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In a world filled with endless possibilities and opportunities, setting goals is often seen as the key to success. But what exactly makes a goal effective, and how can we avoid common pitfalls in the goal-setting process? I sat down with renowned goal-setting expert Caroline Miller to learn practical strategies for achieving our toughest goals and cultivating the determination to see them through.

What is “grit”?

So what is “grit”? Grit is that indomitable spirit that propels us forward in the face of adversity. Caroline’s insights into the different types of grit – from good grit that fosters personal growth to bad grit that leads to burnout – offer a fresh perspective on resilience and determination. She draws from research and theories in positive psychology, like Locke and Latham’s goal setting theory and Angela Duckworth’s work on grit.

As we navigate through the complexities of goal setting, we uncover the importance of self-regulation and intrinsic motivation. Together, we examine how these factors influence our ability to persevere in the pursuit of our goals, especially in the realm of sports and fitness.

Caroline’s advice for goal setting

As a trailblazer in the field of positive psychology, Caroline stands as one of the world’s foremost authorities on the science of successful goal setting and the cultivation of ‘good grit’ to conquer challenging endeavors. Through her bestselling books, executive coaching, educational courses, and motivational speaking engagements, she has empowered countless individuals to clarify their goals and develop the resilience needed to achieve them.

She has written several books on topics like goal setting, grit, and overcoming bulimia. Her books include “Creating Your Best Life”, “Getting Grit” and her autobiography “My Name is Caroline”.

Setting goals you can actually reach

What piqued Caroline’s interest in grit? A passion-driven pursuit to understand the mechanisms behind human achievement has inspired her now three-decades career. Her extensive research and practical insights have made her a sought-after expert in the field, with her work touching the lives of individuals from all walks of life. From high-performing athletes to corporate executives, Caroline’s teachings have inspired positive change and transformation on a global scale.

Here are a few key takeaways:

  • The differences between learning goals and performance goals
  • Types of good and bad grit
  • Building self-regulation and intrinsic motivation
  • Finding a balance between challenging goals and short-term satisfaction
  • Developing grit in younger generations
  • The importance of lived experience in applying positive psychology concepts

Listen to Caroline’s episode

If you found today’s episode enlightening and want to hear more, make sure to subscribe and leave a review on your favorite podcast platform. Be sure to share this episode!


Episode Chapters

  • Goal setting and its common mistakes. (0:00)
  • Perfectionism, and goal-setting. (5:40)
  • Passion, and interventions for harmful behaviors. (10:10)
  • Self-actualization, and transcendence. (14:32)
  • Self-Regulation, and Intrinsic Motivation. (19:27)
  • Goal-setting, motivation, and self-esteem. (24:06)



Sonya Looney 0:00
Okay, Caroline, I’m so excited to talk to you on the podcast.

Caroline Miller 0:05
Oh, that makes two of us. Hello.

Sonya Looney 0:08
So tell us about yourself before we dive in.

Caroline Miller 0:12
Um, gosh, I’m a mom. I have a you’re in the program that I got a graduate degree from in 2006 and Masters of Applied positive psychology. I’ve written a number of books. And the one the standouts, the ones I’m most known for is My name is Caroline, the first book by anybody who overcame bulimia that came out over 30 years ago. First autobiography, I should say, my capstone project, creating your best life came out several times now in many languages, first evidence based goal setting book ever published for the mass market shocker, how did that happen? And then getting grit, which is about how to cultivate grit, not just that it’s important. Sorry, I also do speeches, and I coach CEOs all over the world. So I’m busy and I’m having fun.

Sonya Looney 0:59
Yeah, you are a goal setting expert. So I wanted to jump in and ask you what are the biggest mistakes that people make around goals,

Caroline Miller 1:07
not setting the right goals or not setting any goals at all. I think a lot of people don’t want to disappoint themselves. Gary Latham, the co founder of goal setting theory told me when I was writing, creating your best life, many years ago, and subsequently the same thing that people don’t want to feel bad about themselves. So you know, at the end of their lives, or as they get older is this look in the rearview mirror Coulda, Woulda, Shoulda, you know, hurts more if you’ve set goals and failed to even attempt them. So that’s one of the biggest mistakes and other is quitting, just quitting. And you and you and I both know about quitting. So the minute you hit a speed bump, quitting, and then not defining goals into performance goals or learning goals. And I think that is massive. If you don’t know the science of goal setting, you can make a mistake from the get go but have all the right intentions.

