Is Too Much Freedom Bad for You?

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One of the things we get asked a lot is:

“What do you do with all that time in retirement? Isn’t it boring?”

And my response to that is usually pretty straightforward: we travel, we meet new people, we work on passion projects (like the app we’re launching this week), we write books, we blog, and basically work on whatever we feel like working on. Despite having all this time, we sometimes feel like there aren’t enough hours in the day.

But if I take a step back, I realize the real reason behind this question. I realize how terrified people are of having too much freedom. Because once you’ve been indoctrinated into the system, and working 60-80 hour weeks for decades, you get used to the rigid structure, and freedom suddenly seems fucking terrifying.

With so much time on your hands and very little structure, what are you going to do? With infinite directions to choose from you become paralysed with indecision. At least when you were in the rat race, you knew exactly what you were supposed to do. You knew how to allocate each hour, each minute of your day. Sure, most of that time was spent doing things you hated and feeling stressed out of your mind, but at least you had directions. You had a boss telling you what to do. Once you retire, you become your own boss. And for many people, taking the wheel makes them shit a brick.

In fact, research has shown the more choices we have, the less satisfied we become. This is called “the Paradox of Choice”.

I’ll take the strawberry, no the orange, no the peach…wait, maybe the mango? GAHHHHHH! *hyperventilates*

Take the famous “Jam Study” for example. A team of researchers set up a table of jam samples in a grocery store. One table had a selection of 24 jams. Another, a selection of 6. As expected, 60% of customers were drawn toward the wide selection, while only 40% towards the small one. As humans, our brains think BIGGER = better, so of course, that wasn’t a surprise.

But the surprising thing is that, 30% of the customers who sampled the 6 jams bought a jar. But only 3% of the customers who sampled the 24 jams bought a jar.

People were 10 times more likely to make a decision if the selection was limited. This absolutely flies in the face of our belief that MORE choices make us happier. Nope. In fact, more choice causes us to go into “analysis paralysis” mode, worried that we’re making a mistake. And even AFTER we make a decision, we start second-guessing ourselves, wondering if we’re missing out on a better option.

So does this mean TOO much freedom can be BAD?

In my opinion. Yes, yes it can.

Just like choosing careers, if you’re given infinite directions to go, you might end up hopping from shitty degree to shitty degree, racking up debt, and not being happy in the long run because you’re not getting any return for your hard work.

Having some sort of constraint (i.e. I want a degree that can provide a good ROI. Or I want a degree that helps others and has good job prospects) is good.

Now, don’t get me wrong. Freedom is not a bad thing. Because I know first hand what it’s like to have very little freedom, working crazy hours and doing what you hate. That’s not good either.

What we need is to find a balance.

You don’t want to be stuck in a stressful job with zero freedom just because you’re afraid of having “too much time on your hands”. That only leads to health problems and a life of regret.

But you also don’t want to spend all your time sitting on a beach or watching TV all day. That will only lead to lack of identity and depression.

Photo Credit: Get Everwise @ Flicker

Ideally, you’ll want to work on a few passion projects and fit your leisurely hours around it.

For example, we currently have 4 passion projects going:

1) Non-profit app
2) Chautauqua Speech
3) Millennial Revolution

4) Children’s Novel

So we tend to alternate between these projects and sightseeing during the day. We might go out for 2 hours in the morning (to avoid the tourist crowds), come back to eat lunch, work on one of those projects for 2-3 hours in the afternoon, go out again to grab a snack or hike, come back for dinner, then work on a different project until we go to bed. And if we feel like it, we’ll take a whole day off, go sight seeing, and only answer e-mails/comments or draft articles in the evening.

This way we never get bored or complacent because every day is different. And if we ever feel burnt out, we just take a day off.

So what might a day in retirement look like for you? Here are some passion project ideas for you:


Look To Your Childhood

To find out what you’re passionate about, just look to your childhood. What was it that you used to do without caring how much you got paid for it? Do that.
For me, this was writing. When I was a kid, I used to write a ton of shitty horror stories inspired by R.L.Stine’s novels. For some reason the “twist” always involved the victim not actually dying, faking their own death, and somehow disguising themselves as the culprit this whole time. Meh, who needs coherent plots? I eventually got published anyway.


