographies of people like this -- Bertrand Russell, Karl Popper, Elon Musk, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Max Planck, etc. -- and thinking, “I’m about where they were at this age, right? I’m on track” or “My IQ is roughly in their range, isn’t it?” or “It looks like I don’t have to really differentiate myself until university, right?” but then not being entirely convinced. I worry that I’m too late -- that, by this point, I should have won ISEF or something like that, or that I should at least be more focused -- and/or that I will turn out to simply not be innately intelligent enough.

I thought that one possible solution would be to figure out what I’m “passionate” about and to just do that. But I don’t really have any “passions”... I want to learn about math/logic/science/technology/etc., but I haven’t been “fascinated by mathematics from an early age”, and there’s no emotional component to my interest. So, I feel like I’m not being “authentic” -- that I’m guiding my interests based on my need for “greatness” -- and that therefore I am setting myself up for failure and that I will not enjoy a career in math/science/etc. enough to make important contributions to it. I feel like all of those who have achieved “greatness” (e.g. the people listed above) didn’t care about it or seek it out but simply did what they genuinely enjoyed. I think that maybe this is just a personality thing, and that my emotions aren’t as strong as those of other people (I’ve dealt with this before). I also think that I probably have control over my own “passions”, but I can’t convince myself of it.

This is making it difficult for me to concentrate. For example, I have started reading a few articles in Nature every day, researching things that I’m not familiar with, etc. Sometime in the middle, I’m usually interrupted by thoughts of science competitions, and I start trying to determine whether this might make a good project. Then I feel like I’m forcing it -- I feel guilty that I can’t just learn about science without immediately trying to leverage it -- and I feel guilty that I don't already know what it is that I'm looking up. Or, I come across the name of a famous scientist, and I impulsively look up their biography/Wikipedia page and compare myself. The same thing goes for dabbling in code -- I usually stop because I spend the whole time coming up with startup ideas, realizing that none of them are good and that I wouldn't be able to build them anyway because of my lack of coding knowledge, and then feeling like the whole thing is artificial.

So I’m stuck in the position of desperately wanting to be a “great intellectual”, and feeling guilty about it, without even knowing what I want to actually do with my life. I don’t want to have to deal with this pressure anymore, and I definitely don’t want to think about it every waking minute like I do now. I know that several comments noted that I am self-absorbed... I don’t know how to fix this, though. I have one close friend who is leaving for college in a couple of weeks. Also, I’ve always been kind of self-absorbed, except spending most of my time in my head never used to make me feel so awful. The loss of concentration and resulting guilt and time-wasting is the last straw... I am ready to burst into tears out of frustration.

Again, thank you all for your comments last time. They were very helpful.
posted by myitkyina to Human Relations (22 answers total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
Maybe you should listen to the guilt that builds up in you when you realize that your current behavior is self-absorbed.

I don't struggle with wanting to be a "great intellectual", but in my younger years, I really beat myself up wanting to be a "great beauty".

I got myself to knock it off by: 1) realizing that it made me come off as self-absorbed, which I hated and 2) realizing I had a lot of inadequacy issues I had to work through.

I wish you the very best of luck!
posted by nohaybanda at 4:46 PM on August 17, 2013 [2 favorites]

Yeah...I'm thinking you might want to add "therapy" to the suggestions from last time. You're coming across as a little obsessive and the thoughts about "fame" or "greatness" or whatever seem both troubling to you and intrusive.


So, I feel like I’m not being “authentic” -- that I’m guiding my interests based on my need for “greatness” -

Not to be glib, but...aren't you?

Look. This isn't what you want to hear. But the bad news is: you can't force greatness and likely will not actually achieve it at the level you seek. The odds are simply against it.

The good news is: you will probably still be pretty awesome. You will become occupied by things that truly spark your passions, and maybe those things won't be math and science, and maybe they will. It doesn't really matter, because they will make your life happy and fulfilling.