Sonya Looney 1:58
Can you talk more about the learning goals versus performance goals because I know that people’s ears just picked up when they heard that. Okay, so

Caroline Miller 2:05
this is Locke and Latham school setting theory, one of the most validated scientific management theories ever developed in the field of motivation and science. So in 1998, after studying people who cut trees down of all things, they discovered that there are really two kinds of goals. And if you get them wrong, you get into a situation are called goals Gone Wild, where people can die, reputations are lost, companies never come back from the break. So here are the two kinds of goals. performance goals are things you’ve done before, like a pilot with a checklist, like a surgeon in an operating theatre, checking off, this has to be in place, this has to be in place. Those are things you’ve done before. And if you follow a checklist, you can then ask yourself to achieve a certain outcome by a certain date. And only in that situation, can you expect a certain kind of performance now the best performance in those situations is challenging and specific, not low goals, not no goals. So that’s a performance goal has to be something you’ve done before, a learning goal is something either you’ve never done before, or the world has never done before. I’m coaching the CEO of a space agency company, and some of what she’s doing has never been done by anyone in the world. So she’s in what’s called a do your best condition. She’s learning as fast as she can from other people who’ve done different elements of the, you know, the space industry world. But for her, it’s a learning goal. So you flatten your learning curve as quickly as possible. You’re in a job, someone gives you a goal, you’ve never accomplished it before. You don’t have the skills. You can’t just sit there and bulldoze your way through it. You have to find a mentor, you have to do some research. And that is a learning goal condition that’s called Do your best. Only after you have learned how to do that. Can you set specific outcome goals that are challenging and specific to get yourself an outcome? Mixing those things up has led to the biggest business disasters, the most recent one that everyone heard about the Titan submersible. You know, no one had ever taken a submersible down to the Titanic that had was made with some kind of weird metal that had never been pressure tested at that level. But he wanted to make a certain amount of money. He wanted to be an astronaut of the deep, I’m talking about Stockton rush. And so in his attempt to do something that had never been done before, but he set himself a certain outcome that was financially derived and by a certain date, without going through the checklist approach. I have to do this or I have to do this, I’d have to do this right. He blew up. Unfortunately, it blew up in every possible way himself, his passengers. But that’s just one example. Don’t make the mistake of thinking any goal you set is something you can immediately say I want this outcome by that date. That’s one of the biggest mistakes people make.

Sonya Looney 4:53
differentiating between those two is is really impactful and it’s funny. I’m So learning language for all of these things, and I did a TED talk in 2015, I was the first woman to ever finish this race and Nepal, the highest mountain bike race in the world. And in my TED talk, I was actually had thought I was going to fail. And I said, Success is doing your best. And I would define success differently now. But that was a learning goal. That was a way to do exactly what you just said. And that was, yeah, I had never done before. So it’s really interesting to see that connection.

Caroline Miller 5:27
Yeah, so that was a do your best condition. Instead of saying, I have to get there in a certain amount of time, certain number of hours, you said success is attempting this. That is a learning goal. You could set a time goal now because you’ve done it.

Sonya Looney 5:39
So let me ask you something. Whenever we say success, or do your best school, what about people who have perfectionistic concerns and strivings were best means best? It’s not best means perfect.

Caroline Miller 5:53
Well, you know, I think that’s a recipe for disaster. You have to compete against yourself, not nothing, not the rest of the world, perfectionists are often trying to get everything right so that other people will admire them or it’s an extrinsic goal, something that is not a passion project. So people who are perfectionist are often exhibiting something called obsessive passion. That’s favela, rands work. It’s obsessive, passionate and harmonious passion. And when you have that situation in your life with various goals that you’re pursuing, you end up not enjoying the journey, and not enjoying the outcome. And so, I think we all know that that’s something unique. And that’s what nearly killed me with my eating disorder. I was a perfectionist and wanted to have a certain body as a competitive swimmer. And, you know, to get into the right college, etc, etc. And, you know, that perfectionist tendency led me to near death. And now I use that competitive mindset to help other people be their best, instead of turning it inwards and being very self focused. So

Sonya Looney 7:03
how can somebody decide what is their best but not other oriented? But what is their best whenever they are having a learning goal?

