When We Stop Believing the Stories We Tell

A few years ago, I found myself at a personal impasse. Working for a nonprofit, my job was to help people tell their stories about how they were changing the world. There was only one problem: I didn’t believe any of it.

Photo of Man Reading
Photo credit: David Goehring (Creative Commons)

Telling all these stories and promoting all these causes, I began to experience some serious cognitive dissonance. I no longer bought into the message I was preaching.

Why? Because life happened. And at some point I had grown cynical. What was a thrill for some had become a desk job for me. What was a life-changing adventure in the lives of others was nothing more than a series of spreadsheets in mine.

Stuck at a computer for eight hours a day while others had the time of their lives, I finally gave up. I complained to my wife, telling her it wasn’t fair. Not one to be patient with whiners, she said, “Well, go do something!” So I did.

The plight of storytellers

This is a common occurrence among marketers and mobilizers, people whose roles are more “behind the scenes” tend to struggle with their work at some point.

It’s hard to serve someone else’s vision for so long without having one of your own. It feels like you’re unappreciated. The reality, though, is much harder to swallow.

For me, the irony of working for a mission organization but rarely getting to travel outside the country was too much to bear. I was telling an amazing story but living a mediocre one. Something had to change.

The temptation here is to blame your boss or your job or the entire organization — for not caring, not paying attention, not knowing. But the truth is it’s no one’s fault but your own.

I was the one to blame for being boring. I was the one holding me back. And I was the one who had to do something about it.

The cure for disillusionment

Living vicariously through the adventures of others is what we scribes, writers, and bards do. Frankly, it’s your job, and somebody’s gotta do it. But sometimes you just gotta get out there and live your own story.

That’s what I did, and it changed everything. Here are three ways I learned to live the stories I used to only talk about  (and how you can, too):

  1. Embrace the extraordinary nature of ordinary life. Look around you — you’re living a miracle. Every day is a gift; treat is as such, even when it feels like a discipline. Remember: Without the people in the dark, the person in the spotlight doesn’t shine.
  2. Find ways to be remarkable, wherever you are. Mother Teresa said, “We can do no big things, only small things with love.” Take out your neighbor’s trash; go for a walk. Don’t just sulk; seek ways to make today amazing.
  3. Live a better story. Ditch your excuses and find a way to travel, even if it’s only across town. Serve the less-fortunate through a service project, even if it’s in your own back yard. Do something unexpected, like skydiving or planning a surprise date for your spouse. You have opportunities; use them.

If you feel like the work you do is taken for granted, you’re probably right, but that’s what you signed up for. That’s what it means to serve, to tell somebody else’s story. Deal with it, or be done with it.

Make no mistake, though; you do have a choice. You can find ways to make your work incredible — like my friend Jeremy, a doctor, a dad, and a blogger who finds a way to take trips to Africa in his free time — or you can do something else.

What isn’t an option is for you to sit around and whine about it. That was never an option.

Have you stopped believing the stories you tell? What are you doing about it? Share in the comments.

118 thoughts on “When We Stop Believing the Stories We Tell

  1. Your wife sounds like a pretty smart lady!

    Thanks for sharing your experience. So far I have not come across this but it is nice to have a heads up, so I hopefully I can avoid this by following your tips.

  2. Love your wife’s comment.  So true!  I have a sign hanging above my home office doors which reads “Thou Shalt Not Whine”  We have a choice.  Whining isn’t productive. 

  3. Needed this today! I love telling stories too, but need to remember to keep living my life as well. Thanks!

  4. Look around you — you’re living a miracle.

    Routine keeps me moving, but it’s my awareness that draws me in to live the miracle of my life.

    Thanks Jeff for helping me to see that this morning.

  5. I myself am a recovering cynic. Changing long entrenched life patterns isn’t easy. I found your point #1, embracing the extraordinary nature of ordinary life, key to my recovery. It changed everything. My attitude. My perspective. My worldview. Small is the new big isn’t it?

  6. I can totally relate, Jeff. I love to travel and many people at work have that opportunity. When they return from where they’ve been they share the most fabulous stories. I put a smile on my face as I listen, but inside I’m screaming “I wish it were me!”  Then I tell myself to calm down. I will have it all – just not all at the same time.  My children won’t be young forever and they come first. I made the choice not to find a caregiver to stay with my children for several days in a row. Patience is a virtue, right? I will have my turn. And in the meantime some fairly amazing things are happening in my own backyard.   

