What if your high-paying job makes you miserable?

On Thursday, I featured a guest post from Free Money Finance that proved to be surprisingly controversial. His five steps to six figures in seven years offered solid common-sense career advice for those looking to boost their incomes. Many readers disliked the post. (Though they didn't hate it as much as FMF's previous guest article.)

Though I don't share all of your complaints, I do think some of you made an excellent point: Just as money is more about mind than it is about math, so too a rewarding career is more about personal fulfillment than it is about raking in big bucks. I agree that I'd rather work at a low-paying job that I loved than make $100,000 a year at a job I hated. I'd rather be happy than rich.

In response to FMF's post on Thursday, Mike wrote to share his predicament. He's hoping GRS readers can help him decide what to do:

I feel like I am at a crossroad in my career, and I truly don't know what to do.

I am 31, married, and have two young children. My wife is well respected in her field and has a good salary; she likes what she's doing, and has opportunities for advancement. We have a pretty hefty mortgage, but it is totally manageable with our current income stream. We also have a considerable monthly cost for day care. Overall, our financial situation is decent and improving.

Anyhow, those things aren't the issue. The issue is me. I am in the IT field, but it is just not something I'm passionate about. My job pays well — $75,000 a year — but I am on call a lot and work a lot of hours that go un-noticed. I dread getting up and going into the office. My fear is that if I try to switch careers now, I won't be making that much money. I'm not as happy as I used to be doing this type of work.

Part of my problem is that I don't know what I want to be when I grow up. I really enjoy working with my hands, and I am very handy. I have remodeled homes (mine, my parents, and some friends) and I have done some commercial construction projects (in-laws used to own a property management company).

I am just looking for something that drives me right now. I can honestly say that I am not a good leader, almost like I need someone to be a mentor to me, as I have never really had that. I am willing to work hard, and I know I would have the support of my wife and family with whatever choice I make. I just can't justify leaving a good paying job right now without having a clue as to what I want to do next.

I need some help.

Mike's situation is far from unique. In fact, I get e-mails like this all the time. There are many people who feel trapped in jobs that they hate, but who cannot quit because of the financial implications. What's the solution?

The best thing, of course, is to find a career where these two intersect: a job you love that pays well. This isn't always easy to do.

The first — and most difficult — step is to find out what it is you really want to do. What would make you happy? (And how can you be sure?) In researching my book, I've learned that meaningful work is one of the keys to personal fulfillment. Research shows that if you have a job that matches your personal values, you're much more likely to be happy than if you're doing something you find meaningless. But it can take a lot of soul-searching to determine what exactly “meaningful work” is for you.

I also think it's important to reduce your lifestyle as much as possible in order to give yourself flexibility in your job search. The lower your expenses are, the more options you have. If your lifestyle costs $10,000 a month, your family needs to earn at least that much (more, after taxes) in order to maintain it. But if your lifestyle costs just $5,000 a month (or, better yet, $3,000 a month), you have a much wider range of career options.

In our e-mail discussion with Mike, FMF offered some good advice:

Is it really the IT field that you hate or something else? Maybe it's the company you're working at or the people you're working with. Maybe it's the aspect of IT you're working in (for instance, you may hate database management but end up loving web security — or something else if you tried it.) Or maybe it's the industry you're in. Perhaps you'd be fulfilled as an IT consultant working on various projects for clients rather than trapped with one company doing the same thing over and over.

There are lots of factors to consider and I highly recommend you think about the various options before you ditch the career (and the valuable asset) you've built over the past several years.

I know that some people argue that a job isn't something to be loved. Work is work and you should treat it as such. I don't agree. I've had jobs I hated, and I've had jobs I loved. I believe it's absolutely worth sacrificing income to find work that is meaningful and fulfilling.

But how much should you sacrifice? And how do you find this meaningful, fulfilling work? What steps should Mike take to change his situation so that he's no longer miserable? And how does the current economy affect his options? If you were in Mike's shoes, what would you do?

