The Eight Stages of Early Retirement

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When we first retired in 2015, I had a very different version of retirement in my head. The picture in my head looked something like this:

  • Hand in notice
  • Give my boss the finger
  • Tap dance out of the office
  • Travel the world. Be happy forever.

Reality turned out a little differently.

Instead of tap dancing out of the office, I hoofed it back to my desk worried that I’d made a huge mistake. All around my co-workers continued answering e-mails, rushing off to meetings, scurrying around doing “important things,” completely oblivious.

Later that night, I woke up in a cold sweat, wondering what I was going to do with my life. As it turns out, when you’ve had the same identity for nearly a decade, you can’t just magically forget about it overnight.

When it comes to predicting your post-retirement life, you won’t know what it’s really like until you’re in it. And after 5 years, I learned that there is a natural progression through the stages of early retirement that is similar to what normal retirees experience, except you’re young so you have a lot more pent-up energy and drive.

After speaking to a few of my retired friends, I’ve found that despite the different paths we took post-retirement, there was a common pattern.

So, for those of you pursuing FI and want a glimpse into your future, here’s an unofficial breakdown of the eight stages of early retirement.

Stage 1: Striving for Retirement. The marathon of Financial Independence

On your commute to work, you listen to ChooseFI, the Rebel Entrepreneur, and MadFIentist podcasts. During your lunch break, you devour, Mr. Money Mustache, JLCollinsnh, and our weird little blog. Your bookshelf is lined with The Simple Path to Wealth, Quit Like a Millionaire, Financial Freedom, and Playing with FIRE.

You tell everyone within earshot about the 4% rule, savings rates, index funds, and tax optimization, until they’re so sick of it they want to shove you down the stairs.

You count down the hours, days, years until you can finally escape the rat race so you can live happily ever after.

Even the 60 to 80 hour work weeks are now worth it, if you can just get to the finish line. You can almost taste the freedom—so close, yet so far.

We were in this stage for 8.5 years and the final year leading up to my retirement felt like the longest year of my life. I also didn’t tell anyone at work what I was up to. I let them think I was a broke idealistic Millennial, quitting my job to travel the world and “find myself”. It wasn’t a hard sell.

Stage 2: Retirement. You did it! You reached FI!

FINALLY. The marathon is over. You collapse into an exhausted sweaty heap at the finish line, grinning and feeling like a million bucks!

You pull out the resignation letter you typed years ago in eager anticipation of this day and can’t wait to shove it in your boss’s face, after toasting yourself with a glass of well-deserved champagne!

The day we reached FI felt surreal. I kept checking our spreadsheets and brokerage account to make sure we didn’t make a mistake. The celebratory bottles of champagne we polished off turned out to be a double-edged sword. I woke up with a hangover thinking I’d dreamt the whole thing.

Stage 3: Panic! Freaking out about losing your paycheque and identity

Even though you’ve been counting down to quitting day, you keep delaying and telling yourself: Next Monday, I will definitely quit. Next Monday is the day.

You know you’re supposed to feel relieved and excited, but instead, you feel anxious and worried.

For some people, this results in the dreaded “One More Year Syndrome.” They end up telling themselves, I need one more year of extra money, just in case, and then I’ll quit. But then that day rolls around, surprise surprise! They don’t. They keep doing this dance, thinking I’ll do it next year, but never really getting the guts to pull the trigger.

Luckily, you don’t have One More Year Syndrome. After procrastinating for a few days, you walk into your boss’s office and finally hand them the resignation letter.

That night you have a mini-panic attack. You wonder to yourself, what am I doing? Is this really a good idea? What if I run out of money? What am I supposed to do for the rest of my life?

This is what surprised me the most about my FI journey. Wanderer had already quit his job so I couldn’t chicken out. I thought quitting would be exhilarating, but it was nerve-wracking even though I hated my job and never felt like I belonged in engineering. Now I realize that even if logically you know you’ll be fine, you still can’t predict how you’re going to react. Emotions are weird.

Stage 4: Honeymoon. Wow, retirement is all it’s cracked up to be!

You know that scene in Shawshank Redemption where Andy Defresne crawls through 500 yards of shit through the sewers to freedom? And then when he finally escapes prison, stands in the rain, and blissfully stretches his arms out towards the sky.