  7. So much truth here. It is sometimes easy to forget that we have a choice. I especially like 
    “We can do no big things, only small things with love.”  Thanks for the good words. 

  8. Embrace the extraordinary nature of the ordinary life…I like that Jeff.

    It’s easy to glamorize the big events. But, life is lived in the ordinary. If we cannot embrace the ordinary and live there at least part of the time,  there will never be enough extraordinary events to feed our soul.

    Good thoughts. I’m getting to work.


      1. I’m honored to have your attention Jeremy. I’ll send you a quick note offline. Thanks again. You’ve been on my mind recently…because of your connections with Jeff and Joe Bunting. Thanks again and talk soon.

        Jeff, thanks for making this connection 🙂

  9. Great post and perspective. At the core of boredom is a lack of vision, which is an  internal condition that we have the power to change. 

    Be sure to dust off this post in about 8 years when your firstborn yells, “I’m bored – there’s never anything to do…” 😉

  10. It is so easy to do.  Get lost in someone else’s story and forget about the one you are living.  What sage advice – I can tell it was learned in the trenches.  As a matter of fact, attending the SCORRE conference was one of those ignition points in my life.  It was great meeting you in Rome. 

  11. In today’s world it is sometimes hard to stay focused on staying positive.  So signs like, “DO NOT WHINE”, and “BELIEVE IN THYSELF” and others help me stay focused.  Jeff a great post and reminder, Rome wasn’t build in a day.  One step at a time, one word at a time.
    That can soon become a full story strung together.  Thanks for all your posts.

  12. Ah, the plight of a mobilizer – yes! I can so relate. It’s easy to long for what’s “out there” and miss what’s “right here”. In saying that, I’m a Bible teacher that hasn’t been “out there” (in developing nations – my love) in three years. And it’s driving me crazy, because that’s the reason I joined our mission in the first place. We’re taking the whole family to PNG in August to live on our Medical Ship for a while and I might lose my mind with excitement. It’s definitely important to live life well *here* while also not losing sight of the *out there*. And it’s crucial for the mobilizers and story-tellers to be renewed in their passion for why they’re doing it in the first place – sometimes a first-hand taste of that is really what you need to give you more fuel (and appreciation) for the everyday. But oh, whining about it certainly doesn’t help. I know because I’ve tried it a few times.

  13. Great post! I can relate. I was a “public servant” for almost 15 years. For almost 8 of those years, I was a health educator. I was definitely behind the scenes, writing the brochures, making the displays, writing the press releases, and I started thinking I was forgotten, doing unimportant work, etc. I made a job change–not a great change at first, but it eventually worked out. 

  14. Jeff,

    Excellent post and perfect timing. I’m from the US but have been living in Asia for the last 10 years (5 years in Thailand and now in Japan). Getting ready to move to California. At times a bit nervous and uncertain about the move but I know it’s needed and after reading this it puts things back into perspective. Thanks.

  15. Reality is that you can always find some one who’s having a worse day or a worse period of time in their life.  The challenge is very real – you’re not forced to work in this spot or the other.  You can make an opportunity happen, and challenge your perspective.  Thanks Jeff!

  16. Right on Jeff! We all go through periods where it is so easy to blame someone else for the job we hate. I’ll be the first one to say it’s not easy to make a job change, but if you’re not trying to make something happen then you have no one to blame but yourself. 

    We live in an amazing time with options and opportunities literally at our fingertips. Anyone can make a positive change, it just takes hustle. That’s the hardest part.

  17. Thanks Jeff. As I have told you before, you inspire me. Thanks for being such a great friend and example.  

    If I had to choose between writing a story and living one, I would choose living. But one complements the other well. We have to make time for both.

  18. Jeff – I am trying with all I know and it isn’t working and I am getting discouraged.  I totally believe in helping where I am and I do all I can but our family has been interested in travel and missions for years.  We have looked into and applied for everything we can find.  We have prayed tons about it.  We have been really close to getting positions (one we were sure was going to work fell through at the last minute just a week and a half ago).  We have simplified our living space and could move almost at a moments notice now… and we are still trying to life out the story.  With so much seeming to open up and then closing it has been hard to keep looking.  … trying though.  Thanks for the post 🙂

    1. Don’t give up Lorilee!  This isn’t the end of your story, this is just the bit in the middle where our hero falls down a hole.  As long as you keep trying, the story keeps moving forward.