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TH
TH
11 years ago

Wow, that’s a toughy, even more so because he has dependents to worry about. When I hit that point in my career it was just me, but I was in the process of buying a house – loss of income wasn’t really an option. But when I really thought about it, it wasn’t the company or the people or the hours, it was just that I’d been doing the same thing for 5 years and needed to move to something that required more detail and attention. Faster paced if you will. I lucked out. While I was searching internally for… Read more »

Steven
Steven
11 years ago

With big paychecks comes big lifestyle inflation. Like J.D. said, the first step would be to reduce the reliance on I.T. income, and gradually until you find a point where it becomes difficult to cut anymore. That should give you a rough idea of what your possible occupations/options are. I.T. and computer were the up-and-coming thing in the 90’s when we had the huge technology boom and it’s gone from cool to hell. I.T. personnel are on-call a lot, and very little acknowledgment from outside your department. I myself have worked in I.T. and I understand the negativity towards I.T.… Read more »

Brian
Brian
11 years ago

I think it makes it easier to do something when you know it’s for a limited amount of time. Read Your Money or Your Life, and you don’t have to do the whole thing, but set up a plan to work your way out of the income requirement over the next year (like poster 1 says). You’re in a good position with the salary, take advantage for a period of time and then get out. Maybe by that time, you’ll have a better idea of what you’d like to do. I have the same problem myself. I think the idea… Read more »

Business Game
Business Game
11 years ago

If i had to ask my self what would i do if i were in this crosswords then first of all you have to understand what is it that you look for. If you know what your looking for the next question should be is this current position helping you in getting closer if it does than suck it up and continue your work otherwise quit quit quit.

rma
rma
11 years ago

Read a book called “Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry Into the Value of Work” by Matthew B. Crawford.

dana
dana
11 years ago

I got lucky- had no idea I would love my career and the actual work I do all day as much as I do. I have had to make gigantic sacrifices early on (huge school loans being one of them that I am STILL paying off 10+ years in) but so worth it. My DH on the other hand is also in IT (sales) and HATES it. We too are making some changes to enable him to move to another field- he’s 40 and still trying to figure out what to be when he grows up. We are working the… Read more »

Rob Bennett
Rob Bennett
11 years ago

It was being in the situation described that led me to investigate money issues in the first place (this was 18 years ago). My advice is for Mike to remain in the job he is in for the time being but to begin immediately working on a plan for escape. As soon as he has an escape plan in writing (it must be reduced to writing or the magic will not happen), he will begin feeling somewhat (not totally) better about the current job. The difference is that he will have a purpose — acquiring the level of financial freedom… Read more »

Generation Y Investor
Generation Y Investor
11 years ago

I don’t believe that $75,000 is enough money to make you work a job you hate. It would be a different story if it was $175,000 or $750,000. I’d say if your that miserable than you owe it to yourself to find something else. I’d just advise having your next job lined up before quitting your current job. Also, remember that the grass isn’t always greener on the other side!

Josh
Josh
11 years ago

I was in Mike’s shoes! In my twenties, I had a career as a web app developer. Long hours, on call, but good pay and benefits. The work was interesting but not for me. I needed to work with my hands. Bread called to me, though and I had to give it all up for baker work. Advice for Mike? You want to work with you hands. Do you like the smell of sawdust or metal or food? Have you flipped through the phone book or walked around town, looking at all the different companies and their vocations? Have you… Read more »

Snowballer
Snowballer
11 years ago

I have been: A pool cleaner A forklift driver A convenience store clerk A warehouse stocker A retail cashier A telemarketer A trainer A bookkeeper A painter A tutor A furniture assembler A truck loader A short order cook A truck unloader A high school teacher A tax preparer A maintenance man And that’s just off the top of my head! Are there lots more jobs I haven’t had? Sure! I’ve never waited tables for instance! Here’s what I’ve learned. – Time is money. You want the most money, you give up more time. – Lots of time is worthless… Read more »

Ross
Ross
11 years ago

I agree with some of the posting. If you hate your job you need to analyze a few things though. Do I get support from upper management? Does upper management back me up when I make a decision? Do the people I work with throw me under the bus when a mistake is made? Do I work with a team or a group of individuals? Does the company value what I do? Depending on how you answer these questions you might be in a situation where you could like the work but the environment is so bad you are unhappy… Read more »

ImJuniperNow
ImJuniperNow
11 years ago

Bloom where you’re planted. My current job pays me more than I ever imagined ($55k) and with only a high school diploma. Do I like it? Not really – I’d rather be on a beach somewhere or volunteering at a marine animal rescue center. Am I looking for another job? Not on your life. I am being the best at my job that I can be. I fully-fund my 401(k) every year. I max out my Roth IRA. I have six figure investment accounts. I have the security of knowing that when I choose to quit, or when the economy… Read more »

