Book review: The Art of Non-Conformity

In June 2008, a Get Rich Slowly reader dropped me a line to see if I'd like to have lunch. “My name is Chris,” he said. “My wife Jolie and I will be visiting Portland next week. Do you have time to meet?”

“Sure,” I replied. I was just beginning to meet colleagues and readers for lunch, a habit that has since become the best part of this job. “Let's meet at my favorite Thai place, Pok Pok.”

I didn't know anything about Chris and Jolie when we met, but over noodles and rice, I grew to like them both. They told me about their adventures in Africa. Jolie gave me advice on how to recover from a running injury. Chris told me about his world travel and his new blog, The Art of Non-Conformity.

“I'll have to take a look at it,” I told him, not expecting much. But I was hooked from the start and have been reading ever since. The Art of Non-Conformity is — no question — my favorite blog. And now it's one of my favorite books.

Note: Although this review is as unbiased as possible, it can't be unbiased. Chris Guillebeau is my friend, and I am a huge fan of his work. Please keep this in mind.

Set Your Own Rules
The Art of Non-Conformity by Chris Guillebeau

The Art of Non-Conformity (the book) is a lot like The Art of Non-Conformity (the blog). It's a mix of personal history, anecdotes from other people, and plenty of sound advice about becoming successful and pursuing your dreams.

Guillebeau's message is simple: You don't have to live your life the way other people expect you to. There's nothing wrong with being different. But he doesn't want readers to fight authority just for the fun of it; he wants them to challenge conventional wisdom so that they can set their own rules and live with purpose.

This isn't as easy as it sounds. First, you have to know what you want and how you plan to get it. Second, you have to be willing to work hard to make your plans succeed.

Unlike Tim Ferris (and his four-hour workweek), Guillebeau isn't suggesting that people escape work altogether. Not at all. He wants people to work well at something they love instead of plodding half-heartedly at a position that provides no passion. He wants them to define what they want out of life — and then live it.

But setting your own rules will usually bring some challenges, such as:

  • Making sacrifices. If you choose to pursue a passion, you'll need to make trade-offs. You can't have everything. “I'm adamantly opposed to exchanging money for things I don't value,” Guillebeau writes. He doesn't spend frivolously because he knows that by doing so, he moves farther from his goals.
  • Overcoming fear. “Fear is normal! The goal is to conquer the fear, not to avoid it or pretend it doesn't exist,” Guillebeau writes. “Most remarkable people are not remarkable by nature. Instead, they make a few key choices along the way that helped them overcome their fears.”
  • Ignoring dissent. Whenever somebody decides to do something different, they meet with opposition. In order to succeed, you'll have to ignore the naysayers, quiet the critics, dodge the gatekeepers, and stay true to your purpose.

The Art of Non-Conformity doesn't tell you which rules to set for your life. That's your job. Guillebeau simply says you can set your own rules, and encourages you to do so. It's up to you to actually decide what these rules will be and then to implement them.

Live the Life You Want

By deciding to set your own rules, you're becoming your own boss. “No one else can be responsible for your success or well-being but you,” Guillebeau writes. “You don't need someone's permission to live your own life.”

Go back and read that again. It's a vital, important message, but one that too many people ignore or cast aside as facile. You are a grown up. As long as your actions aren't directly preventing others from pursuing their dreams, you have the right (and responsibility!) to pursue your own dreams.

  • If you want to spend your free time and money surfing, then surf.
  • If you want to accumulate cash to travel, then travel.
  • If you want to become a grade-school teacher, then do it.

As long as you can afford it, it's not wrong to pursue your dreams. In fact, it's wrong not to pursue them. You don't need anyone's permission but your own.

If you're not happy, you need to take steps to change that. And, believe it or not, sometimes people aren't happy because they're having too much fun. What do I mean? Guillebeau explains his notion of a “To-Stop-Doing List”:

An important principle of life planning is that you can have anything you want, but you can't have everything at the same time. To be able to devote most of your time to projects and activities you enjoy, you'll need to be forceful about dropping a lot of other activities. The best way to do stop spending time on unnecessary distractions is to make a “to-stop-doing list”. This is better than a to-do list, because it helps you see what's bringing you down.

It's okay to to do fun things, but if the fun things get in the way of what you should do or want to do, that's a problem. If the fun things are a net negative in your life, cut them out.