  19. Great article Jeff and very timely for us. We are also at an impasse with one of our businesses and I appreciate your straight-forward advice and info. Keep it up- you ARE making a difference.

  20. This is what I needed to hear today, apparently. I actually read something very similar about the daily miracles we see in my morning meditation. I am at a crossroads in my life, and I’ve been feeling myself telling me I can use this adventure to write, but the other part of me is fearful and wants to find the more practical, routine life. Thanks for your words of inspiration. 

  21. I sometimes have the fear of not living life as much as I should be. But since I’m a teen, I tend to overthink it sometimes, but hopefully it’s something that I’ll be able to improve on in the future.

    A novelist shouldn’t be cooped up forever, especially if he or she’s procrastinating.

  22. Jeff, like your wife, I too am very inpatient with whiners.I actually said something similar to my wife yesterday, my exact words were, “go do something about it.”  Personally, I have taken more accountability for the way my life is going. If I don’t like something, I change it, I do something about it. One of my passions is to help others in need. I am planning a missions trip this year with a local organization. I am also looking to do a missions trip with AIM. My whining and excuses stopped some time ago, and now I am just being accountable and taking action. 

  23. “Every day is a gift; treat is as such, even when it feels like a discipline.”INDEED! 😀

  24. I did missions before I got married and had kids. I would probably still be doing it if one of my son’s didn’t have health issues. As always, I love this post. Thank you.

  25. Storytelling! That’s where it’s at. 🙂

    I totally get what you’re saying, Jeff. But to better ‘streamline’ this thought, I have to ask, “wouldn’t it be a bit shallow, doing things only so you have a story to tell and show off?” 


    Do you recommend that the story is primarily for ‘personal consumption’?

    Of course, basing one’s ‘anything’ on how others will react is a recipe for pain. 

    And making sure that your story is ‘primarily’ for personal consumption seems to rectify this. For me at least. Your thoughts? 

  26. Earlier today, I read a NY Times article about how hiking emotionally healed a girl. Then I went hiking. I decided while I was hiking that when I was done, I was going to the book store to by a travel guide to SE Asia, setting in motion this crazy idea I’ve had to backpack through that region, writing about human trafficking. Then I started reading my new book. Then, I found this blog post. It seems a lovely way to end this day that is turning out to be just the beginning. 

  27. ha, that’s exactly the feeling which I’ve got recently, also working for a non-for-profit and in fact living that extraordinary life myself. In my case the reason of such feeling is more as a result of being too long in the same environment. The stories get repetitive and even my own story inspires others more than myself.

    What am I doing about it? Well, sometimes it is the moment to move on. There are many more young people who will come to my place and who are eager to gain experience similar to mine, so it’s time to pass the flame and go to search for another place to apply my knowledge and expertise. The thing which I am doing right now is to CLOSE this part of my experience PROPERLY. It’s much easier to just leave, but that’s not the point of “passing the flame”. I am wrapping up my experience to be able to leave a legacy and ensure the next generations would be able to capitalize on my experience as much as I did. And yeah, it’s tough 🙂 But I know it’s worth it.

  28. I know a lot of freelancers who tell the same kinds of stories over and over. It can be a challenge to stay fresh when the people, companies and nonprofits start to look alike. It takes work to NOT be jaded. Good message, Jeff!

  29. This is a really great message. I completely agree. It’s hard to be the support character in someone else’s tale, but they are inevitably the people with more character, if you know what I mean. Still, just like My Big Fat Greek Wedding, eventually you have to decide to start mowing your own lawn rather than doing everyone else’s yard work. 

    I’ve been struggling with this lately. There are so many things to do in life, and it’s easy to be the all work and no play dull girl. Still, there is no excuse for not taking advantage of simple changes that can make a huge difference. Perspective and attitude are everything. So, I am working on trying to incorporate basic activities and life routine changes to brake free from my rut. 

    Thanks for the encouragement, Jeff. Awesome post.

