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Podcast Episode 55: Aidan McCullen

In the ever-evolivng landscape of business, companies finding themselves in a perpetual state of transformation. Our guest on today’s episode, Aidan McCullen, shares how we’ve seen this since the beginning of business: Ford, General Motors, and Toyota are some examples he looks back on and shares what happens when we don’t transform while clinging onto our past successes. The key to winning today and moving forward: reinvention.

The need to stay competitive and relevant in an increasingly dynamic environment has led to a growing realization – the traditional approaches to leadership development are no longer sufficient. Aidan shares:

“JFK said, “the time to build the roof is when the sun is shining so you do the work before it’s necessary.”

Now is the time to reinvent leadership development because it allows companies to adapt to change swiftly. Change is not a matter of “if” but “when.” Leadership plays a pivotal role in steering the ship through these turbulent waters. And, as we know in life and in business, sailors are made in tough seas – but as people leaders, it’s our job to help equip them with the tools they need to steer that ship.

In this episode, Aidan shares:

  • How we can look at farming methods to help paint a picture of how we need to innovate within our companies from a leadership perspective

  • As a former professional athlete, Aidan shares his tips and tricks for implementing reward systems that are used in sports and not used in business enough

  • To the point above, Aidan elaborates on why the best rugby teams in Europe are exactly that – the best (and, it has nothing to do with being the best athletes!)

  • Why growth comes in messy moments of business and life – how to embrace these times, prepare for them, and learn how to ride the curve like a champ

  • + more

Thank you for joining us for this conversation. Prep yourself by taking out a pen and pad OR hey, if you’re a digital person, the note section of your phone – too many golden nuggets to miss!



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Aaron: Aidan it's a pleasure to finally have you on my podcast i had so much fun on yours and now i'm just really excited to talk a little bit more about your story and your journey and your book and all of it.

Aidan: It's an absolute pleasure man i really i still get a lot out of your work i found your book fascinating and learned a hell of a lot and pleasure to be with you.

Aaron: I think something that stuck out to me, even from the first time we talked is just this like beginner's mind that you constantly keep. And I mean, you do have a podcast called the innovation show. You did write a book on disruptible. And I guess what I'm wondering is how did you get into that space in the first place?

How does one get into innovation and reinvention?

Aidan: Well, I definitely started off as a beginner. That's for sure. I've had a very lucky life. I've had several lives already. If you want to put it that way, my first career was a professional rugby player, so I played professional rugby for my country, but also for the two top clubs in Europe.

And I say that because it did not start out that way. There's nothing in a butterfly that tells you it's going to be a caterpillar. I was clumsy kid. I was last picked in the playground and eventually after trying loads and loads of different sports, I went to a school and we had to play this sport rugby.

I'd never played it before and I was really late at taking it up, but because I had played all these other sports. I had gathered these skills that the kids that had been born into that sport didn't have, and that point of difference actually paid off later on. So that was really, really useful. And that, I suppose, when you come from that position of not being very talented, but being disciplined.

You realize the importance of beginner's mind, you realize the importance of not getting complacent or keeping your humility is so important to be consistently humble in your learning or any kind of successes you have, you see them as fleeting because you understand that your successes can lead to your failures very, very quickly.

Aaron: Yeah. And it sounds wonderful coming out of your voice. How do you learn to keep that right? So the, the first thing comes to my head is okay. Well, you must've gotten good enough from your past experiences at rugby. And then you're on the national team and you're on the top teams.

And how do you keep yourself from saying, well, what got me here? Won't get me there.

Aidan: Well, for me, it was easy because there's three types of player in any sport. There's a talented player. And then there's a disciplined player, and then the role of the coach is to make the talented players disciplined, and I was just disciplined.

And because there's not enough talented players often that become disciplined, there's room for the disciplined only players. And I say that and people think I'm being humble saying that I actually genuinely was only that type of player. And I think because of that, you know, that you're only as good as your last game.

But then on top of that, because I trained so hard, I got injured quite a bit. So I retired relatively early. I didn't have to retire, but I found if I kept doing what I was doing to my body, I was going to be broken for the rest of my life for my new reinventions after Ruby. And that, that was one of the things.

