40 Best Ways to Jumpstart Your Career
How to really shake things up and advance your career at the same time
It happens to the best of us: One day you’re feeling all smug and comfortable in your cushy job. The next, you wake up and you realize that you’re feeling something else entirely: boxed-in, frustrated, and exhausted, as if you’ve been treading water while holding cinderblocks at the same time. Do you want more money? More responsibility? Something entirely different? Or perhaps all of the above?
[To turn your workplace style up to 11, take a look at these 9 Patterned Shirts for a More Fun Look.]
Whatever the case, I’ve included here 40 totally smart, time-tested ways for you to really shake things up this year and advance your career in the process. Try them, and you’ll be challenging yourself in all of the right ways. But above all, remember my best advice of all: Have a plan and stick to it. After all, even a bad strategy is better than zero strategy.
Listen to your gut when hiring people
It’s the secret to hiring great people—period. Of course, your gut is going to remain silent through the first hundred or so applicants. You’ll endure horrible bouts of crushing boredom as the wrong people stream before you. You’ll come face-to-face with the meaninglessness of existence as you stare into glassy eyes and shake clammy hands.
But around the 101st applicant, something will happen: A little voice in your head will say “I can imagine working with this one….” And that’s the key. Use a search firm, if you must. Employ the resources of your HR department. But in the end, it will be your gut that makes you stick out your hand and say, “Welcome, pal. Now lock in and get to work.”
Never take a job just for the money
Or, for that matter, never take a job you don’t want, especially if you’re nearing middle age. Never take a job because your wife or husband wants to be near the in-laws. Actually, just put it this way: 1) Take a job only when the offer wakes you up at 3:00 a.m. because you’re too excited to sleep (this has nothing to do with the money). 2) Always ask yourself what you want to do first, then listen to other people second. You’ll be no good to your family if you’re living some imaginary person’s life.
Eat away from your desk more
The question is: How to get out more? Do what I do: Sponge off industry friends. If I’ve learned anything in business, it’s that people like to keep their corporate plastic sharp and frosty by treating even the most marginal of players to lunch. You’d be amazed how much people enjoy being exploited once they get used to it. After you’ve been America’s Guest for a while, tell your boss that it’s embarrassing that you don’t have a shred of plastic to wield in the corporate jungle. Eventually, you’ll get a toehold and the world of the free lunch will be yours. One caveat: so might the world of larger pants.
Use this trick to get a raise
Consider what your mother always told you: If you don’t ask, you don’t get. I’m probably being a traitor to the Bosses’ Club when I tell you this, but it’s the obnoxious, pushy, resilient, incessant demanders who get the raises. People who don’t shake the corporate tree end up with a nominal 5 percent increase—if they’re lucky.
Do this: Sit down with your boss every few months and keep the issue alive until you see some action. When you finally do, a word to the wise and the stupid alike: Be super grateful, and show it. I can’t tell you how many times I moved heaven and earth to get someone a nice juicy bump and was greeted with a tremulous smile and a perfunctory, “Thanks, I guess.” It’ll be a cold day down below before those ingrates get another raise from me!
Take control of meetings, even if they’re not yours
This is a delicate process. It means coming to the gathering with your own simple agenda and casually segueing into the points you’d like to address. Once your issues are handled, politely inquire, “Is there anything else?” and add, “I have this pain-in-the-rear appointment with the guys from Stankey. You know what a bunch of nerds they can be.” Then gather up your stuff and leave.
If that’s too bold for your britches, try this: Suggest in advance that there be a time limit on the meeting. This will let the attendees know they need to cut to the chase. And plan a backup escape: Have your assistant interrupt about 5 minutes after the scheduled ending time—because you know it’s going to run long—to remind you of your “next meeting.”
Use these secrets to get better at presentations
Focus on the three Ps of presenting: Prepare, Practice, and PowerPoint. Research the baloney out of whatever it is you’re talking about. Bore to tears anybody willing to listen to you. Drill yourself so many times that you could do the presentation in your sleep. In fact, do it in your sleep. Visualize being a success, wowing the crowd, and expertly fielding questions from all sides.
