Placing Too Much Importance on Passion


By

Red Maple by Bruce / Flickr

Red Maple by Bruce / Flickr

Passion has become a cheap word. I’m starting to roll my eyes when I hear it. But it hasn’t always been this way.

It all started when I read a 2010 post by Siddhartha Herdegen, “Why You Don’t Need Passion to Be Successful.” It was the first time I questioned one of my dearly held personal values: passion for my day-to-day work.

For the past year, I’ve been on the admissions committee for the E-Media Division at the University of Cincinnati, and I’ve become numb to students who claim, “[x] is my passion.”

If true, who cares? Every other student has a passion, too. What matters is how that translates into action. Show me what you’ve done because of your passion. Show me through action that you really mean it and aren’t flirting with it. Show me that you’ve struggled and remained resilient. Show me that you have discipline.

Recently, I ran across this quote:

Passion is the quickest to develop, and the quickest to fade. Intimacy develops more slowly, and commitment more gradually still.

—Robert Sternberg

I’ve taught hundreds of students with passion. I teach few students with commitment to do the best work possible.

I think part of the problem is how we define passion, so allow me to introduce Herdegen’s definition:

Passion is a deep connection to an idea, a strong bond which creates a feeling of desire. It contains elements of both commitment and excitement but is not limited to them.

Passion plus commitment is not too common in my experience. More often you find:

  • a person with a passion for something but lacking talent (sometimes due to lack of ability to practice for the time required, lack of a mentor, etc.)
  • a person with a talent for something without a passion for pursuing it
  • a person with either talent or passion but no ability to commit (whether through life circumstance or otherwise)

I run into all of these types—at school, at conferences, in daily conversation.

It seems like the cultural myth these days is that we ought to be pursuing our passion; otherwise we will be unhappy. I’m not so sure that’s true any more. As long as we do work that feels satisfying—that complements our personal values and strengths—we can all do just fine, especially if we have relationships that are also fulfilling and satisfying.

There’s another category of person I haven’t mentioned: those struggling to figure out what their passion is. The questions I then pose are:

  • What are you avoiding? (There’s a reason, and don’t feel guilty about it.)
  • What activities or interactions do you most look forward to, anticipate, and hope for more of?
  • What activities or interactions do you value or prioritize on a daily basis?
  • What activities can you get lost in? (Time stops; you’re in the flow.)

The answers might not lead to “passion” + “commitment,” but I think they help pave the way to a happier life.

  • http://www.JaniceLanePalko.com/ Janice Lane Palko

    Excellent post.  I’ve been in writing groups where writing is talked about more so than actually putting words on a page.  I love writing, but passion comes and goes for it.  If I waited until I felt the passion to write, some days I’d never produce anything. 

  • http://twitter.com/johannaharness Johanna Harness

    Yes. It’s easy to have passion for the idea of something and not be at all interested in the day to day work of it.

  • Joanne Tombrakos

    As always, a thought provoking post. I think there are levels of passion and most of us, unfortunately feel none when it comes to our work. We think if it is work, we are not supposed to like it, nor do we deserve to. Our culture reinforces that. That said we wind up with too many of us who don’t take the time to think about what might drive us with some level of passion, or we know and we do nothing about it. Those generally seem to be the same people who look at those of us willing to go for it  and do something about it with sheer amazement.

  • jamesscottbell

    Right on, Jane. It’s not the will to win that counts but the will to PREPARE to win. Easy to have the first, but not always the second. 

  • http://winningedits.com/ Matt Gartland

    I’m witnessing this argument being made more and more. And the more I process it, the more I agree with it. It’s sad though.

    I still believe “passion” (as you/Herdegen define it) is a requisite element to realize fulfillment from one’s work. Therein lies the most grievous abuse of the word, me thinks…

    Namely, that passion – a powerfully inward, intrinsic and (dare I say) private quality for personal motivation and joy – has been forced (cough mutated cough) into an outward, manufactured and (dare I say) sensationalized quality meant to please the marketing gods.

    Like any precious resource, the more we carelessly throw it about the more we accelerate our rush toward the inevitable: apathy.

  • https://windycindy.wordpress.com/ Cindy T

    I was a believer in that cultural myth…until about 3 minutes ago.  Thanks, Jane – I owe ya.

