Life is a Picture, But You Live in a Pixel

This is Jack:

 

And this is Today:

 

Jack and Today are dating.

The relationship is going all right and Jack’s reasonably happy, but for a while now, Jack has known that the Today he’s with is not the one. Sure, he and Today have fun sometimes, but all too often, Jack feels like he’s dating a mundane Wednesday, and that’s certainly not the kind of Today he plans to be with in the long run.

Because he knows the relationship is just temporary, Jack doesn’t invest that much of himself in it, spending more of his energy thinking about someone else—Tomorrow. Now Tomorrow is the kind of day he’d love to date—fulfilling, passionate, meaningful and exhilarating. He knows it’s only a matter of time before he finds a Today just like that, the kind of Today he’ll be with when he’s found love, when his career has taken off, and when he lives in his dream city. He can just picture her now:

 

That time will come, but Jack has another plan in the meantime—he’s getting a raise next week, and he’s going to break up with his current Today as soon as that happens and start dating someone new—Today Once I Get My Raise. Of course, she’s not the kind of Today worthy of marriage for a guy like Jack, but she’s much more fun and exciting than his current very ordinary Today.

The morning after he gets his raise, Jack wakes up with an extra bounce in his step. He’s a new man with a new Today, and he likes her already:

 

That night, he goes out to a restaurant he couldn’t afford just a day earlier, and the second day, he buys a new set of golf clubs.

 

Two weeks later, Jack goes back to that fancy restaurant, but something feels a little different. The food is still great, but it’s just not quite as exciting this time.

And a month after that, when he heads out golfing for the fourth time with the new clubs, his mood isn’t affected at all by them—it just kind of feels like a normal golf day again.

Until one day, the walls look exactly how they did before his raise.

 

Jack is confused. He left his ex-Today in the dust, so why does it kind of seem like he’s dating her again? He’s supposed to be done with that part of his life.
It’s disappointing, but Jack shrugs it off—this raise was small potatoes anyway, and the real future’s all still to come, so it’s not a big deal if he’s not that happy.
A few years later, Jack has a big month. First, after years of being single, he meets this amazing girl and they hit it off right away. She’s exactly who he’s been waiting for, and after a few dates, she’s his girlfriend. Right around the same time, the new restaurant-rating business Jack started a year earlier is written up in a big newspaper and suddenly, business starts raining in. He knew the business was a good idea, and now this is proof. For Jack, it’s all finally happening.
And his new Today, Today Once My Business Takes Off And I Find A Girlfriend, is everything he spent his last few years dreaming about.

 

This is the life Jack always knew he’d be living soon enough—he’s just that kind of guy. And his Wednesdays will never be mundane again.
But then something starts to happen. After a few months, even though things are going well with his girlfriend and his business’s growth has only accelerated, Jack finds himself appreciating all of the excitement around his Today a bit less than he used to, which makes things feel a little less vibrant. He’s busier than he’s ever been before, working almost constantly, and while he’s still pleased with his new Today, his general mood doesn’t feel all that high anymore.

 

And a year after that, even though Jack’s life is richer and more meaningful than it used to be, he’s gotten completely used to the way things are. He also has watched a friend’s career take off even more than his own and wonders what that must feel like, and his other friend seems to have a little more fun with his girlfriend than Jack has with his—must be nice, he thinks.
And one day, Jack wakes up to find himself here:
He can’t believe it. What the hell is she doing here?

He considers placing a restraining order on this ex who won’t leave him alone, but ultimately decides to let it go—after all, it’s not like he was gonna marry Today Once My Business Takes Off And I Find A Girlfriend anyway. The real Today he’s holding out for is Today Once I Sell My Business and Marry My Girlfriend, and that’s the Today he’ll truly be happy with.