So no, you probably won't be Bertrand Russell when you grow up. But by the time you actually grow up, you really won't give any shits at all about that.
posted by like_a_friend at 4:47 PM on August 17, 2013 [10 favorites]

do not burn the biographies if they are from the library, merely return them kthxbai
posted by like_a_friend at 4:48 PM on August 17, 2013 [15 favorites]

I was going to be all obnoxious and say "didn't you read the answer I gave you last time," but it turns out I gave that answer to a completely different Asker. You both need basically the same answer, though - and actually I think you need the "therapy" bit more than the other person did, because this is interfering with your day to day life and is obviously really distressing to you.
posted by SMPA at 4:53 PM on August 17, 2013 [2 favorites]

I agree that a little therapy may be in order. You're wracking your brain over metrics and strategies to measure and achieve greatness. It would probably be a lot healthier and more productive to examine what's driving this desperation, and maybe learn some techniques to redirect your brain when it takes off down this road. My guess is that insecurity is driving this appetite to be exceptional, as a way to defend against some feared scorn or criticisms. Maybe I'm wrong, but I really doubt that an appetite for greatness motivated the people you idolize. If your mind is consumed with worry about greatness, you won't have enough remaining capacity to actually be great at anything. Accordingly, you can forget about being great until you can manage not to care whether you're great.
posted by jon1270 at 4:58 PM on August 17, 2013 [1 favorite]

Therapy, and per several suggestions from your previous question, go out and do things. Learn a language, volunteer for a citizen science organization, something. Stop obsessing over how you're going to get from here to there and start moving.
posted by rtha at 5:00 PM on August 17, 2013 [1 favorite]

Actually, Wittgenstein's biography is a pretty good example of how you can achieve all the things you have in mind and still hate yourself and all the brilliant things you're saying:
"Norman Malcolm has described the intense self-disgust that Wittgenstein would feel after lecturing in the late 1930s: his words, he said, sometimes felt like corpses to him, and afterwards he would desperately rush off to sit in the front row at the movies, drowning himself in the 'shower-bath' of the Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers musicals or American westerns which he preferred (NM 23, 26)." -- Louis Sass, "Deep Disquietudes," in Klagge (ed.), _Wittgenstein: Biography and Philosophy_.
So, if you really want to imitate what worked for Wittgenstein, watch more Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers.
posted by Monsieur Caution at 5:04 PM on August 17, 2013 [7 favorites]

You know, a lot of people who left great marks upon the earth were also complete and total jerks to the people around them. Or were depressed and miserable. Or depressed miserable jerks.

Focus on being kind to the people who immediately surround you. This includes you.

Be generous with your knowledge. Be patient with your mistakes, your slow progress, your previous thoughts which currently (or in the future) seem foolish.

You are growing. Keep growing.

Learn to be vulnerable. To admit that you do not know. Admit when you are afraid, and figure out what fear you might be trying to bury with "greatness." I suspect that you feel like people who achieve great things don't suffer...something. But trust me. They do suffer. Suffering is part of life. Some suffer more than others. You can work on that now.
posted by bilabial at 5:05 PM on August 17, 2013 [12 favorites]

I read an interview recently with an author (I forget who), who teaches students all over the globe. He said that after decades, he had learned an almost foolproof method for being able to tell who had the potential to succeed and to produce good work.

The difference, he said, was that the people who frame their desire as "I want to be a writer" were almost certainly not going to get there. The ones who frame their desire as "I want to write" have a shot.

If you're obsessed with something you want to be, then it's ultimately shallow because it doesn't necessarily come from anywhere authentic within yourself, and it doesn't lend itself organically to meaningful action, practice, choices, and habits. But if what you care about is the act of doing something in itself (writing, playing basketball, studying particle physics, whatever), then you have a path. And only a path (even a twisty, crazy, winding path that may not always be clear) will get you where you want to go.
posted by scody at 5:09 PM on August 17, 2013 [26 favorites]

Read a biography/autobiography or two of a great woman or man that is not so cerebral. Fredrick Douglas, Malcolm X, Tenzin Palmo, for examples. There are many ways to be great. Being Bertrand Russell II is not the only way.
posted by milarepa at 5:14 PM on August 17, 2013

It's important to remember when people write biographies of famous people that they're starting with knowledge of what that person accomplished, and then crafting a narrative around those accomplishments. Because they're trying to find roots for a person's greatness in their development, they tend to highlight a person's precociousness in a way that makes it seem like they popped out of the womb spouting theorems, or novels, or whatever.