  • http://twitter.com/GaylaGrace Gayla Grace

    Love your thoughts and I agree. It’s easy to identify our passions but are we willing to take the steps toward being successful within our passion through discipline and commitment. Wonderful ideas to toss around with college students (we  currently have three in college – will be sharing). Thanks!

  • http://twitter.com/amyalkon Amy Alkon

    You may be interested in the work of an evolutionary psych friend of mine, NYU prof Dr. Scott Barry Kaufman (@sbkaufman and creativitypost.com), who writes on creativity and measures of success. He posts on the different things that go into success and recently did a post on self-control and intelligence with self-control mattering a great deal in achievement. 

  • http://twitter.com/thebookdress Emily Koon

    I think you raise a good point about the definition of passion. For a lot of people, it just means “I don’t think X sucks,” and that isn’t the same thing. Maybe the problem is that we are just a culture of very low bars. When I hear passion, I want to hear about people driving themselves off cliffs, in the Byronic sense of not being able to stop yourself. I hear this a lot from writers, who talk about being “born to write.” “I can’t not write, etc.” Well I can. I do it all the time. It’s called doing other stuff, and it’s fine. Good post, thanks!

  • http://www.jmlalonde.com Joe Lalonde

    You’re right Jane. Passion alone will not get much done. You’ve got to take action.

  • Cate Hawthorne

    Very True.

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  • Jan Morrill

    I always enjoy the way you organize your thoughts in your post. You’re right, that passion has become such a buzz word, one naturally thinks that’s all it takes to be a success. But you said it all in your sentence, “What matters is how that translates into action.” Thanks again for a great post.

  • http://twitter.com/MikaelMonk Mikael Monk

    Finding an outlet for your talent, ability and then opportunity to train it, is what gives us satisfaction in life. Passion is fire that is hard to keep constantly going. It is only fed by outside circumstances and they differ day by day.

  • http://www.rosiepovapicturebooks.weebly.com/ Rosie Pova

    It’s thought provoking, I agree. For me, the minute something I like doing becomes work or my job, I stop liking it. So in a way, pursuing my passion might actually kill it. I have yet to discover if that’s true with my writing, but I sure hope it breaks the rule . . . I have a feeling it will and it’d stand and that drives me to my commitment.

  • http://janefriedman.com Jane Friedman

    Yes! Agreed.

  • http://janefriedman.com Jane Friedman

    Absolutely. Todd Henry has posted a fabulous response to this post that touches on this “outward, manufactured, sensationalized quality”:
    http://www.toddhenry.com/living/reluctant-but-resolved-a-challenge-to-die-empty/

  • http://janefriedman.com Jane Friedman

    LOL!  :)

  • http://janefriedman.com Jane Friedman

    Thanks for mentioning! I’ll check out his work.

  • http://janefriedman.com Jane Friedman

    Ha! Yes, I know exactly the type of writer you mean.

  • http://janefriedman.com Jane Friedman

    Yes! Excellent point.

  • http://janefriedman.com Jane Friedman

    Can be a double-bind, can’t it?  :)

    I know that as soon as I have to talk about the work ahead of me (deadlines, etc) or explain project ideas, I immediately become less enthusiastic. It’s an interesting phenomenon.

  • http://janefriedman.com Jane Friedman

    Agree about college-age students. Trying to identify more ways to convey this message to them.

  • http://vegetarianatlargeinbuffland.blogspot.com/2010/12/cold-and-raw-in-kenmore.html Exploding Mary

    At this point in my life, I’ll take calm satisfaction over passion any day. 

  • http://tyreanswritingspot.blogspot.com/ Tyrean

    Those are awesome questions to consider when discovering passion. I lose time in reading, writing, teaching conversations . . . when my kids or students get into the topic and we are surprised our time is up.
    I have a friend who is passionate about dance . . .and her passion includes commitment, excellence, loss of time (she can dance and choreograph without stop for hours) and she is an amazing studio owner, teacher, and director. She has always had the confidance to follow her passion and it shows.