Caroline Miller 7:11
That’s a great question. Let me just think about that for a second. their very best when they have a learning goal. Again, it’s a do your best condition, I think it should be something that is somewhat realistic. And yet still, Locke and Latham say challenging a little bit outside your fingertips, if you stretch your arm out. That’s really the goal a little bit past your fingertips, your reach should exceed your grasp. And so for all different goals, it’s going to be a little bit different. But you also don’t want to be miserable. That’s what I call stupid grit. When you’re pursuing something to the detriment of yourself or others. Yeah,

Sonya Looney 7:49
I want to get into grit. We talked, you talked about good grit and bad grit and your book. Can you tell us about those? Sure.

Caroline Miller 7:56
So I met Angela Duckworth in 2005, when she was just starting to do this research on grit. And so when I wrote creating your best life, some of the findings were that happy people wake up to HARD goals, not easy goals. And so I wanted to learn more about the particles are part of the secret of a flourishing life. How do you get this thing called Grit? As I studied it, and worked with people all over the world, what I realized is there was good grit and bad grit. So I divided it into different, you know, different buckets. So we all know examples of people, really bad people in the world who have passion for destroying things. And in the process of pursuing that goal, that stupid grit can put themselves and others at risk and in mountaineering, it’s called summit fever, you are determined to get to the top and you don’t listen to other people telling you to turn around, then their selfie great, you do hard things, but you make sure everybody admires you and you take all the oxygen out of the room. It’s me, me, me. And that kind of arrogance and lack of humility always turns people off. And then there’s faux grit when there’s an epidemic of fake grit, so grit, people who are I’m sure you’ve seen this in Ironman Triathlon, so skip an entire loop of a marathon. They will take shortcuts in order to achieve a claim. So we have a lot of presidents of universities right now having to step down because they plagiarize. That’s fo grit. They want everyone to think their PhD was hard earned. And then there’s good grit and good grit is going outside of your comfort zone to pursue your own intrinsic goals, things that make that light you up but in the process of doing that this is important. Your behavior AWS and inspires other people to ask themselves What if I live like that? So you’re not giving speeches, you’re doing hard things that make the world better because it uplifts the community.

Sonya Looney 9:51
There’s so much there. Three types of bad grit. I think that a lot of people listening and even myself I can relate with some of the times I’ve I’ve actually done bad grit, like racing with a cast on my wrist. For example, I thought I was being tough. And I think that a lot of times people, people will misinterpret being tough with bad grit. And it’s not the same thing.

Caroline Miller 10:13
That is such a great point, you’re kind of grit is what I call them getting grit, Mount Olympus grit, you redefined what the body was able to do. And even though it was a learning goal for you, you held up a beacon or shown beacon to other people saying, Look, if you train this way, and let’s assume it’s a harmonious fashion for you, if you train this way, if you persist, if you have your pain cave that you’re willing to go into for a little while, you can you can do more things than you think you’re capable of. That’s Mount Olympus grip. Katie and Kayla decades, my neighbor, I’ve watched her grow up. And you know, Katie would Deki has redefined distance swimming for women. That’s why there’s a mile in the next Olympics, there never was before she made it look fun. And I know from watching her grow up. It’s her goal, no one else is called. That’s Mount Olympus grit. And that’s what you have. But there’s a fine line. If you’re, you know, there’s a fine line between hurting yourself and pursuing something to the ultimate extreme that you can handle. Anyway, we could go on and on about that. But that’s a big topic.

Sonya Looney 11:19
She wanted to ask you about this. I emailed Bob Val around asking him about obsessive passion and saying, Are there interventions or activities people can do that already have obsessive passion to make that obsessive passion harmonious? And he said that they’re actually they don’t know enough about it yet. Some people are trying to create implementation goals around this. So I wanted to ask what your opinion what your thoughts are.