  30. I love to travel and have been known to go pretty far on somewhat short notice. Budgets have been tight, but I still find adventure in being an entrepreneur these days exploring the unknown outside my comfort zone.  Or as you said, the extraordinary that happens in the ordinary. Meeting new people, making new connections, learning new things about myself in the process. Great post, Jeff! 

  31. Great post.  I went through this a few years ago.  Wanting experience life not just read about it.   To write a story of my own and be interesting.  Hobbies like photography, travel, and bicycling helped get me out as well as hanging out with different types of people.  Here’s to the process.

  32. Thanks for writing about your experiences. This is such a timely post for me. I’ve been doing lots of complaining about my job lately – I work behind the scenes for an amazing company, but I feel like I’m missing out on my own adventure. I’ve been feeling like the victim, but in actuality, this situation is of my own making. 
    Thank you for reminding me to take responsibility for curing my own disillusionment.
    I’ll work on changing my mindset and actions starting now.  Thank you!

  33. Hi Jeff,

    You describe my life (thankfully, years ago) very accurately with, “I was telling an amazing story but
    living a mediocre one.” 


    I am particularly drawn to how you provide guidance as
    to how to find the extraordinary in the mediocre. 


    Indeed, gratefulness is a cornerstone of an amazing life.
    Gratefulness inspires the energy to transition to a different way of being.
    This is where change begins.


    I’m curious about how you made the transition. Would you
    describe the process as phases? Stages? One big process? What was an
    indispensable “ingredient” that supported your successful transition?


    1.  TJ, definitely stages. I started changing my environment. In particular, I left the suburbs and hung out with homeless people in downtown Nashville. You have to disrupt your comfort if you’re going to change.

  34. Been there, done that, still doing that! My husband and I have served on the mission field for the past few years and are now “doing good stuff” but know that we need to DO and GO to live the life we’re meant for and to build our story. “Live a better story” resonates big time with us. Thanks for the inspiring words and great reminders!!

  35. I don’t know if anyone has ever told you this before, but a great deal of your advice easily extends to help with depression as well as writing. Like this post. I always feel a little more hope after reading what you have to say.

  36.  I want to say thank you for your generosity with words of encouragement. Your blog has been like a cup of coffee with a friend time and again.

  37. Jeff!
    As a stay-at-home woman writing about and for stay-at-home women, I must say, “You have given me the inspiration I needed to beat my own demons over the head with my own frying pan.”
    Thank you so much. You have so hit the exact problem. Thank you so much.

  38. I’ve had this problem with my freelance work – the topic and the work just stopped mattering, and it became nearly impossible to write. I’ve found that sometimes I need to walk away from offered projects because if I’m not passionate about it, I can’t do it justice.

    In terms of my personal writing – my life is an insane adventure, even though I rarely manage to leave the house. Combining disabilities and kids does that. WHen I do go out, the adventure kicks up a notch, since hanging out with geeks, SCA nuts, activists and non-conformists always has something strange and interesting going on. So I don’t see my personal stories suffering – they are drawn from my life.

    But the freelance stuff, I have to believe in it, and changing my life doesn’t change whether or not I believe in the new learning programs someone is peddling – it may work fine, but if I can’t be passionate about it, better I just walk on by.

  39. Good Morning Jeff,  this is the one I needed this morning.  My mom dies a couple of weeks ago and I’ve been floundering around, trying to focus, trying to find new meaning for my life. I’d been her caregiver for six years and am at a loss for where I’m going, how to move forward.  I’ve been writing everyday for a couple of hours in the morning, fortunately I automatically wake up about fiveish, but then after my chores for the day I drop into the abyss of lethargy and despair.  I need a new focus, a new goal.  Thanks for the message, it came at just the right time and we all need to know when we’ve made a difference.  Today your post made a difference to me!

  40. One day I stopped and listened to the stories I was telling. They were no longer fun, exciting, adventurous. Instead, they were filled with angst and whining about all the things that had gone wrong or “been done to me” by others. It brought me up short.

    I stopped telling stories for a while until I was able to change my attitude and incorporate the points you’ve listed above. Now I even tell stories that create the events in my life. It makes things much more enjoyable.

    Thanks for a great post!