They didn't. And you shouldn't expect yourself to.
posted by jeisme at 5:26 PM on August 17, 2013 [3 favorites]

I wouldn't say that you're necessarily self-absorbed, but you are incredibly easily distracted from what you describe. So perhaps some therapy around "how do I better focus on completing something I start" would be helpful. At the rate you're going you're going to be great, but you're going to be a great dilettante. And that's not the kind of greatness to which you aspire. I don't think that means you can't explore different interests but you have to FINISH something. The fact is: you have no position from which to judge at all how good your ideas are! Because all ideas are kind of dumb until someone DOES something with them. Builds the machine, designs the building, finishes the painting, proves the theorem, writes the book. Until then you have no idea because... you're right, you're not great - so who are you to decide?!

Greatness, like coolness, is a byproduct of some other actions. So try this: keep a pen with you (like a Sharpie). As you go about your day, engaging in whatever you fancy at the moment, make a mark on your forearm each time you get off into being disengaged from the task at hand - each time you go Meta on the task and not focused on it. Make the mark, count to 100, and then start again. At the end of the day, tally up your marks. The next day, do it again. The next week, look at which projects you were the LEAST distracted during. And then pick that up and commit to finish it. AND ONLY IT.

When you do, maybe its crap but maybe there's something there. Post it to Projects, get some feedback and refine it. Fear feedback? No one, NO ONE, who's great ever got away without some criticism. Part of their greatness is going beyond it.
posted by marylynn at 5:38 PM on August 17, 2013 [5 favorites]

Hmm. I know everyone suggests mindfulness meditation for sticky life issues nowadays, but -- Have you tried mindfulness meditation? I think until you see very clearly that it's going to ultimately make you unhappy spending your life comparing yourself to others and spending lots of energy figuring out whether you measure up and trying to make yourself measure up, until then you are probably going to engage in it a lot, and not entirely realize you're doing it as you're doing it.

Lots of people can give you a very compelling written-out reason about why engaging in this sort of thinking isn't a good, edifying use of your time, but you're not going to get it until you really start to examine how this is playing out in your life - When you are in this mindset, how do you relate and connect with others? What parts of life are you missing when this is your main focus? Those are deep questions that take more time to grapple with than the two minutes it takes to read an answer on ask.metafilter.

I will just ask you this: If you became a "great intellectual," what would that give you? What are you really after here? It sounds like there might be something missing from your life, and if you looked at the actual gappy-ness instead of trying to fill up the hole straight away (with greatness, etc.) it might help your life. I should add that I'm coming at this with some amount of experience wanting to be a great so-and-so, and having been unhappy as a result of it.
posted by mermily at 6:27 PM on August 17, 2013 [5 favorites]

It might help to read this article on survivorship bias to see why focusing on famously successful people is actually counterproductive when trying to understand their success.
posted by MsMolly at 7:39 PM on August 17, 2013 [2 favorites]

"there’s no emotional component to my interest"

Firstly, wanting to do something is indeed an emotional component. However, it does also seem to be the case that what you want is less to do than to have—whether the thing to have is a skill, or a specific accomplishment, or a lifetime accolade (scody says this more succinctly above). As long as you find yourself unable to override your unwillingness or inability to do (or, as you note, your tendency to distract yourself from doing), it is true you will likely never have the things tied to that doing. And if your emotions are only tied to having, then you really need to examine why that is. I don't think it's an uncommon problem at a time when high schoolers especially are being pressured into viewing themselves as collections of traits that can lead to more traits; there is very little process-focus because the educational system (and much of the job market beyond that) is largely rewards-based, and prioritizes results over experiences.

You likely know this, but you also likely don't know this in a way that can provide you immediate relief, and can't until you are in some degree on the other side of it. Therapy, for what it might allow you to begin voicing about yourself, with the same honesty you've put forward here, does sound like a good option if you have resources for it. However, with or without therapy, it is important to begin recognizing the ways in which you are being reinforced in your desire to have (rather than in a desire to do) by people around you—family members, friends, peer groups, teachers. You need to begin separating internal pressures from external ones, and recognizing how each kind of pressure is acting on you.