If you’re really the nervous type, anchor yourself with PowerPoint materials. Follow the three Ps until the day before your gig—then forget about them. Put aside your notes. Go to a movie. Goof off. You’ve done all you can do, and you need to let the information marinate. The morning of the show, have a good breakfast—alone, if possible—and look over your notes. Dig within yourself to find the person who truly wants to kick butt, and then go out there and offer your message with confidence and flair. Excellence in this area is directly proportional to experience, so make it an experience. And remember, the audience wants to hear what you have to say.
Work hard, but don’t kill yourself for peanuts
You think people make big coin by clocking in a puny 10-hour day? I assure you, they don’t. The big earners relentlessly drive themselves, thinking about the business 23/7—leaving just an hour for deep REM sleep (and even then they’re dreaming about work).
They champ at the bit to bolt out of the house in the morning and hit the beaches with all the ammo they’ve got. Pain? Exhaustion? Spiritual malaise? Forget about it. If you’re already in the top 1 percent of wage earners in your company, go buy yourself a big TV and enjoy it. If, on the other hand, you’re killing yourself for middling money while others cash in stock options and purchase their little slab of lakefront heaven, then I can sympathize…but only a little.
Here’s a rule of thumb: If you’re not earning 5 percent of what your CEO is making (including his bonus), you shouldn’t mortgage your soul and your health for the company store. Cut back your hours to merely insane, and when they get angry to you about it, tell them what I just told you.
Don’t reward the boss’ bullying with craven behavior
Being screamed at is never pleasant, and there’s far too much of it in the workplace. If anybody outside of the office yelled at you the way senior officers sometimes do, you’d punch them in the face. But into each career some spit shall fall, and you’re not a wuss. You can take it. Stand tall and get right back on the horse.
Try not to take it personally. Very often, the yeller is simply managing anxiety in the only manner they know how—by using you as a punching bag. Persistent sadistic treatment, however, calls for a level of Zen detachment mastered only by the sages of the ages. Adopt an indifferent attitude. If you can’t do it in body, at least do so in spirit. Trust me: A storm doesn’t seem so bad when you’re flying above it.
Protect yourself during any merger
There’s a lot of consolidation happening these days. If it’s happening around you, take a look around and see who the winners are going to be. They’ll be the ones who look all brisk and sleek and juicy when they come into the office every day, moving between floors like mountain climbers, showing up at all the meetings energized and even frenetic from all their busywork. The losers will look just the opposite: tired, worried, resentful, paranoid, and a bit drippy.
If you want to be a loser, hang out with them. If you want to be on the winning team, pick the person you know best in that vector—even if you don’t know they all that well—and start keeping company. Send him or her corporate roses of some kind. Be present as much as you can. If you’re good, and lucky, you’ll be targeted as one of the old guard whom the new folks can get along with. They can’t fire everybody. They need bridges. Be one.
Look out for colleagues in trouble
This guy probably uses alcohol to medicate his problems, and it’s unlikely that your exhortations will change that. It’s how he operates. If you simply can’t resist, make sure he’s aware that you like him better when he’s not in the bag and that when he shows up tipsy, people take notice. There’s a small chance that his need for the job will supersede his need for booze, and that a buddy-to-buddy talk will set him straight, but don’t hold your breath. If you really want to be a collegial colleague, have a strong cup of joe waiting for him when he returns from lunch.
Create the impression you’re irreplaceable
If you’re gone on a sabbatical for too long, you’re offering unquestionable proof that this isn’t the case. I’m not saying you shouldn’t take a vacation. But keep it relatively short and time it right. Then people will miss you and the work that you put in. They’ll look forward to your return. And there’s nothing better for reinforcing your value than a welcome wagon.
Get the best office possible
Few things are as important to your career as the location, size, and quality of your office space. I once knew a guy who allowed himself to remain back in Podunk while the rest of the corporate office moved to New York City. Today, he’s sitting in his quiet, lonely office with a cobweb running from the tip of his nose to the receiver on his phone.
You need to be where the action is and to make enough noise to get you there. (But not so much that you come across as not knowing your place in the world, which is a deadly sin at an organization.) If they’re not willing to put you where you belong, you may belong someplace else.
Here’s why: First, a big office bespeaks power, and a small office bespeaks the opposite. It’s that simple. Second, it’s not always good to be up the boss’s nose. A little distance confers added freedom for you. Think of it like a model of the solar system. The closer you fly to the sun, the more likely you are to melt.