That is what it feels like when it finally sinks in that you’re free. You can now set your alarm clock on fire because you’ll never have to put up with another stressful deadline or bullshit meeting again.

You feel like you’re on top of the world. And in our case, we packed our bags, sold off our stuff, and bought the first of many plane tickets for our trip around the world.

I call this the honeymoon stage, but honestly, it was WAY better than our honeymoon. Every day felt like waking up in a dream, and foolishly, I thought it would last forever.

Stage 5: Boredom/Disillusionment: Is this it? Now what?

Our brains are wired for dopamine. It’s drives us to continue existing, by incentivizing us to search for food, have sex, or seek out new and exciting experiences. But annoyingly, this hedonic adaptation is exactly what causes you to feel bored and disillusioned after you’ve gotten all the excitement and newness of retirement out of your system.

You’ve read all the books on your list, watched every Netflix show, and played countless hours of video games. That’s when the dreaded question begins seeping into your head and then ricocheting around in your skull. Now what? Is this it?

You start worrying about being useless while everyone else is doing important things like getting promotions, raises, and accolades. You start to ask yourself, why am I here? What’s my purpose?

Now that might seem scary at first and makes you wonder why you quit you job, but this is a good thing.

When we’re working, we spend most of our time paddling and trying to keep our heads above water. We never had time to ask questions like “What am I doing with my life?” “What’s my purpose” and “Why do I exist?” But this existential crisis is exactly what we need in order to figure out our life purposes, so we don’t end up with regrets on our deathbed.

In my case, since I took 5 years to build my writer identity before I quit my job, this stage didn’t last long. We also volunteered for a non-profit called “We Need Diverse Books” so that gave us automatic purpose and community in retirement.

Still, it didn’t stop me from periodically having thoughts like “but other people are working and getting ahead, what am I doing with my life?” I’m happy to report that they only happened sporadically during the first two years, when you’re still wading into retirement. I haven’t had those thoughts for over 3 years now.

Stage 6: Re-invention: Building your new identity

Once you get over your ego and stop the urge to impress and “one-up” everyone else, you start creating your new identity.

You can finally be yourself and create the identity you want, rather than the identity society expects of you. Which is great, because after all, this is THE biggest regret of the dying.

This is when you figure out who you REALLY want to be. Whether it’s writing, video production, gardening, taking care of your family, bettering the world—whatever it is—you finally have the time and space to do it. You can’t hide behind your job and lack of time as an excuse anymore.

You are now free to create your new identity. And remember, it doesn’t have to be a big, bold, world-changing type of identity. It’s an identity that suits you, regardless of what everyone else thinks or does.

That’s what I did. I took my engineer identity cast it aside, and made an honest go of being an actual writer. We published our first book Little Miss Evil and we started this blog. Life felt damned good. It felt like I was finally in the right soil.

Stage 7: Burn Out: Do I need to retire from retirement?

Sometimes when people create their new identity, they get a little carried away. If you become good enough at something and help others without asking for anything in return, sometimes you get more opportunities than you know what to do with.

And if you’re an overachieving A type person like me (which is what got you to FI in the first place), you end up saying yes to everything. Which is exciting and new and fun at the beginning—

But soon you get burned out. Somehow you are now choosing to work longer hours in retirement than back when you had a job. Do you need to retire from retirement? You start to wonder “Why am I doing this? I don’t even need the money anymore.”

For us, we hit this wall last year. Penguin Random House approached us about turning our blog into a book, and as a professional writer you don’t say no to an opportunity like that. We pored ourselves into this new writing project that would eventually become Quit Like a Millionaire, and we then launched ourselves into a world-wide book promotion tour in 2019.

At one point, we had to fly into London to record our audio book, then go right to the premiere of Playing with Fire, and then go right into a Chautauqua. I found myself losing sleep and becoming my old anxious self. When I started considering taking sleep medication again, that’s when I knew I was burned out and needed to find some balance. Even if you’re doing what you love, you still need balance, or it’ll quickly turn into a new treadmill.

Stage 8: Zen/Balance: Staying present, focusing on relationships, and settling into your new routine

After burning out, you decide that you’re going to start saying no. Because saying yes to everything actually means saying no to friends, no to time for yourself, and no to your health. You realize that you need to prioritize the projects that make you happy and spend more time with people who matter the most, instead of sprinting in a million directions just because you can.

