How do you become comfortable with being yourself?
December 31, 2009 9:31 AM   Subscribe

I am having trouble accepting who I am. Other stuff related to hobbies, passions and how you accept yourself as you are (or in my case don't) are inside.

Okay. I have tried talking to my friends about this but I learned that they suffer through this too, more or less. So here I am.
--
I have trouble accepting myself as I am.
Background Info:
I am a 20 year old female in a very competitive American university. International student, very successful, very smart etc, etc. Well, at least this is how people see me.
I am studying electrical engineering and I actually do like the subject very much. There are 2 things in my life that bother me:

1) In my friends circle (both from back home and here) I notice people who are majoring in the same area as I am (EE, CS and Math etc) actually do a lot during their spare time. One of them participates in online coding competitions and coaches math olympics kids. Another does similar things and when they get together, this is mostly what they talk about. When I am in their presence I feel like I am dumb and the only people who are smart are people who can understand what they are saying. To clarify: I really am interested in the things that I study, I do not intend on changing my major and I do read about stuff in my spare time. I just don't see myself running home to code for 9 hours.

I was trying to say hell with all and discover my true passions. I found only one so far: cooking. I read Harold McGee (the ones who are obsessed will know), try, fail, practice and I don't get tired of it. I just feel like I suck because I let people inject "a culinary education/career would be wasted on you" mentality into me. Ugh. I want to be proud that I like cooking. I want to be proud because I am me. Sadly, I am not. This is bothering me to no end, and I would really appreciate any comments/insights. I truly admire people who are themselves and happy about it. How do you do it?

2) This semester was a bad one for me. A lot of panic, stress etc. I know, deep down, it is not worth it. I don't care about a B+. Or more like, I don't want to care about it. How do I do that? I just want inner peace. I want to stop being a very tired and annoying 20 year old. What made me realize that I was fucking insane was when I was mad at my boyfriend (whom I do truly love and care for) who was actually more successful than I was. I couldn't even be happy for him. This is when I realized I was too far gone.

Anonymous because I am embarrassed. And rightfully so, I think.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (24 answers total) 29 users marked this as a favorite
 
I spent a lot of time in my highly-competitive undergraduate computer engineering program making and enjoying friends outside the EECS building, and I think my successful career is better for it. I had friends then and have colleagues now that spend their free time coding, and it makes them happy. The key here is that the ones worth spending time on are happy because you bring your own set of skills to the table - you might find some of these folks want only to associate with people that do what they do, only not quite as well.

That's not really advice, simply a mere data point.

Once you're happy with yourself, these things won't matter, and vice-versa. Meditation, hobbies, and friends are the typical ways to get that done, but your mileage is going to wildly vary, as always. In any case, things should get better as you move from school into larger and larger social pools, so that you have more choice in what people you do and do not spend your time on.
posted by kcm at 9:46 AM on December 31, 2009


I just want inner peace.

You're 20. I don't think anyone has "inner peace" at 20. Your body is still growing. Your brain is growing like mad. This is a time of turmoil--beating yourself up for being in a phase of rapid growth and change is counterproductive.

It also sounds like you're revaluing the values that you were taught as a child. This is a phase most, if not all, humans go through around this point in their lives. It's confusing and it feels turmoil-y.

If you want help with this, your university probably has counseling and support groups and all kinds of resources for you and the other students going through this stuff (which would be most of them).

You're fine. You're doing fine. This is what growing up feels like. Sometimes it hurts. You will find your own way through the brambles and you will be awesome.
posted by Sidhedevil at 9:49 AM on December 31, 2009 [5 favorites]


You sound like you're having difficulty reconciling some of the things you know about yourself with perceived expectations from outside sources -- some of which may not be accurate. Most American universities have counseling services available at low or no cost to students, and these problems sound pretty common, so the counselors should be able to help you out.

One thing that always helps me is remembering that other people often have lives much more complex and difficult than what I see. Someone who is rude with me may be dealing with depression or problems at home. Someone involved in a lot of outside activities may be trying to escape difficulties in other areas. Developing a sense of compassion for other people has helped me be easier on myself.
posted by Madamina at 9:52 AM on December 31, 2009 [1 favorite]


Stop. There's something you haven't learned yet which is that our emotions are not a measure of reality--they are not a means for detecting what's going on in the world. They are just chemical reactions and thoughts which tell us far more about ourselves than about other's opinions or thoughts or any of that. You need to learn to let these emotions pass and get on with your life.