I used this principle in my own life just last week. Even after writing about the difference between Talkers and Doers, even after admitting I was playing too many computer games, I couldn't stop slacking. I didn't have the willpower to play in moderation. Instead, I had to stop doing the things that were causing problems for me. I uninstalled Starcraft II and I loaned my iPad to my nephew so that he could watch train videos. Drastic measures? Sure. But these are the sorts of things I need to do (or not do) in order to be the man I want to be.

By giving things up, we often get more in return. By trading an hour of sleep for an hour of exercise every morning for the past few months, I've lost 35 pounds, trimmed eight inches from my waist, and feel stronger than I have in my life. That's a fine bargain. (Though, I do look forward to getting better sleep in 2011!) By changing the rules I was living by, I'm closer to leading the life I want.

Change the World

Guillebeau's message isn't just about setting your own rules so that you can live the life you want. He urges readers to look for ways that they can change the world. He urges you to ask yourself:

  • “What do I really want to get out of life?”
  • “What can I offer the world that no one else can?”

It's not enough to build the life of your dreams, Guillebeau says; you have to help others build the lives of their dreams too:

Regardless of what you've done before or where you are in life now, you can make something beautiful that will outlast you. You can help others in a unique way that couldn't have happened without your influence…

Remember: We all get one life to live. You might as well take it seriously, and a legacy project will ensure that what you bring to the world will continue to be valuable for a long time. Are you up for it?

Many GRS readers have urged me to take a more active role in charitable giving. But none of their scolding has had the same effect as hearing what Guillebeau has to say. His message of empowerment finally got through to me last February when he wrote about “dropping keys”. He shared this poem:

Keep Dropping Keys All Night Long
A poem by Hafiz, illustrated by Jolie Guillebeau. This is my mission, and Chris's too.

Reading this sparked a flash of insight. Maybe I'm not meant to make a difference by donating money to charity or volunteering at soup kitchens — but I can still have a positive impact on the world.

I feel like my mission in life is to go around dropping keys — to do what I can to to help others achieve their financial goals. Sappy? I don't care. It's what I believe. And I would never have realized this except that Chris Guillebeau himself is out there in the moonlight, dropping keys to help the beautiful, rowdy prisoners escape their cages.

The Quest for Abundance

Is The Art of Non-Conformity perfect? Of course not. For one thing, it sometimes lacks a certain depth. There's no question that Guillebeau has a lot of experience, but he's still young. Sometimes this is reflected in his advice. (If you're 40 and have three kids, you may find his suggestions impractical.)

Also, the beginning of the book feels a bit scattered, like a series of loosely connected essays without clear direction. Guillebeau ties everything together in the end, but I wanted more connections at the start. Finally, the book has no index. I hate it when non-fiction books don't have indexes, and it frustrates me here, too.

These complaints are minor, though. Overall, I think The Art of Non-Conformity is a fine book. It's like The Four-Hour Workweek lite — and that's a good thing. Not every idea here will be applicable to every reader; Guillebeau includes a lot of stories and information, some of which will prove more useful than others. That's fine. I measure the value of a book by what I take away from it.

Often I'll finish a book, think “that's nice”, and never consider it again. Nothing from the book sticks with me. When I wrote my own book, I tried to make it just the opposite. Your Money: The Missing Manual is packed with information and resources. My goal was for it to be a go-to resource that readers could reference again and again.

The Art of Non-Conformity is closer to this ideal. Though the first half didn't hold much to interest me, the last half was packed with stuff I wanted to remember. I took tons of notes and dog-eared many pages. As soon as I finish typing this review, I plan to go back through to pull out websites, books, and projects for future use. (I've thought about going back to school, for example, but I love Guillebeau's idea that it's possible to get a quality education on your own without paying tuition; I may devise my own course of study!)

If you feel trapped, feel like there must be more to life than what you have, pick up a copy of The Art of Non-Conformity (and start reading the blog). You may just find the key to what you're looking for.

The Real Deal

“Is Chris Guillebeau for real?” a friend asked me recently. Since Chris and Jolie moved to Portland 18 months ago, they've met many of my friends. And those that haven't met Chris have heard me speak of him.

“What do you mean?” I asked. “Real in what way?”