  • Miagolano

    I don’t know that pursuing one’s passion necessarily leads to happiness, but then I’m not really clear on what happiness is (even for myself). I spent quite a few years pursuing my passion for poetry – reading and writing – and there were few moments of happiness. There were, however, moments of feeling connected with something outside my own head, moments of understanding, of heartbreak, grief, silliness, etc. In my former job I spent hours counseling students on pursuing their passion (in an effort to get them motivated for graduate school). In a few cases, I think I may have helped these students find a path that they liked doing something they liked and found satisfaction in – but was it truly a passion? For me, pursuing a passion takes blood, sweat, and tears. Just because you are truly invested in something (an art, an idea, a philosophy, fixing old cars, baking, etc.) doesn’t mean it will come easy or stay easy – and that’s probably the point. If it were easy, would you gain any satisfaction from dedicating huge gobs of time and energy to pursuing it? I think the problem (at least in this culture) is placing too much importance on happiness only because we’ve been “taught” that happiness means having a lot of stuff, money, things, places to put things, having the perfect mate, children, etc. So – keep pushing to find passion but stop thinking it will lead to happiness. It will most likely lead no where but then it’s the journey that matters, not the destination.

  • Anonymous

    Hi there, 

    I’m new here.  I was with you 100% until this:”It seems like the cultural myth these days is that we ought to be pursuing our passion; otherwise we will be unhappy. I’m not so sure that’s true any more. As long as we do work that feels satisfying—that complements our personal values and strengths—we can all do just fine, (emphasis added) especially if we have relationships that are also fulfilling and satisfying.” I don’t know — maybe you didn’t mean it this way, but this sounds a lot like an argument in favor of aiming for the middle.  It’s probably safe to assume that most people who have ever achieved anything truly significant were not happy with just doing “fine.”

    Otherwise, though, great points about the overuse of the word “passion” and the necessary traits that must accompany passion if one is to accomplish anything.  

  • http://janefriedman.com Jane Friedman

    You make an interesting observation.

    I think my approach here is that of a zen mind, meaning: When we draw back to observe our behavior and existence (and I mean drawing way, way back), I’d argue our happiness is rarely a result of our accomplishments. In fact, doggedly pursuing accomplishments/achievements is likely to make us unhappy, because we’re never quite satisfied with what we have—we continually seek to conquer the next thing.

    Aiming for the top, aiming for the middle, aiming low … it’s all just a game we’re playing, to place our achievements into a hierarchy. It can get exhausting and have absolutely nothing to do with happiness or fulfillment.

  • http://janefriedman.com Jane Friedman

    You make an interesting observation.

    I think my approach here is that of a zen mind, meaning: When we draw back to observe our behavior and existence (and I mean drawing way, way back), I’d argue our happiness is rarely a result of our accomplishments. In fact, doggedly pursuing accomplishments/achievements is likely to make us unhappy, because we’re never quite satisfied with what we have—we continually seek to conquer the next thing.

    Aiming for the top, aiming for the middle, aiming low … it’s all just a game we’re playing, to place our achievements into a hierarchy. It can get exhausting and have absolutely nothing to do with happiness or fulfillment.

  • Anonymous

    Hi there,

    I’m new here.  I was with you 100% until this:

    “It seems like the cultural myth these days is that we ought to be pursuing our passion; otherwise we will be unhappy. I’m not so sure that’s true any more. As long as we do work that feels satisfying—that complements our personal values and strengths—we can all do just fine, especially if we have relationships that are also fulfilling and satisfying.”

    I don’t know — maybe you didn’t mean it this way, but this sounds a lot like an argument in favor of aiming for the middle.  It’s probably safe to assume that no one who has ever achieved anything significant was satisfied with doing “just fine”.

    Otherwise, though, excellent points on the overuse of the word “passion” and the necessary traits that must accompany passion if one is to accomplish anything.

  • Anonymous

    Well, if we’re talking about “happiness,” I agree with you for the most part, although there are plenty of people out there (myself included) who get a lot of joy out of accomplishment just for accomplishment’s sake.  If one is striving for accomplishment solely because of a desire for prestige, fame, money, etc., then I absolute agree that this is a rabbit hole with no bottom.  