Learn New Shit

Always wanted to learn how to a new language, how to play the guitar, or salsa dance but never had the time or energy? Now’s your chance.

When we were in Mexico recently, we took Spanish lessons. It was a ton of fun and very intellectually simulating. Plus, I finally learned how to say something else other than “Buenos nachos!” (which the store clerk later told me was supposed to be “Buenas noches”)


Impart Your Wisdom/Insanity

If you’ve been working for decades developing a certain skill, why not help others by teaching it to them?

In my case, I became a mentor for Technovation so I could teach girls how to code. Not only was this super fun, my mentee even ended up getting into the semi-finals for the all girl coding contest! She sent me a absolutely heart-melting thank you card and a box of my favourite Belgian chocolates afterwards. Awwww!


Do Stuff For Free

Now, I know people poo poo the idea of volunteering because they think “why would I do anything for free?” And to that I say, first of all,  how do you eat with that Darth Vader helmet on, and second of all, volunteering isn’t just about doing stuff for free. You actually end up getting a lot of useful learning experiences as well as connections out of it.

For example, we volunteered to be the web admins for a non-profit and after just a few months, they offered us the opportunity to partner with them to build an app. And not only that, one of the members of the non-profit liked our work on their website so much, she paid us to design two of her author websites and referred us to a bunch of other writers. We ended up getting so much work, we had to turn most of it down because we didn’t have enough time to work on it all.


Build Something Cool

Some of the most rewarding experiences I’ve ever had involved building shit. Like the app, writing Little Miss Evil, or creating this blog. When you create something, you end up giving your brain this euphoric high that keeps going and going. Because not only are you engaging the creative cells in your brain, you are also learning new things, and the reward of seeing other people benefit from the thing you built is priceless. Seriously, space cakes ain’t got nothing on this.

So there you have it. Freedom is a beautiful thing, but as with all things, you CAN have too much of it.

That’s why it makes sense to have passion projects in order for your retirement to be truly fulfilling.

What do you think? What would a day in your retirement look like?

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66 thoughts on “Is Too Much Freedom Bad for You?”

  1. Great points – something I cover on my blog next week is how people can come back to their other passions later in life in retirement.

    You may have had a passion early on, but it was perhaps an area with very low job security and/or low wages.

    While it isn’t something that you could realistically do full time for a career and build towards FI, it is certainly something you can come back to when FI has been achieved.

    (Having avoided all the stress and debt if you had pursued it full time initially.)

    1. That is exactly what my spouse is doing right now. Now that he is financially independent he is working on his art career that had to be put on hold while he was working. Being a full time artist is a lot less stressful when you don’t need to worry about making money off of it to pay your bills.

    2. Yup. After you retire, going back to your passion is one of the biggest advantages. It’s much less stressful when you can pursue something without worrying about how much it pays.

  2. My days look pretty much like yours FireCracker… with the addition of taking care of my kids.

    I work on passion projects, build things, read, exercise, and still find time to learn new stuff.

    ER life is fun and easy, but also busy as hell… I still don’t have enough hours in the day! The main advantage is that I’m in control. No more endless meetings or doing what a boss tells me to do. And no more fu-king Outlook.

    1. Exactly, Mr. Tako. Having control over how much or how little you work is what makes passion projects enjoyable, no matter what field your passion is in.

  3. This is one of my main concerns for when we finally do reach FIRE. Currently my wife and I are both very career oriented, I work during the day and study most evenings. She works in a start up and works crazy hours, often having to work evenings and weekends too. Career growth and maximizing income is basically our only ambition.

    Ironically, when we DO have some free time, we sit around and look at each other and wonder what the hell to do? Sometimes we spend our precious free time just slobbing around the apartment, which is fine I guess, but if we can’t even fill a limited amount of free time with hobbies or activities, how the hell do we fill an entire life of free time in early retirement?

    Part of me thinks we actually prefer working as it’s all we have ever striven for, and when we do retire we will miss that drive and purpose. My wife recently reached a point in her career she thought would be 5 years away, with a much higher salary than she had expected at this stage, and far greater responsibility. Initially we were thrilled (still are with the salary) but now she is a bit lost as to what to aspire to since the thrill of promotion was so short lived. She’s lost some of the drive for her career ambitions and wants to start creating lifestyle ambitions instead, but she doesn’t really know where to begin.