  41. Great post Jeff. Thank you. I have wrestled with these very issues. Since I started taking my writing seriously, I find that I naturally look for new and exciting things around me. I see everything in a whole new light. Adventure is everywhere now. 🙂

  42. I have a backward issue. When my husband and I married in 1995, we discovered sailing. We quickly came to love it so much that we wanted to sail full-time. At the time we married, we were estranged from our faith, but over the years, as we worked toward our dream of sailing, we also returned to our faith and turned to Christ for guidance. We felt that he had given us each other and the dream of sailing.However, as we worked toward sailing, I also recognized a call to write and to share with others the faith that sustained us as we worked toward this dream. When we reached the point where we sailed full-time, all of a sudden, all the “stuff” associated with writing and building connections didn’t really fit the life we had embarked upon. Over the past three years, we have begun to find a path that seems to work for both things, but it really is a different sort of challenge. If God gave us both the dream of sailing and gave me the call to write his message, how does it all fit in his perfect plan?
    We’re working on it.

  43. My daughter in law snapped a photo of the inside of the subway as she went to work.  Scanning carefully it was obvious that there was nothing to see, I recognized no one.  Suddenly it dawned on me that not only was she sharing her experience, she was thinking of me.  It made my day.  Traveling and describing is less the objective than experiencing and sharing.  Write something simple, allowing your reader to follow where it takes them.

  44. Jeff, 
    I love this post! About three years ago I got tired of being stuck in the same place. I put my “Yes on the table” and told God I’d do whatever he asked. Within a week I got a call to go to the poorest country in the world (Sierra Leone) and begin an adventure of providing clean water for a people desperate for hope. My life is radically changed since then.

    So I say to your post, YES! Live a better story! We each make the choice to stay stuck or to move forward. And it doesn’t have to be in Africa, either. Like you said, drive a across town! There are opportunities everywhere to change your story and change other people’s lives. We each have a unique voice to speak into the world. When we don’t do it, something is missing.
    Thanks so much for re-posting this. It was just what I needed to read this morning. 

  45. All three of your points are right on, Jeff. It is easy to fall into an uninspired, mundane existence. To get crushed under the weight of each day’s troubles.  But God provides a way out–will we choose to see the bursts of beauty and possibility that colors each day or shield our eyes and continue to walk in a world of drab?

  46. Absolutely love this Jeff! Sometimes we catch a glimpse of how important intentionality really is – otherwise, time’s incessant flow can be quite cruel!

    A complementary lesson that I learned a few years ago relates to the importance of moving toward that better story instead of running away from the malaise. The difference can be subtle, but the former requires you to invest the time to figure out what’s causing the dissatisfaction and how to best address it. The latter often results in random action that doesn’t necessary resolve the issue; and, when the dissatisfaction returns, it’s all the more frustrating!

  47. Thanks so much, Jeff.  Here are my favorite lines from this post: “Embrace the extraordinary nature of ordinary life. Look around you — you’re living a miracle. Every day is a gift; treat is as such, even when it feels like a discipline…” and “Find ways to be remarkable, wherever you are. Mother Teresa said, ‘We can do no big things, only small things with love’.”

  48. As a Certified Public Accountant, I identify much to well with your desk job and spreadsheets motif.  That’s the frustration that led me back to my first love, writing.  Now that I’ve started taking my blog seriously, I feel empowered to live the adventures I want, even the simple ones like a bike ride date with my wife or a fishing trip with the kids.  Then, I can serve my clients well.

  49. I could deeply identify with this message when we pushed my Reset button 4.5 weeks ago! Thank you again. Lmc 

  50. “I was telling an amazing story but living a mediocre one.” Great insight which I identify with. I wrote something similar recently about the search for community ( https://tnealtarver.com/2012/06/22/does-playboy-influence-your-view-of-christian-community/)–I dream it but I don’t live it (not in the big way I see in Scripture). I had to stop romanticizing community, seeing it as something it wasn’t (same with marriage; when I accepted its normality/ordinariness then it became something great). Good post on how to make amazing happen (I write this the evening before flying to Alaska for a short-term mission trip to a Native-American church).

  51. Ah. This really resonates with me. I too, worked in the admin department for a mission organisation… I was so envious of those who were going and doing. In the end I worked out that admin really wasn’t my gifting or passion and that evangelism and teaching the Bible was – and I was blessed to find a job in that fields

    But although I was itching to get away at the time, I look back now and am grateful. I got to hear a lot of stories of mission and Christians in eastern Europe. Some of them were dramatic, others ‘ordinary’ but powerful. I remember one girl I met who was beat by her Dad every Sunday that she went to church. She was submissive as a daughter to her Dad in every respect other than going to church, and prayed for him that he would see how important it was to her. She was just an ordinary girl, a few years younger than me. I don’t know why the story has stuck with me, but it has.