    However, none of this is what I got from your original post.  I got that people overuse the word “passion”, and that many tend to think passion is all one needs in order to be successful and happy, when, in fact, other traits are equally, if not more, important (all points I agree with, wholeheartedly).  Then you seemed to go a step further, though, and dismiss (or, at least, seriously question) the importance of passion altogether (in the paragraph I quoted).  That’s the part that I don’t agree with.  Certainly, passion needs to be combined with other traits, but without it…

    Maybe you want to be the best writer ever (or the best writer you can be), or the best architect, or the best teacher, or the best parent.  Maybe you’re goal is to achieve “true happiness” — whatever that means to you — or to find your “true self,” or to achieve “oneness” with the universe.   Whatever it is that you want, pursue it with commitment, discipline, AND passion.

    If one ignore’s one’s passions altogether, and settles for doing “just fine,” one runs the risk of never feeling completely satisfied, of never reaching one’s true potential, and of always having to ask oneself, “What if?..”

  • http://twitter.com/Cady_Stanton Angel Firestone

    Found your blog on Twitter and I feel inspired already.  The word “passion” has become so cliche.  Though far less inspiring, one of my favorite words is “persistence.”

  • http://janefriedman.com Jane Friedman

    If someone has identified a “passion” they must pursue, and they know in their heart of hearts they can’t be happy without this passion as part of their life, then yes. I’ve met such people, and they ought not settle for anything less.

    The problem I see entering the picture: That then, somehow, this passion-seeking becomes a requisite for everyone else.

    Not everyone experiences the world that way.

  • http://www.danezeller.com/ Dane Zeller

    Thanks for bringing the subject up! In my small writing group, I am the keeper of the “seriosity” meter. It doesn’t measure passion, directly. It doesn’t even measure writing. It is a subjective measure (mine) of how much stuff our members offer up for publication. In that respect, it’s a measure of marketing. It means that passion is measured in terms of what you do after the writing is over. Passion is getting rejected twenty times, and then making another pitch…as if the first twenty gatekeepers were dead wrong!

  • http://scientistrising.blogspot.com/ NJS

    Turning that around, I often run into the problem that if I enjoy something that is obviously
    part of my work, I still feel guilty devoting time to it because I would enjoy myself. It doesn’t feel like I’m working hard enough.

  • http://www.turndog-millionaire.com/ Turndog Millionaire

    great post Jane

    i think it certainly helps if you have a passion for something you do everyday, but take it from someone who has worked for a sport club supported from the age of 6 (hard core supporter too), working has certainly taken some of it away from me

    People should be wary about pursuing their passion for work unless it ticks several boxes

    Will it provide enough income?

    Are you talented enough to do it?

    How will it effect your daily life?

    Do you agree with ideals of the company, sector etc?

    You may enter for the right reasons, in terms of showing passion, but if the others things don’t align then that passion may one day die. Which is very sad indeed :(

    Matt (Turndog Millionaire)

  • http://www.shopyourwardrobe.com/ Jill Chivers

    Excellent post, and touches on something I have been noticing in socialmediaville, and that is passion is being used as yardstick to measure suitability.  Suitability as a Friend or connection, or as desirability as a connection.  If you are passionate, you’re in, you’re good.  If you have been assessed as (somehow) lacking on the passion scale, then you’re not so in, you may even be suspect in some way.  So passion, as Matt comments here, has not only become externalized (and sensationalized) it’s become a commodity –  “Do you have passion?”,  “Do you?”  It’s resembles high school and being cool. 

    I suspect that those who created these tools had the best of original intentions but now there are tools and workshops which make it possible to map and test your passion, which further externalises and quantifies it.   

    I felt a great deal of relief when I read this post – so thanks Jane for saying what many of us have been feeling and providing a space for discussion.

  • http://www.johnworsley.name/ John R Worsley

    I only recently came to associate the word “passion” with my writing, and for me it’s a breakthrough to apply it to anything, so my first reaction to this post’s title was strong!  But as I read the post, I saw that it’s addressed to people who easily use the word.

    It does seem as though the meaning is shifting, becoming broader or more general — and looking at the history of “passion”, I see that trend has been going on a long time.  Apparently it comes from a Latin word for suffering, and in particular from the word used to describe Jesus’s suffering on the cross.  In that context, the “cheapening” you observe happening now may be just the latest portion of a long arc.

