Episode 143 – The future of work with Alexandra Levit

Alexandra LevitThe days of getting one degree and working your way up the ranks with one employer are long gone, says Alexandra Levit. In the future of work:

‘You have to be comfortable branding yourself, selling yourself, and you have to be comfortable with constant reinvention, and change, because nothing is going to stay the same for very long.’

Alexandra has an optimistic vision of the future of work – which is lucky, as this show is powered by optimism – and she shares the key ideas of her latest book Humanity Works in this week’s conversation.

She also talks about her approach to writing books, which she sees as ‘both an educational mechanism, but also a branding mechanism’. And she shares her tips on breaking down the huge task of writing a book into steps that you can take today. Pure Extraordinary Business Book Club gold.


Alexandra’s website: https://www.alexandralevit.com/

Humanity Works website: http://www.humanityworksbook.com/

Alexandra on Twitter:

Alison on Twitter: https://twitter.com/bookstothesky

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Alison Jones:                        Hello and welcome to the Extraordinary Business Book Club. And here today is Alexandra Levit, whose goal is to prepare organizations and their employees to be competitive and marketable in the future business world. She conducts primary workplace research on behalf of several Fortune 500 companies, and did the same for the Obama administration, she’s a former nationally syndicated columnist for the Wall Street Journal, and writer for New York Times, Fast Company, and Forbes, Alexandra has authored several books, including the international bestseller, They Don’t Teach Corporate in College, and most recently, Humanity Works: Merging Technologies and People for The Workforce of The Future. Welcome to the show, Alexandra.

Alexandra Levit:                Thanks for having me Alison. It’s great to be here.

Alison Jones:                        Oh, it’s fantastic to have you here. This is such interesting topical stuff, so let’s go straight in with that big stuff. What is the future of work, and is there a place for us in it still?

Alexandra Levit:                The first thing I want to say is that I’m very optimistic about the future of work. I know that, that’s not a popular view point. Most people are doing a lot of hand wringing, and catastrophizing around this, that automation is going to take all of our jobs, and we aren’t going to have anything to do, and I don’t actually believe that to be the case. I believe that for most professionals, the future of work presents a great deal of opportunity, particularly because there will be new job categories that are invented.

An example of that is during the industrial revolution, we thought that factories would go out of business, and that there would be no jobs, and we had some of the same concerns, and then we found that many industries really grew up around the industrial revolution that hadn’t existed before, so my favourite example of a job category that didn’t exist 20 years ago is social media manager. Now, every company, every firm has at least one if not multiple people, if not agencies, and entire vendor groups working around social media, and this wasn’t even a thing 20 years ago, so that’s an example I think everyone can relate to.

The other reason I think that the future of work is very bright, well, there’s several, and they’re all covered in Humanity Works, but I also think that with respect to automation which is where people have the most fears, wherever you have a machine participating, you inevitably will have a human being at least one who is required to build it, to work on the design, to figure out how it’s going to be deployed, to manage it, to fix it when it’s broken. This is a lot of people.

In fact, I saw this up close recently with my work with the U.S. based pharmaceutical company that was deploying a chatbot… so a chatbot is a piece of code that allows a team to do certain things automatically, and sometimes they are in the form of avatars, so they present as a person who is guiding an individual, or an audience of individuals through a particular task, and this team was working on a chatbot to do onboarding, so they wanted a fake person, essentially an avatar, to help new employees get acclimated to the organization, and in designing this chatbot, there were no fewer than 20 people, human beings working on putting together this chatbot, and deploying it.

So, that’s an example of where, yes, something is being automated, but 20 people suddenly have a huge part of their daily responsibilities devoted to rolling this out, and so, these are ways in which I think human beings are going to have additional opportunities. And then, one more thing I’ll say now is just I think the flexibility, and the customization of jobs is going to be far more significant, and people will have a lot more freedom to pursue other things that are meaningful to them besides work, because of the nature of virtual work, and flex work, etc, so I actually think it’s a really exciting time, and if I were a professional in the global work force today, which I am, I would be very excited about some of these changes, and not worry really.

Alison Jones:                        Well, first of all, you’re in the right place, because this show runs on optimism, so …

Alexandra Levit:                Good.