Learn to work with and experience your feelings without reacting to them. Find out where there might be centers of muscle tension related to them. Focus on the physical sensations coming from those places and throught your body. Don't engage the feelings with thoughts of how bad you are, how people are better than you, etc. That's your mind's attempt to get control over the distressing feelings. Don't reach for that control. Just experience them. Watch closely how the feelings actually pass and that some of the time you feel fine or even good. Learn how they are actually fleeting.

Then you can just get on with your life.

Therapy can also help.
posted by Ironmouth at 9:54 AM on December 31, 2009 [6 favorites]


I have been amazed, over the years, by how little correspondence there is between how much someone impressed me as an undergraduate, and their level of success in later life. I had experiences like you had --- feeling that other students were more dynamic, engaged, and intelligent than me based on their activities as undergrads. And now, fifteen years later, I see that those perceptions offered no predictive insight into where people have ended up in life, in terms of career success.
posted by jayder at 9:59 AM on December 31, 2009 [2 favorites]


I completed the same degree as you. I'm older than you however.

I definitely went through the same feelings as you and on occasion I still do.

Its easier said than done but try to define your own version of success.

For me, it is mainly knowing that I gave my best effort at something.

There is ALWAYS someone smarter, faster, better looking, funnier out there.

None of your smartest friends are even close to Einstein or Sir Isaac Newton. Probably not even anyone at your university!

When you get older, people compare each other in other ways as well.

For example, I've read about multi-millionaires who feel out of place in social events where there are billionaires. Kind of absurd when you think about it.

The prettiest girl in town feels out of place next to a supermodel.

Where does all this madness stop?

What do you value most?

How about love, health, family, fairness, etc.

I recommend mixing things up with other friends not in the tech field too.
posted by simpleton at 9:59 AM on December 31, 2009 [3 favorites]


you are who you are. you can either be proud about it or underestimate yourself. what is wrong with liking to cook. if you're really interested and passionate then there is no reason why a culinary education or career would be wasted on you and if you're not all that into it, it's cool to do something you like to do without making it into a career.
i am 21 myself and have been through what you're talking about. you're the best at being you. don't try to be someone else and you'll be the best. do things you like to do, because you can only be good at something if you enjoy doing it.
posted by niyati182 at 10:03 AM on December 31, 2009 [1 favorite]


20 is young. I'm not that much older than you, but I was way more insecure when I was 20 than I am now. You're still feeling everything out. The fact that you like your major and are interested in it is good. You don't have to live, breathe, and obsess over it, even if other people do.

Be proud of your hobbies! Cooking is an excellent hobby because it is not only fun, it serves a very important purpose. You have to eat every day, so if you enjoy culinary pursuits, you're killing two birds with one stone. I'm in law school and often find myself wishing I went to culinary school (especially during finals). The great thing is, you don't need to go to culinary school to be a great cook. All you need is practice. You can throw dinner parties, or just have friends over for dinner. I promise you they won't think your cooking hobby is lame once they have an awesome meal prepared by you. They might even be jealous. Everyone loves eating tasty foods.
If you are in a career path that could lead to a decent salary, that's a great way to make your food dreams come true. I know if I do well in my field, I'll have a pretty awesome kitchen and maybe one day start a food-related business.
posted by ishotjr at 10:09 AM on December 31, 2009


Everyone has their own interests. I know a lot of very intelligent people who like to cook. There is no negative correlation between cooking and intelligence, even if it is not electrical engineering or computer science or whatever other esoteric form of cognitive pursuit you want to compare it to.

Hell, there are tons of smart people who also run marathons. Marathon running doesn't exactly require a high degree of intelligence.

I think all of the comments above are apt. The issue isn't what you like to do in your spare time but rather that you feel you ought to be using your spare time doing something that comports with your view of your intelligence. This is a false assumption.
posted by dfriedman at 10:10 AM on December 31, 2009


Most of my friends are engineering students, though I am not, and I have noticed that the engineers who are happier and more-well rounded are those who have friends who are not math and science-type people. I surround myself with engineers because their way of thinking logically about everything helps ground me, and I'm sure the reverse is true for engineers. Find friends who love art, music, and, yes, cooking. Look for people who could talk your ear off about history all day, and for others can expose you to ways of seeing the world that you would otherwise never have experienced.