    On an unrelated note, I’ve taken an almost identical photo myself — that tree is in the Japanese Garden here in Portland, OR. =)

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  • http://justaddfather.com/ Wolf Pascoe

    What I’ve come to understand is that there are things that you choose to do, and there are things that you must do. I don’t mean must in the sense that you must eat, because everyone must eat. I mean must in the sense that you’d do it even at the expense of eating. 

    Occasionally there are things I must write. Mostly, there are things I choose to. 

    Either way, I feel well-used when I write, at least when the process is working. I wouldn’t use the word passion. But it’s different from wanting recognition or money, both of which I also want, and it’s more satisfying. 

    I like what Confucius says: 

    To know the truth is not as good as to love it, and to love it is not as good as to practice it. 

  • http://twitter.com/NinaAmir Nina Amir

    I usually think about combining passion with purpose–as in the sense of mission. When people feel really passionate about something and have a sense that their passion relates to a life purpose, they get inspired…inspired to action. And they tend to commit to taking action to fulfill their purpose.

    That said, not too many people find both their passion and their purpose. When they do, though, the combination can lead to really powerful action and results.

    Taking action seems to be hard for a lot of people. I think there’s a fear factor involved–a sense of insecurity about moving forward toward something we care deeply about even though we really want it. Odd, but true. Once we throw ourselves into it, though, sometimes it’s hard to pull ourselves out of the “flow.” It can become quite addicting to be in that inspired place.

    Passion alone may not be enough, I agree. It comes, it goes. As with all things, it’s what we do with it that matters.

  • JamesHRH

    Joanne – my father practised criminal law, in Canada (slightly different that US legal career). He practised over 50 years, loved what he did, but never used the word passion.

    He told me ‘it was the only thing I really thought I could accel at’ (likely untrue), that ‘it suited him in many ways’ (very true) and that he ‘liked it so much it did not feel like work’ (lucky).

    As Chris Rock says (and I doubt he has a passion for comedy, but you never know) ‘when you have a career, the first time you check the clock it 8 minutes to 6. When you have a job, its 8 minutes after 9!’.

    The point is not to have passion, but to align yourself with work that suits you and that you have some aptitude to do.

    I look for self knowledge and understanding of the gig when recruiting. And a willingness to do what it takes to get the job done.

    And, I would rather work with someone who felt a personal responsibility to the overall objective (team centred) – any day and every day – than someone who was passionate about the issue (self centred).

  • http://janefriedman.com Jane Friedman

    Love that Confucius quote!

  • http://janefriedman.com Jane Friedman

    Thanks for sharing that Chris Rock sentiment. I find that to true—as well as your final note about working with people who have personal responsibility to the objective rather than passion.

  • Victoria Noe

    In the book “Dear Me”, one of the celebrities writing a letter to their 16-year old self is Hugh Jackman. One of his observations was: find the 5 things you love and the 5 things you’re good at. When the two lists merge into one, that’s when you’ve found what you’re supposed to be doing (passion, I guess).

  • http://twitter.com/MarshaStopa Marsha Stopa

    Well said.

    Placing passion above all else and expecting it to pull you through the tough spots in life/work/career is like placing chemistry above all else in a relationship and expecting it to pull you through. Both ebb and flow. Compatibility is a better focus for both.

  • http://donthitsnooze.blogspot.com/ Faith Watson

    I’m so glad I followed a tweet by @Ornaross:disqus to get here.  Thank you!  You know, I’ve always felt this way, despite my inborn creative crazies and a big soft open heart. I think for many of us of a certain age, raised in a blue collar environment, passion wasn’t really categorized as a valued trait useful for self-promotion. Where I am passionate, it seems more like a reward of my own blessed life, an emotion I am lucky to feel, because I’ve experienced something incredibly moving.

    None of the people I have loved and admired in my life ever touted how they had a passion for anything, I don’t think. Sure, they would be fired up about some things, say politics or travel or some other hobby…and yes they devoted their lives to an endeavor, say, raising their families. It just wasn’t called a “passion.” Maybe I’m a little practical, too, because no one worked in a passion field. No doctors or professors or rock stars. Pipefitters, roofers and factory workers, mostly.

    Devotion, now that’s something. As exhibited through action. Especially if actions lead to improvements or successes. I’m an unemployed writer. If I bring my passion for writing to the table, what good does that do you, my potential employer? Better I just bring good writing, and speak passionately about the work I have done, and will do, for you.