And it was the fact that when you retire from rugby, it's quite early, like you're in your early thirties, just like NFL players and your body's often broken, or you've been proactive about getting out of the sport and that early. Reinvention is so important i saw that as a blessing because you literally have to let go of the person you have to be and go on and enjoy a new lease of life and this is really how i got into it i started to reflect on my career in the past and go that was great while it lasted but where could i have done better.

And the place that consistently came up for me was physically, you know, I did the best in the gym, I lifted higher than other guys, I worked harder, I dieted well, I didn't drink alcohol, unlike many of my countrymen in Ireland, and I slept well, I did all those things, but I often let myself down in my mindset, and by that I mean, I didn't believe in myself as much as I could have, so that, I became fascinated about that, you know.

And then I retired into the 08 recession and I was in a media company and media, of course, it was totally disrupted by the internet and I could see people clinging to the personas they had developed based on the success of the business in the past. I could see it in action and I became fascinated in it and I started to learn about mindset and in parallel start to learn about.

Organizational mindset and innovation within organizations and through that, like your work started to stumble into the fact. Well, it doesn't matter how good the plan is, if people don't work together well, if the environment is not safe, innovation is not going to thrive. And I love this great saying that a farmer doesn't.

Give it to the crops when they don't grow the farmer creates the right environment for the crops in which to grow so pulls the weed when needs to be fertilizes the soil waters whenever needs to happen to create that environment and it's the exact same for innovation so i had this nice little interface out of one sport.

I'm seeing the reinvention necessary there into the business world to see how some of the same things that happened in sport don't happen in business. I'm that was my kind of a moment in time i could see it playing and i could see the decline of an organization coming. I was like i need a language to be able to articulate this and to be able to find it out and be able to get people to work together not compete with each other.

Aaron: It's so interesting that you say that, like what happens in sports isn't happening in organizations. Can you give me a little bit more on that? Cause I think there's, inherent truth that we see and know, but I just love to hear your perspective on it.

Aidan: So I, when I think about the difference, like, In some teams, and it's becoming less and less as management becomes better, leadership becomes better in organizations, you don't really have players compete with each other on the pitch.

Once they're on the pitch, they're competing against the team against which they're playing. But in organizations, all I could see was. People were so obsessed with competing with the guy or girl or the whole from them that they missed the real competitor and in media, this was very apparent that media companies would not work together against the burgeoning competitor, which was Google, for example, or Facebook now Meta.

They didn't see them coming because they were so obsessed. A word fighting within the organizations and B with fighting in the arena in which they were pitted against their competitor, which was another brand that they missed. Somebody coming in from beneath and this is constantly what happens in innovation you think your competitor is those guys.

And then all of a sudden you can go where did they come from that's because you're so obsessed with the competitor and. I saw that all the time in business and i couldn't understand i mean i just could not understand how people weren't in this together and they weren't. Beginning to interrupt and one of the things that dawned on me and speaks to your work is that when.

You're in a team in any sports team, you have all those neurochemicals running through your brain of oxytocin, the team bonding, you know, high fives, we're doing great, we hit a new milestone, you have dopamine from achievement, you have serotonin from somebody giving you a pat on the back and going well done, you have all these chemicals going through your head and you feel great about things and then You're plunked into a desk in an organization and you're on your own.

And that really, really struck me. And I was like, no wonder so many people who retire from sports into the business world struggle, because it's literally like all that's been taken away from you. And only now we're starting to see organizations really get their game together, excuse the point of trying to bring people together as teams and try to encourage and instill those characteristics in an organization, because ultimately, in the past, it was a competitive environment, not a collaborative one.

Aaron: Yeah. And it's so funny. It reminds me of that book, the infinite game by Simon Sinek, which, you know, it's not his idea, but it's this idea that like, Hey, it's not about winning and losing, it's about like going after that common goal.

Aidan: Absolutely. And, and, you know, that was quite easy, I suppose, when it comes to sports.

But the one thing I've really found was I didn't have a clue about leadership as a player, because we just had people we thought were the captain. And even in sports is evolved quite a lot which many won't know because of books and because of leadership mindset and because, you know if you think about rugby when i went professional say the late nineties early nineties in europe when that happened.

You could compete on physique or being physically more astute or better players, but ultimately then everybody kind of got to the same level because they were all professional and then the real competitors started to win because they were a better team. And they were more cohesive and they had more leaders on the pitch.

