How to Make Change Your Ally | Brad Stulberg

Brad Stulberg

Change is hard. Let’s be honest – most of us prefer certainty and stability. We long to plant our feet on solid ground. But what if that solid ground is just an illusion? What if embracing change led to your greatest growth?

My guest today is Brad Stulberg, bestselling author of the new book Master of Change: How to Excel When Everything Is Changing – Including You. In our conversation, Brad upends the conventional wisdom around change and impermanence – showing how we can actually harness cycles of instability to become our best selves.

Brad Stulberg writes for The New York Times and his work has been featured in The Wall Street Journal and The Atlantic, among other publications. He’s on faculty at the University of Michigan’s Graduate School of Public Health and lives in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Western North Carolina.

Over the past few years, Brad’s own life has been a torrent of change – moves, new parenthood, career shifts, and painful family estrangement. Out of his personal experience emerged a burning curiosity about our cultural obsession with “getting back to normal” after disruption.

In this eye-opening discussion, Brad shares what he discovered through extensive research and reporting – about how we can cultivate what he calls “rugged flexibility,” gracefully navigating each cycle of order, disorder and reorder.

Imagine if you could harness the storms of change to help you grow into your best self. What could your life become if you made peace with impermanence?

You can find Brad at: Website | Instagram | Farewell Podcast

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photo credit: Robb Leahy


Episode Transcript:

Brad Stulberg: [00:00:00] Living systems of which we are one. We really like stability, and there’s no denying that. But that stability is a moving target. And the only thing that is true is that everything changes. So if we’re going to go through cycles of order, disorder, reorder, it’s helpful to have some skills for what to do during the disorder phase because the disorder phase is inevitable. Change is not something that happens to us or something that we can try to escape or avoid. It is simply part and parcel of even the most average human existence.


Jonathan Fields: [00:00:32] So change is hard. Let’s be honest, most of us prefer certainty and stability. We really long to just plant our feet on solid ground. But what if that solid ground is just an illusion? What if embracing change led to our greatest growth? My guest today is Brad Stulberg, best-selling author of the new book Master of Change How to Excel When Everything Is Changing, Including You. And in our conversation, Brad upends conventional wisdom around change and impermanence, showing how we can actually harness cycles of instability to become our best selves. Brad writes for The New York Times, and his work has been featured in The Wall Street Journal and The Atlantic, among many other publications. He’s on the faculty at the University of Michigan’s Graduate School of Public Health and lives in the Blue Ridge Mountains of western North Carolina. And over the past few years, Brad’s own life has been a torrent of change moves, new parenthood, career shifts, and painful family estrangement. Out of this personal experience emerge a burning curiosity about our cultural obsession with, quote, getting back to normal after disruption and this eye-opening discussion, Brad shares what he discovered through extensive research and reporting about how we can cultivate what he calls rugged flexibility, gracefully navigating each cycle of order disorder and reorder. I mean, imagine if you could harness the storms of change to help you grow into your best self and not be derailed by it. What could your life become if you made peace with change and impermanence? So excited to share this conversation with you! I’m Jonathan Fields and this is Good Life Project.


Jonathan Fields: [00:02:27] Changes is always of the moment.


Brad Stulberg: [00:02:29] Particularly of the moment. 


Jonathan Fields: [00:02:32] Yeah. Especially right now. So, you know, I have been fascinated with the notion of how we as human beings adapt and how, in my mind, the only one thing that I know for sure is that things won’t be the same. There’s literally nothing else that I can say for 100% certainty, but that’s about it. I’m curious what your draw was to go deep into the topic of change and permanence.


Brad Stulberg: [00:02:58] Right? Well, to your point, there’s this wonderful Buddhist teaching that says that the entirety of the Dharma, which is just the fancy word for the Buddhist philosophy, can be summed up in two words. And those two words are everything changes. So it is definitely the universal reality, whether we like it or not. What caused me to go into this topic? The past 5 to 6 years of my own life have been really characterized by just a lot of ongoing change. My family moved across the country from a big urban city to a smaller town in the mountains. I became a father for the first time and then again for the second time. My previous book, The Practice of Groundedness, became a best seller. I sustained an injury that forced me out of a sport that had just been an enormous part of my identity. I experienced and still am experiencing a really painful family estrangement. So the good, the bad, the ugly. But it just felt like a torrent of change. And then, of course, there’s the change that we all experienced, which was the coronavirus pandemic. And I’d say that the topic was on my mind for all those personal reasons prior to this. But the real kernel that became the book was in early 2021.


Brad Stulberg: [00:04:19] I was in our kitchen in Asheville, North Carolina, and my wife’s iPad because I don’t have my own, and I was just skimming the day’s news and every single website left, right, center. New York Times, Wall Street Journal, The Economist, no matter, they were all running stories with the headline when will things get back to normal? Or this is what it will take to get back to normal. Or here’s what we have to do to get back to normal. And there was something about that framing of getting back to normal that just rubs me the wrong way. I didn’t know what it was at the time. I went to Google and I just typed in, why do we try to get back to normal after big changes? And that search query was really the kernel that became this book. So parts personal, parts cultural. And I struggle with change. Right? I’m like the rest of us. We like stability. So you also write the book that you need or that you want to learn from. So I think you put all of those reasons together. And this became the big project that called me.


Jonathan Fields: [00:05:20] Yeah, I mean, that is such an interesting phrase. Also, get back to normal and you parse it. It’s like A, what is normal even mean? Was normal actually everything that people wanted in the first place? And for some people the answer is probably yes or pretty close to it. But for a lot of people, the answer was so far from that. This is actually not something. But it’s interesting because and I wonder what your take is on this. Even for the folks where quote before times normal was so far from what they hoped or want or thought it would be that there was still a sense of I still want to be back there, because it’s better than being here where I completely in the abyss.


