All career issues are religious issues. Maybe.

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I starting to think that the most effective preparation for a good career is religion.

I am writing this post on the eve of Yom Kippur. I am constantly trying to figure out how religion fits in my life. Sometimes I think it doesn't fit. I mean, I'm a Jew dating a pig farmer. And I can't figure out what to do with my kids on Yom Kippur, so I'm sending them to school. I never, once in eighteen years, went to school on Yom Kippur. So I know it's going to feel crappy. I hope my family is not reading this.

Well, of course they are not, because they are in synagogue today.

I wish I could make my religion problems go away. I wish I could not care about religion because I'm an intellectual. Or I wish I could not care about religion because I am fine doing it however I do it.

One thing that nags at me is that I know for sure is that religion is great preparation for being able to get what you want out of your work life. And, if you read this blog regularly, you know that I think the purpose of work is to get you what you want out of your whole life, not just the work part.

So what I'm thinking, while I'm being a bad Jew on Yom Kippur, is that all career questions are really: “What is my purpose in life?” It's very hard to understand what our career problems are, because we never really understand what we are doing here, in our life.

Wondering if you should relocate is really “What's most important to you in life?” And wondering if you should change careers is really “What is my telos?” And where do you learn to find answers to these extremely difficult questions? I think from religion.

All of adult life is about facing terrible choices.

Why do people tell you you can do anything? You can't. I mean, you can. But it's harder to decide what you're not doing. We make enormous sacrifices everytime we want to get anything: You get no alone time when you have a newborn. You get no more sex partners if you get married. You do not get to live in a small city for some careers. You don't get to live in a big city for some marriages. Adult life is often about making horrible choices that feel like blood letting.

Where else do you hear about this except in religion? Adam and Eve face this problem and that's what the history of humankind is built on. That's the narrative of religion. And it's more helpful than the narrative that you can have everything. Because you can't. And you need some preparation for that.

The most important thing to do at work is good deeds.

So many people tell me that Gen Y is difficult to manage. Gen Y wants constant feedback, top-tier mentoring, and they want someone to help them build the right skills for where they want to go.

So what Gen Y really wants is people to care about other people at work.

What are you doing at work that is more important than helping people? Sure, you need to earn a paycheck, but, people don’t get promoted for doing their job. People get promoted for doing good deeds, which cynics call office politics. But the truth is that if you are well-liked at work it is because you care about people and connect with people and look for ways to help them.

People get promoted for office politics, and office politics is about doing good deeds, and I know you know that the people who are talking, week after week, day after day, about the importance of doing good deeds are the religious people.

Good work is about good rhythms.

We need rhythm in life to successfully reach our goals. Whatever they are. We need to have some things we do that are simply not a decision: Make school lunches for the kids. Say no to fried food. And, when you're really rocking, going to the gym. No decision: You have it on your schedule, at the same time each day, and you do it. Because it makes your life better.

And then sometimes, you stop everything, and you shake things up, and then you see the world differently. Like, this is why you need to take an extra long lunch, or a short vacation.

You know what is great training for establishing these rhythms in life? Religion. As a Jew, I can tell you that morning prayers, and evening prayers, and Shabbat, give order to my days and weeks. And interruptions to that order, Rosh Hashannah, or Yom Kippur, for example, shake things up for me. I am used to this sort of rhythm. I've been doing it for a long time. (Religious zealots don’t get giddy: I do this in my own, customized way. I'm the bad Jew of my family.)

Personal responsibility is the most important trait of a successful career.

In order to succeed you do not need more luck. We each have the same amount of luck. It's how you use your luck that differentiates you. Because everyone faces adversity, and the people who are the most resilient to adversity are the one's who succeed. Makes sense, right? Everyone succeeds when things are going great.

So if the differentiator is resilience, the people who are the most resilient are the optimists. The optimists can face adversity and turn luck into a ladder to get past adversity. Do you want to know how optimistic you are? Here are some ways to test yourself. But the big difference between pessimists and optimists is explanatory styles — pessimists blame external factors for circumstances, optimists think circumstances are within their control.

People who think their lives are within their control can overcome obstacles more effectively. And this is personal responsibility. Religion teaches us to take responsibility for being good, and honest, and rectifying things we have done wrong. Religion teaches personal responsibility which could explain why religious people are more optimistic than less religious people.