College is a time when you can expand your horizons and challenge your preconceptions. That sounds really corny but I think it's true. If you like cooking, join a cooking club. If your school doesn't have one, start one. If your brain or your friends or your family say cooking isn't as important as being an engineer, do it anyway. Then I would suggest going to your school's free or really cheap counseling services, to help work through some of your feeling of insecurity. If you want to try something more concrete, I'm sure your school will have some meditation/mindfulness classes. I didn't buy into all the weird stuff they presented, but learning how to breath and how to concentrate on simple tasks such as walking helped ease my anxiety and stress.
posted by pecknpah at 10:15 AM on December 31, 2009


This is about (1). I also am an engineer (Chem, but most of my friends are EE/CS/MechE), and based on my experiences, I think you should consider these things I've learned from others like you who have come to accept where they are:
- if you ONLY do EE, you may have deep EE skills, but may find it more difficult to apply to broader projects. One of my favorite EE alum also did a LOT of art with applied electronics, and now creates and sells this art online. I guarantee you've seen her stuff on MeFi.
- your future career can really benefit from Doing Other Stuff. The skills you gain, the people you meet, are not always going to be impressed with the depth of your EE knowledge.
- if you can ONLY talk EE, and that is what you do for fun and for work, it will be much harder to connect with people who aren't into it, even alienating.
- Maybe most relevant to your current feeling, believe me, if you feel not-as-smart with the deep-EE people, they are also feeling not-as-smart as you when you have thorough knowledge of something they haven't been spending time on. We all have things to learn from each other.
- You'll find that other non-EE people really value your skills, even the basic ones. Go back to the electronic art example - I've interacted with a lot of art or music-oriented people who have really cool IDEAS but not all of the SKILLS to make something related to electronics. If this is something you are into, you can be a great partner, participate in something new, AND feel valued for the skills you do have. Your work and final product is something to be proud of. Win-win-win.
posted by whatzit at 10:34 AM on December 31, 2009


There are important problems to be solved in cooking (food engineering), just as in electrical engineering. How can people, billions of people, prepare food sustainably, economically, nutritiously, efficiently, and with sufficient variety and flavor that they and their families will want to eat the result? This is huge. It has deep implications for economies and ecologies, and for sociological feelings of envy and resentment that can destabilize societies. It has deep implications for the health of populations, and the education of every child in the world.

Yes, you should start with what interests you. Want to figure out how to make a perfect croissant? Want to invent an amazing sauce? Want to find the perfect red beans and rice recipe? Full speed ahead, baby. No need to solve all the world's problems right now. You need to learn your subject, whatever it is, deeply, and you need to be happy enough to have the passion to pursue it all the way and to persevere when faced with tricky problems later.

And your engineering background, even if it's electrical engineering, which may seem totally unrelated, will give you the mental infrastructure to later think about cooking, if that's where your interests take you, in a much different way than a lot of cooking school students.

I was taught to cook by my grandfather, a chemical engineer who explained to me some important principles behind recipes that allowed me to be successful and inventive in my early teens.

I think cooking (you can legitimately call it "food science" if you want) is underappreciated partly because of a leftover attitude dismissing it as "women's work". You probably know this already.

But think about it, really: what could be more important than eating food, an act that every single human does every single day, usually multiple times, from birth, even, in a way, before birth? An act for which many people sacrifice living animals by the millions? An act which drives economies, transportation networks, transportation networks, and which is a significant part of court life, religious strictures, and almost all significant life milestones? An act which brings us incredibly strong feelings of joy, guilt, shame, contentment, family, friendship, and pride?

Good luck. I hope you stick with cooking.
posted by amtho at 10:35 AM on December 31, 2009 [1 favorite]


I'm a female, 20 year old, international EE student as well. Like you, I find that there are many people around me that are way more involved in EE/Robotics/CS in their spare time than I am. While I love EE, and could not imagine studying something different, my life doesn't revolve around it like it does for some of the people in my department. I have a good GPA, and a good reputation in my department, but my life does not revolve around EE.