    We profit not only from living our stories but from hearing others’. I love that you help people to tell their stories – it has the power to change lives.

  52. Jeff, you’re going to be in Dallas? Seriously? I’m 70 miles from there.

    Can’t believe I haven’t heard of Echo, their site looks amazing. Not sure if I’ll be able to make the conference because of funds, but who knows what God may open up 🙂

  53. Well-timed. This is just how I’m feeling in my work lately, and it’s really refreshing to read your take on the experience. And I appreciate your “Do something about it” attitude. Thanks for the motivation, Jeff!

  54. I began struggling with it this past month as I saw a huge dip in traffic. Thinking maybe my storytelling wasn’t up to par. That I’m not experiencing what I need to. Not sure how to get out of this funk. 

  55. Jeff, I live a more extraordinary life by doing unexpected acts of service to others each day.  I also write unexpected allegorial narrative poems!  I also celebrate being 65 and white haired and healthy and joyfully eccentric!  Thanks SO MUCH for this most affirmative post!

  56. OK. Going to give this another go – hope it posts this time!

    I really related to this. I too used to work for a mission organisation in the admin department, and it was really frustrating to hear all the stories that I so desperately wanted to be a part of. It helped me to realise that admin really was NOT my gifting or passion and prompted me to apply for a job where I could teach people the Bible and pastor them.

    But after I left, I realised that that job had been more useful than I realised. The stories of mission in Eastern Europe stayed with me. There was one sixteen-year0old girl who was obedient to her father in everything, except that he forbade her to go to church. She went every week, and was beaten for it every week. I don’t know why, but that has really stayed with me.

    It’s good to make a difference, and sometimes it’s just in telling that story that the difference is made. Thanks for helping us tell ours.

  57. I myself am a recovering cynic. Changing long entrenched life patterns isn’t easy. I found your point #1, embracing the extraordinary nature of ordinary life, key to my recovery. It changed everything. My attitude. My perspective. My worldview. Small is the new big isn’t it?

  58. I LOVE telling other people’s stories through design and media! I vastly prefer it. I don’t have a story, and I don’t want one. I push the microphone away, preferring to hold it for someone else.

  59. Well said. I’m working on this. My trouble is how do you get others to care about the things that are breaking your heart?

  60. Hi Jeff, Thank you again. I notice if I go on a trip I want to write the story as it is happening. I have written a few good stories as I have traveled and some are roads that I had traveled many times and always go the same route. All of a sudden I start thinking about why I like to go that route and all of a sudden I have a story to tell. Thank you for making that clear as to why I want to write the story.

  61. Hi Jeff…wow! you make things so easy to relate to. Retirement birthday coming in a few months & I have been doing so much ‘soul searching’ since I started my blog several months back. It’s all my wonderful/sad/silly memories from pages of my mind, but as I write, I realize how much of me is in them. If I didn’t believe everything I’m feeling towards them…I couldn’t do it…They would be dead words. My readers (only a few at present) always comment that I make them feel they are right there with me as I go back down my ‘Memory Lane’.
    So what you write about ‘Embracing the Extraordinary nature of ordinary life’ & believing it, is the key for my mind set. Whether or not it ever becomes a published book or not, it IS important enough to be told. We are miracles living in a world, that is somehow thriving against all odds. Everyone of us has a unique story to tell. We haven’t all discovered that yet. For myself, I find everything I write, even my make believe children’s stories, are better if based on something I knew, wished for, pretended to be or based on my own life experiences. That’s just me, but I didn’t realize that I am doing just what you said. Thanks a million for giving me another key & a great deal more confidence
    . I am reading everything I can that you are posting. What a gift you have & even more that you share it so honestly.
    Blessings, Lane

  62. As always, thanks Jeff. You embody the fulfillment of a common, yet dormant, inner calling in so many.

  63. Great article, Jeff! I really enjoyed reading this. Your opinions are something that I can very easily relate to, as I’ve been working hard to “cure my disillusionment” and help others to do the same for a while now. Keep on being awesome!! 🙂

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