Be less organized
Your clerical tendencies are perfect for a career in middle management, but unless you’re in accounting, they don’t bode well for a position at the top of your company’s food chain. Take a look at the brass running most organizations: They have short attention spans, lose things constantly, are quick to anger, and forget conversations within five minutes of having them. They have ADD. You have OCD. It would be great if these two personality types could find their way to a more functional middle ground, but in my experience, a neatnik can no more ruffle his files than an executive looney bird can relax long enough to focus his attention.
That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try though. Start by nurturing your looser, more creative side (yes, you have one). Also realize that your mania lends you certain strengths, such as the ability to manage your time and resist stress while the suit in the corner office sweats deadlines and pulls at the last strands of his thinning coif.
Dress for the job you want
Your clothes, like the way you carry yourself, broadcast who you are and who you aspire to be. A few years ago, I met my boss for the first time. I owned three suits. One had a nice label, and that’s what I wore to create my first impression. Today, my wardrobe is worth more than my second car, and I still rely on my clothes to make an impact on others. Give up what you need to give up, lay down as much cash as required, and look better than you should. It will pay off faster than any other investment you can make.
Reign in your unruly coworkers
All the toxic stuff your colleague has taken from the boss has trickled into their head and made them rancid. Leading such a person back into the world of decent people begins with a simple gesture: Say hello. You’d be amazed at how much it’s appreciated by people freezing in the corporate tundra. You might also buy them lunch or a drink. If all else fails, implement the cold shoulder. It’s remarkable how nice people become when you throw the Golden Rule at them.
Tactfully employ the company dress code when you need to
Apply the strategy diplomats use when they’re engaged in a conflict: Involve a neutral third party. In this case, that means human resources. Ask them to create a memo about standards of dress (fellas: that means ties when investors are in town) and, unless you like discrimination lawsuits, distribute it to all employees, male and female. If you work for a small company that has no HR department, you’ll just have to write the memo yourself. Be sure to phrase it in an informational, non-confrontational way.
Become more comfortable delegating tasks
If you’re the alpha bull, simply work on the one skill that has bolstered the success of leaders from Attila the Hun to Steve Jobs: artful delegation of duties. If you’re not in a position to trumpet orders, start offering your colleagues more credit for their participation or invite them to lunch–on you. You’d be amazed how free food inspires cooperation in normally uncooperative people. As a last resort, start yelling. If nothing else, it will mark you for senior management.
Don’t bring your partner to company retreats
The point of a corporate getaway is to bond with those with whom bonding would otherwise be unlikely. This does not include your significant other. It should, however, include Arnold from down the hall, who doesn’t open up until he has six beers and half a cow in him, and Mr. Brewster, who always maintains his executive reserve around subordinates—unless he’s playing poker.
You don’t want to be sneaking around the pool with your one-and-only while the rest of the team is getting all misty about the 2018 success plan. There is no I in teamwork! So do what you always do on the job and give 110 percent to whatever comes up on your face. When the retreat is finished, then fly your partner out, stay a couple of extra days—on your plastic—and investigate personal pleasures on your own time.
Reclaim a shared assistant’s time
Sharing an assistant with someone who monopolizes their time is not ideal, but it can be resolved. If your coworker (let’s call her Brenda) pushes your assistant to do things that compromise your work, your assistant is to respond, “I’m sorry, ma’am, but [insert your name here] told me that if you have a problem, you need to see him.”
What you’re looking for is a moderate fight—one that she starts. You want Brenda to come into your office and challenge you. When she does, firmly and decisively win the tiff. Say, “I’m going to insist that she finish my assignment before starting on yours.” And then don’t move. Ninety percent of the time, the Brendas of the world will back off. If she doesn’t, give it to her straight: “Look, I’m aware of the kind of power play you make with our assistant. If you want to go to Barry about this, let me know.” (This assumes that you both work for a guy named Barry, who has a budget predicated on you two sharing your assistant’s time.)
Stop back-stabbing to get ahead
Senior company officials who promote backstabbing employees are total jerks, too, aren’t they? Why should they reward your civilized behavior when it’s a reproof of everything they stand for? They’re far more comfortable promoting someone who is brutal, selfish, and mean. They know that person. They are them.