I too sometimes wonder if I don't put enough time into EE in my spare time. I worry that while some of the people in my department are out building robots in their spare time, I do other things - my own hobbies. You need to realize that there are plenty of other EE students around you that are like you as well, and that they can become just as successful in what they do like the other EE obsessed students.

I also find that many of the students who put a ton of time into EE in their spare time don't put any effort in the classes. They are so busy with their own projects that they slack with homeworks, labs, and try get away with things in the easiest way possible in order to pass the class.

The best way to take care of this is to find friends outside of your department. Or, find friends who don't talk about EE the whole time. I find it very difficult to be around people who constantly talk about EE outside of class, so I don't befriend them. Join a club on campus that you enjoy and where people talk about the club activity, or anything else really (besides EE).

Regarding the bad semester you just had. This happens. It has happened to me. Take all the negativity and turn it into motivation. After winter break is over, keep reminding yourself about the bad semester and use it to help you get better grades. This is what I do, and it helps.

Just remember that just because you're an EE student, your life doesn't need to revolve around it. Also remember that everyone comes from a different background. I know people in my department (like myself) who didn't have too much EE experience, and some people who came in knowing all about circuity, programming, soldering, breadboarding, robots, signals, etc. Don't be around people who constantly talk about EE and make you feel dumb (which you are not). Find friends that have other things in common with you other than EE, and you will find that you will start to feel much better about yourself.
posted by carmel at 10:38 AM on December 31, 2009 [1 favorite]


Female CS grad here. Read "Unlocking the Clubhouse". It describes research done at Carnegie Mellon about why there are so few women in computer science and electrical engineering in the U.S., even compared to other highly technical fields.

The authors observed that many women are turned off by the perception that you have to live for your discipline every waking hour. Many people of both genders are motivated more by how they can change the world with their work than by obsession with the work itself. More power to the people who can do class projects all day and then code another 8 hours on hobby projects. This isn't necessary for a successful career, though, and does carry an opportunity cost in that it prevents learning other things.

And seriously, knock yourself out with cooking as a hobby. After working with abstract concepts all day it's very grounding to do something creative involving the hands and senses. Anybody who gives you crap about cooking will stop when they realize they're missing out on the chance to eat some incredible food.
posted by rhiannon at 10:59 AM on December 31, 2009 [2 favorites]


Sweetie!!! You're TWENTY!!! You have the ultimate luxury of TIME. You don't have to have it all figured out now, and I guarantee you that all your peers, who appear to have it all worked out, either most certainly do NOT (some ppl are really competitive and just want everyone to THINK they have it all figured out!), or will have a major overhaul in the next few years because a new interest has presented itself. I'm nearly 40 (shhh!) and I'm STILL trying to figure out what I'm good at!! The fun part of this journey is, the people who are still trying to figure it all out are OPEN to change, will try NEW things, have an open mind, and will ultimately get to experience so much more from life because of it! If I had settled on a thing or two twenty years ago, maybe I never would've taken up oil painting, or wrote that small novel, or I would have never discovered I was really good at poetry. My advice would be to just have FUN exploring all there is to do in this world, and know that true self appreciation comes not from being really good at something, but from trying lots of different things! It's about the journey, what it took to get there, not the end result.
posted by DogTired at 11:09 AM on December 31, 2009


I spent a lot of my twenties worried that I'd never discover my "passion," live up to expectations, or achieve a fraction of the success or fulfillment that some of my peers have found. It led to a ton of self-doubt and resentment and nothing good.

The problem with growing up bright and successful is that there's an implicit expectation that you're obligated to do something with it, and if you don't, well, the A-student overachiever identity you've grown up with crumbles and you're not really sure how to define yourself anymore.

What got me out of it (not completely, but partway) was giving myself permission to be boring and mediocre. I wish I could explain exactly how I got to that point, but I think a lot of it was just part of the process of getting older and getting into a job and lifestyle I was comfortable with.

I had this exhaustive mental checklist of things that people of my age and intellect "should" be doing, like seeing obscure indie bands in concert, pursuing graduate degrees, tasting wines, and happily reading a book a week. (Your mental checklist is probably different, and includes things like coding for 9 hours at a time.) I didn't want to do any of those, and for the longest time I thought that made me dumb. After a while, especially after you graduate, you realize that there's not a scorecard for who's the smartest or most interesting or doing the best, and most people aren't really paying attention.