(A plea for civility in the comments section.)

It’s ironic that I’m looking for a conversation about religion on a day when religious Jews won’t even read this post. But there is a wide range of religious beliefs represented among the readers of this blog, and I don’t think these observations are religion-specific. Also, for the atheists who might want to eat me alive in the comments section: Instead of saying you don’t need religion to get taught these values, which of course is true, why not think about, instead, how interesting it is that the teachings of religion seem to be exactly what we need to face our most common and most difficult career issues?

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  1. Mark
    Mark says:

    I've had difficulty explaining why I read and re-read Joseph Campbell and why he’s significant; I think I’ll be referring to this post in the future. For those that don't know his work, he was not a guru; he was an academic that spent his life systematically and scientifically (and joyfully) making sense of this as a Professor of Comparative Mythology. I can’t do him justice, try out The Power of Myth and see how it grabs you. His work is definitely where the non-religious can find some orientation. It places this as a fundamentally human issue and where religion comes from. The modern falling away of religion has become the equivalent of throwing the baby out with the bath water. The workplace is not the only place where we may find we are the only one doing good deeds and helping people, but that would not invalidate Penelope's point. Apparently an individual, group, or company is dysfunctional when its relationship to whatever this is that we're talking about – is "out of accord." You can allow yourself to leave that place for another job, not just because you will be unhappy staying, but because of the damage a place like that will do to itself and your career aspirations. Without whatever this is that we're talking about, the danger is in starting to believe that dysfunctional is normal and acceptable and inescapable and throwing out the important stuff with the religious wrapper.

  2. Robyn
    Robyn says:

    Here’s a few other things that (you probably know) Judaism teaches which help facilitate successful careers and work-lives:
    1. Do not gossip or slander others. Even if it’s “true” these messages often get distorted and are always hurtful
    2. Do unto others… – treat others like you want to be treated. I like to say, “spread the love”. It always comes back ten-fold.
    3. Be humble. One should never think that it is ONLY because of his/her unique talent that something gets done. There are always many more factors that are involved; some more tangible than others. Our talents are gifts and it’s how we use them for a greater purpose which brings a sense of meaning and accomplishment.

  3. ellen
    ellen says:

    the most narrow-minded people i know are also the most religious people i know. they are so sure that gays are damned, and some seem to think democrats are, too.

    my late parents were among the few true christians i have known in terms of caring and generosity and treating people right. they exposed me to vast quantities of church time. it didn’t “take” — at 16 i became an atheist/agnostic (i don’t bother quibbling over the precise meaning. i simply don’t believe in a higher power that cares about individuals.)

    according to many people i’ve met, this makes me a terrible person who is doomed to hell. yet, except for not going to church and believing in god, i behave very much as my parents did: one was against abortion; the other believed in choice. they both did things to help other people; so do i. they didn’t lie, cheat or steal; neither do i. and (other than sending us to church as kids) they didn’t force their viewpoints on others; nor do i.

    my point is that i don’t have to accept a religion’s commandments to be a decent human being who treats others as i’d like to be treated — the basis of at least 14 of the world’s major faiths, though some state it negatively.

    the only way in which i found religion useful in the workplace was that it may have helped me to “suffer fools gladly” — or at least not curse them out and get fired.

  4. Cathy
    Cathy says:

    “and office politics is about doing good deeds, and I know you know that the people who are talking, week after week, day after day, about the importance of doing good deeds are the religious people.”
    Sorry? Two things wrong with this.
    1. Since when is office politics about doing good deeds? Office politics is, demonstrably, about manouevring to gain advantage over others.
    2. I don’t know, to use your words, that the people who talk about (or do) good deeds, are religious. How do you substantiate that? Pretty long bow to draw there.

      • C
        C says:

        Thanks Mark, I read the post, and not surprisingly, I don’t agree with Penelope’s premise in that one either. Not a big deal, I think it’s more a definitional issue than anything else. Glad you agree with me on #2.

    • Mark W.
      Mark W. says:

      #2 – “…and I know you know that the people who are talking, week after week, day after day, about the importance of doing good deeds are the religious people.”