Alison Jones:                        …you’re among like-minded people here. And it made me laugh as well, because I remember somebody, one of my mum’s friends, so a lady in her 70s, 80s, writing to her one Christmas, and saying, “Both my children are well, doing jobs I don’t understand.” I think she’d never heard of these jobs. They weren’t things when she was at … I think you’re absolutely right, that resonates with me. I think there is a change isn’t there because the excitement, the opportunity is there for a particular person, is there for a particular mindset, maybe I should say. The people who were prepared to tolerate uncertainty, and learning, and new skills, and so, maybe the future of work requires a different approach from us than it has in the past as well.

Alexandra Levit:                It does Alison, that’s an excellent point, and that’s where I actually have the concern, believe it or not. It’s not whether the jobs will be available, because they will, it’s whether certain types of people will have the gumption, and the drive to make it work for them. Just like we see today that a lot of people are going into their own businesses, because they can’t work in traditional organizational structures. We hear about that all the time. Well, the reverse is true as well.

There are going to be a lot of people who are forced into the contract workforce, because companies are wising up to the fact that they don’t have to pay overhead, and insurance when they have contract workers, or freelancers, and what’s really the difference, and so they’re going to be people who are bumped out of that who don’t really know how to succeed on their own, and that … When you talk about mindset, I think that’s really important. Recognizing that first of all, you have to be comfortable branding yourself, selling yourself, and you have to be comfortable with constant reinvention, and change, because nothing is going to stay the same for very long, and technologies are going to be coming into play every year that you’re going to have to learn, and you’re going to have to be continuously re-skilling.

The days of getting one degree in university, and being able to rest on your laurels for the rest of your life on that are over, and I think that’s going to be tough for people. I think having the mindset of continuous improvement, and relearning, and up-scaling, very, very important point. I’m glad you brought that up.

Alison Jones:                        And, is that part of the purpose of the book, do you think? I mean, I always ask people when they’re considering a book, who it is they’re writing for? I mean, you could be writing this to help organizational leaders manage change, you could be writing if somebody said he is starting off in the workforce, somebody who’s finding it, you know the rules are being rewritten around them. Did you have someone in your mind as you wrote the book, and what did you want it to achieve for them?

Alexandra Levit:                It’s a great question, and the audience for the book is primarily current, and future leaders, and my goal in that is, I think that leaders are required, really strong leaders to shape their workforces in a way that will make not only the business marketable, and competitive, but themselves as leaders, marketable, and competitive, and their workforces able to contribute in the most meaningful, and productive way possible.

So, I view leaders as being in the position to do that, and if you’re a current leader, you’re probably struggling a little bit with all of these changes, maybe it’s not the environment that you came up in business witnessing, and so, there are changes happening that you might not understand, or know what to do with, but if you don’t address them immediately, you’re going to fall behind. Future leaders is a really important audience for me, people who might be in their 20s or early 30s who are individual contributors right now, or maybe their first time supervisors, but will be the future leaders of our organization. If they start doing things, and putting practices into play now, then they will be successful when it comes time for this stuff to be on fire, which is going to be in about five years.

My goal in as a futurist is to be telling people, “Okay, well, a lot of the stuff isn’t on fire yet, but it’s going to be. By the time you read this book, and start implementing the concepts, it’s going to be an urgent issue.” And, an example of that is my talk around generation Z, and what I saw around the millennials about 15 years ago was that the millennials were coming in, they’re a generation born between 1980 and 1995. It’s a global generation, and when I say global, I mean, that, that’s a generation that’s been huge, and influential all around the world.

And, they came in, and they were asking for things that no previous generation of 20-somethings asked for before, and they were very vocal, and I started telling companies back in 2004, “You need to change the way you do things to accommodate this large population of employees.” And, no one wanted to listen back then, and it took a full 10 years for the global workforce to reach critical mass, and leaders saying, “Wow, the millennials, they really need some special attention.” So, I’m trying to avoid having that happen with generation Z, which is the next generation in line born after 1996.

The oldest ones in the professional world have graduated from university this very past May, and June in 2018, and so we have the opportunity to now, to do things right with them, and to do things differently than we did with the millennials, and so, that’s my goal with this book, is I hope they’d read it and say, “Okay, I need to start thinking about these things now.” And, for future leaders, it’s like, “All right, by the time I’m in a position of leadership, I’ll know how to work with these individuals.” So, that’s primarily it. If you don’t anticipate being a future leader, I think there’s some value in the book for you just in knowing where leadership is going, and where organizations are going, so that you can adjust your own strategy accordingly.