Secondly, as a high schooler, it is absolutely the case that there are some clear ways in which you can apply yourself in order to increase the sheer number of possible career trajectories and opportunities available to you. I think many of the responses you received to your earlier question gave you practical and concrete advice for how to structure your time and make headway on small tasks so that when you are in a position to attempt something comprehensive (whether when applying to college or securing a job or starting a professionally-oriented project) you have a variety of skills at hand, and a record of achievement that supports those skills. However, the lack of emotional investment in individual actions, regardless of consequence—the lack of "passion"—is something you can only address over time, and with tremendous support, both from yourself and from others.

Do you feel truly at ease to explore? To pick up an activity at random, on a whim, and then to back away if it doesn't suit you? Do you truly feel it is okay to be uninterested in something that might, for someone else, lead to "greatness"? Because it seems to me that you don't; that what you call boredom in your original question is a frank expression of disinterest, but that this disinterest, rather than gently steering you away from pursuing a particular activity, instead spawns a degree of self-loathing. Why is this? Just because you don't like something now, does not mean you won't come to like and appreciate it later, and you should absolutely follow through on actions that you can tolerate, and that you can perform well on, if they are practical stepping stones to things like good college choices. But you should also never feel like you must choke something down simply because it is in front of you. Surely you know that many of the intellectuals you follow were kicked out of institutions, or were noted drop-outs from classes and entire educational systems. Given that you haven't mentioned monetary aspirations/pressures, I wonder if you are stymied by a degree of privilege that prevents you from feeling able to choose against potential activities or futures, simply because there are no seeming obstacles to your choosing for them.

Finally, I notice that you aren't actually invested in what your accomplishments might engender on a larger scale—the kind of thing you become recognized for seems to make no difference to you, as long as it is primarily (or foremost) an achievement of intellect. Intellectual biographies may be entertainment in and of themselves, but they are written (as jeisme implies) first and foremost on account of a specific body of work, and on account of the struggle to produce that body of work, which is frequently a struggle with/of self. These people were not trying to be great, so much as either believing they were great (i.e. if they did not do the very specific work before them, no one ever would) or being so overwhelmed by vision that they could do nothing else. Do you read the work by the people whose biographies you idolize/idealize? If you do so, you will find that work to be full of boldness, brashness, and contradiction.

More than biographies, I would recommend reading letters—all the letters these people wrote to their friends, their confidantes, their enemies. There is scarcely a better way to come into contact with the deep and fraught humanity of these figures; their petty squabbles and persistent misapprehensions. Their arrogances, their vulnerabilities. And, towering vastly above all of this—their uncertainty over the lasting worth of any and every effort they were putting forth. The struggle you are undergoing now is likewise a struggle of self, and "greatness" does not solve it. And intellectual "greatness," is especially (as others have warned you) not a thing one can either predict or control. The surest path to it (that is to say, the only common denominator between the figures you read about) is to articulate yourself honestly, courageously, in sincere concert with your thoughts and feelings at any given time, and then to be flexible going forward in accounting for how those thoughts and feelings change.

tl;dr: I think the best answer to your concerns is the hardest one to accept: patience (with yourself, especially), and time. But understanding the educational environment that molds your desires may be a step in the right direction to understanding what your lasting desires might be.
posted by trainsurfing at 7:45 PM on August 17, 2013 [7 favorites]

I am you, relentlessly comparing myself to accomplished people and beating myself up for not being them. I've learned that one of the only things that can really get me out of my head and stop me from obsessing over The Person I Will Become is going out and having good conversations (about anything!) with smart, passionate people. This requires kindness and open mindedness and the ability to give people chances (not just dismissing them for not having achieved X or Y). I know that this is so hard when you're in an environment that feels totally wrong for you, so apply this as you can.

Also, be kind towards yourself. I spent so much of my time in high school hating myself for being so self-absorbed (which I realized was a kind of self-absorption in itself, and hated myself for that, and so on and so one). That cycle sucks. Realize that what you're doing is not intrinsically evil, and have compassion for yourself. Again--so much easier said than done, I know.

Please, please feel free to message me if you want to talk.