And we saw that in our local, in Ireland here Leinster is the second most successful club in Europe in rugby behind Toulouse, the other team I played for. And it's because they've invested in bringing in these people who are like almost mentors to the players and teach them how to be better people.

Not just better players and i find that really fascinating and that's something that you'd love to just transplant into the business world but then again, many organizations won't invest in the leadership prowess of their people because they see it so intangible for them or so they believe it is.

Aaron: How do you talk to so many organizations and so many leaders and so many, what have you seen work to, make that change and to make that move towards an investment and a focus on leadership?

Aidan: Well, as you see often, the first thing is the leader needs to really be bought You have this espoused leadership and I've even seen it with leadership coaches where they'll espouse all these great leadership qualities of, you know, collaboration and looking after your people.

But then as we saw during the recession, many people show their true colors and there's a great expression for this, that any Turkey can fly into the storm. So when things are going well, you can say you're a great leader and you can say all these things, but then when it comes to the crunch. You really get found out and i think that's starting to happen now as we're seeing this kind of tightening of the belt across the world happening overseeing a more stressful business environment you're starting to see true colors and the businesses that survive are those people who are authentic about their leadership qualities and most importantly i think.

Is the ones who have done the work before they need it they built the capability before they need it or jfk said the time to build this roof is when the sun is shining so you do the work before it's necessary. And then when there's some type of crisis, you're prepared for it. It's like for anybody listening who does running, you don't go and run the marathon without doing any training because you haven't built up the basic muscles.

And then in the same way, you have to do that with your leadership muscle. You need to build it up before. You're going to need it because you are going to need it, particularly in this world of multigenerational organizations. Then you have all these kinds of different threats, competitors, disruptors, startups the sociopolitical landscape across the world, all these things coming up, people will mean that people struggle.

So leaders need to be looking after themselves. I think. Just like many of us do this, we tend to sometimes look to our people first and be the kind of leaders that tell them what to do, but don't actually be the exemplar of those skills that we want from people. And I think more than ever. When a leader leads by example and shows the skills in times of crisis, what they want from other people, then people learn best.

Aaron: Yeah. They learn from that experience from being in it. How do you, from your experience and from seeing it, what are those essential elements of leadership that's necessary? Cause we're talking about leadership. We're talking about the importance of teams, but what to you. Is a picture of great leadership

Aidan: so i love this idea of leadership so just to give context to our audience the sweet spot where i live is between innovation or implementing a mindset of innovation or as i call it in the book mindset of permanent reinvention and then helping leaders.

Home those skills and develop those skills and there's a beautiful term that I love and it's comes from ancient Greece where there's this statue. Is this greek god called Janus and Janus is the root of the word January, and in Janus it's often seen above doorways it's the god of new beginnings or essentially the god of reinvention.

It's the root of the word January, and what the face looks like is there's one face look into the past and there's one face. Look into the future, and I think that's absolutely beautiful because you have a respect for the past and where you came from. An awareness of what you're doing today is based on those things in the past, but you have one eye on the future, literally like Janus, that God has an eye on the future, an eye on the past.

And I think that's, Kind of spills out a load of need for new skills that leaders need. So they need to be constantly updating their skill sets for transpotting, for sensemaking, for listening and communicating with people like in your book, for example. Where I want to hear from the positive Cassandras in my organization, those people who in the past may have been seen as naysayers, who are in fact gainsayers.

And the difference is a naysayer is somebody who's constantly coming up with problems, a gainsayer is somebody who's coming up with, well, I see this as a problem. What i'm telling you because the organization is going to struggle in the future and to have the skills to be able to identify that alone is a difficult thing and then after that you have to have the means in your organization to harness those type of games to listen to those people because many people who are like that suffer what's called the momo effect or shooting the messenger.

And this is a kind of bias where we associate bad news with the bearer of that news, hence shooting the messenger, and we need to be able to see past those biases and this is why all this stuff is so important. People often ask me about this, Aaron, I don't know about you, about, well, why do I have to learn about bias and why do I have to learn about innovation, all these things, and you're kind of going, because they're all culminating just like, all these different trends are culminating.

We have exponential increase in the capability of technology coupled with artificial intelligence. One is powering the other couple with 5G. We have no idea what that's going to do to the business landscape. And as a result, you need to be able to hone these skills for when switch flips, because it's coming very, very soon.