Brad Stulberg: [00:05:58] Yeah, that’s right. This gets into one of the core constructs and discoveries of the book, which is the difference between what a scientist might call homeostasis and then allostasis. So homeostasis, The term was coined in 1865. Yet the concept underlying it goes back to the 15 and 1600s. So it’s quite old really. You could say it traces itself back to the beginnings of empirical science in homeostasis, states that living systems like stability and dislike disorder or instability, and it describes the change cycle as order, disorder. Then back to order in inherent to homeostasis is that disorder is bad, and that when you are in disorder, you want to resist it, you want to push back against it, and you just want to get back to where you were. And for centuries, this was the conventional wisdom in underlying model on change. And it’s only in the last few years that the research community has stepped back and said, you know, when we look at people that really flourish, when we look at organizations, even entire cultures that really flourish over time, they go through change in a slightly different manner. So Allostasis describes the change cycle as order disorder reorder. And it accepts that yes, we do like stability. Like the goal is to get to order, but that order is always somewhere new. And I think the etymology of the two words really elegantly captures the whole story. So homeostasis. It comes from the Latin root homo, which means same, and then stasis, which means standing. So it argues that we achieve stability by staying the same. Allostasis comes from the root alo, which means change, and then stasis, which means standing. So it says that we achieve stability through change.


Brad Stulberg: [00:07:58] And I love it because it has this beautiful double meaning that the way to be stable through change, which we can do is through change, through changing, at least to some extent. Richard Rohr, the Franciscan friar, calls order, disorder. Reorder the universal wisdom pattern in management science. Healthy organizations they freeze, unfreeze refreeze. Mark Epstein, the Buddhist scholar, talks about going to pieces without falling apart. Integration, disintegration, reintegration, evolutionary scientists would say. But the way that a species evolves is they change and they remain the same, but they’re different and stronger. So regardless of the wisdom tradition or the scientific field that you look at, there’s this pattern that really points towards our stability through change has to have us being okay, going into disorder, or at least okay enough in realizing that we’re not going to get back to where we were, but we can create order somewhere new. So it’s a long-winded way to say that it is true that living systems of which we are one, we really like stability, and there’s no denying that. But that stability is a moving target. And as you said so elegantly and opening, the only thing that is true is that everything changes. So if we’re going to go through cycles of order disorder reorder, it’s helpful to have some skills for what to do during the disorder phase, because the disorder phase is inevitable. Uh, research from Bruce Feiler shows that the average adult experiences 35 major life changes 35. So change is not something that happens to us or something that we can try to escape or avoid. It is simply part and parcel of even the most average human existence.


Jonathan Fields: [00:09:42] I love Bruce’s phrase for those also life quakes. And you’re not talking about small changes when in that context we’re talking about big disruptive changes. You know, the language is interesting to me also because that middle phase, like some of the words that you threw out there were disorder, disintegration. When people hear those two words in particular, just, you know, thrown around in conversation, if you were to say to somebody, is disorder good, most people are going to be like, no, this is like, if you have a disorder, there’s something wrong with you that you need to try and figure out how to fix. You know, if there’s a sense of like disintegration, then it’s well, something is quote should be there, solid, integrated. And if it’s disintegrated, that’s a bad thing. It’s quote falling apart. And yet it is such a regular part of the human condition. It’s funny because I look at that middle window, what do you call it? Disorder. Where you call it unfreeze. What do you call it? Disintegration. That window to me is both terrifying and opportune. Because if we stay in that first of the three stages, choose whatever language you want, right? Order disorder, reorder. If we stay in order, what effectively we’re saying is we are never going to step into a space of possibility because the next best version of ourselves, the next fantastic idea, the that incredible conversation, you know, like that comes your way that you never saw coming, that relationship that blossoms out of the blue. None of those things ever happen if we stay in a state of stasis or quote order. That happens when we step into the void, and yet we’re terrified of stepping into that space. And I wonder if it’s because we focus so much on the perceived pain of. And this goes back to your first book, groundlessness, rather than the space for possibility. But you can’t have one without the other, which is something that I’ve been I’ve been spinning in my head for years now.


Brad Stulberg: [00:11:41] Yeah. You know, in order to grow, you have to stress the system. I mean, the simplest example is if you want to make a muscle bigger, you have to pick up a weight and lift that weight and cause disorder in the muscle, this whole metabolic cascade. And often it’s somewhat painful. It’s uncomfortable. Then if you appropriately rest and recover, that muscle comes back stronger. And that’s how a muscle grows. And I think if we want to grow any of our emotional capacities or just become mature adults, we have to incur periods of disorder and we have to learn tools to hopefully navigate them. And that’s how we get stronger. I do think it’s worth pointing out here that there are different types of changes in disorder events. So there is stepping into the arena and putting yourself out there and being willing to fail. There is having that really uncomfortable conversation. There’s moving to a new city or taking a new job deciding to have kids. I’m going to call these voluntarily driven disorder events that are still scary and there’s a lot of growth. Then there are things like grief and loss and shitty health diagnoses and so on and so forth. And I think that, yes, we can grow from those and we can find meaning in those, but not all the time. And that’s okay too. However, those things are inevitable. So we don’t like talking about them, but they are going to happen to all of us. So I think that it’s important to separate the two, but to realize that actually the tools to get from disorder to reorder are the same, whether you’re driving the change or whether it feels like the change is something that’s put upon you.


Jonathan Fields: [00:13:20] Yeah, no, I love that distinction. And I think it’s an important one. You know, sort of like the difference between voluntary and involuntary. Fascinating conversation with April Rinne, who focuses a lot on similar ideas. And she sort of makes this distinction between the big disruptive changes that you see coming and want to happen versus the ones that you don’t see coming and don’t want to happen. And that’s sort of like a similar distinction. And it’s I think that latter one where we feel like we really have a lack of control and there may be no obvious or clean sort of like state of reorder or like, how are we going to transition through this to a better place? And I think those in particular are the types of change that we feel are imposed upon us, and that we are least empowered to find a way to navigate. And certainly, I think the last chunk of years, so many of us have been feeling that it’s like we open our eyes and we’re like this and then this and then this, and we feel so much of a sense of disempowerment to find a way through it, if not just find a way to breathe every day, as we’re like navigating the experience or trying to navigate the experience, you introduce a concept or a phrase that I thought was really interesting, this notion of rugged flexibility, which is interesting because when we think about the mind and sort of like a person’s approach to life, a lot of times that word rugged actually has been offered in a different context rugged individuality. You know, it’s in the context of self-reliance. I feel like there’s almost a bit of a reclamation in the way that you’re bringing this phrase into the notion of flexibility.