You learn to meditate, to stay present, and to enjoy “being” instead of “doing”. You learn the real value of FI, which is spending time with your family and the people you care about.

You’re zen, you’re happy, and you find the perfect balance between passion and relaxation.

This is the state we’re in now. The pandemic forced us to slow down and learn how to find balance and happiness without sacrificing at the never-ending alter of achievement. I’ve started meditating every day, we’ve settled into a comfortable routine and as the year’s gone in, I’m feeling…happy. And relaxed. It’s a new state of being for me.

So, there you have it. The 8 Stages of Early Retirement.

What do think? How do you picture your life after retirement?


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43 thoughts on “The Eight Stages of Early Retirement”

  1. I saw most of the same stages but differently. May panic was just before pulling the early retirement trigger, retirement, then immediately celebration. Funny you mention Shawshank Redemption, I attached a movie poster image on my retirement farewell email to all my coworkers. I skipped boredom/disillusionment and burnout or maybe those stages were just too short to fully recognize.

  2. Pretty good. I skipped a few of these, though.
    3. Panic – I never had this. Our baby kept me busy and sleepless.
    5. Boredom – No boredom with a baby around.
    6. Reinvention – I combined this with 1. Striving. I started blogging and also became a dad before RE. It was already baked in.
    7. Burnout? – I love early retirement and never went through burnout or rethinking RE. It’s a great fit for me.
    8. Zen/balance – This is ongoing, of course. Life is great now, but it can always be better. We’re busy with our son and life will keep evolving. Once he goes off to college, we’ll travel a lot more. It’s good to have goals after RE.

    Every journey is different. Also, it’s important to appreciate the journey. I’ll look back when I’m 70 and say this was the good times. Enjoy!

    1. We’re right there with you Joe. With kids and starting a bling pre-RE the list looks a littler different. We’re also doing a slow transition to early retirement in that I shifted to part time last year once we reached FI for our family of 3. This has hands down been the best decision to get the best of both worlds.

    2. I like the thought of a linear timeline to early retirement like this. As Joe said, I think we’ve been fortunate to skip a few of the crappier steps.

      Boredom is one I don’t think I’ll ever come to. I don’t think I’ve been bored since I’ve been an adult. There are far too many interesting things to do, to appreciate, or to consume to be bored with life.

      Still, it can be a trying process to reach RE. Fear is certainly a strong motivator to keep someone working. Lots of unknowns ahead.

  3. Very timely article, currently at Stage 3 here. My husband is giving notice this week, and I’m planning to do so in January, but am currently battling the ‘one more year’ syndrome, especially since Covid has wreaked havoc with our plans for travel and moving! We’ll have to see how the rest of the stages play out for us, thanks for posting.

  4. Hopefully you can highlight other financial independence blogs that are not just all from white males.

    Why not support other Asian blogs that have pre-dated all those blogs written by white males. Blog’s like Retire by 40 or Financial Samurai?

    Their quality of writing is much more frequent and real and relatable.

    I found the once you’ve reached financial independence, you talk about other things in life instead of just financial independence.

    1. As it happens, FireCracker spoke of her identity throughout this piece and I think that is pertinent to your question too. It is possible that she simply doesn’t put her ethnicity to the forefront of her identity and she promotes the work of JL Collins and MMM because they spoke to her in a way other blogs have not. It could also be that she simply likes to promote the work of her friends (and she is friends with these bloggers) because she believes they have created a powerful bank of ideas in the area she blogs about and that others could benefit from them like she has. That doesn’t mean she doesn’t value other bloggers which I believe may be the implication of your comment.

      Whatever the reason, I don’t think it is a problem and I don’t think the writers of Rb40 or FS need an endorsement from FireCracker – after all, they are all FI and are successful anyway.

    2. Why don’t you write an award winning amazing blog, then you can endorse whoever you want and not judge others for fitting into your particular set of priorities. And Financial Samurai is awful.

      1. Zach, as a fellow white male, I agree it’s fine this post only highlights other white males in the FIRE community. White people are the majority and have the most wealth after all. Writers can highlight whomever they want.

        I saw from your blog you’ve moved to China to get some local action after going to Thailand. Enjoy!