      I don’t agree with this statement. There are many people who are not religious who are talking about and doing good deeds. My father was one of them. He was baptized and lived his life as a very good Christian but he left it up to my mother to take us to church. As my mother would say – the walls would shake when he made his appearance on Easter and Christmas (LOL). Also Gen Y is anything but embracing religion. They’re talking and doing a lot of good deeds though.

  5. Chris Atherton
    Chris Atherton says:

    Hi Penelope,

    As usual a thought-provoking post; thank you.

    I don’t think the kind of behaviour you are talking about begins and ends with religion. I am an atheist –  or at least a pretty hardcore agnostic – and I try to practice all of the above, out of a sense of wishing to be a good person and bring good stuff to the world. Partly this is because my parents encouraged me, by example, to be good and kind (they were not religious either), and partly it is because I practice a martial art with a very good, very conscientious instructor –  who, as far as I know, is not religious either, but who instills in his teaching a sort of nontheistic humanism, and encourages his students to practice and absorb all of the values and behaviours you are talking about. I think it would be a mistake to refer to these values as ‘religion’, but I agree with you that we know them when we see them and that people who honour them are usually well-liked. (I don’t think that always translates into promotion in the workplace; a lot of people I know are generous to the point of selflessness, and it buys them nothing but goodwill –  but goodwill alone doesn’t get them promoted.)

    I guess my point is that it’s possible to be a conscientious force for good without needing to subscribe to a religion, and to remind you not to be snobbish about people who aren’t religious and assume that they don’t have a guiding moral framework –  because quite often, they do :)

  6. Jay
    Jay says:

    The part about rhythm really hit me. One of the hardest things about being a self-bosser is establishing condign rhythms that will promote getting all the work done, and keeping distractions to a minimum.

    Which ties into personal responsibility because as a self-bosser, most of the decisions are mine, at least insofar as I have latitude as to when things get done. And structuring my time can be a challenge, so it’s not often easy to get in a rhythm absent an exterior force, such as a boss/workplace with defined hours when I’m expected to be somewhere, doing something.

    Love being a self-bosser, but need to work on keeping those rhythms.

    Flow is where ideal work meets rising abilities. Paraphrase of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi.

  7. Doug
    Doug says:

    Like Penelope I’m Jewish. That said, if you read a lot of the goal setting and motivational books, they are basically summarizing parts of the New Testament and stripping out the Jesus and biblical references.

    Religion can be a guide in your everyday personal matters, but often the message is lost by those who use it as a platform for political views on war, abortion, or gays. It’s too bad because it’s a good foundation for anyone, regardless of political philosophy.

    I’ve noticed many semi-religious Christians will refer to the Bible in dealing with their everyday personal matters, but have rarely heard a non-Orthodox Jew look up what’s written in Leviticus when deciding what to do about a work situation. Hebrew school is painful and boring because most American kids can’t relate to it. Judaism is a far less practical religion than Christianity.

  8. Charles Gupton
    Charles Gupton says:

    Penelope (and others),

    What is both sad and telling is that there needs to be a plea for civility at the end of the post.

    I am fortunate to have Christians and atheists as well as believers in other faiths among my friends and associates. Unfortunately I know folks who are haters of people who don’t agree with their point of view but are too myopic to see that their dogma is just as hateful as the dogma they hate. It’s interesting that they can’t see the irony in their point of view either.

    For someone to comment that religion is the most harmful thing to happen to people is not far afield from saying all parenting is harmful because some parents are bad. Anytime people are involved with anything there are going to be great ones and horrible ones. That doesn’t condone honorific behavior, it’s just what it is.

    One (of the many) reasons I read this blog is because I value the redeeming aspects of what came out of Penelope’s childhood. These posts don’t whitewash what occurred. What it does do is expose it, make people aware of consequences of abuse and opens a forum for discussion. That doesn’t change the horror but it does redeem aspects of it.

    As for the meat of the post, I believe we all need to be reminded that work is but one aspect of our lives and that kindness and a good measure of grace towards others, in and out of the office, pays dividends in our lives. If we only do nice things for people so that we can get something out of them later, that’s not really kindness. It’s manipulation.

    Another one of the reasons I read this blog, and a number of others, is that I appreciate reading points of view which challenge me to think, stretch and grow. If people only hang with people who think just like them they’re never going to expand their horizons.