“I don't know,” my friend said. “I can't put my finger on it. I know you like him, so I subscribe to his e-mail. But when I read it, I just get this vibe, you know? Nobody's that good. He seems like a charlatan, like he can't possibly believe everything he says.”

I laughed. “Chris is real,” I said. “I've met a lot of bloggers, and you're right that a lot of them are very different in person than they are on their sites. Not Chris. He does believe what he says. He lives it. He's no scam artist. He genuinely wants to help others ditch the daily drudgery and pursue their dreams. He's all about making the world a better place.”

What he wants, I thought to myself, is to keep dropping keys all night long.

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Sam
Sam
10 years ago

The most interesting part of that post was your realization that you can make a difference in the world without going off to Africa to dig wells (not that there is anything wrong with that). Everyone, everyday has a chance to make a positive impact on the world, in small ways and in large ways. There is no requirement that in order to make that impact you have to donate 10% of your income to charity or volunteer at a soup kitchen, etc. If your passion is personal finance maybe you speak to kids going off to college each year… Read more »

Money Smarts Blog
Money Smarts Blog
10 years ago

I’m not interested in this book – I wish Chris would write a book on marketing. I would definitely buy it, since he seems to be the king of marketing.

Mike

Nicole
Nicole
10 years ago

Interesting review.

Anna
Anna
10 years ago

Thanks for reviewing Chris’s book, I’ve been a regular reader of his blog for a while now and it’s great to read a review written by someone who actually knows the author in real life as well as from their blog. Good to hear you found lots to dog-ear and make notes on, those are the books that stick with me the best and I’ll be sure to check it out.

Alexandra
Alexandra
10 years ago

JD, I think you sell yourself short. You have been “dropping keys” for ages, maybe without realizing it. Haven’t you been posting about your journey to monetary responsibility and freedom for years now? Haven’t you read the comments about how you have inspired many of your blog readers to do the same? Just the fact that you were willing to meet this stranger for lunch two years ago and talk to him as a veteran of a successful blog says to me that you are a “key-dropper”. I am glad that you have identified this as a goal for “charitable… Read more »

Alex
Alex
10 years ago
uncertain algorithm
uncertain algorithm
10 years ago

The book sounds loaded with marketing information, but I think that his youth may appeal to youth, even if a bit of it is impractical.

Trina
Trina
10 years ago

Anyone who wants their children to grow up as confident free-thinkers (non-conformists) should seriously consider homeschooling. We are trained to be conformists very successfully by the very same system that promises that the key to success is a good education. The machine feeds itself, starting with our children.

Nay
Nay
10 years ago

Gotta be honest, I’ve checked out his blog before, and was really turned off by it. First, as others have commented, by the level of self marketing done on it. He strikes me as someone who is WAY too impressed by himself. Second, and you seem to have gotten a different take on this, but I really do get the impression that it’s non-conformity for non-conformities sake. The last time I ran into someone who talked about non-conformity this much I was in college, and they annoyed the hell out of me. Third, the first post I read of his… Read more »

Matt
Matt
10 years ago

This all ties in with something I’ve really “keyed” into (yeah, bad pun) lately – the differences between those who work for small businesses, their own businesses, or freelance vs. those who work for large corporations. It’s almost impossible to pursue non-conformity in a large corporate environment; although those companies are forever claiming to seek out people who “think out of the box” (the most tired, overused cliche ever). Of course, no big conglomerate really wants a “free thinker” – they just think they do. Society needs non-conformists. Unfortunately, the bigger a company gets, the less valuable non-conformity becomes. At… Read more »

Trina
Trina
10 years ago

Living a truly authentic lifestyle is a huge responsibility. Everyone likes to think that they are non-conformists, but our society really doesn’t value that trait, so the deeper you take it, the harder it is to stay the course. It isn’t easy to tell your dentist you don’t believe x-rays are healthy, or your doctor that you don’t want your baby to receive 24 vaccines. Handling your finances differently from most of America requires effort, as does being self-employed, cooking healthy meals, educating your children, etc. At some point, thinking outside the box requires living outside the box, and there… Read more »

Jaime
Jaime
10 years ago

I don’t know JD I think you help a lot of people by having this website. I’m really picky about charities, you don’t know where the money is usually going. You’ve helped me a lot just by realizing its possible to change one’s ways regarding finance. I didn’t really think I was ever going to change my spendthrift ways, but by reading GRS and other PF blogs, but especially GRS, and encouragement from my bf I’ve changed a lot of my bad habits. I’m saving now! hehe. I think what has helped me the most is reading your personal story,… Read more »

Michelle in WI
Michelle in WI
10 years ago

Making my NOT-to-do-list right now! Like you I love the idea of giving up playing computer games but lack the general conviction to hold fast. Time to give myself a little tough love!