And, an example of that, I talk about there’s a whole chapter on career customization, and the fact that you’re going to be able to not just go from point A to point B in your career, look at your boss, and say, “Oh, well this is where I’m going.” You can do anything you want, you can move to another lateral role within your organization, you can change careers, you can go out on your own, you can start a business. The sky is the limit, and I think people knowing that those options are available, and knowing how to talk to leaders about them to make sure that they can take advantage of them is a really important skillset.

I think the book talks about a lot of skill sets that leaders need to help develop, but there’s no reason why you as an individual can’t go to those strategies, and do them. You don’t have to have a leader to encourage them. I’m just encouraging leaders to be looking at them for their workforces.

Alison Jones:                        Yes, and there’s always the institutional and the individual at play here isn’t going to, because of organizations of people, but it also something separate from people which is the organization, so yes, really interesting play, so we’ve talked a little bit about what it’s designed to achieve in the world for the people for whom it’s written. What about for you as the author, what do you, what has it already done for you, and what will it do for you personally, and professionally?

Alexandra Levit:                Well, what I’m hoping it’s going to do for me is result in more consulting around the world. One of the strategies of publishing this with Kogan Page, which is, you know is a London based publisher, and I’m here in the U.S. is that I feel that the global workforce, and when I say global, I mean, outside of America, is a little bit further ahead when it comes to some of these concepts. I think they’ve institutionalized flex work, and contract work at a greater rate. They’ve got career customization. They’ve got integrated automation, human machine, hybrid teams to a far greater degree than we see here in the U.S.

I’m hoping to do some work with European-based companies, with Asian-based companies, and so, I’m hoping the book will have a larger reach than let’s say if I just tried to publish it locally here in the U.S. This is also a book generally speaking that I’ve needed for about five years, because I realized I’ve always been interested in futurism. It started at a really young age with being located close to the headquarters, The World Future Society, and my dad and I were really intrigued by all of the predictions around what life, and work was going to be like in 2030 or 2020.

And, it’s something that’s always been on my radar, but I realized when I published my first several books around the career space that people were asking me what did I think careers were going to be like in the future? And, at the time there was no rhyme, or reason behind at this focus. I would just get asked the question, and I would give my ideas, and I’d later realize down the road that those ideas came to fruition. That I had kind of a knack for this futurist stuff, and so, I started talking about it in official speaking engagements, but I didn’t have any book, or any published work that was around these ideas, and so, it really was a book that from a business perspective I needed about five years ago, because when I would give these ideas, people would say, “Oh, well you have six books, like, is one of them about this?”

“Well, actually, no, I don’t. I have six books, none of them are about this, but I’m planning to write one.” And so, this is, Humanity Works is the book that I wrote, that I needed for my business. My business was already demanding it.

Alison Jones:                        That’s so interesting. Let’s just dive into that a bit. How do you see the book functioning, and if you’re speaking, is the book, the kind of deep dive into it, you know, you hand it to somebody, and say, “Here, this is what I think.” How does it work in terms of crystallizing the activity you’re doing around the topic?

Alexandra Levit:                That’s also a great question, and the way that the book functions, is it, yes, it’s definitely a deep dive into concepts that I will cover very briefly in a keynote, or even a workshop. In my workshops, I really try to get very, very specific, and technical with people. I want them to sit down, and have an immediate application of the concepts, but even in a three-hour workshop, we’re not going to get to every concept that’s in the book, so the book is very, very practical in that I’m going to give my ideas.

And, by the way I’m also giving a lot of research, like this is not just, “Oh, what does Alexandra Levit think about the future of work?” Like, it’s not loosey goosey like that, it’s based on a lot of other people’s opinions, a lot of research that has been done, a lot of stuff that’s already been covered, so it’s a combination of both of those things, of my own anecdotes, my own consulting experience, my own research, and plus other people’s.