Brad Stulberg: [00:15:01] Oh, I’m so glad that you said that. That was my goal. So you’re making me smile. Thank you. Yeah. To be rugged is to be tough. To be determined, to be gritty, to be durable. But to be flexible is to be soft, to be supple, to bend easily without breaking. And when people hear the words rugged and flexible, they often think of them as these diametrically opposed opposites, right? You’re either rugged or you’re flexible. However, in my research and reporting on disorder, I found that individuals and organizations that are able to navigate periods of disorder and grow from disorder, they’re not rugged or flexible. They’re rugged and flexible. They marry these two terms. And that really led to the genesis of this notion of rugged flexibility that we do need to be tough and determined, and we do need to have some hills that we’re going to die on. But then we also need to be so flexible and adaptable. And even if we know our strengths and our core values, we have to be willing to apply them in diverse circumstances. So if you zoom way out and you look at the grandest empirical example of change that we have on like a planetary scale, that is evolution. And when evolutionary biologists and anthropologists identify species that survive for a very long period of time, they find that they have these two features.


Brad Stulberg: [00:16:33] So first are what’s called their central components. So these are the things that if a species evolved too much, they would no longer be recognizable. So they’re really the core of what makes the species what it is. But then outside of those central features and central components, they’re super adaptable on everything else. And that allows them, when there’s an environmental change, a shock in the environment to maintain their strength, their core of what they are, but also to be so flexible and to change. And that’s what allows them to survive and persist. And though the focus of my book is not on evolution at a grand scale, I think our own personal evolution happens the same way, right? If we don’t have core values, if we don’t have things that we feel are just essential to who we are, then it can be really discombobulating. We can feel like we’re truly groundless, however we. Must learn to apply those core values flexibly, and to adapt and to change and to grow over time. Otherwise, we’re going to be stuck in this rigidity or this rugged individualism that pushes back against change, often futilely. So yes, we want to be rugged and flexible. Not either or.


Jonathan Fields: [00:17:45] Yeah, I love the blend of that. You offer an interesting story or case study in the book? Tommy Caldwell um, who is this? For those who don’t know the name, this iconic climber, one of the most recognizable rock climbers in the world, does these feats that seem impossible. It was fun to read that, in part because it’s a great story I’m going to ask you to tell a little bit in part also, because as we have this conversation, I’m in Boulder, Colorado, and the first time I was in this town was in 1989, and it was before I was starting law school, and I drove from here up to Estes Park, which is the gateway town for Rocky Mountain National Park, and picked up a climbing guide to do a week of climbing to just clear my head. The guide was Tommy Caldwell’s dad. Tommy was, I think 11 at the time, and he was telling me stories about how he’d just gotten back from Yosemite with his 11-year-old son, who was, like, blowing people’s minds, like as a kid out there. And I didn’t make the connection until fairly recently that actually, this was the dad of this, this kid who’s now become this stunning climber. So it’s always fun to sort of, like, see Tommy’s name pop up and have that memory. But you tell the story about Tommy in a very particular context of change and adaptability and this rugged flexibility that he was able to embrace.


Brad Stulberg: [00:19:03] That’s right. So Tommy Caldwell is just a remarkable climber and really a remarkable person given his own personal evolution. So, in short, when Tommy Caldwell was in his early 20s, he was already a prodigy, phenom climber, and he went on an exhibition with his then-girlfriend at the time, his climbing partner and a photographer to the Uzbek mountains. And to make a long story short, they were kidnapped and they were held hostage by Islamist militants in the mountains. There was civil war happening in Uzbekistan. There was hostility between the West. So they were really caught in a really just crappy situation. And the captors, they had two who were heavily armed. So you have these four essentially kids, or at least very young adults in a foreign land held hostage by two captors that don’t speak their language. And they’re also in the mountains. So they’re in really, really rough terrain. The captors had them for five days, and they had run out of food in the mountains and very limited water. They were running out of water. Clearly, this was not a good situation for them. On the sixth day, the captors decided to split apart so that one could go look for more food and water, and the remaining captor had gunpoint, marched them into the mountains, because during the day they didn’t want to be on ridgelines. They didn’t want to be visible. Right.


Brad Stulberg: [00:20:41] For the Uzbek army, who was at this point presumably searching for them. And while they were attempting to hide, the captor went up on a cliff. And Caldwell realized that even though he was armed with an automatic weapon, he was not nearly as comfortable when there was exposure on the mountain. So in a climbing sense, when you could look over a ledge and see down, he saw that that made his captor very nervous and, um, puzzled it over in his head, rolled it around this way and that, and eventually decided that the thing that he had to do was to push this captor off a cliff. He noticed an hour or two later that the captor was kind of looking over his shoulder on a ledge, visibly very nervous, and Caldwell pushed him, and the captor fell hundreds of feet to his death. Caldwell, his girlfriend, his climbing partner, and their photographer. They were able to scramble to safety about five hours to an Uzbek army base, and then they were quickly airlifted back to the United States of America. So this happy-go-lucky kid, early 20s, on a trip of a lifetime with his girlfriend, just gone completely wrong in the most really horrific way you could imagine, is now someone that has also killed another human being. I mean, he heard this person fall. He heard the thump, really visceral capital T trauma that he lived through.


Brad Stulberg: [00:22:10] When he got back from the trip, he tried to go back to order. He tried to go back to how things were. So he attempted to essentially just start living his life again and didn’t really process the enormity of what had happened. And that didn’t work out well for him. He fell into depression. Anxiety really just became a shell of himself. And he says that the one thing that got him through that even like allowed him just to show up and keep living, was climbing. So climbing was his central feature, right? Like when he got on a rock face, even if only for a couple minutes a day, he could have some peace of mind. But otherwise, life was not good. And this went on for the better part of five years for Caldwell. And eventually, like so many capital T traumas, time can soften the edges. Caldwell was able to get help, and he started to reclaim his footing both on the rock and then of course, on the ground as well. Right when Caldwell was getting his mojo back, some seven, eight years later, he was out in the yard doing some woodwork for the house that him and his girlfriend were living in with a saw, and he accidentally cut off part of his index finger. In climbing, your index finger is so important, right? It’s what allows you to grip onto a rock and to have strong firm holds.