    My recommendation? Find someone who believes the opposite of something you hold dear and invite them to lunch. See if you don’t grow for the better.


  9. LynnD
    LynnD says:

    I cannot agree with your contention that “the people who are talking, week after week, day after day, about the importance of doing good deeds are the religious people.” In a recent ABC News story , a recent study by psychology researcher Felix Warneken shows the capacity for altruism emerges as early as 18 months of age.

    Toddlers’ endearing desire to help out actually signals fairly sophisticated brain development, and is a trait of interest to anthropologists trying to tease out the evolutionary roots of altruism and cooperation.

    Psychology researcher Felix Warneken performed a series of ordinary tasks in front of toddlers, such as hanging towels with clothespins or stacking books. Sometimes he “struggled” with the tasks; sometimes he deliberately messed up.

    Over and over, whether Warneken dropped clothespins or knocked over his books, each of 24 toddlers offered help within seconds but only if he appeared to need it. Video shows how one overall-clad baby glanced between Warneken’s face and the dropped clothespin before quickly crawling over, grabbing the object, pushing up to his feet and eagerly handing back the pin.

    Warneken never asked for the help and didn’t even say “thank you,” so as not to taint the research by training youngsters to expect praise if they helped. After all, altruism means helping with no expectation of anything in return.

    And this is key the toddlers didn’t bother to offer help when he deliberately pulled a book off the stack or threw a pin to the floor.

    To be altruistic, babies must have the cognitive ability to understand other people’s goals plus possess what Warneken calls “pro-social motivation,” a desire to be part of their community.

    “When those two things come together they obviously do so at 18 months of age and maybe earlier they are able to help,” Warneken explained.

    I don’t believe that at 18 months of age one is quite able to discern the tenets of any religious doctrine.

    One might argue that this behavior is actually learned from one’s parents or it may be an evolutionary trait as displayed by animals in related studies.

    Other animals are skilled at cooperating, too, but most often do so for a goal, such as banding together to chase down food or protect against predators. But primate specialists offer numerous examples of apes, in particular, displaying more humanlike helpfulness, such as the gorilla who rescued a 3-year-old boy who fell into her zoo enclosure.

    But observations don’t explain what motivated the animals. So Warneken put a few of our closest relatives through a similar helpfulness study.

    Would 3- and 4-year-old chimpanzees find and hand over objects that a familiar human “lost”? The chimps frequently did help out if all that was required was reaching for a dropped object but not nearly as readily as the toddlers had helped, and not if the aid was more complicated, such as if it required reaching inside a box.

    It’s a creative study that shows chimps may display humanlike helpfulness when they can grasp the person’s goal, University of California, Los Angeles, anthropologist Joan Silk wrote in an accompanying review. Just don’t assume they help for the reasons of empathy that motivated the babies, she cautioned.

    So the old argument of nature versus nurture emerges. To answer your question, "What's most important to you in life?" And where do you learn to find answers to these extremely difficult questions?

    Perhaps religion, or perhaps science (which is a religion for some), or perhaps we are born with the answers and we need a little form of self-discovery to find these answers. Does anyone need a religion to do this? I don’t think so, but thanks for using the age-old topic of religion as a controversial topic to spark a lively debate.

  10. jenx67
    jenx67 says:

    I just wnated to say I really enjoyed this post – as a blogger with GOD in the title of her Gen X blog. =/ You’re a good Jew. You always tell the truth. So, I’d written a long comment the other day when this posted, but i decided to delete it…because of my career. =(

  11. ruben
    ruben says:

    If you’re a Muslim in a Christian workplace, how can you satisfy your religious obligation of daily prayers?

    If you’re a Jew invited to the company’s “pig and pork roast” picnic, should you not attend or go and not eat?

    Federal law mandates that employers accommodate employee religious practices at a de minimus level — at the least cost to the employer. “The employer’s only duty is to provide a reasonable accommodation without undue hardship,” says Charles Craver, professor of employment law at George Washington University in Washington, DC. “Courts are very nervous about government establishing or favoring religion.”

    Employers are skittish, too. Employees who seek religious accommodations at work should be aware that “most companies panic about religion,” says Cynthia Graves Wigglesworth, president of Conscious Pursuits, a Bellaire, Texas-based consultant on work and spirituality. “They’re so scared of appearing to endorse religion, they don’t even talk about it.