But, you’re never going to get in any kind of speaking engagement the level of detail, and at the end of every chapter, we have an action plan. The questions you need to be asking to put these concepts into action immediately, and that’s my goal. I just want people to sit down with some colleagues, and think about what does this content mean to them today? And, what can they do to drive their business forward without becoming overwhelmed? Because, I recognize a lot of this content is scary to people. It’s like, “Oh wait, why do I have to systematize my contract workforce? Like, I have to customize career paths for every individual in my organization? Oh my God, I can’t do that.”

And so, but there’re small steps that you can take, little things you can do, tweaks you can make to your everyday leadership style that are more in support of some of these trends that are coming out, and so that’s the goal with the book. Just yes, you can think big, but you can also think small what do you need to do in the next 10 years, but what do you need to do tomorrow? And, that’s what I’m trying to do with the book.

Alison Jones:                        Yes, and the book gives you a different stage in which it plays out. It’s a different kind of screen size for the message. I love that, and you write a lot, you are a prolific writer, and I couldn’t believe it when I was doing some research into you. You also ghost write for other people, and you help other people write their business books which, considering your day job, so when you find the time I don’t know, but well, what is it that you love so much about writing, in particular about writing books?

Alexandra Levit:                I love writing books, because I feel that it is, well, first of all, people read books to take really complex concepts, and get them distilled into a way that’s entertaining, that’s compelling, that makes people want to learn, and, or at least that’s the kind of book I like to write, and I like that it’s a big project that serves as both an educational mechanism, but also a branding mechanism. I’ve always just really liked taking huge challenges, and meeting them. I also like writing shorter form pieces too, but for me it’s all about taking previously inaccessible material, and making it accessible to people.

And, when it comes to helping other people with their books. Well, first of all, I’m only writing one book at a time ever. I’m never working on more than one book, so the last book that I helped actually the CEO of the NPD Group, which is a global market research firm that’s headquartered here in the U.S. but also has European and Asian operations. We finished, it’s called Mom.B.A. and the premise behind that is that, my coauthor was a, or is a CEO, she’s always been a working mom, and as her daughter was growing up, she taught her many lessons about how to be a successful female business executive, and she wanted to pass those onto the next generation I think did so very well, and I really enjoyed working with her.

She’s obviously a CEO, so she’s extremely busy. She did a lot of her writing on the project, but having an organized, having it structured, bringing other parties to it, so similar to the research, and other ideas that I included in Humanity Works, we did in Mom.B.A. as well, but Mom.B.A was finished, and then I immediately started working on Humanity Works, so I wasn’t doing both at the same time. That’s how I find time, because I also, I’m a consultant, and I’m a member of a consortium of consultants here called People Results, and so I have responsibilities there as well, and it’s just about juggling. I’m also a working mom, so I try to manage all of that, and it’s about having really good time management, and I know Alison that you can relate to that as well.

Alison Jones:                        Absolutely. There’s nobody who can manage time like a working mom. It’s amazing.

Alexandra Levit:                Right.

Alison Jones:                        I loved what you said as well about the book being an educational exercise, and a branding exercise, and that’s really nice, and great, because it’s something about you discovering more about the topic, and finding out what you really think, but also as you say, positioning yourself as well, brilliant, and I noticed that you’ve got a really interesting marketing / sales thing going on. You’ve got your book bonuses, and you’re incentivizing bulk buys by corporates, so you’ve got a sort of sliding scale of perks. It reminded me when you go to a crowdfunding site, and you pledge $5, you get an ebook, and you pledge $5,000, and you get lunch with the author. It’s that kind of thing, isn’t it? Tell us how did that come about?

Alexandra Levit:                Well, first of all, I mean, the main goal is to establish relationships with organizations, and typically if an organization asks me to come speak either to do something informal, like a lunch and learn, or even like a more formal keynote for customers, maybe they’re hosting customers, and they want to showcase their on thought leadership, and provide something of value to customers, or their own employees, they want to help educate their employees around what they need to do to be prepared, and skills they need to develop.

But, ordinarily if an organization would ask me to do that, they’re going to pay a fee for that, and this way, because we have this promotion going on right now, an organization doesn’t actually have to pay a fee. All they have to do is purchase books for the group, and pay some expenses if I have to fly somewhere, and I will do that gratis for the next 12 months, so that’s only a 12-month deal, but essentially we’re giving people bonuses to become part of that community. Maybe they would buy five copies of the book anyway for their team members. Now, they’re going to do that, and they’re going to to get to consult with me for free over email, so… I forget exactly what the bonuses are, because I’m not looking at it right now.