Brad Stulberg: [00:23:33] So Caldwell was rushed to a hospital. By this point, everybody kind of in the Colorado area knew who he was. He and Alex Honnold are by far the two best rock climbers in the world. So this is equivalent in the climbing community to LeBron James losing his shooting hand or maybe like half of his shooting hand. I mean, still really, really dramatic. They couldn’t reattach Caldwell’s finger. The hand has all kinds of nerves going on in it, so it’s extremely hard to reattach a finger. And in the surgeons, despite their best effort, they weren’t able to. And obviously this was extremely hard for Caldwell. He was told that he never climb again. He was told he’d have to find something else to do. And it’s not to say that he didn’t go through great physical, of course, but also psychological pain. But he thought back on how much he resisted the change to his narrative that had happened in the Uzbek mountains, and how much suffering that cost him in this time around. With his finger. He said, you know what? I’m not going back to normal, and I can’t pretend this didn’t happen. This is something that is now a part of my story, and I need to feel the pain. I need to process it, and essentially I need to get to reorder.


Brad Stulberg: [00:24:44] For Caldwell, that meant learning how to climb with nine and a quarter fingers, and it was a very, very slow path back to climbing for him. He really became a beginner again for a period of time. That story ends in a very happy manner, with Caldwell going up an extremely hard first ascent on El Cap with his climbing partner Kevin Jorgeson and becoming the first two climbers to free climb this route, and really a historic feat, one of the greatest feats of rock climbing ever. He did this with nine and a half fingers. And of course, the book. It’s not about climbing, but to me, what this story really signifies is someone that went through two massive cycles of order, disorder, reorder. In the first cycle. There was so much pushing back and just trying to get back to order, or trying to even pretend that the disorder didn’t happen. And who could blame him, right? A young kid that went through that like, of course that’s the natural response. But the second time around, he had learned that you just cannot resist these changes as much as you might not want them to have happened. When they do, you’ve got to find a way to integrate them into the story. And he was able to get on with his life and get on with his climbing much more swiftly, and went on to have this enormous accomplishment.


Jonathan Fields: [00:26:01] Yeah, I mean, it’s such a powerful story. I mean, it’s horrifying a lot of ways. Um, but it also it’s a powerful example of profound changes that are unseen, uninvited, unwanted. Part of what my curiosity around not just this story about Tommy, but about people who experienced these in general, which would be all of us, is where does the notion of grief fit into this process? Because if we use that, the three phases like order, disorder, reorder at some point, I would imagine there’s a grieving process for what would be considered that original order. Like that is the thing that at some point you have to say to yourself, it’s no longer going to be the way it was like that is not coming back. And I wonder how much a grieving process plays into the process of being able to move through the next two phases.


Brad Stulberg: [00:26:57] This brings to mind for me another framework that’s discussed in the book, the difference between a having and a being orientation. This was coined by Erich Fromm, one of the great humanist thinkers of modern times, 20th-century psychoanalyst, philosopher, and toward the end of his life, when he was losing a lot of his own capacities, he was witnessing the death of some of his friends. He introduced this beautiful distinction between having and being, and he said that when you define yourself by what you have, whether that is an income relationship, a certain skill, a certain kind of body, the size of your house, your car, your watch, you name it, you become really fragile because everything that you have at some point will be taken away, or at the very least will change. Whereas when you define. Find yourself by who you are, what he called being by your essence, by your core values. That gives you some ground to stand on when the things that you have shift and change, and when you lose the things that you have. It’s interesting because I was once asked like, well, isn’t then the goal just complete non-attachment? And I think that if you are a monk or a nun living in a monastery, perhaps that’s attainable. But for me, in many people that just are doing the best we can out in the world, that’s not possible.


Brad Stulberg: [00:28:19] I cannot non-attach from my children as much as I wish I could. I can’t non-attach from my craft of writing or my wife. So I think that a more practical way to conceptualize this, it’s just, yes, we’re going to attach to things that we have that mean a lot to us, especially if the relationships or skills. But we also want to have a sense of our being, because then when there’s these big changes, we can lean on those being qualities to provide, like just enough stability to help us get through. So it’s like this non-dual process of grieving the loss of what we had. So in Caldwell’s case, like his finger or his innocence, while at the same time understanding your values or your deepest held truths, which for Caldwell might have been climbing, or a love of nature or spirituality that comes with moving your body in the mountains, and those things cannot be taken away. And I think that if you have some of those things in your life, it just softens the blow the littlest bit. When there is disorder and disruption that’s put upon you. Whereas if you don’t have those things and disorder and disruption is put upon you, it can feel like there’s truly no ground to stand on. And that’s a lot more disorienting.


Jonathan Fields: [00:29:33] Yeah. I think the distinction between having it and being orientation is really powerful. You basically pose like five key questions around embracing change. And this kind of speaks to one of them, which is the notion of how do you identify yourself? What is your identity? And the question you tee up in that context is how rigid or flexible is your sense of identity? And this question is really key to how you navigate change.


Brad Stulberg: [00:29:56] Yeah. It’s one of the most intellectually interesting questions that I asked when I was writing the book, which essentially is everyone wants to have a strong sense of self and self-confidence in an identity that they feel really proud of. Yet we’re not the same person that we were a day ago, a week ago, a month ago, a year ago, certainly not a decade ago. And yet we are the same person. So it’s another example of non-dual thinking. What does it mean to have a strong sense of self when everything is changing, including you, your very self? And here I think there are two frameworks in the book that are really helpful. The first is this notion of identifying your core values or your sources of ruggedness. We kind of talked about this in evolutionary perspective and really holding on to those like, that’s the part of you that doesn’t change. Or if it does, it changes really gradually. But then being so adaptable and flexible in how you apply those values. So the story I tell here is of the tennis player Roger Federer, just absolutely dominant, but also known for his longevity in the sport. So he was really the first modern athlete to have great success late into his 30s and even early 40s. This is before Tom Brady did it right. He really changed how we think about aging athletes.


Brad Stulberg: [00:31:15] But a lot of people don’t know about Federer is between the ages of 33 and 36, he didn’t win a single major tournament. He was injured all the time. And the tennis community, people said, well, aging is finally catching up to Federer and especially in tennis, right? This is a sport where you’re a dinosaur at age 33, like most people, peak between 22 and 26. During this period of time, Federer identified his core values, which for him were a love of the game, competition and excellence. And he said, I’m not going to let go of those things, but that allowed him to let go of a lot else. So he more or less completely reinvented his game. He learned a new one-handed backhand that took speed off the ball. He started playing at the net more so he could volley so he wouldn’t have to run back and forth on the baseline against younger players, he completely overhauled his training program to allow for more rest and recovery. He even changed the racquet. Like in tennis, you have your racquet and that is your primary tool in this racket. Made him the best tennis player in the world for ten years, and he got rid of that racket to embrace a newer technology that young kids were using. So in this case of evolution, what didn’t change were Federer’s values, excellence, competition, love of the game.