  5. I don’t know where we are on this “scale” but loving the timely post…

    Firstly, already sold our investment property for 6% over-asking…, closing date is in January 2021…, investing the entire proceed of that sale on ETFs and topping up all existing tax-deferred and tax-exempt accounts with some taxable for spillage.

    Secondly, awaiting for COVID to pass entirely before placing our residential property up for sale…, hoping by February 2021 but the entire 2021 year is probably a write-off due to global travel restrictions and the pandemic crisis still being unresolved. Will be investing the entire proceed of that sale on taxable ETFs. So on that note, maybe we are suffering from the “one more year” syndrome – who knows?!?

    Finally, our household settled for a 70/30 asset allocation split to start us off in our journey with a projected $52k tax-free income from a combination of RRSP draw down, TFSA and Non-Reg dividends! And that figure does not even include all corporate and government pensions into the calculation! Meaning, we have now effectively created a “champagne problem” all in thanks to your BLOG and BOOK! We are now looking into “how in the heck can we pass all of this as inheritance and still avoid taxation clawbacks for the next generation.” Yes, I am STILL learning and will CONTINUE to learn as we go but I personally have also come a looong way thanks to the both of you for imparting us with your knowledge and experience!

    The motivation is simple…, I want more than what I currently have right now and I’m positively certain that goes the same for the rest of the family so Thank-You!!!

    ImmigrantOnFire

    1. Thank you ImmigrantOnFire, I loved your post. I so agree and resonate with everything you wrote. This blog and their book has helped me learn in so many ways. Now if I can just pry the book away from my mother and finish reading it…lol better yet I’ll buy another one..lol

      1. Thank You @Melissa…

        Sometimes I wonder if anyone is truly reading this section. And now I know, so much appreciate your comments as always. But the gratitude here goes out to @Wanderer and @FIRECracker as without these Canadian pioneers in the FIRE space, our entire household would not be in a position that we are in today. They truly showed us the way to properly ascend Mount Everest as a Canadian!

        My only ask is that they could somehow come up with a post to strategically solve my “champagne problem” that would be soooooooo extra wonderful! I am sure that they have it just marinating in the background somewhere so I am anxiously awaiting for that release! Until then, I suppose we have to thread lightly as we make our descend towards the base on the other side of Mount Everest.

        ImmigrantOnFire

  6. I can’t say I have been through these as I’m not retired, but I took a sabbatical last year and I also had a bit of an emotional roller coaster while I was off.

    That could have been partly due to the pressure I put on myself, to decide on a new life and career path. By the time I was due to return to work, I was definitely in the zen stage, and stayed there for about 6 months after I returned.

  7. Love the article!
    I feel like I am ping-ponging between honeymoon, panic, and boredom. Sort of depends on the time of day. Sometimes my motivation comes from anticipating the dreaded question, “so what are you doing with all that free time?” Hah! whatever gets me off the couch I guess.

    I do feel the reinvention stage building though. I’ve always had many hobbies, but turning one into a business / vocation / identity also opens me up to criticism and judgement (from others but probably mostly from myself). I honestly think this is the hardest part of early-retirement for most people. Unless you have an established socially acceptable gig already lined up, starting a new “career” is filled with so many unknowns. The sunk cost fallacy comes up often for me too whenever I think about starting something fresh, I mean society has trained us to think that our careers are like a stair case ever rising. So changing careers or industries is starting all the way from the bottom.

    Although in reality it is a treadmill. More goals are minted in front of us with every rising financial costs. By getting off the treadmill we must define success for ourselves by rejecting what others project onto us. What do we want to achieve? What activities are we happy sinking hours / days / weeks into? And importantly what accepted “achievements” are we ok with foregoing.

    Wow, that was a rant, anywho thanks for getting my creative thoughts brewing this Mon morning.

  8. Interesting article! I am in Canada and looking to open an EQ savings account. I notice that your interest rate says 1.7% and their website says 1.5%… is there a way I should open it to get the 1.7%?
    Thanks, Emily

    1. Also don’t forget, Tangerine does give a bit higher interest rate for new accounts. I also have called then back at the end of the high interest period and renegotiate a new interest rate. A few months ago I received 1.7% until March 2021. Always call them back for a better rate when your current one ends.
      All the best.