Helen Clement
Helen Clement
11 years ago

31 and he’s worried that if he switches careers he won’t make as much as $75,000 a year? Excuse me? Try being 56 and *loathing* your career — when you are the *sole* support for your dependents! Or 55 and not having had paid employment for the last *8* years, because of various disasters including health problems! I would *love* to be in Mike’s position. Absolutely — please may I switch lives right now? He has enough time ahead of him for, oh, at least two full careers, training and all, if not more. My mother, who is now 88,… Read more »

cathy
cathy
11 years ago

This is my personal story. I am not mike. Obviously. A lot of “buts” could be added because everyones situation is different. Had I taken the time to think about all the “cons” of leaving my job, I would have never done it. I am sure. Because, how could we possibly live on half our income? When I came to my crossroads I was a newly wed with a husband and dog. My priority was work. So my health suffered. My home suffered and my relationship suffered. My income matched my husbands. My happiness for my job did not. It… Read more »

Nancy L.
Nancy L.
11 years ago

was* in Mike’s shoes a few years ago.  I had a high profile job that paid extremely well in the career of my “dreams”.  My husband was also in the same field and also had a fairly high profile job.  For a while, I relished the demands and rewards of my industry (as did my husband), but then we decided to start a family.  Suddenly our perspective changed 180 degrees. Without going into a long litany of complaints, I started to realize that my field was not “family-friendly”, and that I no longer had the stomach for the vicious politics… Read more »

Larry
Larry
11 years ago

What are your priorities? Your first responsibility is to your wife and kids, not to yourself. So man up and sacrifice for the family. Figure out what you want and work to achieve it, while keeping your current job. If that takes more schooling, it’s night school. It may take more assertiveness at work. Many companies hire from within. They already know their employees work ethic. so there may be a job within your company, that you could go for. When I was 27, i hated my job. I was married, no kids, my wife worked, and we had few… Read more »

Carol
Carol
11 years ago

One exciting avenue to explore: energy efficiency in data centers. Put these words into google: “energy efficiency data centers” and take particular note of the Energystar links. Watch/listen to DOE and Energystar webinars. I think it could be interesting because it’s growing fast, it’ll tap into your IT background, you will get to learn about energy and facilities management, and I think you could get some hands-on if you play it right – neat stuff. General Advice: Find a few growing areas that are linked to IT in some fashion- that is your IT skills will be respected but you… Read more »

SF_UK
SF_UK
11 years ago

Have you spoken to a careers adviser? Some universities offer free or discounted careers advice to alumni (worth investigating), or there may be something offered by your local employment centre or college. There are computer programs that try to match up your preferences with types of work (e.g. do you like working with people or on your own, do you prefer to be outdoors). They then give you a list of possible areas to investigate, which might spark some ideas.

bon
bon
11 years ago

I want to just re-emphasize what some others have said that I strongly agree with. 1. Stay in your current position for now, but start the research/soul-search. Read “what color is your parachute” type books, go out and FIND those mentors who you are looking for and invest in some lunches with them. Once you start to form a plan, your current job will feel less miserable. 2. Try out some of your future opportunities in small ways — shadowing, weekend work, or just spending time with those in the field. 3. Once you’re convinced you’re ready to make the… Read more »

Wearsunscreen
Wearsunscreen
11 years ago

If I was Mike I would try starting my own business in my own interest (remodeling or some niche) despite the self description about not being a leader. I would try to implement this in such a way I could still part-time or consult with the IT competency. I would *not* turn my back on the IT thing during 10% unemployment but I might half it or make some balance with the things that don’t make me want to go postal.

James
James
11 years ago

I think the bottom line may just be that Mike does not want to work in IT. He says he is not passionate about it. So therefore a person like will not be happy by reevaluating a different area of IT to go into. I’ve been in IT for quite awhile and as others have stated, there are ways to see if the job you’re in is good for you. Such as – does management support you, etc etc. Honestly, the job I am in now I could answer no to all the questions because nobody really understands IT. But… Read more »

cathy
cathy
11 years ago

“For what it’s worth, my dads work ethic and lack of needing to be fulfilled, made an enormous impact on the people he loved.”