Caroline Miller 11:42
Um, sometimes an intervention needs to be had. It’s like a jealous boyfriend versus a boyfriend who supports your goals and is there for you. And I think sometimes you need to draw someone’s attention to the fact that they may not realize that they are hurting themselves or hurting other people. There is a narcissism and a self absorption and an arrogance that you see, in people like that they assume everything they see, everyone sees the world the way they do. So I think there’s interventions, implementation intentions, if then if I do this, then I’ll do that. But there has to be a desire, there has to be a desire to change. And I think if you look at the world of alcohol, it’s the world of alcoholism and interventions, when you raise someone’s bottom, and show them the ways in which they’re not just hurting themselves, they’re hurting other people. That I think is a great model for the rest of us on how to intervene on someone who may not realize the damage they’re doing. Or

Sonya Looney 12:39
go back to full grid. And this is really people are doing this because they really are worried about what other people think. And they’re trying to rise to the top either because they need a certain accolade that they didn’t earn, or they just so they care so much about what other people think. doping in sport is another example of why people are just cheating. So you know, if somebody has as bad grit, or has faux grit or know somebody with faux grit, or even just on social media, some of the things that people post, they actually didn’t do the thing that they posted. How can people disentangle from this faux grit and not be so concerned about what other people think?

Caroline Miller 13:15
You know, that’s again, that’s an individual decision that people make when they’re in getting grit I wrote about I opened the chapter on folk grit, selfie grit, etcetera. With a story of people doing it. To me, the most sacrilegious thing you can do around the military is buying the Medal of Honor at a flea market, buying a Medal of Honor a fake one on eBay and wearing it or putting it on your resume the highest honor you can get for intrepidity and gallantry in the military, in the military. And if there are people who root out those fakers if you if you plagiarize, that’s another form of phobia, you will lose your job, you will lose your reputation. And so I think when you see people like that, you cannot give them oxygen, you cannot hold them up as exemplars. And too often, if they’re not caught early enough with the doping, as you mentioned, Lance Armstrong is another example in my book. Then they set an extreme example that can’t be matched. So I think that rooting them out and exposing them when appropriate, but not giving them oxygen is probably one of the best, best ways to deflate their self important bubble. You

Sonya Looney 14:29
also talk about authentic grit, you have an entire chapter on it and your book. Can you talk about authentic grit?

Caroline Miller 14:35
Yeah, are fairly critical. What I was saying a little bit earlier, as I thought about Angela’s definition, passion and persistence in pursuit of long term goals. I decided I wanted to add this piece about all because I do think that authentic grit and good grit is not just about us, you or me or another individual doing hard things. I believe that in the 21st century, a lot of the qualities that we’ve admired in the meaning You mean the self help world really have to be changed into a we we we approach and I think that Brit good Brit authentic grit as the outcome. It’s not the purpose as the outcome of all knowing and inspiring other people. I think of Malala Youssef say, I think about her being shot in the face by in Pakistan by the terrorists, their names are escaping me right now. But you know, being shot in the face, just because she wanted to help girls and women learn to read and go to school. Those people all and elevate us, they do make us wonder and ask ourselves, Am I living my best life? Am I doing the things that I’m meant to do? Do I have a legacy I’m even pursuing right now. So I added that all in inspiration because I felt it was it was fitting the examples of the good grit that I saw in history and in the world around me. This

Sonya Looney 15:56
also made me think a bit about Maslow’s. You know, self actualization. I don’t want to say it’s a hierarchy of needs. But I think a lot of people misinterpret how the hierarchy actually operates, but self actualization and then in his later work, transcendence and transcendence, meaning you get less about yourself and your work becomes more about others. And I actually interviewed a Team USA Olympic volleyball player yesterday who said that motherhood was something that helps her be more she didn’t use these words, but she said more transcendent she was very self focused and competition. And after having a kid she became other focus, how can I help other women and other people? So yeah, can you can you talk about that a little bit?

Caroline Miller 16:35
Yeah, I mean, I think Scott Barry Kaufman is extension of Maslow’s work has really been important because Maslow died way too young. He died on, you know, it was pulled back because it’s Stanford University. And so this whole idea that he had exemplars of transcendence is an important idea that really never got outside this pyramid that everybody talks about. But I think that when you transcend this is about you know, harmonious passion, when you’re doing something for the right reason with passion, and you’re pursuing it, then you do become somebody who represents to the world the best of what you can be. And it is that other focus, Marty Seligman talks about this, Chris Peterson, who I was fortunate to have as a mentor, when I first entered the field of positive psychology, he also talked about other people matter as the, the way to define positive psychology. When you get to that point, the world is a joyful place. And that is where I got when I was overcoming my bulimia. And I remember just thinking, My God, I don’t know anyone who’s overcome it really the world didn’t know people who’ve ever come and it was a death sentence. It was Karen Carpenter dying, and the rest of us wondering, gosh, who lives and I remember someone saying to me, you can’t keep what you don’t give away, Caroline, you can’t do it. And that’s when I transcended myself. I really do believe in the mid 1980s. As I overcame bulimia, one day at a time, I learned transcendence because it wasn’t about me getting better anymore. It’s how many people could could I turn around and pole with me? And I think that’s an example of transcendence. Yeah,