(Also, and this may be totally unhelpful, but one of the things I did independently in high school that really made me feel like I was doing things was working through a lot the problems in Michael Spivak's Calculus. If you have any interest in higher mathematics, this is a really really great place to start and is a well-written, interesting book, in my opinion, and the challenge of "okay, I am going to sit down and do ten problems from such and such chapter" is pretty easy to assign to yourself. Doing this also allowed me to have a really strong background in math before I started taking higher level classes. Maybe finding something like that could work for you.)
posted by precession at 9:29 PM on August 17, 2013 [2 favorites]

I think you are too focused on "great people who you've heard of". But think about all the "greats" that you've never heard of. For example, look at this list of Top Professors from the rate my professors website. I suspect many of them are people who I would characterize as "great" if I knew them myself. But have you heard of ANY of them? Do you think they won science competitions? How do you think they got to be faculty whose students rated them highly? When do you think they chose their field? Google a few and see what you can learn about their own career trajectories. I suspect that many did not find their way to their "greatness" with the "instant recognition of their intellectual passion" that you are seeking.

As another example, look at the CSM's People Making a Difference column. Read about these people and think about how they came to a place where they became "great" in their own and/or someone else's eyes. This could help you realize (1) how many different ways there are to be "great" and (2) that it might take you a while to figure out what path you want to take to your own "greatness".
posted by gubenuj at 12:10 AM on August 18, 2013 [1 favorite]

I think Feynman is a good role model, because while he was extremely brilliant and accomplished some enormous things, what makes him actually lovable is that he was playful, humble, and honest: more attainable virtues. Okay, he had a quick brain and his life trajectory got him involved with some big projects. That's cool. But it's basically just a quirky situation. You get to express your own brilliance in another situation.

I know lots of people who objectively aren't Great Men of History, but who perform within their humble life situation with immense virtuosity and glowing kindness. In fact I find it hard to think of anyone who doesn't, though we all have our faults.

You might be interested in checking out Joseph Campbell's ideas about the "hero's journey." In Lord of the Rings, the real hero isn't Aragorn, Gandalf, or even Frodo, really, it's Sam, Tolkien said so.
posted by mbrock at 2:09 AM on August 18, 2013 [1 favorite]

I thought that one possible solution would be to figure out what I’m “passionate” about and to just do that. But I don’t really have any “passions”

Passions are for suckers. You get good at something *first*, then you get passionate about it. So, try a lot of stuff. Do things you have an affinity for and get good at that. Get *so* good that people can't ignore you.

And, dude. If you are as young as you seem, you have time. Lemme tell you a story.

I was at a science camp in high school where we had lectures from a bunch of really smart & accomplished people. Some were really compelling. Some were really engaging. But I don't remember much from them. The one lecture that I remember was from a doctor who did research with the Amish, I believe. But his research (obviously) wasn't what I remembered. What I remembered was at the beginning of the lecture he played the violin. He wasn't a fantastic player, but it was alright. A lot of us were baffled why a science lecture would start that way. He anticipated our question and explained that he had starting learning to play violin when he was 40.

I had been held back a year in school when I was young. I was 1 to 2 years older than the majority of the people at this camp, would be 2 to 3 years older than other freshman at the college I would be starting at in a couple months and had a bit of a chip on my shoulder about "lost" time since I was held back. But as this guy was explaining when he learned the violin, it dawned on me--I've got plenty of time. I don't have to try to do everything at once, I can take things one at a time and focus on things one-after-the-other. And it lifted this huge sense of "I MUST DO THIS NOW" was lifted.

I didn't quite know what to do with that in my early/mid 20s, but as I have worked my way into my 30s, I've started thinking of things in "blocks", focusing on single types of projects for a period of a few years at a time. There is plenty out there to learn and become an expert on--and I still have plenty of time to do it. And you sound like you have even more.

SO...deep breath. Everything will be fine.
posted by chiefthe at 5:23 AM on August 18, 2013 [2 favorites]

I really identify with what you describe, particularly the example of the mind-spin you go into while read an article in Nature. Graduate students everywhere are having that same experience right now!

I agree with everyone here that you are very young - likely, things will work themselves out. Likely, your impatient desire for "greatness" is a symptom of some stuff going on emotionally that you might want to look into sorting out.