  12. Owen Richard Kindig
    Owen Richard Kindig says:

    Excellent post, Penelope.
    Religion often embraces paradox. And one of the paradoxes of Jewish and Christian religion is that the practical guidelines of each faith tend to make people more successful in work and life… which in turn fosters self-reliance and a sense of superiority, and thus undermines the very qualities that brought them to the party!

    Presbyterians started out otherworldly at the time of Franklin, and became the religion of the rich by the time of Lincoln; Methodists were the sect of the poor and the tradesman under Wesley, and became a denomination of the educated and successful by the time of Norman Vincent Peale. My forbears were Anabaptists who fled Calvin’s Geneva for their lives… but today Baptists are stereotypical of intolerance. (This hardening toward the poor is more true of Christians than Jews in my experience).

    Which I suppose is why Alexander Pope wrote,

    Go, like the Indian, in another life
    expect thy dog, thy bottle, and thy wife;
    As well as dream such trifles are assign’d,
    As toys and empires, for a god-like mind.

    Rewards, that either would to virtue bring
    No joy, or be destructive of the thing;
    How oft by these at sixty are undone
    The virtues of a saint at twenty-one!

    To whom can riches give repute or trust,
    Content or pleasure, but the good and just?
    Judges and senates have been bought for gold;
    Esteem and love were never to be sold.

    Who noble ends by noble means obtains,
    Or failing, smiles in exile or in chains,
    Like good Aurelius let him reign, or bleed
    Like Socrates, that man is great indeed….

    What’s fame? a fancied life in others’ breath,
    A thing beyond us, e’en before our death…
    All that we feel of it begins and ends
    In the small circle of our foes or friends.

    (From the Essay on Man)

  13. Rob
    Rob says:

    Your first post I read of yours that I entirely disagree with. Religion gives nothing and I’m sorry to see you unintentionally (I guess) put down and leave out the non-religious, which is the fastest growing religious group in the US. Religion doesn’t teach anything, it usurps what was already in the human contract and claims it for itself. Like walking into a wedding, picking up a gift off the gift table, and saying, “Here, this ones from me.” It’s a cobbled together fantasy of fears, desires, stories and superstitions and I feel no need to base any part of my life on it, most importantly my work life. I guess this religious holiday of yours is just another exscuse to explain how special religious people are and how the rest of us can go suck rotten eggs –

    • EllenSka
      EllenSka says:

      Rob, “religion is” this-and-that is like saying “women are” followed by your stereotype of Woman And How She Is. May I venture to guess that you haven’t checked out many (or any) actual religious communities as an adult? These raging generalities and defensiveness undermine your defense of the humanist perspective.

      I belong to one religious community (a Unitarian Universalist congregation), and also a spiritual community of Zen Buddhist practitioners. I have not found other communities in secular society that address the big questions about the meaning of life, how to conduct oneself ethically, and how to help the world through effective group action.

      You don’t have to lobotomize yourself to join a religious community, and joining with others helps combat the narcissism and materialism that seem to constitute the de facto “religious” values of our consumerist society.

      • Rob
        Rob says:

        Hi Ellen,
        Thanks for commenting, but I disagree. (I ws trying to comment on the idea that religion makes you better at doing your job, and raised your ire by accident, but here we go since you asked…)

        The fact that you can’t find ways to make human interactions or organize outside of a religious framework, just means you haven’t been looking hard enough.

        I’ve looked into all kinds of religions as an adult. Guess what, every one of them is dead right, and everyone who doesn’t follow them is dead wrong. I don’t believe in Zues or Apollo, do you? Of course not, along with all the other thousands of gods you ignore- and I just have one less god than you do.

        The idea that religions answer the big questions in life is ridiculous in the extreme. Science answers questions, admits when it gets those answers wrong and adjusts accordingly. Religion is dogma, that cannot grow. It is shit that is made up by people just like you with no evidence what-so-ever. If it had evidence your religion would be accepted by science, (and it would change everything we know about the world we live in) as it is religion is just left chasing the tail of science as it makes real effort to explain away religious superstition and make the gaps where your god is hiding smaller and smaller. At least L Ron Hubard had the guts to make up his own religion. I respect that more than just followng other poeple’s bullshit. Thinking is hard. And don’t tell me your truth is more truthy because it was written 2000 years ago in your special word of god book, or that it’s an ancient chinese secret, becasue neither of those consituet evidence based thinking.