Brad Stulberg: [00:32:30] But what did change were how he applied those values. And that allowed him to progress through this change that comes for all of us and especially for athletes. It can be really hard, which is aging. So I think one way to think about identity again is like, what are those? Core values, and then that really makes you who you are. That’s the core of you. That’s the part of you. When you look in the mirror, you know, you see an older body, but you also kind of feel like the kid in high school. Well, it’s those core values like that’s what’s there. Um, but then everything else you want to be really adaptable on. And then the second framework that I like to use is related but different, and that is to attempt to think about identity like a house. And if you give me a minute, I’ll get into it. It’ll make more sense. So if you have a house that only has one room in it, and that one room floods or catches fire, you’re in big trouble. Like you have nowhere to go. It’s very, very scary and discombobulating. But if you have a house with a couple rooms in it, in one room floods, you can go seek refuge in the other rooms while you work out the flood. And I think our identities are very much the same way.


Brad Stulberg: [00:33:43] So if we only have one room in our identity house, whether it is parent or partner or athlete or writer or musician or executive, and we experience a big change in that area, it is going to be a shock to our entire identity. Whereas if we can build identity houses that have multiple rooms, then when we undergo a shock to one room, we can go seek refuge and stability in the others. The first law of investing is you want to have a diversified portfolio. Just about everyone that invests knows this. And the reason for that is if you put all your holdings in one asset class, in that asset class undergoes chaos or disorder, well, it makes your entire net worth very fragile. You could lose everything. So what do you do? You diversify your holdings. You invest in different asset classes to protect yourself against this. And I think the same is true for our sense of identities and our sense of self. I think we want to have multiple sources of meaning in multiple things that give our lives texture. Now, it’s not to say that you need to spend the same amount of time in every room of your house if you want to be great at something, or if there’s a season of life where you want to go all in, be it on work, be it on parenting, be it on a creative pursuit, I think that’s actually okay.


Brad Stulberg: [00:34:58] I think that’s good. So long as you don’t let the other rooms get moldy, you want to make sure you spend just enough time in there. Because what can happen is if you go all in and you become obsessed with one feature of your identity, well, when that thing changes and back to the beginning, right? The only truth there is is that everything changes. It’s going to be really hard. And you see this often in entrepreneurs who lose their companies rates of depression, anxiety are very high. You see it in Olympic athletes that transition out of sport at age 25 to 30. You see it with retirement again, another life transition where people whose whole identity was their work, they suffer greatly. And you see it in parenting when parents who really make their entire lives, their kids, well, when those kids move out of the house, there’s often a big gap and they don’t know who they are or what to do. So I think knowing your core values, right, that’s like the foundation of your house, that’s the plan. That’s not going to change very easily. But then being willing to have multiple rooms and to renovate rooms and to change the dynamic of where you’re spending time, that gives you a rugged and flexible identity.


Jonathan Fields: [00:36:00] Yeah. I mean, it’s so powerful that the visual of the house. Also, I like the way you describe, like you can’t let any of the other rooms get moldy. Um, because, I mean, that’s a very visceral sort of like way to, to think about it. And yet I think so many of us do. And I’m raising my hand, you know, as a as a lifelong entrepreneur who’s been through the cycle of starting, building, growing and sometimes selling a company a number of times over, you know, you often make this decision that says, well, I’m like, this is a season of life, or this is like a moment where I just, I quote, have to go all in on this one thing. And you trust that those other things that you say are representative of your values, your relationships, your health, these things that they’ll be there when you finally have time to go back to them. And I think a lot of us make those decisions, and sometimes they are, but oftentimes they aren’t or they’re not recoverable or fixable in a way that we thought they would be. But we think they are. We kind of delude ourselves into saying, well, it’s okay.


Jonathan Fields: [00:37:01] That relationship, it’s just kind of like it’s on the back burner, but it’s it’s fine. Or my health, you know, like I hurt here and there and like, I have pounding headaches and I’m not saying, but it’s fine. I’m okay enough. And we devote everything to just building an identity around this one domain, that one room. And then when that goes away, for any variety of reasons, that’s the time where we actually realize the other rooms are moldy, because we kind of deluded ourselves into believing that they were all fine along the way. And I wonder if the rocking of the boat is not only the fact that we’ve lost this primary thing at that point, but compounding that is, simultaneously we’re waking up to the fact that. These other areas of life built around values that we claim to hold dear, that we thought were fine actually aren’t. They have been dysfunctional or crumbling or non-existent for a long time, and this is like a dual wake-up call where it’s it’s shattering our identity. And it’s sort of like these two ways that make it even harder for us.


Brad Stulberg: [00:38:05] Yeah, that’s an identity crisis, and I never thought of it that way. So thank you, I think. Yeah, there’s the pain and trauma of losing the main thing. And then there’s the pain of realizing that the other things aren’t there or that you’re not connected to them. I want to be really practical here. So I think that one way to avoid it is to define the rooms in your identity house. So for me, those rooms are my family. So my parents and my wife Caitlin, my craft – writing, and then the athlete room. You could call that the health room. Those are my three main rooms. I’d say a fourth room that has increased in importance is the community room. So my neighbors, my friends, so on and so forth. I don’t really have too many other rooms. I’m an all in kind of person. So even amongst those rooms, there are seasons where I’m going to spend a lot of time in just one. So putting out a book, launching a book, that’s a time to go all in. But I have to try to practice what I preach. So I’ve tried to define like a minimum effective dose for those other rooms. So maybe I’m not going to be a great athlete, and maybe I’m not going to be the best husband or the best parent for this six-month period. And maybe I’m not going to be the best neighbor or friend, but what is the thing that I will not get below? Is it 45 minutes a day, six days a week in the gym? Is it only traveling once a week for the book or four family dinners a night? Is it making sure that I hang out with friends in person at least once a week, even when it’s so easy to say no? Because there’s always more you could be doing to promote your book.