*      *      *
Jack’s struggle isn’t unusual—it’s something most of us are going through in one way or another. In his amazing Ted Talk, Harvard professor Dan Gilbert describes what he calls The Impact Bias—our “tendency to overestimate the hedonic impact of future events.” Humans have the ability to simulate future situations in our heads to predict what it’ll be like to experience them, but that simulator doesn’t always work so well and tends “to make you believe that different outcomes are more different than in fact they really are.”
Gilbert says that “from field studies to laboratory studies, we see that winning or losing an election, gaining or losing a romantic partner, getting or not getting a promotion, passing or not passing a college test, and on and on, have far less impact, less intensity, and much less duration than people expect them to have.” It even applies to terrible events in our lives. According to Gilbert, “a recent study showing how major life traumas affect people suggests that if it happened over three months ago, with only a few exceptions, it has no impact whatsoever on your happiness.” Jack is clearly a victim of The Impact Bias.

Jack’s difficulties also relate to The Pixel Theory, a phrase coined by Tim Urban during his famous “alone in his apartment in front of the mirror” Ted Talk.

Jack sees his life as a rich picture depicting an epic story and assumes that the key to his happiness lies in the broad components of the image.

But this is a mistake, because Jack doesn’t live in the picture’s broad strokes, he lives at all times in a single pixel of the image—a single Today.

 

So while thousands of Jack’s Todays will, to an outsider from far away, begin to look like a complete picture, Jack spends each moment of his actual reality in one unremarkable Today pixel or another. Jack’s error is brushing off his mundane Wednesday and focusing entirely on the big picture, when in fact the mundane Wednesday is the experience of his actual life.
And his assumption that his future Todays would be as vibrant and rich as the broad picture of his life is misunderstanding the unremarkable nature of a pixel, no matter what one’s life looks like in broad strokes. This assumption leads Jack to feel like his uneventful Today must be an unsatisfactory temporary relationship, when in reality it’s an inevitable and permanent marriage that he must accept and embrace in order to be happy.
As far as what will actually make Jack happier as he lives in his mundane Wednesday, there are a number of scientifically proven things, including spending time with people you like, sleeping well and exercising, doing things you’re good at, and doing kind things for others.

But perhaps the first thing Jack needs to do is learn to feel more gratitude, another scientifically proven route to happiness and the area in which he falls the most woefully short. Jack spends so much of his time looking up at the great things that will come his way and planning his future happiness and not nearly enough time looking down and thinking about how badly he used to want so many of the things he currently has.

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  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/13849681096434789896 AwesomelyOZ

    We’re a generation of dreamers, more concerned about tomorrow than today. Too much future-trippin’ going on is the issue. I am guilty of this myself but I do try to appreciate everyday, even if one thing that happened. Today is Wednesday, Hump Day, and instead of being at work I am fortunate enough to be able to stay home with my son who is sick and take care of him. Before he reaches the age where my presence isn’t much needed :P It’s the small things. Happy Hump Day! -Iva

  • Anonymous

    Fantastic! Your drawings are such amazingly creative metaphors for life.

  • Anonymous

    The Care Bear using his iPhone is perfection.

    • Anonymous

      Agreed!

    • Anonymous

      It was my second favorite thing about this article.

    • Anonymous

      Haha, that was the best!

  • Anonymous

    Glad you didnt listen to the monkey too long… well worth the wait

  • Anonymous

    Whole thing in one sentence: Life is what happens, while you’re busy making other plans. -Beatles

    Very nice article!

    • http://www.blogger.com/profile/16769941024254602225 Wait But Why

      This made me curious so I googled around and apparently that quote isn’t an original John Lennon quote. It has a weird beginning in Reader’s Digest in the 50s.

      http://quoteinvestigator.com/2012/05/06/other-plans/

  • Anonymous

    Excellent post! This is me, spot on. I will try to use this insight to be happier. Thank you.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/06138084380258371670 Andrea Glick-Zenith

    Love this!

  • Anonymous

    This is nice, but I didn’t realize that Cyanide & Happiness weren’t the only ones doing Depressing Comic Week.

  • Anonymous

    I will say that lightly, but I am in love with your writing. The style, the matter, the talent to juggle with deep stuff in a cool accessible way. You offer a quality popularization as TED talk does. I am aware that with 45K followers you probably don’t need that kind of comment. here it was.