    I feel like we live in a world of never being satisfied with what we have and always wanting more. It’s difficult when you don’t know what that “more” is. This is what I worry about in retirement, because right now that “more” is usually a promotion or more money. Neither of those are driving forces during retirement.

    1. “she is a bit lost as to what to aspire to since the thrill of promotion was so short lived.”

      While I was working, this was the issue I ran into as well. While you’re chasing that promotion, it’s great, but once you get it, the high quickly fades.

      The human brain needs variety. We need to be constantly learning and creating things that benefit others. Chasing money or promotions is a temporary high that doesn’t last.

      I think in your case, if you and your wife enjoy your line of work, you don’t necessarily have to retire completely. You can choose to work part time or go freelance (if that option is available in your field). It’s the choice that makes all the difference.

      1. Oh we don’t love our jobs at all haha, we would both be quite happy to not be working if that was an option right now. Replacing your job with something you do like is the key.

        1. I am just like your wife. I actually went to see a therapist for the first time after achieving all of my most important goals in one year – got married, bought dream home, achieved target income/job, checked major net worth milestone off the list. After the whirlwind high of that year, my anxiety spiked and I was probably less fulfilled than ever.

          My husband and I don’t hate our jobs, but we also work pretty normal hours as bankers. We don’t want kids (probably) and talk about retiring early, but we spend our weekends and evenings mostly lounging around watching TV, cooking, playing with animals, and generally doing nothing more than a bit of golf/exercise. Hardly enough to fill months or even years of free time. This stresses me out to no end, and part of me has started to think that maybe we do need to have kids to give ourselves some meaning/purpose especially once we have enough money to quit working in a few years.

          Anyway I don’t have the answer but just wanted you to know you’re not alone! My therapist for what it’s worth said this lack of contentment and is common among goal oriented people and is a side effect of high achievement, whether in career or physical pursuits. She recommended mindfulness meditation. I have tried to focus more on daily habits rather than on long term goals that’ll be checked off once, but I pretty much suck at it.

          1. Yeah, you and your husband sound very, very similar to my wife and I except probably further ahead in your lives and early retirement progress. We too are not sure if we want children (we’re only 28 so still plenty of time) but I think we are slowly coming around to the idea as I think we will get a bit lonely and perhaps lost in early retirement without something to focus on constantly. The only problem with that is we are currently on track to retire in our early 40’s, but if we throw children into the mix in say our mid 30’s, that retirement could be pushed back years. It’s a bit of a catch 22 I guess.

            We are very long-term goal driven and like you’ve experienced, reaching those goals simply leaves you wondering what’s the next goal? Right now it’s always career, eventually it can’t be that anymore. Sadly, I think it’s something that is difficult to know the answer to until you put yourself in the situation. You will never know how you cope with unlimited free time until you actually do it. Perhaps you can dip your toe in the water and work only 2-3 days a week if that’s an option to see if you enjoy your extra time off.

            For people like yourself and my wife and I, I think we will need a major project of some sort to keep ourselves occupied in retirement. I have an inclination what that COULD be for us, which would be to become dog breeders. We love dogs and have always joked about moving out of the city and becoming breeders. There is no money in it (you might break even if you’re lucky) so there’s no reason to do it other than for enjoyment and fulfillment, but in early retirement it’s a big project that would take up a lot of your time. Only problem with that is, I love traveling and having a home full of dogs doesn’t bode well with that!

  4. Great post guys. Its funny my wife and I went to the beach this weekend for Fathers Day with my daughters and all I could think about was reaching FIRE or fu-money. All the blogs on FIRE that I religiously read focus on doing something after retirement. Am I a weirdo or loser to know I don’t want to do anything but plant my ass on the beach or beaches for at least a good year if not more and then start doing something? I have things that I love doing that I dont have time to or money to and on the top of that list is just chilling on a beach. Is that so wrong? I envision everyone goes through this period of a long, very long sigh and then finds something, is that true?