Brad Stulberg: [00:39:39] And I don’t have to get into what those things are, but I think that that really helps you avoid the trap of letting the room get moldy, because intellectually, it’s easy to understand this. But if you’re an entrepreneur, if you’re a driven person, when you’re in the thick of it, there’s a real strong inertia to just like going all in all the time. And I think having like a very tight boundary or constraint that says, I know the temptation in the pull is just going to assume that these other rooms are fine, but I’m going to define like what I need to do to ensure that and then to time-bound things to say. All right. Like I’m giving myself four months, five months, an athlete in an Olympic cycle. I’m giving myself one year where I really put the other stuff aside, but then I have to bring it back up just enough to make sure that it’s not getting moldy. And what’s fascinating, Jonathan, and I wonder if you find this resonant, given your background in my reporting for this book and really for all of my work, I’m fortunate I get to talk to a lot of people who are truly, like, excellent, and they’ve done a lot of great things, but their selection bias, I don’t really just care what is in your bank account or what trophies you want.


Brad Stulberg: [00:40:44] I also want people that are fulfilled in good people, people doing it the right way. And what I found for a lot of these people is if you zoom in any one point of time, they don’t look very balanced. But if you zoom out and you look across their life, they look extremely balanced. So I think like to keep going with the house metaphor. They’re really good at picking a room for that season of their life and spending a lot of time in that room, doing enough to maintain the other rooms so that when the season changes, they can go spend a lot of time in another room. And I think this is important because it’s really easy to strive for quote-unquote balance, which I think is really well-intentioned. But what often happens is that becomes just a false target. Like it’s so hard you think I have to be the perfect partner, the perfect parent, the perfect employee, the perfect athlete. I need to stay up on geopolitics. I need to watch every season of succession so I can talk to my friends about it, and on and on and on. And that becomes stressful. So the thing that’s supposed to alleviate our stress, so-called balance, ends up being a stressor. And I think that this framework of having important rooms in your house and kind of knowing how to navigate them, it just feels a lot more attainable for people.


Jonathan Fields: [00:41:53] Yeah, no, that resonates a lot with me. And the notion of expanding the time horizon that you’re looking at, it also really resonates strong with me. I thank you for sort of like sharing that shift in perspective, because I think I agree there. Um, I think often when you’re deeply passionate person about a variety of different things, there is a tendency to say, there’s a season for this or a season for this season for this, and in any given season or short duration or sprint or stint, it looks wildly out of balance. But if you have mechanisms to keep checking in with those core values that you described and asking yourself, am I honoring them? Am I so out of balance that I’m leading to dysfunction? I’m creating mold in those other rooms? And do I have practices that will bring me back to saying yes to this thing, which is demanding a huge amount of attention right now, but also like your minimum effective dose. Concepts, but I will have always a certain amount of energy dedicated to these other people, these other rooms, these other experiences. There are ways to, over the longer haul, create this experience that feels, on the whole, more balanced. But yeah, if you zoom in on any given one moment in time, it’s like taking a snapshot of a pendulum which is never just sitting in the center. Um, it’s always swinging in some direction. You’re one of the other concepts that I thought. One of the questions that you really focused in on is this notion of how you respond to change. Do you respond in a more reactive or more responsive mode? And I’ve been thinking about the difference between those two for a long time. But take me into what you really mean by this. This is one of sort of like those five key questions that I think is so central to our ability to how we handle change.


Brad Stulberg: [00:43:39] Reactions are fast, instinctive, emotionally very hot. We often regret when we react. So this is like snapping on someone or sending that email, or just becoming so overwhelmed that then we shut down. Responses are slower, they’re more deliberate. They’re discerning. We generally sleep well at night knowing that we responded to change or disorder instead of reacted. Every book like this needs a framework. So this is where I snuck one. In reacting, you follow the path of the two P’s, so you panic and then you pummel ahead. Responding looks different. Responding has four P’s. You pause, gather yourself, you process. You make a plan, and only then do you proceed by going through the four P’s. Right? Four is longer than two. What you’re doing is you’re creating space between stimulus and response. And so many wise philosophers have said in various different ways in languages and traditions that our humanity, our agency, lies in the space between stimulus and response. So when we are able to go through a longer process, when we’re able to pause and process and plan and only then proceed, what we’re doing is we’re creating space to be able to take an action that hopefully aligns with our values. So I say this and listeners are probably saying, all right, I get it. Intellectually this sounds great, but when the rubber meets the road, like, how do we actually do it? And there are a couple tools that really help. The first is something that psychologists call affect labeling, which simply says that when you feel a really strong emotion, name it.


Brad Stulberg: [00:45:16] So you could say, I feel frustrated, I feel angry, I feel excited, I feel overwhelmed, I feel empty, I feel scared, I feel panicked. And just by naming that emotion, you create some space between yourself and it, and then you can say, all right, now I know what I feel, do I want to act on it? And often it’s just a split second, but that little pause allows you to get out of that reactive mode where you’re just completely fused with what’s happening and give yourself a chance at responding planning. You can ask yourself, what about the situation do I control and what don’t I control? And then how can I do everything possible to focus where I have some control and then only then proceed? So the one big lever that I just talked about is what I’m going to call the inside game. Meditation also helps, right? I mean, the whole point of meditation is to sit there and have thoughts, feelings and urges and not react to them, to learn to create some space between your experience and the observer self or the wiser version of yourself. Another inside game tool is in that pause. Pretend that a friend is in the same situation you’re in, and then give advice to that friend and then take that advice yourself. Right? That’s called self-distancing. These are all ways of just creating space. I think equally important, and what I hadn’t seen addressed in other books, and I really wanted to address in Master of Change is the importance of your environment.


Brad Stulberg: [00:46:40] So if you are constantly in reactive environments, then you two are going to probably be a reactive person, or it’s going to be much harder to respond if you spend all day on Twitter or watching cable news, or on just bad like ugly message boards, you’re probably much more likely to snap on your colleagues, to snap on your partner, to snap on your kids, to make poor decisions. And I think so much of the material in this space focuses on the inside game. But I think where you spend your time and kind of what you surround yourself with and obviously people, but more so now, like, I think content and media that conditions you as a person. So even if you’re a creative, for example, if you create on Twitter, that’s a very reactive medium you want to be first, you want to be quick and you want to be on trend, like being responsive and thoughtful and pausing is penalized. So if you put yourself in environments that incentivize reacting, it’s much harder to respond when you want to. So what I propose in the book is we should be really clear that what are not only the inside game and the skills that we can use to respond, not react, but how can we try to make sure that we’re in environments that promote our responding instead of reacting?