Peggy
Peggy
10 years ago

JD, is it a coincidence that you wrote about Chris on the very day that Jolie began her latest project?!

I’ve been subscribing to Jolie’s blog for several months and will now check out Chris’. Thanks for the info.

Diana
Diana
10 years ago

I’m a slack commenter here, but a regular reader. JD, you consistently inspire to get my financial act together, for which I’m very grateful. And now a review that’s inspiring me to check out something new to me.

I’d also suggest that there are many ways to give to others and inspire, and it’s not always about giving money. In fact, sometimes it takes a greater effort and commitment to give to others without ‘just handing over the dosh’.

Mary Kate
Mary Kate
10 years ago

It sounds like a great book. I followed the blog for a while. I think it would be an importnat read for my teen, she doesn’t know what she wants to do when she grows up.

Geoffrey Kidd
Geoffrey Kidd
10 years ago

Here’s a link to the electronic edition over at Barnes and Noble.

http://search.barnesandnoble.com/books/e/9781101443088/?itm=2&USRI=Art+of+Non+Conformity

Pat
Pat
10 years ago

I follow the 3 of you very regularly – including having purchased several paintings from Jolie. While some things Chris talks about are not for me, they do encourage me to think about my life in different ways. I was just thinking about checking out this book – especially since Chris said that it was priced less than his other books. Glad to hear that there was stuff that you found to be worthwhile to check out further. I like that you gave a balanced review of Chris’ book, even though you are friends. That makes me more inclined to… Read more »

Sunny
Sunny
10 years ago

I love that Hafiz poem, thanks so much for sharing it.

Marian
Marian
10 years ago

The idea of a not-to-do-list is brilliant. I am definitely one of those people that lets lots of time get sucked away by non-essential activities. I am getting better, though. I’ve actually turned down invitations to two social events in the last two days because I want time to get some things done that I hope will move me toward my goal of leaving my job as a school librarian and opening my own business. Reading blogs like GRS and Advanced Riskology and others give me inspiration and courage to break away from what has begun to feel like a… Read more »

Kevin M
Kevin M
10 years ago

Thanks for the review JD. I’m at the beginning of the book and had some concern how mish-mashed it is so far. I like Chris’ blog and think he has good ideas, so I’m excited to see where the book goes. I’m 35 w/2 kids so some of the stuff doesn’t work for me, but I’m trying to pick out what does and keep an open mind. If it’s good enough, I’ll hang on to it so my kids can read it in high school. And don’t sell yourself short, just because you don’t donate $ to charity doesn’t mean… Read more »

partgypsy
partgypsy
10 years ago

I firmly believe that people’s gifts to the world don’t have to be a straightforward give to charity contribution. The important question is “what can I contribute to the world that is unique to me?” Maybe it’s the person who waves hi to everyone they meet and gets to know their neighbors, the person who keeps a huge urban garden who inspires everyone who walks by it. My husband’s boss is trying to create a farm to table restaurant, where everything in the restaurant you eat is connected to the local community and educating people about knowing where their food… Read more »

Justine
Justine
10 years ago

I’ve been reading the Art of Nonconformity blog on and off for a while now, and have found it to be informational and very interesting.

I love the idea of making a list of the things I own. Although I doubt I will ever get down to as few items as Chris owns it has helped me par down my own belongings.

-Justine

Kathryn
Kathryn
10 years ago

I get Chris’s emails, and while I really like the premise, and his surety that we can do the things we love, for some reason, I don’t “get” him. He doesn’t click for me, and I really wish he did. J.D., you apparently don’t see it, but you’ve had a HUGE impact on lots of people (myself included). Whether or not that is your mission, I’m sure it won’t hurt for you to donate to charity and/or work a soup kitchen now and then. The big thing though is that you do make a difference. You started me on a… Read more »

Mike Piper
Mike Piper
10 years ago

I don’t really understand what people have against Chris’s marketing. Compared to him, my blog is spamtastic, but nobody seems to complain.