Aaron: So you mentioned this, Going back to this idea of you got to build the roof when it's sunny out and you got to have a respect for the past, but also look towards the future. And it just gets me thinking, you know, if things are going well and. Our organization, I raised the bar is done really, really well.

We two and a half X our growth last year and the team's doubled. How do you help people or how do you encourage people to look at, okay, not getting stuck in what you're already doing, even though what you're doing is working.

Aidan: This is the innovators dilemma. This is the real crux of it all.

And I find. This is where reading like you read gracefully i do so also an interview with authors like you every week as i had you on our show is so useful because you constantly pick up different models etc and in my book i introduce an update to an older model so this model is called the s curve and the s curve comes from the term sigmoid curve and.

What it's used to do is map any kind of technological growth. So you think of a new product, it always starts off as a kind of a crummy idea. Think of the first iPhones for those people who remember them. They weren't great phones. They didn't work great as phones, but they introduced new capabilities into the world that weren't there before, and then they go through a period of getting better, the technology gets better through exponential change.

And then they go to position of growth and then they start to peter off again so just like the shape of an S, if you picture in your head a stretched out S, it starts off slow. It grows rapidly and then it peters out, it plateaus at the top and then it declines. So I show this across a wide range of different organizations.

And I map those organizations to the S curve and let me just give you a couple of examples here. So take, for example, the growth of the horse and cart, right? So picture yourself in the late 1800s, the dominant mode of transport is rail and the other dominant mode of transport is horse and cart roads are no more than glorified dirt tracks.

And all of a sudden these things start to pop up that were so smelly and so unreliable that they were known as stink chariots automobiles people could not see the use for these things they dismissed them as toys for the rich. In fact, when henry ford cleverly saw this automobile and he didn't invent the car, what he did was he saw mass production and assembly lines in meat factories and he said i'm going to use that idea and mash it together with automobile assembly so he created these assembly lines that's what his innovation was.

And when he wanted investors, he couldn't get investment from banks. So we went to private individuals. One of those private individuals was a guy called Horace Rackham. Rackham went to his local bank, the Michigan savings bank. And he said to the bank manager, I want to invest in the. Automobile i think it's gonna be a winner mr henry ford is starting a business what does the manager say.

The horse is here to stay but the automobile is only a novelty a terrible prediction. In retrospect you gotta realize the dominant paradigm and paradigm is this greek word that just means pattern so the pattern of thinking at the time was. How can we jump from this world dominated by horse and cart everybody knows how to use it we have suspension on the horse and cart it didn't exist on the car yet so they were even uncomfortable.

They didn't work at all and along comes this guy with this great idea that everybody in america will have a car so. You get to this position of success and this is the reason i share this mr henry ford right massive success. He's the guy who said, if I asked people what they wanted, they would have said a faster horse.

So think about that. So that S I'm talking about is when you have an established way of thinking, the type of customers you sell to the way you sell to them, it's very hard to break that paradigm of thinking. And the question i always ask in my workshops is how do you think henry ford reacted when people in his organization came to him and said mr ford our clients want something different right so famously.

This happened to him and this by the way is the guy who said failure is simply the opportunity to begin again this time more intelligently some. Sales teams and this is often what happens sales team spot a first because they're the ones who have tentacles into the real world. And they see changing customer needs, changing customer preferences, the business environment changing, and they came forward to the R and D team and they go, look, our customers are asking for different colored cars.

They want different designs, et cetera. He's not listening to us. So the R and D team go and create a prototype. They decided to just show it to Mr. Ford. They walk into Henry Ford's office and they go, Mr. Ford, we have a prototype. Here it is. How do you think this magnificent innovator reacted? Yeah. Yeah.

I have the punchline here. He said nothing. He stands up, he walks over to his cabinet and he pulls out a hammer and he smashes the prototype into smithereens. In doing so, Aaron, he smashes his business. In 1921, they had two thirds of the marketplace. Five years later, that had shrunk to only one third of the marketplace.

And a year after that, it was down to 15%. They did not see changing customer needs coming and it's always from some place where they don't spot it and let me just tell you this, because this is an interesting part of the story people don't know when General Motors and Ford were the dominant players in the US.