Jonathan Fields: [00:47:56] Yeah, I mean, that’s such an important point because there are the inner skills you describe. But also if you’re in a fast-growing young company where it’s all about innovation and change and breaking and, and the very culture. Of the job that you have and the organization and the team is, you know, like we are in a process of dramatically increasing acceleration, like the culture is. We’re doing everything possible to actually shrink the gap between stimulus and response, which is a lot of business these days, a lot of jobs. And then if you look at the entire media industry, not just social media, but legacy media as well, you know, there is such a race to try and be the first out there to break anything that literally the culture of the workplace of thousands, if not millions of people is let’s shrink the gap between stimulus and response as much as we can, because we need to be first. We need to be out, even if it’s wrong, even if we have to go back and fix it, which often never happens. Being first is more important than being intentional.


Jonathan Fields: [00:49:04] And when you exist in that culture as you’re describing, you literally have to break the culture. You have to go counter to the culture in order to say, no, let me take a beat. Let me actually breathe and build space into this so I can really understand what is happening here. How can I get as close to the objective facts of the circumstance, or my internal experience of what’s happening, and then really just think, what is the constructive, healthy, functional way to respond in this moment when you exist in a culture that literally annihilates that and often labels it as wrong, and at the same time, you’re living depends on you rolling with the rules of the culture. And maybe you’re a parent and you’re taking care of a family. So you’ve got this one core value that says, I need to provide for my family, right? And the other one says, like, I need to actually do excellent work. And it’s interesting because it occurs to me that this can bring up some really powerful internal values conflicts.


Brad Stulberg: [00:50:06] That’s right. So here I’m going to pull from Judeo Christianity. And there’s this wonderful phrase from the Bible that says, you can be in the world, but you don’t want to be of the world. And I think that that’s what’s at play here. I’m a pragmatist, and I try to be really practical in my work. So what does this mean practically? I think it just means carving out deliberate activities and spaces that cultivate responsiveness. So putting your phone away is addicted to your devices. As I am putting your phone in the glove compartment of your car and your cold garage during dinner, reading a print book without links that you’re going to get distracted in a room for an hour. Like build that reading muscle reading is such a responsive activity, like it’s just you and the text. You get to have a conversation and associate all these ideas. If you have physical practice as a part of your life, try to go hiking or to CrossFit or in the gym or gardening without your phone, or if you’re going to have your phone put on one playlist or one soundtrack and then put that thing on airplane mode. So we have these opportunities that we can practice. But you’re right, in the culture, it’s almost like a radical act of resistance to say, I’m going to read a hardcover book three days a week, or I’m going to go to the gym and be the only person that’s not on my phone in between sets of exercise. But to me, our very if you believe those philosophers and I do that say our agency and our humanity lies in the space between stimulus and response, then it’s really important to protect that humanity, because it is what separates us from so many other animals, like animals, just react. And reacting is fine for survival sometimes. But we want to do more than survive. We want to try to flourish and thrive.


Jonathan Fields: [00:51:54] Yeah, no, that makes a lot of sense to me. You know, one of the other ideas that you center, it’s one of the questions you ask also is the notion around how we handle our expectations and how that affects how we handle change, whether it pummels us or whether we kind of roll with it. And whether those expectations are realistic or not plays a big part into that. And I think a lot of us struggle to figure out what are our expectations, because sometimes we don’t ever explicitly state them. We just assume them into existence and never revisit them. And how close to reality are they? I thought it was fascinating to sort of like, look at the gap between expectation and reality, and how that affects how we handle experiences of change.


Brad Stulberg: [00:52:41] Yeah. That’s right. So the brain is in many ways a prediction machine. It’s constantly trying to predict what’s going to happen next. And this is for really good reason. If it didn’t, getting through the day would be extremely challenging. Now I’m traveling a lot for the book, and I often think about when I’m walking down the jetbridge to get on the plane. My brain predicts that when I step off the jetbridge, I’m going to step onto a plane, and if it was worried that I might be falling off a cliff or stepping out into the abyss, I. To have to scan, I’d have to double-check everything. Like just getting through the day would be impossible if our brain didn’t predict what’s going to happen next. However, there are times when what our brain predicts turns out not to be right. And by definition, change is what we thought would happen or our expectation for what would happen. Shifting in the greater the delta between our predictions and reality the worst we tend to feel. So an enormous part of navigating change is one updating our predictions or updating our expectations to match reality.


Brad Stulberg: [00:53:44] So when we thought it was going to go one way but it goes another, we’ve got to kind of like leave the hope of order or the expectation of order and realize, all right, we’re in disorder now. Because only when your reality and your predictions are aligned are you able to skillfully do something about it. And then the second important part here is just to expect that change is going to be hard if we go into these cycles of disorder with the prediction or the expectation that it’s going to be easier, we’re always going to feel good, or that we’re just immediately going to have growth and meaning, like all the self-help books say we should. And then that doesn’t happen. We’re going to freak out and we’re going to feel really crappy. Whereas if we have the expectation that it’s hard, then we don’t have to like the fact that it’s hard, but we won’t freak out as much because our expectation or our prediction will match the reality, which is going through cycles of disorder into reorder are often hard.


Jonathan Fields: [00:54:34] Yeah, that makes so much sense to me as you’re describing that, um, having flashbacks to a product launch that we did like a number of years back, and this was probably the first of what has been many product launches over a period of years. And I remember going into it thinking to myself, we have we have stress test every system. We’ve gone through it. We’ve sent people through the process. We’ve and everything is locked down. Everything is ready to go. Like we’ve thought of everything that could go wrong and we’ve dialed it in, we’ve protected against it and we’re good. And then launch day comes and everything falls apart. And it’s devastating because we’re like, but we did everything. And like, these systems are supposed to be fail-proof. And next time around, then we go into and we say, huh, you know what? We’re going to do the same thing. We’re going to stress test, we’re going to build, we’re going to try and anticipate everything that can possibly go wrong. But we’re going to add one thing to the process, which is we’re going to assume that no matter how much we prepare, things are still going to go wrong. And our job is not going to be to expect everything to go right, but to expect a whole bunch of things to fail and simply to be ready to be agile and to respond to that in real-time. And that mindset shift was really powerful in our ability to actually say when things went wrong, which they always do, to be like, okay, we kind of saw this coming. We didn’t know what would go wrong, but we knew something would. And now it’s showing up. And now, because we’ve expected we’re going to have to be on our toes and agile, we’re ready for it. It’s still hard, but like you said, we expected the hard things to happen and that changed the way we experience it in a really dramatic way.