The good news is that your road, though harder, is definitely the happier of the two. Don’t become a creep. You’ll eventually triumph by building consensus, performing with distinction, and fighting face-to-face with your backstabbing colleague. Good guys almost always do fine in the long run. If things aren’t going your way now, wait a minute. Time is on your side.
Spend a bit more than you are given
Use your account regularly, for the best reasons, and when you reach its limit, exceed it slightly. You will then be hauled in front of the expense tribunal, at which you say, “I’m sorry, but my trip to Seattle brought in all kinds of new business. Perhaps I’ll stay home next time.”
You will receive glares, murmured admonishments, and the clearance to continue your slightly aggressive ways. Next month, exceed it by even more. The accounting gods will soon learn that the only way to soothe your jabs is to expand what’s permissible to you. Who knows: you may also get a promotion to justify this decision. Congratulations!
Use these surefire methods to motivate your team
The best strategies fall into three categories: 1) money, 2) fear, and 3) love.
A generous boss is forgiven a multitude of sins. And when they recognize performance with gobs of green, they light a fire under their employees that’s hard to put out.
If you observe the rich senior managers of the world, however, you’ll realize that loyalty is also fueled by fear. A guy who’s worried about quarterly results is, undoubtedly, an engaged employee. He’s also miserable. That’s why the best motivator is love. What won’t a person do for someone they love? The greatest business leaders, the most powerful military men, the key mob bosses… they all use money and fear in good measure. But in the end, it’s the hearts of their minions they capture. Do the same, and you’ll never lack for workhorses.
Learn to ignore emails during time off
I assume that you can tell the difference between a real crisis and an executive itch. During weekdays, you had better respond to either one within the senior-management-neurosis window of five minutes. Saturday, however, is not a weekday. Same for Sunday. And on neither one should you have to answer itch-scratching emails. You’re going to pretend, therefore, that you didn’t read them. If the suck-up reflex becomes too intense, shoot back a terse reply. Eventually, your boss will get the message.
Enforce strict deadlines with your freelancers
Look, even the most industrious freelancer won’t gun for a deadline if they know they can blow it without an inkling of retribution. Crack the whip and provide actual, drop-dead dates after which payment won’t be processed. We’re always hard up for cash. Cut our green once or twice and we’ll come home wagging our tails behind us—right on time.
If your boss asks for 10 ideas, give 15
And turn it in a day early. The more you make your boss’s day, the more it will come right back at you.
Spread yourself across other departments
If layoffs are coming, the best way to stay essential to the company is to stay essential many departments in the company. And if you are up to your neck in projects while people are getting laid-off, there will always be some corner-office suit who scans the hit list and says, “Wait a minute. Jane is working on the Smith project for me. I can’t spare her right now.”
Trust me on this one. I’ve survived at least a dozen bloody Fridays simply by being marginally irreplaceable to multiple people when the guillotine arrived, and that someone wasn’t always my direct boss.
Wait out the right opportunities
I felt I deserved a promotion, but it went to a very nice, slightly moronic person who didn’t deserve it. It made me sick, and I thought about leaving, but I didn’t for several reasons. First, I had a career going at the company. I also had friends I liked, work that sparked my neurons, and a salary that made me smile. Plus, I was determined not to let this reversal of fortune define my life. And it didn’t. Eighteen months later, my competitor left and I moved into his office.
Do everything in your power not to appear bored
Boredom can crush a person’s will to live, and it paints a bright-red bullseye that attracts bosses who are looking to “delegate” their work. Get more involved in corporate initiatives, which are better than twiddling your thumbs, and they’re great for expanding your professional repertoire, which will come in handy at review time.
I’ve also found that scheduling more business lunches is an easy way to brighten my day and meet new people. If worst comes to worst, tell your boss you want more to do. I had an employee do so recently, and boredom is now the least of his worries.
Step back from the grind
Cut back your hours. Spend summers in San Felipe. But retire? Never. Something happens to people when they don’t have a persona attached to the production of goods, services, or money. Their earlobes grow. They sprout hair in the wrong places. And they mysteriously start keeling over.
Fortunately, within your problem lies a fortuitous solution. You probably have wonderful employees. None of them is ready to steer the ship just yet, but that shouldn’t stop you from grooming them for the helm. Give each a turf, and tell them it’s their job to oversee the business while you take a white-sand sabbatical. Any problems that arise will be amenable to solutions, as all problems are, and in those solutions will lie the future of your business. Just don’t waste too much time exchanging your flip-flops for patent leather when you return. We’re made to work. Without it, we’re simply dust in the wind.