    • http://www.blogger.com/profile/16769941024254602225 Wait But Why

      Thanks, and it means a ton.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/04071555688306081841 Table10

    Simply great, again. Do you have a link to the Tim Urban Ted Talk? Anyone?

  • EMILY

    “The Pixel Theory, a phrase coined by Tim Urban during his famous ‘alone in his apartment in front of the mirror’ Ted Talk”

    I’ve googled a lot and found no such Ted talk or anything referencing it. Link please?

    • Anonymous

      Tim Urban is the author of this blog. The Ted Talk was given alone in his apartment, in front of the mirror.

    • http://www.blogger.com/profile/05838019213731942444 Rachel

      Now it makes sense! I also spent ages trying to find it on Ted talks…

    • http://www.blogger.com/profile/16769941024254602225 Wait But Why

      Yeah sorry—I should have made that more clear. I was referring to my imaginary Ted Talk that doesn’t exist.

    • Anonymous

      Thanks for the explanation, TIm. I, too, was searching the web to find this “alone in the apartment” talk. xD SIlly me.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/16447811005118205566 Leftie

    Best lesson I have had for this is moving jobs to a higher level of pay. It’s happened a few times and each time I think it will renew or at least sustain my interest in the industry I’m in. It doesn’t.

    You do an amazing job – thanks for continuing to write!

  • Anonymous

    Yep – Appreciation of who and what we have makes us smile as soon as we think of them. Thanks for this piece – just enough to feed the monkey and to get back to work with a bit more enthusiasm. Cool :) Bring Today on!!!! Although I still have to tell myself to ‘eat the frog’ every now and then.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/02747171826465024622 #mileurystical

    A random search for North Korea pics brought me to this web. Never thought I was going to find such an inspiring post like that and the procrastination ones. Miracles happen at the web. Thanks

  • Anonymous

    It is always a delight to see your article in my inbox. It brightens up a typically mundane Today. Your writing is brilliant. This was a great and not so typical message to remind us to give thanks for what we have. Give thanks and do random acts of kindness and your days will be more fulfilling.

  • Anonymous

    This was all covered off in High Fidelity back in 2000. See clip http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2jSDoOldNuU

  • Sonya

    Thank you Tim! You are what I wanted to see soo badly so long time:)

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/14811756131966949874 Leon

    You blew my mind sir. But I was wondering, if he did not live his life the way he did and stucki to just one “Today”, wouldn’t his life picture be a boring image? Or are you simply saying that it wouldnt matter how colourful the picture would be as we live in just one pixel?

    • http://www.blogger.com/profile/16769941024254602225 Wait But Why

      Really good question, and I’m not sure I know the answer. But I think the idea is to still think about the macro picture and shoot for big things you want, but not to assume that those things are the sole solution to happiness. The problem is when the ONLY focus is on the big things and the relationship with each insignificant day is neglected.

    • http://crazythinkings.wordpress.com/ crazythinkings

      Keep the bigger picture in mind. But remember that you don’t create that bigger picture on the day you achieve what you set out to achieve, all the beautiful color and variance is created in whole process/path you take to get there. Appreciate each day as a part of something bigger…

    • Ravi.G

      Thoughtful!
      It would certainly be boring if we accept everyday as it is without any ambition for a better day.

      But all the time when you are working for that great picture- and it takes years to get that made up – you are spending days in an ordinary manner. Sure, it would seem like reaching a critical point in happiness once you reach there, but you get adjusted to that level easily.
      So the smart thing is to get the best out of today – taking it as it is – while aiming for a better day and working on it.
      Put in a cliche – “Journey is as important as the destination”

  • Anonymous

    This is great. You did it again. Such thought provoking ideas, week after week. I love how you can explain

    such complicated stuff. I can’t help but comment and remember a couple movies that illustrate this kind of

    thing.

    I like your suggestions for Jack. That he be thankful and use “scientifically proven things” to have a better life in his pixel world. (I agree, Dan Gilbert’s book is great) Very well done. There was one other option to this dilemma that I wanted to add. Sometimes it takes more than good advice to change ones frame of mind.