  • Lauren Harris

    I totally agree. I meet a lot of other aspiring writers

  • Lauren Harris

    I totally agree. I meet so many other aspiring writers who have the desire, but not the commitment or willingness to make it higher priority than everything else. It’s frustrating to hear things like, “I wish I had the time to write a novel.” That infuriates me, because I make the time to write by taking it away from other things. I don’t watch much TV, I don’t play video games, and don’t spend a lot of my free time going out. I’m generally buckled down in a coffeeshop or at my desk.

    So I agree: without commitment, passion is useless.

  • Anonymous

    Funny! I touched on this in my talk at #WDC12 when I did a rather spontaneous interpretive dance of what a fit of passion typically looks like to illustrate how emotion is so good at throwing us off track, instead of helping us ground, center and focus our creativity.

    Great minds…you know. ;)

  • http://www.shopyourwardrobe.com/ Jill Chivers

    Faith – I love that about devotion.  It brings to mind so much more than passion, at least for me. It conveys a sense of commitment, of perseverence, of sticking-with-it-ness, of something deeper and stronger than what is conveyed with the current use of the word passion.

  • http://www.shopyourwardrobe.com/ Jill Chivers

    Faith – I love that about devotion.  It brings to mind so much more than passion, at least for me. It conveys a sense of commitment, of perseverence, of sticking-with-it-ness, of something deeper and stronger than what is conveyed with the current use of the word passion.

  • JamesHRH

    That comes directly from a key leader in a major league sports franchise, who won the championship in his sport last year (and got hired by my club this year, hallelujah!).

    More and more, sporting success is determined by group oriented emotional / mental skills, rather than individual physical / emotional or mental skills.

    In essence, coaching is so sophisticated that you can ‘coach up’ people with strong desire and close the gap on opponents natural physical advantages.

    This makes physical advantages less valuable in team sports, than they were 30-40 years ago.

    More than ever, leadership, environment and culture are contributing to sporting success.

    It is a neat barometer of the enhanced competition in that arena. It is something that almost everyone is dealing with in the early 21st century – with authors at the top of the list!

  • JamesHRH

    That’s a Bear Bryant quote. Another good one, that is more specific to his sport is: “football games are won on Tuesdays (in practise), not on Saturdays (game day)”.

  • http://leighhimel.blogspot.com leigh

    Steve Jobs said that the Apple brand stood for “people with passion can change the world” 

    The absence of passion leads to a pretty dull life.

    Don’t let all the digital marketing people take the word passion from you. It’s far too important.

    :)  great post though.  I’ll be far more judicious with my use for clients in the future.  

  • http://donthitsnooze.blogspot.com/ Faith Watson

    It’s true people with passion can change the world as Jobs said. But to me, “can” remains the key word there, more than passion. People with money, power, connections or ideas can also change the world. They can, but do they? Not always. Doing is the thing. Passion has to serve a purpose. I think its purpose is to fuel action. I still think not using the word in the beginning of a sentence that ends with “so that’s why I’m a great candidate for this job” or “so that’s why you should publish my article” is great advice! It’s not even a good answer for why someone thinks they are the next American Idol, is it? Isn’t it assumed you should have a passion for singing if that’s the title you want? Drives me crazy. ;-)

  • http://janefriedman.com Jane Friedman

    Great comment, Faith!

  • http://leighhimel.blogspot.com leigh

    You don’t win Idol if the only thing you have is passion – but you can also work exceptionally hard and have an incredible voice and lack of passion will definately make the difference between good and great.ps. i cannot believe you just made me use American Idol as an example. I feel dirty.
    – posted via http://engag.io

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  • http://www.pjreece.ca/blog/wordpress PJ Reece

    Too true!  I hear so many wannabe writers refusing to write unless they are impassioned.  Well, good luck, I say.  Maybe they’ll be writers in another lifetime.  Damn… there I go being too harsh again.

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  • Eden Mabee

    I’m afraid that too often people mistake desire and joy  as “passion” and, in doing so, dilute the meaning of all three.  Just as all successful things (communities, organisms, buildings, industries, etc., rely on (at least) a few specialized elements, so does a successful career, be it in writing or selling hamburgers.  Passion should have a few elements, but that’s not what I see lately.

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