Don’t make this horrible interviewing mistake
Resist the urge to trash your former employer to your possible new one. Bosses hate that. Even if we ourselves work for a troll who deserves a trip to the meat grinder, the idea of hiring someone who is willing to unload on a former manager is unappealing.
Say something polite and balanced, escalating in honesty only if pushed. Here’s a good way to start: “I learned a lot, but I never felt as if I fit in, and I realized that a change was in order.” If that’s not playing well, try this: “They were stacked heavily with people in my tier, and the prospect of professional growth was slim.” If your interviewer remains unsatisfied, lay it on the line: “I had a hard time with my boss. It was nobody’s fault, but I like to feel happy with my job, and I like my boss to be happy.” Stop there.
One last thing: Find a person with a decent title at your former company and ask if they’ll act as a reference. It doesn’t matter that they weren’t your direct boss; the fact that someone liked you and wishes you well will help ensure that you not only land on your feet, but also that you hit the ground running.
Be more alert during meetings
When you feel yourself drifting off, just stand up and head to the bathroom, whether or not you actually need to go. Splash cold water on your face and do a few jumping jacks. If circumstances don’t allow for a bathroom break, remove yourself from your cushy boardroom chair and position yourself behind a colleague with your palms resting on the back of the seat. (Note: only do this to coworkers you’re close with.) Contribute eloquently and frequently. Respond to the funny looks with two words: “Bad back.” Ooh. Tough luck. What a righteous trooper you are, attending the meeting in pain!
These tips are only triage, of course. For a longer-lasting solution, lead by example. When you call a meeting, run it like a dictator, sticking to the agenda like a Porsche to pavement. Shut off anyone who strays from the topic, and bring the meeting to a conclusion quickly. Efficiency is contagious. Second, cut down on the number of meetings you attend. Most are useless, which is why countless polls show that employees find meetings repetitive and unproductive. Tell your boss, “I’d be happy to join your weekly summit, but might my time not be better spent polishing the quarterly report for the board?” If that doesn’t earn you a get-out-of-jail-free card, nothing will.
Treat your friends, but sparingly
Keep your business expenses low and your generosity on a personal basis. Providing free bacon (sometimes literally) is what friends are for.
Write down what stresses you out every morning—then do it
Yes, all of it. Whether it’s something that’s been stressing you out, a phone call, or even a small task that’s been on your to-do list for way too long, jot everything down on a piece of paper under the heading “Things Stressing Me Out Right This Second”—then spend the next hour checking off as many tasks as you can. By taking a set amount of time each day to zone in on specific tasks, you’ll not only feel a wave of relief when you’re finished, but it will also prevent yourself from spending even more time completing them later on.
Take command of your employee’s attentions
Certainly explain that if they don’t stop tapping at their handhelds, they might very well lose their thumbs entirely. You’re the boss. It’s their job to hang on your every word. And anything that prevents them from doing that must stop. Immediately.
Use wiggle room for more PTO
The truth is, it’s nearly impossible by standard means, i.e., the way you would ask for more money or a better office. Vacation days are company policy, even for the most altitudinous among us, so asking the boss for more time off isn’t the right tactic. He or she may simply say no. What is available to you is the wiggle room that exists in any system.
At your review, tell your boss you’re frying around the edges a little and that you think the company vacation policy is bogus. If they agree with you (and in most cases they will), gently float an informal solution, such as “So anyway, some summer Fridays, I’m going to work from home, if that’s okay with you,” or “On certain winter Mondays, when the snow is good in Tahoe, I’m going to try to telecommute.” If they don’t budge, you may have to work a different edge of the operation. In totalitarian regimes, people do things to assert their humanity. I don’t know if I have to tell you exactly what, right? People get sick. Have personal emergencies. Even disappear when the work-flow is light or the boss is out of the office. Necessity is, after all, the mother of invention.