    I would like to humbly suggest a third thing that could make Jack happy in his pixel. You could also have a

    breakdown/breakthrough.

    A breakdown/breakthrough is a violent shift in ones frame of mind that leads to a much better perspective. Sometimes that’s what’s needed, I think.(think of an earthquake when the tectonic plates buckle and build up pressure and then pop) It comes when you become so overwrought trying to get to the rich picture and so oblivious to the potential treasures of life right in your own pixel, that life just gets worse. Nothing works when you try to fix it. Until finally, you blast right out of both. End up in limbo land for a bit. You end up standing outside in the distance, from a third vantage point. It’s a dark place to be. Maybe this is what’s called a nervous breakdown. It’s like a really rough wake up call. If you can tough it out everything gets better.

    Think of Jimmie Stewart in “It’s A Wonderful Life”. His panic pushed him through to an alienating, outside vantage point then to a much better place. But the change was really just a violent shift in his frame of mind.

    Another movie which describes a breakdown/breakthrough a cute Steve Martin movie called Parenthood. He

    plays the part of a father who has unrealistically high hopes for himself and his family. As I recall, there is a

    scene where he was watching his kid’s school play in an auditorium full of parents. He was tense and hoping

    his child didn’t miss his cue, or something. Then his kid messed up, onstage. Chaos ensued. His sense of

    order was pushed to the limit when all hell broke lose and stage props went flying and all the kids on stage

    scattered and the audience went wild with laughter…everyone was jumping off the stage, I think, and he got

    more and more enraged at the anarchy, time slowed down as a change washed over him, and

    then….something shifted in his mind. You could see it in his eyes, a breakthrough. A smile crept over his face.

    His view towards the Children softened and they suddenly looked cute. The joy and laughter in the other

    parents became contagious. He was able to laugh with his wife and embrace the unpredictable moment.

    Fear, shame, troubles, unrealistic expectations. They can beat you down. Breakdowns occur. That may not be a bad thing. If it helps you stand back and see yourself in your pixel within a fascinating rich picture. Living becomes interesting. Like a great show to be a part of and watch at the same time. You never know what will happen next and that becomes a good thing.

    To quote songwriter Greg Brown “Life aint what you think it is. Life aint what you wish it was. It’s just…what it

    is”.

    • http://www.blogger.com/profile/16769941024254602225 Wait But Why

      Good point. Sometimes our views and priorities are in such a deep rut that it takes a shock to the system to change. Like someone who knows they should stop texting while driving but continues doing it and then they get in an accident and it scares the shit out of them and they actually change their ways. Ideally, we’d learn to make big changes without needing an accident though.

    • Anonymous

      “There are three kinds of men:
      The ones that learn by reading.
      The few who learn by observation.
      The rest of them have to touch an electric fence.”
      Will Rogers

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/11241449325146421988 Anonymous

    This is the absolute best site on the web. Consistently awesome. I’m telling everyone I know.

    • http://www.blogger.com/profile/16769941024254602225 Wait But Why

      Thank you! Very much appreciated.

    • Sonya

      So do I!

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/07065829060476417723 Kimberly Davis

    As much as I enjoyed this post and think that living and appreciating the now is a topic worthy of publishing, this article left me wanting. Sure, expressing gratitude, eating well, exercising, and getting a good night’s rest is a great recipe for enjoying day to day life more. This -appreciate today- theme could have been expanded by pointing out the things that distract us from being able to do such a thing. The care bear with the iphone could have taken up much more space in this post. The hedonistic, Veruca Salt, kind of mentality that has gone viral in our digital age of information has most definitely distracted us from appreciating the world around us, breathing, and even blinking sometimes. The author, exceptional as he may be, sold us a little short on this one and I think he knows it.
    Jack may also find more enjoyment out of life if he doesn’t spread himself too thin, so that he may fully enjoy what he is doing at the time, instead of worrying about getting everything done.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/00294104220241925036 Liam

    Amazing as usual! That reminded me of the movie UP (spoilers, I guess), where the old man spent his whole life trying to get to the waterfalls in Venezuela, and when he finally got there he quickly got bored and thought “ok now what”. Then he grabs an old photo album with pictures of his wife and their life together only to realize that that was the real journey of his life – his Today(s). That photo album was just like the rich picture you portrayed so beautifully – a collection of “mundane” Todays seen from afar.