I’ve only met Chris once, but I got the sense that he truly cares about the success of people he interacts with. He does a lot more listening than talking.

Also, this information from his post today may be of interest for anyone considering the book:

“I’m giving 100% of my proceeds to our charity project in Ethiopia for every reader I meet this fall. ”

Cheryl Batton
Cheryl Batton
10 years ago

During my undergrad work I wrote a paper about the conformity of non-conformity. So when I saw this blog title I had to check it out. The review was great, the book sounds interesting, and the idea of the book speaks true to my spirit. Thank you for sharing it with me.

chacha1
chacha1
10 years ago

I check in with Chris G. occasionally. He’s in a very different stage of life than I am, so his approach doesn’t necessarily “work” for me. But I like his writing and his attitude. One thing that would-be non-conformists often miss is that it’s wise to be informed. Don’t choose the path less traveled just because you don’t like the common path. Chris clearly reads and thinks … he values education and does his research. He’s not just tramping through life following whatever whim strikes him. and btw … any kind of business, to be successful, has to engage in… Read more »

lil
lil
10 years ago

Thanks for the review on this–interesting book. I was a bit sad to see your thoughts on charitiable giving. I think we all need to DO some sort of global charitable giving AND drop keys or take local action. My dh is a school teacher, and I work in a similar capacity, which helps us give back–just like your work really does help make the world a better place. But I think that those of us who are lucky to live in this country and other well-off countries have a duty to humankind who are not as lucky as we… Read more »

pavs
pavs
10 years ago

This is really weird, at-least three websites that I visit regularly have the review of the same book on the same day. This makes me think this is nothing more than a marketing push by Chris and also makes me not take this review or this book seriously. There is one thing about random review of a book because you have read some books on the weekend and a well-thought out marketing push, disguised as random review of a book. I feel like I have lost a little respect and I should be more skeptical about anything I read in… Read more »

Heather
Heather
10 years ago

Thanks for sharing the Hafiz poem! I really like it, and the illustration by Jolie.

I’ve only been reading GRS for a few weeks, but am slowly digging back through the archives. I think I can echo what a few commenters have said though–you’re certainly a key-dropper yourself!

Now for some more digging around the AONC blog…

Laura
Laura
10 years ago

I have one on Jolie’s paintings in my room that I bought during her 100 day painting experiment. Now I will check out Chris’ blog!

Wayne Mates
Wayne Mates
10 years ago

For the past week, JD, you have been a whirlwind of activity between all the reading and reviewing of books and extra blog posts. Keep up the great work!!

J.D. Roth
J.D. Roth
10 years ago

@pavs (#29)
You’re right that there are probably a lot of reviews of Chris’ book today. Today is its release date.

It’s standard practice (as in: not slimy) for authors to request that reviews be held until the day of release so that, as you’ve noticed, more people are aware of the book. Chris didn’t invent this, and there’s nothing sneaky about it. It’s the same reason you see reviews of new movies every Friday.

Tina K
Tina K
10 years ago

Hardly ever (okay, never) has GRS and my other favorite blog, Zen Habits, crossed paths but today they have. Chris has a guest post over there today…just a little FYI for everyone interested.

http://zenhabits.net/

Patrick
Patrick
10 years ago

The Not To Do List! Ha, that’s great. I realized that there are a few fun things in my life that have been cut to make room for more meaningful things in my life. TV is at the top of the list. It’s great to watch and it’s fun to follow along with a season – but at what cost? Time. Time to pursue dreams and things that bring lasting joy to my life. Time to create memories. Nice review by the way – even if it was an unbiased review of a friend – he made an impact and… Read more »

Kat
Kat
10 years ago

You are dropping keys, J.D.! Your blog, and some you’ve introduced me to, are key in keeping me focused on keeping to my financial convictions. Inspired by a recent post, I started a debt paper-chain of my very own, though mine will be much much (much) longer than Alissa’s. I’ll send you a pic when it’s done.