In comes Toyota and Toyota had this really crummy car in the first year. It's sold less than 300 vehicles in the U S in the first year introduction. And as a result, General Motors and Ford dismissed them. They didn't see them as a threat, just like Nokia and BlackBerry didn't see Apple as a threat because.

They had a lesser car and they were like, this, these guys are jokers. What are they doing? But here's the point. Toyota, like Apple was selling to a new batch of customers. Toyota was selling to what's called a non consumer and non consumer is somebody who can't afford that previously great product that gets better and better as it moves up an S curve.

Instead, they want something that's good enough because good enough is better than nothing. The original Toyota cars were better than nothing, and as a result, new marketplace grows because a new marketplace grows. Toyota is still not competing with general Motors and Ford, but gets better and better hones this process and then starts to compete with them and then starts to take their customers.

And that is always the pattern that we see in disruption.

Aaron: How do you not fall into that trap or how do you avoid getting yourself out of that trap?

Aidan: Yeah. So if you think about your growth of the S curve, this is important to understand this. So visualize yourself as you get good at something. So take for example.

In sport. So somebody who over identifies with their position of, Oh, I used to be someone, I used to be a contender, you know, this type of idea, they over identify with the Jersey or somebody who over that identifies with their role in the business or a business that over identifies with the business model they have.

So let me give you an example here, Nokia. So Apple not only reinvented the phone, they also reinvented. The business model. So this whole idea of a subsidized plan, Apple did that. They also invented, innovated with the logistics platform. So they had really nice just in time supply, really studied Japanese production, et cetera.

So they looked at all these things. Meanwhile, Nokia had a humming business doing very well, just like General Motors and Ford were and they could not let go of that. Right, so the story I tell and I think it's a nice one to think about for each of us individually because we all have a version of this, something that we cling to that's not healthy.

In a time where natives could trap monkeys And do so legally and sell them to zoos or to invading soldiers as pets. They used this ingenious technique to do so. They'd hollow out a coconut just wide enough for a monkey's hand to fit in. And they'd stuff that coconut full of fruit. They'd hang it on a tree that monkeys would frequent.

In time, the monkeys would come out of hiding, smelling the fruit, of course climb the tree, and shove their hand inside that coconut. They'd feel the bounty inside, and they'd create a fist to drag it out. But of course, because they created the fist, they couldn't get their hand back out of the coconut, hence it became a trap.

And don't forget, the coconut was tied to the tree. Now, in time... The captors would come out of hiding and they'd see the monkeys trapped in the tree. The monkeys would see them, but still cling to the fruit within the coconut, knowing that it could mean certain death, or it could actually mean that they will definitely not have freedom again in the future, but they still cling to the fruit.

And I use that as a story for on a personal level, we cling to. Grudges hurts of people who have done things to us in the past. And we use a valuable energy that could be used for creation. It's destructive energy in the same way. We cling to personas that we've developed over time. And as a result, we don't reinvent.

We don't let go of the past in order to move on and enjoy the future. And equally in businesses. Businesses do the same. They hang on to business models that no longer will serve them in the future because they benefit from them today, but at the expense of tomorrow.

Aaron: And yet it's so messy and hard to adopt a new path.

Aidan: It's always messy in the middle. You know, the aspect of the S curve is the way to avoid the decline at the top of the S curve is to jump to a new curve. And if you think about an S and another S at the top of that, the key is to jump to a new S curve. Before you need to like the whole idea of the JFK quote the time to repair the roof is when the sun is shining or it comes from a spartan warrior mantra which i much prefer is the more you sweat in times of peace the less you bleed in war so you have to do the work before you need to that work and that includes jumping to a new curve because think about it.

The next curve is going to be beginning from scratch again, and I call this the messy middle between the S curve jumps. It's always messy in the middle between one jump and the next because you're figuring things out again. And like you started today's episode with, it's beginner's mind. When you have beginner's mind and you understand that chaos always precedes order, but then the order will become chaotic again.

When you understand that's just a cyclical wave. You enjoy things when you're at the top of the wave, but you prepare for the inevitable trough, that's definitely going to come your way.

Aaron: I love that. I love that idea of chaos always precedes order. And it's something that we talk about in our training.