    1. We are currently in that position. Basically slumming around our place playing video games and watching netflix during most of our free time. We have a view of the ocean from half of the rooms in our house but it’s not the type of sandy beach that people go and lay on, it’s a very rocky beach. We do get some work done on our passion projects since it is something that can be done during leisure time but progress has been really slow since we FIREd a couple of months ago. I’d say that there is nothing wrong with wanting to relax for a good long while, it’s your retirement and as long as you are enjoying it then that’s what matters. But if you find that sitting on the beach is getting boring that that’s when you find something else to do, you didn’t work your ass off for FIRE just to be bored.

    2. Nadeem, do what YOU want to do and screw what anyone else thinks.

      When I RE’d last year, I thought I’d eventually work on another degree and start a new (but part-time) career working on something I’m passionate about. I also told everyone up front – because everyone wants to know, “what’s next?” – that I didn’t plan to do anything toward these goals for 1-2 years because I wanted to do some other things first. But now when I think about that, the education is still interesting but anything I’d do with that degree afterwards resembles WORK too much. So, forget it. As I replied on another post, “Now, I travel whenever I want, garden, paint, spend time with people who are important to me, and I organize a food/gardening social group in my city. I might start a small business later, but I have no intention of working for someone else ever again.” I don’t quite know where I’m “going,” but I don’t HAVE to go “anywhere” in particular. I’m just enjoying the ride. 🙂

    3. Actually I retired last July at the age of 49, and I gave myself one year of just having fun before getting involved in anything that could be viewed as “productive” by society.

      This almost 12 months of complete freedom has allowed me to rediscover my passions, many of which were indeed linked to my youth.

      I was one of those people that did enjoy his job, having been part of a tech startup which became very successful, but as it grew , the culture changed and my happiness slowly declined over time. I stuck with longer than I should have, the upside being early retirement, but the downside was that I slowly forgot how to be happy “at the core”.

      So hey, you’re not crazy to want to be lazy ! Enjoy yourself, and let that passion come back to naturally 🙂

    4. It’s totally fine to sit just chill on a beach for a year. After working hard for so many years and never having time to relax, it’s perfectly understandable that you’d want to decompress. Nothing wrong with that 🙂

  5. I love the term “passion project”. As life goes on, our passions and objectives may change overtime. There can never be too much freedom in my opinion. There are so many things that I want to try and accomplish. By pursuing “passion projects”, I can keep myself accountable one phase at a time. Rather than treating it as a long-term commitment that I “must” complete.

    1. That’s a very good point, Mao. The best part of FIRE is the ability to choose what to do with your time. You don’t “have” to do anything or work on anything. If you get bored, work on passion projects, if you don’t, just keep chilling. The point is, people don’t need to be scared of free time. If they get bored, just find something meaningful to work on.

  6. Nice.
    In my case I always loved to trade stocks, like day trading…try to beat the market..I know this is not wise but it’s so exiting to play with some money….this is what I want to do on my FIRE time. Unfortunately my current job compliance don’t allow me to trade stocks…another reason I want to leave this place but need to accumulate more to do it…
    great to see some other options in this post

    1. As long as it’s less than 5% of your portfolio, should be fine. Otherwise your new passion might have to end up being losing money 😛

      1. Definitely less than 5%…I’ve been studying chart analysis for years and some techniques like the RSI 14 can really work up to 70% of the time so…

  7. There is an old saying:

    “There is no such thing as bad weather, only the wrong clothing.”

    As for freedom, I’d say:

    “There is no such thing as too much freedom, only too little self reliance and direction.” 🙂

    1. “There is no such thing as bad weather”

      The person who came up with that clearly has never lived in our Canukistan frozen wasteland 😛

  8. Funny, as we were hiking down from Machu Pichu today, we had this exact discussion. We were talking about how much we love traveling and seeing new things, but we need something to sink our effort into once we finally pill the trigger. We don’t have that nailed down 100% quite yet. But we have some time to figure it out and things are starting to come into focus.

    1. Ooh fun! How are you enjoying Machu Pichu? It is as amazing as everyone says it is?

      And yes, as for the “something to sink your effort into”, that will gradually come into focus over time. We ended up trying a couple new projects before we found the right ones. Trying different things to figure out what we want to do is part of the fun!

      1. It’s pretty fantastic. It is certainly worth the effort to get out there. The views are stunning. And it’s really nuts to see something so complex built long ago.

        I owe you a comparison of Machu Picchu and the Galapagos. Hit us up so the Mrs and I can get you a more detailed description.