  • Anonymous

    I agree with the last anonymous. I am jack in female form. I try hard, but depression is a selfish disease and the voice inside your head tells you other things. I only wish my son could’ve read this blog. It is amazing and truly might’ve helped his struggle. Or maybe he did read it and nothing helped. He lost his battle last Christmas. But I will continue to read your every word and sing your praises to others. You are truly a wonderful teacher of life lessons so that anyone can understand. Thank you so very much.

  • Anonymous

    This was great! People really need to start appreciating what they already have. It really does help to look at your life from another person’s perspective and see all that you are blessed with.

  • Anonymous

    Fantastic! Made my day :)

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/05917590272428335520 ArmyBee

    Great article! This is currently my favorite blog.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/06949917546859031332 blique

    best blog ever. yet.

    Wednesday got my attention, no apologies for what follows:

    3 W´s
    three W´s get you six U´s, mathematically speaking

    Wednesday is the worst of useful days,
    no memory of the last lost weekend
    no hope for the next best memory

    Wednesday is laundry drying
    on a cloudy day waiting
    for just one ray of sun
    even if it comes on Friday

    Wednesday, grammatically speaking ,
    makes no sense at all.
    not even Tuesday Weld could get it right.

    ¨¨¨¨¨¨
    bud out

  • Anonymous

    “My REAL life hasn’t started yet”. (from the manga and anime Ultimate Gambler Kaiji).
    http://i.imgur.com/LMlTKLM.jpg

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/11695376407087193256 gionni

    It reminds me of the ruthless analysis Buddhists do of life.
    Except for them, there is no big picture… only pixels (and not even pixels are real).

  • http://senseofpajamas.blogspot.com/ PJ

    It’s always amazing to see the posts break down the truth of life in easy to digest stick figures! Makes my Tuesdays :)

    Evolutationarily speaking humans are probably are probably more hardwired for negativity than positivity. The good news is that we can train our brains to be happier.

    This Atlantic article summarizes it nicely: http://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2013/10/how-to-build-a-happier-brain/280752/

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/15598176009868952249 roger gibson

    Love your work! Makes me bust-a-gut laughing or depresses me to the dumpster. Causes me to be introspective and ask questions such as: am I one of those ppl you meet at a hostel? Am I one of those guys from the single 30 yr.old list?
    This post in particular, though, takes the cake on introspection.
    Thank you, I hope you’re still making these posts when you’re 80! Yep, every Tuesday.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/14039306872053242798 Samuel Zamora

    Oh man, the satisfaction in the face of that stick guy hugging his new balloon is just hilarious!!!! I laughed intensely. And the pixel with the bear shooting rainbows, the lights, balloons and even a turtle is just fantastic!!! I love your stick figures, allways long trunk, arms, and short legs. Never change it please!!
    So interesting subject as usual!! And so brilliantly explained it!! Thank you so much for make it a fun story. I devoured it, as usual!!
    And come back to recheck it and take a look to the comments.
    ;-) Waiting for the next one!!

  • http://www.stay-focused.info/ Ben

    Great article. I love it. Will definitely check out your blog more often in the future!

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/14374752768776954204 Giacomo Bordoli

    You’re my hero!

  • http://naturalchurch.wordpress.com/ Tobie

    Nice. Some people believe that the real dynamic behind our delusional obsession with the future has to do with the fact that the future is the only place where a great hero called SuperMe can survive. Photo albums (the past) and mirrors (the present) is SuperMe’s Kryptonite. SuperMe exists in the imagination of tomorrow where he is immune to his greatest enemy RealMe, and where he wins every single battle with the villain GrimReaper. The balloons and streamers of tomorrow is not the thing that makes it attractive. As with every birthday party, they merely represent the inevitable decorations that accompany the celebration of Me and my amazing ability to outsmart time .