And we say to leaders, the moments. that you've grown the most. Like think about those moments that you've grown the most in your life and then think about the moments that happened just before them. There was likely discomfort, challenge something that you had to overcome. And it just, that's such a great way to, Put it cast always proceed to order and it's a necessary part of growth is what you're saying the messy middle is a necessary part of evolution of an idea yourself your team.

Aidan: Absolutely and you know my son is just 12 he's just gone into a secondary school we call it over here i think it's grade school over there is that when kids around 12 or so or high school he's just gone into high school. High school. Yeah. And you know, he, I was telling him, I was telling him how proud I was of him.

And he's like, kind of going, why? I was like, I was like, you are reinventing yourself or you're going into a new bit of chaos. It's going to be weird. You're going to be figuring out new things. There's a lot of new information coming your way and not a lot of new ways of doing things. And that is a really valuable skill to be able to do that in the future and i think we can all do that with people when we spot them in that messy middle is be able to encourage them and identify what they're going through and go well done to you for able to manage that chaos and know that order is coming but remember that.

Chaos will come again so enjoy it when the order comes but build the capability for the chaos again because this is the idea of permanent reinvention and the symbol i have for this is the infinity curve. This is where i've adopted upgraded the s curve to become an infinity curve so think about.

Figure eight on its side as an infinity, but really what it is, is an S consuming itself. If you think about that, it's like an S going up one curve, plummet down to the bottom, beginner's mind, like you said, and then go up the curve again, plummet down to the bottom and go up the curve again, and that is the symbol of permanent reinvention.

Aaron: Yeah, I love that. Reinventions in innovation and reinvention sounds so trendy and catchy and cool. And from what I'm hearing and from this conversation, it's. It's dirty, it's messy, it's uncomfortable, it's hard and it's necessary at its core. And so I just, I love that the perspective that you're sharing and the way you're sharing it.

I'm just super grateful that you've given us this time and energy to share your insights.

Aidan: It's an absolute pleasure i leave you maybe one story because i think this story encapsulates a beautifully so the great poet Maya Angelou said that, we delight in the beauty that's a butterfly but really miss the changes it has gone through to achieve that beauty.

And the reason i say that is this is what actually happens in this great transformation from caterpillar into the butterfly the very first act when the caterpillar emerges from its shell is that it turns and it consumes its shell it uses what it used to be in order to feel what it's going to become in the future then it grows through a position of.

Incremental growth so it becomes a bigger version of what it used to be now map that to in your mind to the s curve or to your own growth in any kind of role that you're in you become more proficient as you go up from that chaos into the order but then pre programmed cells deep within the dna of the caterpillar called imaginal disks.

Come on line and a certain point in the life cycle and this happens to all of us are where those moments of quiet shooting the shower walk in the dog whatever it might be something inside like the term vocation means voice. Calls to you and says it's time for a bigger change the same thing happens in the caterpillar with these cells called imaginal disks but what happens.

The immune system of the caterpillar repels them beats them back suppresses them just like happens in organizational changes you know well but enough of the imaginal cells come together. And they resonate at the same frequency, communicating with each other, and they induce the caterpillar to become the chrysalis.

In the chrysalis, this is the most amazing transformation. An enzyme is released, just like in stomach acid, and melts down that caterpillar into this soupy, gloopy fuel, that's going to become a fuel that's going to fuel the future becoming, which is the butterfly. But just like the coconut trap, the last step is As the butterfly emerges, it clings to its cocoon.

And the cocoon is the hardened skin of what used to be the caterpillar. So this sacrifice is huge. It's messy in the middle. But the last act is probably the most beautiful. And my perception of this and the way I imagine this is, you see the butterfly clinging to this outer skin. Staring into it and what's happening here is it's filling with fuel, it's, it's wings are filling with fluid at this time, but I saw that when I saw it and I was like, well, I think that's a moment of gratitude staring into what it used to be.

As a moment of thanking yourself for getting it to this point, but then just like with the coconut trap need to let go of the past to fly into the future.

Aaron: I love that, thank you for that story. Thank you for today. Thanks for the time, the experience. It's just a great perspective.

Aidan: It was great. And I wish you growth up the S curve and a joyous jump onto the new S curve, even if there'll be messy in the middle, man.

Aaron: Oh, yeah, I'm going to embrace a bunch of those, the messiness.

That's the fun in my mind. That's the fun before the pleasurable outcomes.


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