I noticed that quite a bit of the advice given has to do with avenues of research - what to read to get inspired, resources available to you, examples to disabuse your romanticism of what is greatness, etc. But experience has shown me, and you it seems, that constant research just feeds into your anxiety. The internet is vast and great but its never ending links actually produce anxiety: how could I read this one book/article/page/entry/study when there are thousands more waiting for me? How will I ever become the well-rounded intellectual when there is so much more to read? At which point I just coil into a pile of guilt and watch Law & Order reruns.

My advice to you is to impose some constraints on what you are reading. Ideally, I think you should be working on a project. You are young and creative. Too much vast research can kill creativity, because creativity means necessarily inventing things that others have already invented, and making mistakes. Both of these are crucial for forming your mind. Though they don't in themselves lead to greatness, I would venture to say that all great thinkers have had to pass through this. There will be plenty of time when you are in college and then perhaps in graduate school to do dedicate your time to research and reading.

If you are interested in math, then work on solving a difficult problem. Or work on an article with the goal of trying to publish it. Or work on a philosophical question. That way any research you end up doing will be driven by your need to address a question or a problem. Spend some quality time with your thoughts - not your anxious thoughts about yourself, but thoughts about the problems that interest you. It's important to remember: good and even great thinkers usually have modest goals. They don't set out to revolutionize linear algebra, or Rousseau studies, or metaphysics. They set out to prove or disprove a small idea through perseverance and lots of hard work.
posted by microcarpetus at 9:25 AM on August 18, 2013 [2 favorites]

I agree with the others above that suggest therapy, as this has clearly become a real emotional tangle for you.

Bt JUST focusing on the logics of the question, though, I'll say this. What made Karl Popper great wasn't that he was brilliant. What made Karl Popper great was that he had a great problem to solve.

Really, that's it, that's the secret: the key to greatness is solving a problem. For every Planck there are dozens and dozens of people who are just as smart in just the same ways. But they didn't see the same questions he did, or don't try to answer them, and so it's him we remember.

You say that when you start a project, you're immediately overwhelmed with ideas on how to leverage it. Right now, you're trying to leverage it into ambition and that's stressing you out. Let's say that this thought process isn't a bad one. Let's say it's a great skill you have. Yes, you do need to learn how to slow down and concentrate, for your own intellectual and emotional good, but. You are immediately looking for how best to use this knowledge. That's good. Go with that. Use that.

Use that skill by not asking, "what will make me famous" or "what will make me smart" but "where can I solve a problem". Because there are things you don't like, yeah? A crisis you want to solve? A question you want to answer? Something more worth the outpouring of energy you long to find and long to give then scanning science journals for as-yet undecided goals?

There's only one you. Ever. In the history and the future of our universe and right now. There's only you, and only you can think about this question the way you can, and only you can go about fixing this problem the way you can, and you don't need anything more than you already have. I mean, yeah, you might need to pick up a few skills along the way, some more knowledge, but that's nothing, those are just steps you take every day already. But right now you have a good heart, and a good mind, and you want to do something Important for the world.

That's all you need.

Go find your Great Problem.
posted by blue_and_bronze at 7:57 PM on August 18, 2013 [3 favorites]

It sounds like coding and reading Nature articles are not your thing. Perhaps your calling in life is to be an amazing biography writer, since you are so obsessed with biographies. Or maybe your calling is to study genius and then create a corporate development consultant agency like the Gallup Poll people.

There are thousands of things that are not your calling, and only one or two that will really make your heart sing. Just because you are disinterested in a few topics doesn't mean you give up. That is like going to a dance, seeing two people who you aren't attracted to, and then concluding it is doomed before you have met the other 500 people in attendance.

I have one narrow thing that I am into. I am one of the best in the world at this thing. I am uninterested in thousands of other intellectual pursuits. I used to force myself to read papers in cryptography, math, medicine, and I hated it! But in my own narrow topic, I obsessively read for hours and it is a joy. I am irritated if I am interrupted from reading those papers. I actually pay my own money to gain more knowledge in that area.

You will find your calling, in time.
posted by cheesecake at 12:39 AM on August 20, 2013

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