Brad Stulberg: [00:56:15] That’s right. It’s you know, if you’re running a marathon and you expect mile 20 to feel easy, well, then when you get to mile 20, you’re going to quit the race. You’ll probably call for a paramedic because you’ll think that something is going like just dramatically wrong. But if you have an accurate expectation, which is mile 20 of a marathon feels really hard, then when you get there, you’ll be level-headed about it. And on a good day, you might even be pleasantly surprised. And I think this is true for all hard things. I think we’re often sold this narrative that borders on like toxic positivity, like make the best of it and expect things to be great and positive thinking and affirmations. And there might be a time and a place for some of these tools, but the time and the place for those tools are not heading into mile 20 of a marathon or heading into disorder. I think there it’s important to be honest with ourselves. It’s a tough love thing to do. There’s another non-duality that I talk about in the book Tragic Optimism, this time coined by Viktor Frankl, that essentially says that like part of being a mature adult is to accept and recognize that things are really hard, sometimes even tragic, and then to maintain optimism and hope nonetheless. So it’s not nihilism and despair and everything’s hard all the time, so why even try? But it’s also not Pollyanna toxic positivity. Bury your head in the sand. Expect everything to be great is realizing that a lot about life does feel like mile 20 of a marathon, and we can be hopeful and optimistic, even with the expectation that things are going to be hard.


Jonathan Fields: [00:57:44] Yeah, it reminds me of Gabriele Oettingen’s work also, where she looked at people who were striving for big goals and literally made this one change because so much of this sort of like pop culture mythology around goal achievement or striving or manifesting is think of only the thing as if like the outcome has happened and never allow a negative thought or an idea of a hardship or idea of it not happening to come into your mind. Because that. Will make it more likely to happen, and then it’s going to derail you. And what her research actually showed was that if you proactively anticipate the things that could potentially become obstacles in your journey, both internal, like your own self-talk to external circumstances as much as you can, and pre-plan if this happens like an if then sequence. If this happens, here’s how I will respond. You’re still not going to think of everything that might happen. It’s still going to be hard, but anticipating or trying to think about all the things that could go wrong and having plans around them, you are much more likely to actually achieve that outcome than not. And part of the reason was because you put yourself into that mindset where there was a certain expectation that things would come to you, that would go wrong, and you were still making a commitment to the fact that if they do, I’m still going to keep pushing forward. And it really shifted the nature of outcomes. I think that ties in so much to what you’re saying here, and it’s that, you know, the toxic positivity or the tragic of optimism. Yeah, I think culturally we want to be in that place where we always think everything is going to go right. But if we think, will that actually cause harm? It reframes our impulse to want to go there and say, well, like, maybe I need to just really reexamine the assumptions that I’m making here, because if I really want to get to this, this thing done or be this particular way, reality checks are probably going to help rather than hinder.


Brad Stulberg: [00:59:43] Yeah. You know, life is like in many ways, not a marathon, an ultra marathon. And, um, what a wonderful thing to be able to run it into, ideally run it with others and to learn and grow along the way. But on the start line of an ultra marathon, nobody thinks it’s going to be easy and it’s going to be without challenges and unforeseen impediments. You expect those things, and then when they come up, what makes a good athlete is being in the moment, responding, not reacting and doing what you can to work with them without falling into despair. And I think the same is true for living a good life in many ways. I think like the core of rugged flexibility or mastering change is really just that. It’s having an expectancy back to I sound like a broken record where we open like everything changes. We don’t have to like it, but it is what it is. We ought to expect it. We ought to try to have some tools to work with it. And then when it happens, we ought not to be surprised. We ought to say, all right, like, of course this is happening because I’m a living, breathing human being made of flesh and bone.


Brad Stulberg: [01:00:48] And, um, I can both understand that, like, parts of this suck and life is really tragic at times and do everything I can to keep going forward. This is true for more trivial changes, but it’s true for major changes too. And what I’m not saying is that we should try to put a positive tilt on loss, on grief, on depression, on a sudden layoff from a job. Those things they do just suck. And there’s research that shows actually that if we try to force meaning or growth on those experiences, it often just makes us feel worse. I’m not even good at grieving, or I’m not even good at being depressed. But when we go through those experiences and episodes, I do think if we can just hold on with like half a percent of our being, that if we can just keep showing up often that requires a lot of help. Sometimes from professionals, from community, from colleagues. If we can just keep showing up, if and when we create some distance, if and when there’s a semblance of reorder, we’ll look back on those experiences and we’ll probably have grown from them. And at the very least, we’ll have some more compassion for ourselves and other people.


Jonathan Fields: [01:01:55] That feels like a good place for us to come full circle in our conversation as well. So in this container of Good Life Project., if I offer up the phrase to live a good life, what comes up?


Brad Stulberg: [01:02:05] Knowing your values and having them is an internal dashboard. When you face disorder and change, using your values to help you walk into the unknown. And um, lots of love and really prioritizing connection. Connection to yourself, connection to the important people and the important pursuits in your life, and building your identity house in alignment with those values.


Jonathan Fields: [01:02:29] Mm. Thank you.


Brad Stulberg: [01:02:31] Thank you. This was a pleasure.


Jonathan Fields: [01:02:33] Hey, before you leave, if you love this episode, Safe bet, you’ll also love the conversation we had with Jason Mendelson about how he intentionally disrupted and kept changing his life over a period of seasons and years. You’ll find a link to Jason’s episode in the show. Notes. This episode of Good Life Project. was produced by executive producers Lindsey Fox and Me. Jonathan Fields. Editing help By Alejandro Ramirez. Kristoffer Carter crafted our theme music and special thanks to Shelley Adelle for her research on this episode. And of course, if you haven’t already done so, please go ahead and follow Good Life Project. in your favorite listening app. And if you found this conversation interesting. Awe inspiring or valuable. And chances are you did. Since you’re still listening here, would you do me a personal favor, a seven-second favor, and share it? Maybe on social or by text or by email? Even just with one person? Just copy the link from the app you’re using and tell those you know, those you love, those you want to help navigate this thing called life a little better so we can all do it better together with more ease and more joy. Tell them to listen, then even invite them to talk about what you’ve both discovered. Because when podcasts become conversations and conversations become action, that’s how we all come alive together. Until next time, I’m Jonathan Fields, signing off for Good Life Project.


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