I think the idea of "finding your passion" is somewhat misguided, too. It's kind of the career/hobby equivalent of "The One," as if every person has one specific thing that they excel at, and could tirelessly pursue for hours a day, and can eventually turn into income. It's not really like that for most people. Chances are, you don't have one true passion, but quite a few areas of interest, and these change over time. Some you'll be good at, some you'll suck at but enjoy trying anyway. Some can be turned into careers, but it's more likely that you'll need a regular pay-the-bills job and pursue what you really want to do in your free time.

I'm not recommending abandoning your ambition entirely, but ambition for ambition's sake can do more harm than good.

Most of this change in perspective comes from time. Changing your environment to something less competitive, and hanging around people with a variety of interests and levels of dedication, also helps.
posted by Metroid Baby at 11:12 AM on December 31, 2009 [6 favorites]


I'm a little embarrassed to find myself shilling for a blog in response for such a personal question. (I should point out I've got no connection to the guy who writes it.) But since you're looking for a pep talk here, I'd suggest reading Cal Newport's stuff about college and work/life balance, which is basically devoted to the idea that your approach is better than your friends'.

In particular check out this recent thing on the idea of finding your One True Passion — he thinks you're much better off with a solid project you like and do well than with a risky "passion" that you've dreamed up off the top of your head.

Usually he's less negative, though. More often, he talks about the value of working hard on a few things, and of avoiding the peer pressure that makes you feel like you have to be BUSY BUSY BUSY all the time, which from the sound of it is precisely what you're going through. (In fact, he brings that stuff up so often that I'm not even going to link to specific posts. Just go browse. I suspect you'll find a lot of it reassuring.)
posted by nebulawindphone at 11:17 AM on December 31, 2009 [1 favorite]


You're comparing yourself to other people. Don't do that.
posted by rhizome at 11:22 AM on December 31, 2009 [4 favorites]


I'm not really qualified to talk about the EE thing and while I think it's nice so many people are being supportive about that, I just wanted to something, and that something is this:

You are feeling inferior to electrical engineering geeks because you like cooking. You are not going to spend your entire life as an academic student. At some point, you will grow up and the ability to throw a kick-ass dinner party will more often be more valuable than the ability of your peers to build a microwave in which to heat up their frozen food supermarket dinners.
posted by DarlingBri at 12:02 PM on December 31, 2009 [2 favorites]


Consider these ideas:

-You are feeling the emotional burden of a tough semester, you will probably not feel this way in a month. That doesn't mean you aren't miserable now. You are. But know that it does get better.

-You are a valuable person, no matter what you do. You have inherent value. That means that you can cook, or you can engineer, or you can pick your nose, or you can wander around doing nothing. You are still just as valuable.

-It is okay to be mad at your boyfriend. It is okay to feel jealous. Let yourself feel your feelings, while acknowledging that they are irrational. "I am feeling jealous of my boyfriend. That's okay. His success doesn't mean I am a failure. I will feel better soon."

-You can cook without going to culinary school. It's okay to just have a hobby that you enjoy without achieving distinction in it or making it your career! If you want to make it your career, that's okay too.

-Reading list: Feeling Good, Dishwasher, Kitchen Confidential
posted by kathrineg at 12:47 PM on December 31, 2009 [1 favorite]


It sounds like you are in the midst of figuring out that you are the type of person who values a separation between your work life and your not-work life; that is to say, you allot a certain amount of time on a daily basis to your work life (or in your case, your studies) but after that time has expired you want to devote time to other pursuits and tickle other parts of your brain. Some people aren't built that way, especially those involved in technical fields (I'm generalizing), but its totally valid for you to be so. Cooking is a wondrous and worthwhile non-work life pursuit and for me it's also an awesome de-stressing agent. There's nothing quite so soothing as chopping vegetables to get the voices of the clients out of my head! I won't ever, ever do it professionaly, but I still look at it as a long-term life project.

Where are you located? I live in the Bay Area where cooking and food cross the line from idle hobby to fervent obsession. People here talk about food, wine, and cooking *constantly*, no matter what their day jobs. It's kind of fun. Maybe you should work on surrounding yourself with other like minded people so you don't feel so out of place? If you can't do it in person, do it online (food blogs, forums, Chowhound, etc.). You could even start your own food blog.