  9. Great post, FireCracker! I’m in the camp of seeking several months of happy do-nothing time before forging into something brand new. While my career is satisfying on some levels, there are many things that make me crazy and I eagerly look forward to the day when I can leave my office for the last time. I do not believe that freedom is the problem – it’s the lack of creativity and self-direction that comes from taking orders for decades which causes people to wonder what they would do with their free time.

    1. Yup, I definitely agree it’s the lack of creativity and self-direction. Though, to be fair, it’s pretty challenging to be self-directing after decades following orders as a corporate drone. I find that once you set a schedule for yourself and have people that you’re accountable to, it gets easier to take the wheel over time.

  10. Volunteering is one of the most rewarding things that a person can do. I just finishing volunteering with a medical mission at a clinic for children with special needs in Ayacucho, Peru and it was absolutely amazing. I literally can’t wait to go back again. And being a part of the mission, connected me with other awesome people who volunteer around the world. I’ve already signed up for 2 more, one in Cambodia and one in Honduras.

    1. That’s amazing, MrsWow. Good for you!

      Volunteering can be very rewarding. The human connections you build and the lives you change makes it all worth it!

  11. For some reason people have this weird cliche about retirement. They think retirement is laying on a beach, playing Bingo and doing nothing. But in reality (at least that’s my thought about retirement) retirement is the time when you can do what you want, when you want it and how you want it.

    It’s freedom.

    I’ve heard a lot from people who retire that they don’t have enough time for all the project they have. And it’s really great.

    1. It’s weird. Sometimes I’m so engaged in the projects we are working on that I get mad at my stomach for being hungry and forcing me to stop and eat. That NEVER happened while I was working. Food and meal times were always a welcome break back then.

      I guess that’s why people say they’re busier in retirement. You end up with so many projects you WANT to work on. The sitting on a beach getting bored out of your mind that people worry about rarely happens.

  12. Great post! Lots of great ideas for what one can do once they no longer have to work for a living. As the old saying goes “Only boring people get bored”!

    Volunteering for a good cause is such a rewarding experience. I volunteered for years at an animal shelter and made some good friends while I did it. In fact, the only friends who I got together with before moving away for FIRE were the friends I made when I was volunteering, I didn’t even say goodbye to half of my coworkers on my last day at the office.

    When I started volunteering I just wanted to do something on my day off and help some animals. I didn’t have much interest in making friends but the volunteers always got together for coffee at the end of the shift and chatted for 20 minutes or so. The people there were much older than I was, most of them retired seniors, but the thing about volunteering for a cause you are passionate about is that all the volunteers at least have that one thing in common. Plus, seeing the difference you are making is so rewarding.

    Now that I live in such a beautiful place I have been taking a lot more photos. I bought a DSLR a few years ago but never learned how to use it other than using the automatic settings on it which was fine when I basically just took close range cat pictures but now I want to learn how to manually adjust the settings for different effects and night photography so that will be one of the next things I learn in the “Learn New Shit” category.

    1. “Only boring people get bored”! Bwahaha. Love it.

      Kudos for volunteering and learning new shit!

  13. BTW FIREcracker, I used to read a lot of RL Stine too! But personally I am not much of a writer when it comes to stories. I only write songs.

    There is actually a huge scary story community online. It used to be people would just submit their scary stories on the Creepypasta website and you could read them on there but now there are a lot of youtube horror channels that narrate the stories like audiobooks, some channels even have full cast productions where there are different people playing different parts. Chilling Tales for Dark Nights is my favorite, they have really high quality production and people need to audition to be part of their narrations (unlike other youtube channels where someone just decides “hey I can do this” and starts posting badly narrated videos with mispronounced words and no editing when they have to stop and try a sentence over)

    There is also an anthology TV show called Channel Zero that chooses a creepypasta to base the entire season around. When I first found out about that show I thought it was pretty awesome that someone who had just submitted a short scary story to a website with thousands of stories on it ended up having theirs chosen to make a TV show from.