Sonya Looney 18:14
I think a lot about that journey, right? Like, you can tell people a lot of these different things, and even a lot of these things that we learn in positive psychology, but without having the real life experience of that, whether it’s in traumatic or not, can you? Can you things just be learned in a book? Or do they have to be learned experientially?

Caroline Miller 18:32
Oh, this is where having a math degree is so valuable, is because I think the theories are interesting in and of themselves, grit, motivation, self efficacy, self determination. I mean, I could go on and on and on. But when you’re an applied practitioner of all these theories, then you breathe life and light into the theories. And some of the best researchers are very interested in how you and me and others are applying the research in ways that show gosh, I can do this in the pursuit of this goal or that goal. This is what it means. So I think, by itself, research is not useful until you know how to apply it. And I think real life lived experience is the only way, I think, to inculcate the lessons. I know, I had to overcome bulimia, to learn what grit was, I did not know what it was. I didn’t feel it until that moment.

Sonya Looney 19:25
Thank you for talking about the map degree. I’m very excited about it. Something I wanted to ask you actually was that some some questions people send me some times are about concerns of grit in younger generations, that they’re not as gritty. I work with a lot of people who work with younger athletes. So are there different approaches from the grit research that you’ve seen for helping younger people have grit? Yeah,

Caroline Miller 19:49
I mean, I, oh, yeah, this was a touchy area. I spent 10 years researching getting grit and I knew that whatever I said was going to be attacked because I’m You can’t just have this be an n of one, like the next generation has a lot of grit because I know a lot of people with grit, or they have no grit, because that’s what I read in a book somewhere. So I took a lot of time to really look at this research. And the fact is, the generation that my adult children were raised as part of and beyond that was raised with comfort animals and taking away valedictorian status and class rank and the rest of it, one of my children’s a teacher, and he is so appalled that in some of the schools he’s taught, and you’re not allowed to give kids a grade lower than a minus Harvard, and Yale just came out the average grades and a minus. I was there at Harvard, not everyone’s doing a minus work. This is BS. And so I think we can blame this on the culture and the parents who raise these children, not on, not on our children. And I think we have to start with the fact that the research is very, very clear that the world changed around that generation and subsequent generations, we changed playgrounds for God’s sake, wood chips, everybody bounces off wood chips, slides are a foot high. I mean, it’s crazy stuff. And this is all documented. So I did write about that and getting grit, we are now going back to believe it or not, there’s a dangerous playground movement that started in Europe that’s spreading here. We have to expose our children to winning and losing, and we have to give them real feedback. Otherwise, you never learned what you’re made of. You never learned about resilience, and you don’t find out who has your back when you fall down. So that’s some of the ways parents have to role model this behavior and stop protecting and bubble wrapping their children.

Sonya Looney 21:36
And I’m specifically focusing on getting grip but and it’s funny, because I just interviewed he’s one of the world’s most famous cycling coaches. And he talked about how the base, the base, the basis you have to cover are not the training. It’s other things. It’s like diet, sleep, those types of things. But the current underneath everything was self regulation. How do I not go too hard? Whenever somebody rides up next to me, how do I make sure that I eat the right things? How do I make sure that I go to bed in time? And in your book, you actually speak specifically about self regulation? So can you talk about how that pertains to grit and how people can build their self regulation?