But I agree with others here -- you won't have it all figured out at age 20, and you might not attain inner peace. At 36, I still discover new things on a weekly basis that spark my interest and engage me. I think one of the keys to success in life is being open to this kind of fluid, unexpected discovery... whether it becomes a long term commitment or a short-lived fancy. Life is full of pleasures and passions -- but sometimes you have to wait for them to find you in the right moment. Good luck!
posted by missmobtown at 1:15 PM on December 31, 2009


It's hard when you're 20 to remember how young 20 is. I promise you, 20 is very young and you're only just beginning to interface with the world as an adult. It would be weird not to have some trouble relating and adapting at first. Everybody wants inner peace. It's not easy for anybody and there's no right way to attain it. It will take time, effort, and focus. That you have not attained Nirvana at age 20 is no indictment of your worth.
Keep an eye on your self-talk. Does the way you talk about/think about yourself reflect reality, or some distorted vision of what you're convinced ought to be? Is it always negative? Those are a couple of red flags indicating that some kind of help is in order, be it therapy, meds, some sort of religious outlet if that kind of thing is your bag, etc.
Also: having interests outside your field is a desirable trait for the vast majority of people. Almost nobody outside your field cares about EE (same goes for pretty much every field, incidentally). Almost nobody outside academia believes in living with a laser-like focus on one subject and one field of interest. There's nothing wrong with making yourself interesting in a broader way. Furthermore, so doing doesn't mean you're not sufficiently dedicated to your field, that you don't belong, or anything else really. It means you've got a better shot at being an interested, interesting, and well-adjusted human being than a lot of your peers. Take some art or literature or music classes or something; it'll do you good. And keep cooking. Myself, I am on the lousy side of the mid-range of cooking ability, and I find people who cook skillfully and passionately very compelling and enviable. I also like to have dinner at their houses as often as possible.
posted by willpie at 1:52 PM on December 31, 2009 [1 favorite]


rhiannon:Female CS grad here. Read "Unlocking the Clubhouse". It describes research done at Carnegie Mellon about why there are so few women in computer science and electrical engineering in the U.S., even compared to other highly technical fields.

Seconding this. I am 36 and just starting out in a technical field, after spending the beginning part of my adult life raising children and working in more female-oriented environments. I love my new career, but one thing I've notice about working in a more male-dominated field is that men are definitely more likely to identify with their occupations and be more competitive about it. (Not saying all guys are like this of course, but it is definitely more common in my experience.) I feel like fixing a computer is one of many things that I can do, and is a useful skill to have, like plumbing or cooking, but I do encounter many for whom computers and technology almost seem like a religion, and at first I did feel pretty intimidated by it, esp. when I was still in school.

Personally, I think that the fact that you can excel in a challenging subject like EE during the daytime, then go home and try to cook a gourmet meal, makes you a much more interesting person. I would definitely gravitate more to someone like you, and people who eat, sleep and breathe their jobs always seem so one-dimensional to me. So embrace it! I think once you get out of this mindset of comparing yourself to those types, and get out in the field and get more experience and exposure to different types of people, you will find that you are not such an oddity.

As for number 2...don't compare yourself to other people. Yes, it is easier said than done, but really....that's it. Just stop those thoughts when you recognize you're having them. What I've found helpful is to compare myself to...myself. Focus on how far you've come in comparison to where you were in the past, and focus on what your goals are. Keep your eye the ball...don't focus on what the guy next to you is doing and you'll be fine.
posted by cottonswab at 2:08 PM on December 31, 2009


I've always admired people who lived their life without pretense and without excuse. It's as if they completely accept themselves, including all their seemingly weird nuances, habits and interests and that self acceptance beams out of them. And the people around them really respond to that. Instead of searching externally for that validation, they validate themselves and people in turn are drawn to that, almost the reverse of how you think it might be. It's why people want to be around the salty, sailor mouthed friend versus the deathly polite and / or syrupy sweet veneer of a person.

And as someone who gave up a career in a very technical field to pursue one in the in the 'arts,' I can heartily recommend that you follow your passions. Maybe for you it's quitting engineering school and becoming a chef. Maybe your passions won't be a full time vocation, however either way, do what your drawn to and don't look back. And don't make excuses for it either.
posted by jazzkat11 at 1:05 AM on January 1, 2010 [2 favorites]


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