With all due respect Larry, How do you know your dad was unfilled. Making an enormous impact on the people he loved sounds very fulfilling to me. And maybe, just maybe, he liked his job.

One more thing…I truly appreciate your dads service. Thank-you to him and the countless others.

Carol
Carol
11 years ago

I have to say I am a little shocked that higher education is referred to in this discussion as only “a good school” or “University of Phoenix”.
I would urge the folks here to take a look at this blog: http://elearningpundit.com/, read more about the improved quality and improved opinion of online education, and go from there.
For some quick examples of respected big leauge online schools: University of Arizona MBA, Penn State -undergrad and graduate degrees. Ivy League: Cornell has a number of online certificates. Highly regarded in this geographic region: University of Wisconsin-Platteville, Cardinal Stritch.

Tyler Tervooren
Tyler Tervooren
11 years ago

Wow. There is some amazing advice in the comments today. It’s all so relevant to my situation as well. I am earning a good salary working with people I love for a company that treats me well, but the work itself is not fulfilling. I’ve been a great saver, could support myself for a long time if I quit, and have no family to support at the time. Yet, there is a psychological barrier that is still holding me back from trying to do something else. All the money I’ve saved so far has been targeted towards specific goals such… Read more »

Avistew
Avistew
11 years ago

Do you not know what you love, or do you not dare doing it? Most people do know what they enjoy. Most people do have dreams. If you’re one of those who haven’t found out what they would really love doing, I would suggest taking some beginner classes in a variety of fields, and see how you like them. Or you can borrow books from the library. If you like handyman stuff, you can try and learn how to make…well, whatever you want, really. The real question is, can your family live on your wife’s income alone? And if so,… Read more »

Cali
Cali
11 years ago

I ran into this problem a few years ago and didn’t know which career to pursue. But, I did know the characteristics needed to make me happy and wrote down a list of about 8 things. Whenever I thought of a possible career, I pulled out the list to see if it would satisfy those items identified. It really helped narrow down my choices.

Foxie || CarsxGirl
Foxie || CarsxGirl
11 years ago

This is exactly the type of situation I am trying to avoid! I see so many people start down one thing and end up hating it, only to find they’re too trapped to get out. Because of this, I’m working on making sure I always build myself an “out,” so that I never have to feel trapped by my job. Heck, I already feel fairly trapped by my current job, but it’s just a college retail job that really pays peanuts. I know I’m gonna get out of it in the next year or so, so there’s not much sense… Read more »

Carla
Carla
11 years ago

@Helen #13 – There is always going to be someone in a worse or seemingly helpless situation. I’m going on 31 and almost wish I was in his situation. Dealing with a chronic illness, on state disability since March, now also on social security and hoping to get back in the workforce sometime in 2010 without a college degree when I’ve made as much as $60K year in the past seems dire. Being out of work for that long without an explanation (because I don’t want to tell potential employers that I have a chronic illness) is a recipe for… Read more »

Lise
Lise
11 years ago

I was in a situation similar to Mike’s in 2005. I was 34 and a single mother of a 6-year-old boy, but I was pretty well off. I was making six figures in IT, and I also had a mortgage and child-care expenses, but the finances were fine. The problem was the job – I was burnt out by IT after 13 years in it, and the stress was literally killing me. The company I worked for encouraged volunteering, and after doing some of that I decided that I wanted to become a teacher. I was ahead of Mike in… Read more »

valletta
valletta
11 years ago

No blame, no shame, no guilt, no regrets. Think of yourself as a work in progress, for the rest of your life. Something that worked five years ago may not fit your needs for fulfillment at this stage. Be flexible. I’ve made lots of money doing a job I didn’t love, I’ve been in incredible debt doing a job I LOVED and thought I’d do the rest of my life. I’m now starting over in a way and will be making good money but I hope that I’ve learned what I will tolerate and what I won’t. My first boss… Read more »

Financial Samurai
Financial Samurai
11 years ago

My advice is to do what you WANT to do! Life is waaaay too short to be miserable at your job, and your job in IT does sound pretty miserable.