But, I encourage everyone to go to humanityworksbook.com to look at them, and see if it’s something that’s of interest, because we’ve found that it’s had really good success so far that a lot of people have taken advantage of this, and it’s an exciting way for me to get to know organizations, because that’s how I learn too, by learning what other organizations are doing, and it’s obviously an opportunity for the organization that’s getting huge value for them…

Alison Jones:                        It’s terrific, it’s a win, win, win. It’s just such a smart move. I really like that. That’s great, brilliant. Now, there’s going to be lots of people who haven’t written multiple books listening to this show going, “Oh man, that’s smart.” What would your single best tip be for a first time author who’s listening today?

Alexandra Levit:                Have they written the book yet or not?

Alison Jones:                        Maybe they’re half way through the writing, and they’re getting discouraged, and stuck.

Alexandra Levit:                Well, it’s the same advice Alison, that I offer to anyone who tends to procrastinate with big tasks, and that’s to break it down into smaller components. It’s very easy to be daunted by the prospect of 60 or 70, 000 word book, and to feel like, “Oh God.” You’re looking at your Microsoft Word Document, and it only says 10, 000 words, and you’re like, “How or where am I going to get the other 50, 000 words?” So, what you want to do is, you want to take a step back, and say, “Okay, well, how I’m going to break this up into chapters?”

I do it by month. I say I’m going to, for example, cover chapter two over a period of six weeks. Then I’ll break it down even more. I’ll say, okay, first week of that period I’m going to focus on the research for chapter two. Next week, I’m going to do the interviews. Third week, I’m going to do a draft, and fourth week, I’m going to clean it up, so that way I know during a given week I might only be writing a thousand words, and that’s something that is, it’s easy from a psychological standpoint to handle, and if you look at it that way, well, a thousand words here, and a thousand words there add up, and plus you’ve got a structure to it that really helps you generate momentum.

Once you’re on chapter two, and then chapter three, and you know what you’re doing for chapters four, five, and six, it’s easier to adhere to that schedule as opposed to thinking, “Oh God, I don’t know what I’m doing next.” I just know that I have to add 50,000 words to this.

Alison Jones:                        That’s really fun.

Alexandra Levit:                That’s really, yes, it’s, and that’s the way I do all of my books, and if I work with another author, or a CEO, that’s how I structure it for them like, “Okay, well you don’t have to worry, we’re not like doing your whole life story tomorrow. Like, just this is how we’re going to do it, and this is the timeline.” And, just like you would manage any other project, you manage your own book project, and just make sure that, I mean, I would say before you write a book, definitely have it sold, or know where it’s going. Particularly for nonfiction, you have to really have a proposal, and some sample material, and you need to make sure that you’ve interested a publisher before you go, and do a 60,000 word book. That would be another piece of advice.

In the nonfiction world, it’s really in your best interest to try, and see if there’s an audience for this, and that someone is actually going to help you do this. Not to say you can’t self publish. I mean, there’re more, and better self publishing options than ever before, but I don’t know. I think that generally speaking it’s, if you’ve never done a book before, it’s probably in your best interest to have at least your first book published by a reputable outlet, and when I say reputable, I mean, somebody who like an actual publisher that publishes books, and doesn’t charge you.

And then, once you’ve done that, you can be a lot more flexible with how you’ll be, publish books. I mean, I’ve done every single type of publishing arrangement that exists for my eight books, and they all have pros and cons, but for your first one, don’t write the book before you’ve got the audience, and the buy-in. That’s what I would say.

Alison Jones:                        That’s really interesting, because I think often you get the audience by doing the book, and then your second one is easier to sell it to a publisher, so there’re different ways of looking at it. I think, definitely, you’re so right there: get the proposal done, because that forces you to get clear on what you’re doing, which is a great north star as you’re writing the book, and have a plan for how it’s going to come to market, and make it happen, because otherwise it’s just one of those things that might happen, might not, and it’s hard to get your energy up around that.

Alexandra Levit:                Yes, yes, I know that’s absolutely true, and I do find the proposal writing process as annoying as it can be, it does help you clarify your thinking, and you’ve got that outline that I just described before you even get started, and then you just need to put a timeline to it, but you know what the chapters are going to be, you know what the content, because any publisher looking at it is going to demand to know that before they agree to sign on.