  9. Can’t help but notice that Covid helped to kick you from stage 7 to stage 8.

    As for me, I retired 2.5 years ago at 52. I’d say I’m between stage 5 (boredom) and stage 6 (reinvention). Here again, I blame Covid. Can’t travel anymore so I’m burning through videogames a lot faster. Can Cyberpunk stop getting delayed please? Some snow for skiing would be nice too…God I hate November!

    Another impact of Covid is that I have discovered vegetable gardening and this may end up being a big part of my stage 6.

  10. It wasn’t for FIRE purposes, but I quit 2 jobs–one in the USA and one here in Taipei, Taiwan–in which I was working for puncture (keeping it clean and avoiding the use of the term “prick”) Richard (you can figure out the diminutive) StupidVisors–via:
    1) USA: upon getting a better job, I told that Richard-head “You’re fired!”
    2) Taiwan: upon getting an ultimatum to “shape up or ship out” on a FB Messenger group, I went to my kitchen, brewed another cup of tea (sort of like in the Country & Western song “Put Another Log on the Fire [again, no connection to FIRE]” and messaged that micromanaging psycho puncture with this song great Johnny Paycheck song (speaking of C&W): https://youtu.be/MhWhy2VGaY8

    Did you consider writing poetry on your Resignation Letter?
    “Roses are red,
    Violets are blue,
    I have five fingers,
    And the middle one’s for you!”

    Dan V
    Taipei, Taiwan
    About to be unemployed, but as we used to say in my US Army days: “Not to worry, G.I.!” I’ve got great options and lots of friends for referrals. Plus savings–hooray for at least one chapter taken from the FIRE book, even if I’m not at FIRE (or FIRL–Late!) yet

  11. My last company was a startup, we built it from nothing to 2000 employees and went public in 3 years. Every month my team and I made decisions that might bankrupt the company. I did stay on for the extra year but that was to properly prepare my Number One. When I left the stock was at 25, now it’s at 7 and the future is very uncertain.

    I felt like all 2000 employees were my “children” since our decisions directly affected their fate and the fate of their children. Sometimes I feel like I should go back and see if I can help – like the soldier that feels guilty for getting out at the end of an enlistment because he has left his buddies behind. Then I remember ruthlessly hammering my Number One to prepare him for Leadership and I know they are all doing their best. But maybe…

    From time to time we all struggle with our inner demons, before or after FI – it’s only natural. I think the key is to do less and think more. Think about what drove you pre FI and how you can best harness that to make this cosmic mudball a little bit better in the future. That is the first big step toward purpose, calm, focus, zen, contentment – all that crap that results in real happiness.

    As you may have guessed – I still have some way to go 🙂

  12. I don’t know about you all but I always have the fear when I read the headlines that we will be going into a great depression and the stock market will be down for 10 years. How do you feel about reading or watching this kind of stuff?

    I have almost all my life into Etf’s and seeing this go from 100 to 20, like 80% down would be sad. How do you manage your feelings about it?

    I currently have 50% in stocks, about $ 2 Million, and 50% in bonds, another $ 2 Million. I have a business since 2006 and running a business is a huge headache. my dream since I was a kid was to become FIRE. I want to make another 500K in my business and call the full-time FIRE.

  13. I am not yet ready to experience no. 2 and above, but was given a 6 mos notice already. So I decided after working abroad for a long time, I will just work from home as a freelancer, and experience what I would experience when I retired.

  14. I’m resonating with you so hard right now. We’re ~11 months into FIRE and have hit quite a few of these stages. I’m missing those Honeymoon days in Mexico in February that were great before COVID got real. It’s reassuring to know that other folks are feeling a similar rollercoaster.

  15. Hi Guys…loved the article..have been following you since I heard you on CJAD in Montreal I guess around 2015-2016?…I have made many mistakes financially and at 57 and someone who works in the restaurant business am worried about my future with all the covid restrictions in place…I have a condo with a mortgage and about $60,000 in RRSPs….but I am so impressed with what you have done with your life!..good for you as you deserve it…and Christy I too suffer from anxiety so I get it!…I am proud of myself that I have always paid my bills and have been independent…I love hearing stories of success…very motivating…keep up the good work!