    1. That IS awesome! I’ve never heard of Channel Zero until now. What a great idea!

      Ahh…RL Stine. I was so addicted to those books, especially the Fear Street Saga series. Oh man, that takes me back…

  14. Recently at work I told my boss (nice guy but pertutually stressed out and Overworked), who is FI, to work less or just stop working. He was all like, “what would I do with all that free time”. Haha, I have the opposite problem – way too many hobbies. Ironically, if he retires and closes the business, I’m going to have to look for a new job ;p

  15. I read an article somewhere where it talked about what really creates happiness. And it’s autonomy. More than money, etc. But that’s where getting to FIRE creates the ultimate autonomy; which backs up the point that most people want the freedom to dictate their life in their own terms and not by their bosses. But clearly, from what you’re pointing out, the paralysis situation where you’re confronted with too many choices can reduce happiness. That’s why I’m a firm believer that discipline = happiness. Which sounds like a paradox. But I feel more in control the more disciplined I am. If there’s no structure and no discipline, then everything feels very void of purpose and haphazard.

    1. For me, the key is to create some structure (like blogging schedules, writing schedules, coding milestones) so that I have some direction, but still get to decide what I want to work on and how long I want to work on it for. You still end up having lots of autonomy, but also goals to work towards. But if I didn’t have the autonomy to choose what I wanted to work on, then having a schedule would suck.

  16. i wanna take up a spanish guitar, and play some classical music. that has always been my passion since i was 12 but was sidelines with school, then work, now with family and kids. maybe when i retire i would pick up a guitar again.

    1. Yes, do that! Once you retire, there are so many childhood passions you can finally devote your time to.

  17. It seems to all come down to self-awareness – knowing what makes you happy. We usually “think” we know what makes us happy (a.k.a. big house, fancy cars, purses, etc…) but we are almost always wrong. What I love about pursuing FI is that it forces me to work on my self-awareness to understand what truly makes me happy.

    Your example about the jams makes me think about what Alan Cooper talks about in his book, “The Inmates are Running the Asylum.” He says that one of the major flaws in the tech industry is that companies think that more features = better products. But in reality people want just enough functionality to what they need to do and nothing more. Simple is better. And I think this correlates to why simplicity in life is so important to happiness.

    1. Simple is definitely better. The more stuff you have, the more headache and stress to maintain them. Have you ever seen the movie “Minimalism”? It really speaks to me.

  18. Question! Does a children’s novel mean you guys are thinking about having a kid?!

    Will change y’alls lives forever! The mind scrambles to do a lot of nesting and you may get the urge to buy a home! 🙂


    1. Ha ha. Nice try, Sam 🙂 We wrote the children’s novel way before we even retired ( I think it’s because I have the mind of a 10 year old). As for kids, that’s not out of the question…though I don’t believe everyone who has kids ends up buying a home. My parents raised me in rentals for most of my life and it wasn’t a problem for me. Though if we find a house that’s cheaper to own than rent and we like the area, I’d consider buying.

  19. Love this post. I think about this quite often as I near my financial goals. There are many interests that have gone by the wayside as I became more focused on my career over the years. Even as I have worked toward FI these past several years, these interests seemed to get pushed aside even more due to my mad dash to make even more money to reach FI. Biking, gardening, landscaping, guitar, cooking, fishing, brewing, and most recently… my attempt at writing. I have no real regrets because my wife and I are in great financial footing. But I am looking forward to the day, which isn’t too far off, when I can pursue these interests once again with vigor… and even develop some new ones.

    I don’t think I’m too afraid of not having enough to do. I’m more worried about running out of money.

    Screw it, I’ve got enough FU money. Time to back off. I’m gonna go dust off my guitar now. Thanks for the inspiration.

  20. I definitely think this is correct. And not to get too political, it is one of the reasons we have problems with healthcare and the like in this country. Some politicians preach freedom and that is consumers get it they will be more mindful of purchases and the like. No they won’t. People want routine. They like structure and they may be indoctrinated to it, but routine and structure can be good. My students have grown up in a world where they have to take tests, told what to take, and just yesterday when I was doing freshman advising a number of them were I don’t know what to take. And here is the thing it wasn’t classes, but sections. In other words, they all had the same class to choose, but couldn’t make a decision on a section. I wanted to tear my hair out. Some do better than others, but this is why there are some things where providing a narrow set of choices might be a good thing (e.g. just a few index funds vs. others).

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  22. Swear less… not intellectual, inspiring or holy. You’ll figure out purpose and meaning one day, hence the last word…

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