Beat back presentation boredom
The real question for all of us is whether we, as successful business people of the world, can do our best to eradicate PowerPoint presentations forever. If you loathe them as much as I do, if you feel they’re a crutch for those too verbally or intellectually crippled to communicate an idea without choking, then lean your head out the window and scream, “I’m bored to death, and I’m not going to watch PowerPoint presentations anymore!” Okay, thanks for letting me get that out of my system. Me, I fall asleep during those things routinely. In the old days, I used to fall asleep over acetates; now it’s this. The technology is different, but the ennui is eternal.
Ways to keep awake: (1) Walk around. Look thoughtful while doing this. (2) Work on your smartphone under the table to send notes to others at the meeting. Try to crack them up. (3) Have your assistant come into the meeting with a worried expression every 20 minutes. This gets you out of there so you can splash cold water on yourself and makes you look like an executive who’s too important to waste time on a lame presentation. (4) Stab yourself in the palm with a sharp implement every time you feel dozy.
Make your business trips an adventure
The Japanese like to test the size of your mettle by serving you stuff from the bottom of Satan’s garbage can. A few years ago in Japan, my good friend Ko issued me just such a challenge. We had both enjoyed several frosty ones and were perhaps somewhat the worse for wear. Ko leaped up from his seat, grabbed a dish, and strode manfully toward me. Raising the plate to my face, he handed me an uncooked fish about half a foot long, its eyeballs still in their sockets, its tail as hard and bony as God made it.
“You!” said Ko. “Eat this!” So I did, head first, in two bites. The trick is not to chew, but just to swallow. When it was done, I’m sure I looked a little green. “You da man!” said Ko, and he hugged me. My suggestion is to say that you’re a vegetarian. That is a well-respected choice over there. This will save you from the necessity of scooping monkey brains out of their skulls, as my friend Carl was asked to do on his last visit to China. Some things aren’t worth doing, even if they lead to improved revenues for the international division.
Phase out a difficult supervisor
There are some attitude adjustments that will help you. A former boss of mine was a very big screamer. He screamed in the morning. He screamed after lunch, particularly if he’d enjoyed a pleasant social cocktail. He screamed at the end of the day. He was, in short, a grouchy jerk. For about six months, my life was pure, molten lard. I hated waking up. I hated the office. I hated going to sleep because it meant that pretty soon I would be called upon to wake up and start it all over again.
Then I happened on this mantra: Screw It. A person who is screaming at you can only upset you if you let that screaming penetrate to your self. That can happen only when your self is there. Your self will not be there if you do not care about what is going on in its vicinity. Today, when I get yelled at, I simply exile myself to this very nice path just outside of Tiburon, California. I love the view from there.
Do more with less to work with
First, manage up. Be sure you are doing exactly what your boss thinks is important and tell him what a good job you’re doing. That said, all is not possible in a contracting universe, and odds are your boss understands this better than you think he does. Like a great and terrible Oz, he knows that when he cuts his staff, he must also sacrifice more than a smidgen of functionality.
As you manage the expectations of those above you, you must tend to the equally important task of wrangling your diminished staff into a new set of harnesses that used to hold a lot more dogs. Sympathize with their plight. Validate their concerns. And, most important, let them know that if they are now incapable of doing a decent job, they need to let you know immediately. You’re all in this together, and you must set realistic objectives at both ends of the food chain. Also keep in mind that it’s often possible to rebuild your headcount once the CEO and his direct reports realize just how difficult it is to meet quotas and retain important clients with a reduced employee population. Nothing is impossible. It can be done. You know how. You’re a survivor.
Navigate office flings and their potential conflicts
The reality is that no rules exist to guide your actions except for the ones you’ve already broken, but as long as your office fling’s promotion doesn’t inflate his or her head or your insecurities, don’t lose too much sleep over it.
Just remember that you are entering perilous territory, as promotions have a nasty way of changing people for the worse. They may start acting senior in ways you find annoying. They may start receiving invitations to corporate events and cocktail parties that somehow miss your inbox.
If things aren’t working out, sit down and have a business conversation about it. Don’t be mean and don’t be a wimp. Just talk with them about their recent career upgrade and how they thinks it might affect your professional rapport. Approaching them like this will either ease the tension in the relationship or initiate its demise. But it’s less likely to generate the kind of lousy feelings that haunt budget meetings and performance reviews than if you were to take issue with their superior attitude and become a thorn in their side. Of course, your dilemma may solve itself. They might break up with you. Ouch. That hurt. But don’t feel too bad. It’s not personal. It’s business.
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