$75,000 is a pretty darn good salary, but it is not a great salary. I mention this in my post “Fortunes, Fortunes, Everywhere”, where a TON of people make 6 figure salaries, and these jobs are everywhere. Police officers, educators, firemen etc.

Do what you want to do and don’t get stuck. 31 years old is still young enough to change.

Be free!

John
John
11 years ago

Well I sure know how it feels. I graduated college in 2002. I got my first real IT job almost a year later. I absolutely hated it. After only 4 months, the company I worked for let me go to hire someone for less money. I knew right then that I did not want to continue my career in the IT industry. After doing a few odd jobs, I decided to give the world of aviation a try. I loved working with my hands as well so I thought it would be fun to try. Starting out, I made little… Read more »

Honey
Honey
11 years ago

This is interesting to me. My boyfriend thought about the “get paid to do what you love” advice, and decided there was absolutely no work that he liked doing. So he became an attorney for the money. Now he hates his job, but he has to keep it because he has $100K in student loans and $40K in credit card debt, all accrued while earning the degree. We live in a tiny apartment that costs us $976/mo., so no lifestyle inflation going on here. He is thinking he will try a move to another company to see if that helps… Read more »

Joe
Joe
11 years ago

Mike does indeed need to grow up. He has a good salary and responsibilities that result from decisions he made. To consider downgrading his income in order to “find happiness” is a lazy excuse in my opinion. Not to mention that his wife will probably need to carry him, if she does not already. This is a classic example of the grass is always greener somewhere else. Mike should spend his efforts on looking inside himself, his attitude toward his job as well as his efforts toward his job. Talk to his boss about what he would like to see… Read more »

Cindy
Cindy
11 years ago

There are too many choices in this world to stay in a job you do not like. They are just hard to come by now. Lay out all your options and go for it! There are plenty of suggestion here to get you started. That can be the scariest. I have been laid off for a year now, but have no intention of returning to my previous career, which I did enjoy but was at a deadend road. I was in a similiar situation as you. The advancement opportunities were not there, and I was wanting to move on but… Read more »

Tom Melancon
Tom Melancon
11 years ago

I have a few suggestions. The federal government is always looking for people with IT experience. The pay is good, the benefits great and you really do work a 9-5 Monday through Friday gig. In the federal government, if you have to work on a Saturday when users aren’t on the network, you get comp-time or are paid time and a half for doing it. The second suggestion if you really want to change gears is to go to a community college and take their free career assessments to see what direction you might want to head toward. Finally, if… Read more »

Nika
Nika
11 years ago

Wow! I am baffled at the comments that are telling Mike that he is selfish and immature and a job is just a job, suck it up. Apparently, these comments come from people who do not LOATHE their job. Come on people it is horrible to get up day after day and hate your job and have no passion for what you do. 35 hours to 50 hours is A LOT if you hate it. It just is, point blank. I have been in the insurance industry for a number of years and I hate it. I’ve had times were… Read more »

Caitlin
Caitlin
11 years ago

I was in a similar position. I didn’t like my job, but it paid well. Not only did I not like it, it was actively detrimental to my health/happiness, due to issues at work. These issues did not change over years, but I kept trying to ignore them because “we need the money”. I gave it some time to get better (I actively tried to make it better, I didn’t just sit on my ass and wait for it to fix itself) and when it didn’t in the slightest, I found a different job and gave my notice. My old… Read more »

Credit Card Chaser
Credit Card Chaser
11 years ago

It really helped me quite a bit when I first graduated from college to write out a list of every single characteristic that I wanted in a career. I started out with general type things and then refined them to become more specific. Once I had my list then it was easy for me to evaluate each potential job or business opportunity based on my list. I now am a serial entrepreneur and wouldn’t have it any other way but if I hadn’t taken the time to write out exactly what I was looking for then I likely wouldn’t have… Read more »

funkright
funkright
11 years ago

This comment is just, plainly, useless “To consider downgrading his income in order to “find happiness” is a lazy excuse in my opinion…” Where did you find that wisdom, in a box of crackerjacks? Then you go off to slam him about his wife ‘possibly’ carrying him already? Isn’t marriage a partnership? Managing his/their lifestyle (inflation/deflation) is the responsible thing to do in the current situation. It can or will afford his family the opportunity to evaluate other alternatives which may better their life. Does he need to carry a big mortgage and garner a sizable paycheck to be a… Read more »

lavrenka
lavrenka
11 years ago

There is a point in one’s life where once you pass a certain level of income, it’s difficult to go back to a lower salary. I make $95k/year, plus an average $20k bonus in an non-management position working for a large corporation. I manage a multi-billion dollar product portfolio and make multi million dollar decision that directly affect the bottom line almost every day. My job has it’s good and bad parts. The challenges come, mostly, from managing other people and how their decisions affect my ability to function well in my position. I do, on occassion, fantasize about having… Read more »