Joel
Joel
10 years ago

JD-
you’ve been dropping keys for me for a while. Have to say I really do appreciate it. Thank you 🙂

I love Chris’s site & his philosophy and cant’ wait to see him back on tour.

It was awesome meeting you guys & seeing that indeed you BOTH are in fact “real” people.

Chris’ book is a great read [in my humble opinion]. I think everyone should check it out…

Kate
Kate
10 years ago

I love love *love* the dropping keys image. Methinks I’m going to print off Jolie’s picture and hang it on my fridge, my computer, everywhere… it’s such a wonderful image and a powerful message.

Anne
Anne
10 years ago

Thanks for posting this book review. I just checked out Chris’ blog and look forward to finding the book!
I really enjoy your blog, keep up the good work!

Money Smarts Blog
Money Smarts Blog
10 years ago

I’d like to clarify that I don’t mean to criticize Chris or his book. I really do think the guy is a marketing genius.

That shouldn’t take away from anything else he does.

Mike

quinsy
quinsy
10 years ago

I love the idea that we should all try to contribute in our lives in ways that are non-monetary, to help others, especially through “dropping keys”, which I think could be a code phrase for ‘education’. A lot of people quote the adage, ‘teach a man to fish, and you will feed his family for life,’ and I think that these two concepts (‘teaching to fish’, and ‘dropping the keys’) are similar to one another. Yes, education is a good way to change people’s lives, and can be a more sustainable way to help people than by giving things away.… Read more »

J.D. Roth
J.D. Roth
10 years ago

@quinsy
Are you willing to re-work your comment into a guest post? Or maybe a reader story?

Nicole
Nicole
10 years ago

@41 and 42, I agree. Great comment. It is very motivating. If a priority is helping people, then why not strive to help in as many ways as we can? Public service and giving do not have to be exclusive. And a lot of the excuses given aren’t logical, in the ways you’ve pointed out.

Itinerant
Itinerant
10 years ago

Thanks for sharing the quote (and great artwork)! It reminded me of a Howard Thurman quote that inspired me during my year of volunteer service: “Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.” I have a strong personal service ethic, and recently have decided to shift my giving from direct service hours to financial giving (via ModestNeeds.org). Nonprofits do many invaluable things for communities in need. However, I believe that the decision to support them — financially or through volunteer hours… Read more »

dotCOMreport.com
dotCOMreport.com
10 years ago

Haven’t previously heard of this author’s blog/book. Will check out both of them. Anything else, similar to this, that I should put on my radar?

Peggy K.
Peggy K.
10 years ago

I’ve been a fan of Chris’ blog for a while, and I have the book on pre-order (which in the old days meant I would’ve gotten it ON the lay-down date, but now … who knows?). While I appreciate his encouragement to go after dreams, Chris doesn’t always make it clear that some dreams (clearly not all) can be pursued in tandem with working a day job. The day job pays the bills, and the dream/passion feeds the soul. I know that’s not his primary message, but an occasional reminder isn’t a bad thing, IMO. As soon as my copy… Read more »

Jaime
Jaime
10 years ago

Well I caved and got the digital version at B&N, I like e-books ’cause you don’t have to wait and its actually a pretty good book. I do have to differ from you a bit though JD, I do like the essays in the beginning of the book.

Anyway I’m happy I gave it a chance. Btw, keep the reviews coming, they’re a nice break from financial advice. 😉

Landon
Landon
10 years ago

Thanks for the review, JD. I have been an avid follower of CG for awhile… his attitude towards life is an inspiration.

Btw, I did not like 4 Hour Workweek very much… It was inspiring but I found the content ridiculous (“How to Look Like an Expert without Being One”).

Charlotte
Charlotte
10 years ago

I agree with Quinsy. Giving your time to help others is different from donating money to charity or a church/congregation.

Louisa
Louisa
10 years ago

According to your review, Chris offers us these truths: “You don’t have to live your life the way other people expect you to.” (Wow, I’m shocked by his brilliance) “No one else can be responsible for your success or well-being but you.” (Be still, my heart) “You are a grown up. As long as your actions aren’t directly preventing others from pursuing their dreams, you have the right (and responsibility!) to pursue your own dreams.” (Thanks for letting me know I’m a grown-up. Does anyone seriously believe this is new, original, or even helpful? Maybe others are blinded by his… Read more »

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