Alison Jones:                        Yes, and you should know it before you start writing, so yes, I agree with you …

Alexandra Levit:                Ideally, right, so that’s why it’s a win, win all around, you know, you’re forced to do it, but I think that, because we have so many options now as to how we publish, people don’t think about what they really need to do as much, and if you need to hire a consultant to help you through it, I mean, there are worse ideas than that for sure. I mean, I think there certain people who’ve done a lot of books, I know how this stuff works, and there’re easier ways to do it, and more difficult ways to do it, and depending on your goal, I think that’s something else.

And, I really want to mention is that people have different motivations, and different objectives when they write books. Some people want to write a book, because they have a consulting business, and they feel like they need … The book is kind of like a showpiece, some people really want to generate sales, because they want to be authors, and those are two really different things, and you would pursue different strategies depending on which of those is your goal, and so you need to be clear, why are you doing this? What do you hope to accomplish with it? And, be very clear on that.

Alison Jones:                        Yes, “Start with why.” As Simon Sinek has it, absolutely.

Alexandra Levit:                Yes.

Alison Jones:                        Really good advice. Now, I always ask people to recommend a business book. I love hearing what other people are reading, what they’ve read, and get a lot out of, so, I mean, let’s take it as read that everybody should go, and read Humanity Works. We’ve got that, we’ll link to that, but apart from that one, what business book do you recommend that everyone listening should go out, and buy, and read?

Alexandra Levit:                I was very fortunate in my early career to be mentored by Stephen Covey, who is one of the most best selling authors of all time, and I learned so much of just basic business savvy from his material, and so, if you haven’t already read The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, that’s a classic. It was published decades ago, but it still rings true, and even in the future work that we’re now considering, I talk about changing trends in Humanity Works for 250 pages. You can still read Stephen Covey, all of it still applies. It’s basic human nature, it’s basic tenets around the organizations, and how they work, and it’s how to be effective as a human working.

And so, in Humanity Works, we talk a lot about leveraging human skills, and the human skills that you need to compete effectively in a world of smart machines, and I think Stephen Covey’s material ties perfectly into that, because the fact of the matter is our interpersonal skills have become more important than they ever were, because we’re not going to be able to rely on our technical skills as much, or a specific skill set that we might’ve learned in universities, because so many of those are going to get automated.

It’s going to be the unique value that we can bring as human beings, and we talk about that a lot in Humanity Works, and Stephen Covey is brilliant. He’s no longer with us, but he will always be a permanent influence in my life, and if you have not read that book, that is the number one recommendation that I have, absolutely.

Alison Jones:                        I absolutely concur with that. It’s a superb book, and you’re right. It’s really interesting how just some of these classic business books, they’re, I can say they’re about the fundamental facts about us as people, and they just have this enduring quality, so many business books are very, very topical, and they date very quickly, but there’s just a few absolute classics like this that go on, and on, and become more true almost with every decade, so yes, excellent recommendation. Thank you, and Alexandra, people want to find out more about you, more about Humanity Works, where should they go?

Alexandra Levit:                So, there’s a couple of options. I would love for people to visit my website is alexandralevit.com, there’s also, as I mentioned, a Humanity Works site which is, humanityworksbook.com where you can learn more about the little giveaways that we’re doing, and I would love for people to connect with me on social media. I have a Twitter account, @alevit A-L-E-V-I-T, I’m on Instagram, I’m on Facebook, I’m on LinkedIn, so please feel free to connect with me there.

I would love to hear people’s feedback on Humanity Works. Alison you mentioned a great point about things dating quickly. This is a book I am pretty sure we’ll have an updated edition shortly, so if there’re things that were not included in there that you would like to see more information on, that you feel are up and coming, please let me know, and I’d love to get a dialogue around it going. If you’re curious about what your organization can do, you can feel free to contact me as well. I really want this to be a line of open communication to everybody out there listening, so feel free to get in touch anytime.

Alison Jones:                        Awesome, and I will put all those links up on the show notes, at extraordinary businessbooks.com along with the transcript of the show, so thank you so much Alexandra. Fascinating-

Alexandra Levit:                You’re welcome.

Alison Jones:                        Fascinating stuff.

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