  • http://www.shanella.com/ Shanella

    I enjoyed this post immensely! I often forget to appreciate Today because I’m thinking about the Yesterdays and wishing for Tomorrows.

    Also, I really enjoy your posts. Thanks for posting such thoughtful and eloquently written material.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/14235151719524115913 Yonas H.

    Bravo! Love you guys, I’m officially addicted to this blog.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/09378506050033038773 Lee Mathers

    I’m not afraid to admit that I went searching TED for: “Tim Urban during his famous “alone in his apartment in front of the mirror” Ted Talk.

    That’s a TED Talk I’d watch. :- )

  • oceanrain88

    Same! I was already hooked.

    Awesome article, I’ve been struggling with a same issue for months now.

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  • MH

    I am grateful to be me and not Jack because: 1) I can breathe and do other things that stick figures cannot; and 2) I live in a voxel!

  • Happenness

    Wondering if we enjoyed the journey of making the goals happen if our pixel would be more fun?

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  • Smithf201

    Very nice! acbddcbckc

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  • Divya

    Fantastic post !

  • GMillr84

    Found your site and my wife and I are in the process of reading all your articles. Very talented. Keep it coming!

    BTW, I love the universe stuff!

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  • Suan

    This is such a great analogy. Life is a picture that we are painting constantly by living our day to day life. Each day we live forms a little pixel in the big picture. In order to paint a meaningful picture, it is possible that we need not only bright happy colors, but also boring/sad grayish and dark colors. These represent the good and bad days of our lives. The bad days are not meaningless if we focus on the big picture, however! As pixels accumulate into lines and strokes, we might even have a new vision of our big picture. In fact, this vision is probably constantly changing with every new pixel. The important thing is to try to 1) Always keep a beautiful big picture in mind, 2) But also live in the present so that we can focus on making today’s color contribute to the overall big picture. Thanks for the inspiration! :)

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  • David

    This post was just delicious!

    I have a question:

    I often miss my ex-todays. Not that i’m unhappy with my current today. I am very happy today. And I know I’ll miss it tomorrow. I just feel nostalgic about the past, even the recent past, like yesterday.

    Is this nostalgia normal? I am also excited about the future and tomorrow, it just feels a little bit uncertain.

    Can I date them all at the same time? It would be much easier. I hope they’re not jealous… Dating 3 people at the same time… “Yesterday, today, tomorrow and me”, would be a great movie.

    Oh well…
    I’ve just discovered WBW. Love it. :)

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  • Chintan

    This article is all wrong. If today is all that matters, why don’t I quit my job and go out and dance all day and be happy? After all, the only thing that matters is today. We only ever experience the todays, and the tomorrows don’t matter after all, at least according to this article.

    This article ironically contradicts everything written by the same author on procrastination. If today is all that matters, why don’t we just let the Instant Gratification Monkey take over? Dump all of your work and long term goals, and just have fun now. It’s exactly what the Monkey wants to do, and if today is all that matters that’s what you should do.

    Of course the tomorrows matter. If I don’t work today, I will be homeless and out on the street pretty soon, and that’s no fun way to live. Focusing on only today leads to some completely shitty days in the future.

    I call bullshit on this article.

    • Guest

      You’re missing the point of this post. He is not saying in precise terms that today is all that matters, but rather he is asserting that each mundane Wednesday is a building block (pixel), that makes up the broad strokes of a life that matters. He is not saying that we should go out and quit our jobs and do only things that make us happy, but rather to be mindful of our time and value it for what it is by doing things that matter–however small they may appear close up.

    • RussellB

      You’re missing the point of this post. He is not saying in precise terms that today is all that matters, but rather he is asserting that each mundane Wednesday is a building block (pixel) that makes up the broad strokes of a life that matters. He doesn’t suggest that we go out and quit our jobs and do only things that make us happy, but instead that we be mindful of our time and value it for what it is by doing things that matter–however small they may appear close up

      • Deborah

        I say you’re a pretty cute guy!

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  • Deborah

    Woah. I had a woah moment that didn’t feel as I expected to feel when I thought about having an woah moment at the end of this post. Woah.

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