        You don’t need to lobotomize yourself to join a religion, just stop thinking and replace it with faith. Materialism is a fact of life since this life is all we have and the bodies we live in until we die. Those are material things. And if you are going to talk about life after death in any form, please provide proof and show your work. Don’t quote other people’s made up nonsense.

        I don’t expect any of this would change your mind since religion and spiritiual thinking innoculates you from ever having to examine the evidence or admit that you have been duped. Which is what irritates me about religion, by the way. Along with the idea that you are not allowed to critisize it or examine it’s failings. If you have an odd historical theory, it can be discussed and debated. If you have a new scientific theory, it can be studied or corroborated by independent testing. If you’ve made up a new sky god and a list of rules that he demands that humanity follow for their finite earthy existence or accept eternal consequences, well everyone will just have to keep quite about that and humor the shit out of you or their just being general and defensive about your baseless, factless, evidence poor, deeply felt conjecture. How rude of us all to question….

  14. EllenSka
    EllenSka says:

    Oh, poor humanist fundamentalist Rob! Can’t see the trees for the forest!

    You sure make a lot of assumptions about my religion. For instance, that I believe in some 2000-year-old dead wiseguy. That I’m anti-science. That I believe a bunch of dogmatic crap. Who are you talking to, really? It isn’t me, and you didn’t even take the time to look up Unitarian Universalism before you indulged in your tirade of ignorant assumptions. Or do you think it’s my Zen Buddhist side that believes in the miracle power of some old teacher?

    I do know there’s something “greater than myself.” It’s called the Milky Way. And that just one local example.

    Your deeply fundamentalist belief in Science doesn’t help me answer FOR MYSELF the meaning of my life. My answers don’t help YOU either. But it doesn’t mean anybody needs to go suck on eggs.

  15. Umkhonto Labour
    Umkhonto Labour says:

    A comprehensive and well thought out post, Penelope! I am the bad christian in my family, and have long since learned to worship outside of the confines of a church which requires military style compliance from it’s flock. To have a higher source of power to draw energy and inspiration from is something that really helps us humans trough the dark and lonely times. It is just the way we are, and the name we give to that source, and how we choose to relate to it, is our won story. At the end of the day there is a myriad of ways to but one truth.

  16. Anonymous
    Anonymous says:

    If the office politics where you have worked have revolved around (and rewarded) “being nice”, you sure have worked in places different to those dozens of environments where I have worked.

    In my experience, office politics is often about being unfair, playing favorites, discriminating, cheating, stealing others’ ideas, and so on.

    Being nice just makes you a target of the evil people (I know, because I am a genuinely nice person and I don’t do it for any reward, but I’m often a target of the political set).

    However, I am not a pushover, and usually the political people end up hoisting themselves by their own petard, unless they are so good at it that they become CEOs with millionaire salaries.

    It is not a coincidence that the psychopaths in society (estimated at 4%, 4 out of every 100) end up disproportionately filling our jails (the ones who aren’t very smart or who are unlucky) and our boardrooms (the ones who are smart and/or lucky).

  17. Alan
    Alan says:

    Beat me to it.

    Beautiful, Penelope. Thank you.

    From my experience, Mass is the only place where I see people unanimously consciously striving to be better, kinder people. And my atheist friends are the bitterest bigots that I know.

    That’s my experience.

  18. Diane Warren
    Diane Warren says:

    – €˜Religion is the best preparation for a career.'" – €“ TRUE and in my mind
    solid preparation for the ups (gratitude) and the downs (guidance,
    faith, hope) we all experience in business. In fact I find myself
    leaping to the Lord's Prayer before many meetings, especially if I am
    nervous! It's a comfort to me and puts the relevance and importance of
    the meeting in place. Right? 

  19. Lorena
    Lorena says:

    Here comes the atheist …!

    Maybe Judaism is good in that respect. Christianity doesn’t encourage personal responsibility. Christianity says that all your sins are forgiven no matter what you do. It is undeserved forgiveness, therefore deeds don’t count.
    In short: Christianity doesn’t help.

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