Caroline Miller 22:13
Yeah, you have to learn to delay gratification. It’s as simple as that. You can’t just have things when you want them, you have to learn that working towards things that are particularly valuable are the things that we have the most pride and there was research even showing that, you know, they took away the cake mix that only made you add water, because they found people had no pride in the cakes they made. So they started adding in the egg though the oil though, we take pride in the hard things that we do. And self regulation is at the heart of this. When you look at Roy Baumeister his work and other researchers, they really lament the fact that this was the work ethic that the United States was founded on. And it’s really gone missing. So you basically just down to this, you have to learn self regulation. And since we’re talking about sport for a moment, I think for many women, self regulation has been imposed by male coaches. I’m thinking about the track issues with Alberto Salazar at the Nike training facility, the tons of male coaches who have been banned from swimming, the safe sport movement, who all would impose dietary restrictions and weight limits on women. It has to be something that comes from you. You have to self regulate by yourself, and you can learn it through trial and error.

Sonya Looney 23:28
I heard you say it has to come from you. So does that mean it has to be intrinsically motivated?

Caroline Miller 23:33
Yes, that’s how I overcame bulimia. Every hard thing I’ve ever done was because it mattered so much to me, that I was willing to do hard things and deny myself like, Oh, I’ll go check my text messages. Or I’ll just go do this. I’ll get away from my work. I’m writing my ninth book right now, i There are a lot of things I’d like to do. But the self regulation demands that I teach count every single day. So it has to be intrinsically motivated. If it’s not something you really care about. There’s no reason to endure that kind of pain. It’s going to be hard to dig deep in the dark night of the soul.

Sonya Looney 24:06
Simple isn’t always easy, though. And you’re a very disciplined person. It sounds like I know that I’m a very disciplined person. What if you’re not very disciplined, and it’s not just as simple as I’m just going to delay gratification?

Caroline Miller 24:18
hang around people who have grit. I think this is one of the things that Angela found with her grit research is if you were a West Point cadet with slightly lower grid scores, they would room you with a cadet who had a higher grit score. This kind of behavior is contagious. And what you find is it’s one small decision after another one small behavior change after another. We’re not talking about a complete character overhaul we’re talking about making small decisions that actually add up to make you a little bit more persistent. So that’s, you know, hanging around with people who have it and the contagion and the normalcy of being that person will take over.

Sonya Looney 24:55
Yeah, I’m just thinking about comments people have made when they’ve come to visit me. Whenever you say that What? Wow, it feels like I live in a health retreat when I live here. Or

Caroline Miller 25:05
when I’m visiting you. I’d love to visit here. That would be fun for

Sonya Looney 25:09
me. Yeah, you’re more than welcome to come up. You and your husband and I can take a mountain biking. Oh,

Caroline Miller 25:14
okay, everyone, we’re definitely yes. Okay, next.

Sonya Looney 25:17
So we have three minutes left. And this is something personally I wanted to ask you and I know that something people will be interested in, in that Locke and Latham paper, they here’s a direct quote that I have stuck with me since that reading that paper. When people set high goals with high motivation and effort, they experience lower satisfaction. We talked about this a little bit. But you also said people that wake up happy in the morning are ones that have high goals. It seems that there’s this paradox here between satisfaction and high goals. So how do you help your clients wrestle with that?

Caroline Miller 25:50
They have to understand that in the process of doing hard things, there’s going to be discomfort, there’s going to be frustration, they may not get what they want immediately, at the end of the day, you know, they may not have gotten the trophy, but they will have the self satisfaction, look at self determination theory of knowing that they were autonomous, and they did something hard because it mattered to them. I always think about learning to drive a stick shift car when I think about that quote from Locke and Latham because you do not learn how to drive a stick shift car in one lesson or two lessons, it’s harder, you will be frustrated, you might cry, you might cry. But at the end of the day, the research is very clear that authentic self esteem is built only only through going out of your comfort zone and doing hard things. And at the end of the day, most people don’t know this, but you scan your day for what you did. That was hard, not easy, hard. And you’re doing this not even knowing you’re doing it and how do you build authentic self esteem? You experience frustration, and sadness and depression or whatever, but you rally because you know you’re on your way.

Sonya Looney 26:57
I can’t believe we’re already out of time. And we covered so much. So thank you for coming on the show. Where can people find your work your books, your coaching?

Caroline Miller 27:06
My name Caroline Miller, Caroline And, you know, this is a great interview, you really focus on what matters and this is what people need to do is exactly what your role modeling here. Find something you’re passionate about and drill right down to how do you get this thing and teach other people how to do it. So you’re one of those people I think, who is giving away something that you’d like to keep and the world is better for it.

Sonya Looney 27:29
Well, thanks so much that is greatly appreciated.

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