Meredith
Meredith
11 years ago

I suggest doing some networking. Volunteer with Habitat for Humanity, or other non-profit. It will help you expand your skills and meet people in the field you are considering joining. Throw out a net and see what you catch. You don’t have to make a decision now. Very easily you can open up doors with out making a huge commitment. I am in my current career, consultant/bookkeeper because I helped a friend research how to hire employees and set up a bookkeeping system.

catherine
catherine
11 years ago

So much good advice already. I’d add, don’t assume that your hobbies will make good jobs for you. I explored that and discovered that I like my hobbies to be hobbies. Another option (although the economic climate may not make this a good choice right now) is contracting. I took this option and it’s proved fantastic. I took skills I already had, and started selling them into related industries where they are highly valued because most people in the other industries don’t have them. I have learned a ton of new skills because every job is different, and I’ve gradually… Read more »

james
james
11 years ago

I have no answer becasue the story was so much like mine. I Have a son, one on teh way, married, and we are both in the IT field and hate it. I want her to work from home, but my jobs pays lower than hers and insurance at my work is costly… the good part is that we are set to have our mortgage paid off in 7 months (original amount was $116,000)… though, this is at the expense of enjoying any aspect of life that involves spending money,

E
E
11 years ago

It depends a lot on whether you really hate your job or you’re just not inspired. In the former case, where your life is being sucked from you and you’re miserable to be around, it’s to everyone’s benefit to get you out of there asap. That means cutting expenses, finding a short-term “bridge” job, doing whatever it takes for you to quit. In the latter case, where passion is missing, you can keep the job while you figure out what you need; whether it’s an attitude adjustment, or training in a new field, or just learning to ask for what… Read more »

ami | 40daystochange
ami | 40daystochange
11 years ago

Love the post and the discussion! I can completely relate to Mike’s story – I’m working through a similar situation, but I’m aiming for work that I love over work that makes good money (not that I have any objection to making good money in work that I love). To touch on FMF’s prior post on religion, I believe that loving your work is a sign that you’re doing what you’re supposed to be doing. In other words, having passion for your work is a sign that you have found your talent, your unique gift from God. Your obligation is… Read more »

John
John
11 years ago

To Catherina in comment #43: the comment you made about hobbies should sometimes just be hobbies couldn’t be a more true statement. I got into the IT industry because I started messing with computers at an early age. When I was in high school, most kids worked at Wal-Mart or Hardee’s. I worked for my ISP repairing PCs and doing web design. It seemed like I was destined to work in the IT industry. Then I went to college. It was there I started wondering if it was for me. Then I graduated and got my first real IT job.… Read more »

Pieter
Pieter
11 years ago

The common talk about finding a job you love is great. But personally, I’ve decided to take the advice of the World’s Most Interesting Man in choosing a career:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wNYHoI47fw0

Tim
Tim
11 years ago

it’s amazing how we focus on the wrong things. it isn’t the job he hates, it is the fact he feels unappreciated or un-noticed. His wife gets attention, he feels like he doesn’t. he needs to address the problem why he feels unappreciated or unnoticed. switching jobs isn’t going to resolve that issue either. if you are an attention whore, then it goes without saying that you are going to have to do something to gain attention. i find people’s mentality towards work is a bit off, and we choose to focus on symptoms rather than the underlying problem. i… Read more »

zud
zud
11 years ago

My advice to Mike would be to save money now and prepare for reduced income while you search for a new job/career path. The saving part is probably going to be the easiest and the finding new career part the hardest. But you’ve learned a valuable lesson in that fulfillment is going to take you farther than high salary. This is not the case for everyone. When you have your nest up ready start researching courses or programs that might interest you. I have found that having an online course, night school, continuing education, community center type course under your… Read more »

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