  16. Love these 8 stages.

    I can see myself in stage 6 right now: trying to figure out what to become, besides endlessly enjoying slow travel, especially here in Taiwan since we don’t have this damn virus to keep us stuck at home (https://nomadnumbers.com/tag/stuck). In one way, being stuck for nearly 9 months in one country has provided us with more time to think about what we want our identity to be.

    I think short term our blog and our travel tool will continue to keep me personally occupied as I love sharing our adventures and helping people realizing that long term travel doesn’t have to be expensive. But as soon as travel resumes, we are thinking of hitting the road with a van (a van build could be a 4-12 months project depending on how to involve we want to be) and later finding a home base where we can build our dream home (this could become a 2-5 years project by itself). Not sure we want to tackle any of these too soon as there are still many places we want to enjoy without having to think about a home or a van. And through these experiences (and the failure that we will encounter along the way, I’m hopeful we will find our true calling). Until then, travel, explore, and sharing our experiences is still what motivates me every day.

    And since I have no clue when COVID19 will become something from the past, for now, I’m pretty excited about our short term plan here in Taipei. With the holiday seasons in full swing (thanks to no sign of the virus here), it should be an epic way to close 2020. We’ve already got a lot from Taiwan, we might wrap up the year with the Epic fireworks from the Taipei 101 Tower!

    Are you guys seeing yourself put in Canada through the winter or are you thinking about reaching warmers destinations?

  17. Its nice to prepare ourselves in advance, thank you again for a wonderful article!
    In our case, we are nomad and working only half the year since 8 years – knowing it will slow down our year of “real retirement”. At the same time, I think it will help us in the change since we already know what it is to not have a clock (!), and time to share about existential toughts.
    Thank you for your vunerability and honesty, it is soo appreciated!

  18. Interesting post. I’m on #4 at the moment and you’re right on the money so far. Covid-19 has temporarily squashed my travel plans so maybe the honeymoon will last longer. I’m interested to see of I’ll get bored. Maybe…

  19. Great post! We’ve hit our FIRE number over a year ago but because of anxiety we’ve increased it a few times and now still procrastinating. My job is easy, brings in a very good income and I never leave the house. Although to be honest, I still hate it.
    What worries us most is health care costs with 3 kids still in the house. We have a plan but still worry about the unexpected.
    It is very encouraging to read through the comments of so many that have pulled the trigger and retired. I envy you all. The only thing standing in the way for us now is a little lack of courage to let go of the pay check that we’re addicted to.

  20. I fully retired 6 months ago and worked part-time 6 months before that. So far I have not had any problems. I spent a lot of time camping and hiking this past summer and fall. I wake up every day appreciating my freedom and independence. Next year I plan to start a second career working part time on something that is interesting to me – so this is probably equivalent to your reinvention phase. I don’t expect to get burned out because I will only be working part-time.

  21. A grasshopper lived a fulfill life with just one big goal – BREED!

    In just 300 years ago, a human lived a fulfill life with just one big goal – BREED!

    Since then the lifespan has doubled, a human will live a fulfill life with 2 serialized goals –
    1. First and foremost remained the same – BREED.
    2. The remaining time – BE USEFUL to others.

    FireCracker, you must kick start the first!

  22. Is it possible to be in stage 8 before FIRE??? If so, I think that´s me… 🙂

    I completelly unplugged from my work already (with the exception that I am still getting paid) both in terms of relationships and interest for work, I also reinvented myself with new hobbies that I know will fill my live post retirement, and experienced the feeling of seeing our networth decline by 20% over the pandemic without affecting my sleep,… so I may be naive and a bit overconfident, but I expect my transition will be quite simple.

  23. Thank you for this post – I can definitely relate. My partner and I are going through this, but in a different order. We recently became FI. I am still working because I like what I do. My partner, however, has RE and has chosen to start a business…in the middle of a pandemic, natch!

    So we went through stage 3 (panic) when thinking OMG WHAT DID WE JUST DO WE WILL RUN OUT OF MONEY etc. We managed to calm down, use reason, obsessively re-crunched the numbers to soothe ourselves (hah!), and went straight to stage 6 (re-invention), where we still are.

    Surprisingly, I am also going through stage 6 even though I am still working. On the outside, I still have my job/career title, but I see myself differently and I feel like a new person. It’s still too early to say where this will lead, but that’s okay – I’m just enjoying the ride.

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