Ep. 4 - Being a Multipotentialite, a Conversation with Robyn Penney
Hey, it's Thomas. Welcome to Episode 4 of the Creative Shoofly Podcast. In this episode, I'm doing something a little bit different. I have invited a good friend of mine, Robyn Penney, to have a conversation about being a multipotentialite.
This term was somewhat new to me and I learned a lot in this conversation with Robyn.
I really enjoyed having this conversation. And I hope you'll like it too.
Reflection Flow by Doxent Zsigmond (c) copyright 2018 Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution Noncommercial (3.0) license. http://dig.ccmixter.org/files/doxent/58328 Ft: Javolenus, Rocavaco, Siobhan Dakay
Books mentioned in this episode:
Refuse to Choose, by Barbara Sher
How to be Everything, by Emilie Wapnick
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HSP World Podcast
Intro: Hello, and welcome to the Creative Shoofly Podcast. I'm Thomas Beutel. This podcast is about my creative process and one thing I've found is that I really get in my way a lot when it comes to making art and being creative. I want to do this podcast because I know it will force me to think more deeply about creativity. I'm hoping that doing this will push me and challenge me to create better art.
Thomas: Hello Robyn.
Thomas: Hi! This is Robyn Penney, Robyn. You are my first guest on my podcast, so thank you for that.
Robyn: Oh, what an honor. I didn't know. That's fun.
Thomas: I'm so glad we're doing this. I wrote to you a while ago and I said, I am learning about, and I'm reading about this idea of being a multipotentialite and you responded by saying, “Great, let's have a conversation about that.”
So that's what we're doing right now. So thank you.
Robyn: Yeah. Thank you.
Thomas: I'm going to start by going over what a multipotentialite is. A multipotentialite is someone that has lots of interests and creative pursuits, and there are many different names for a multipotentialites:
Polymath, Renaissance man or Renaissance person.
Renaissance soul is actually the term that I like to use. It's gender-inclusive, I think.
Scanners another term for it.
Generalist, multi-hyphenate, multi-passionate or passion-pluralite. That's another one that I like a lot.
And some people that are identified as multipotentialites:
Isaac Newton, Benjamin Franklin, Beatrix Potter.
Hedy Lamarr, Julia Child, Geena Davis, Maya Angelou
Queen Margrethe of Denmark
Probably any of the MythBusters, but for me especially Adam Savage and Kari Byron.
I really like Tom Lehrer, the satirist, singer, songwriter, mathematician and professor.
And of course Leonardo DaVinci. He's sort of the prototype Renaissance person because he lived in the Renaissance.
And so that's just a small sample. Obviously there are many many people that I left out. What do you think of that list? Did I miss anybody that you want to mention?
Robyn: I think that, no, that's a nice comprehensive list. Well I mean comprehensive… it gives us a lot of good ideas across the ages and you've got men and women in there.
I was wondering maybe you'd like to do it in your own words how you would actually define the concept? So you heard a few names for it, but like how would you explain briefly what is meant by multipotentialite?
Thomas: I think for me is just someone who has lots of different interests and doesn't specialize in any one thing. Maybe to sort of broaden the concept I would say, someone who has more interests than typical. Is that a good way to put it?
Robyn: Yeah, because I think it's more than just like what we would call a well-rounded person. Like a well-rounded person who's maybe a person who has their job and then a couple of hobbies and interests that they occasionally do. Right?
But these are I think there's a level of passion and perhaps even commitment and skill that would come out in more than one of the person's area of interest.
Thomas: There's a Russian term I think it's called Ras which means passion. It's often used in terms of people who go on mushroom hunts or foraging for mushrooms. They're said to have a Ras for mushrooms and that term, I hope I'm saying it right.
(Editor's note: the Russian term for passion is страсть, pronounced strast')
But that term sort of speaks to me in terms of the passion that I feel for all the different things that I like. Like it's not just a passing interest. It's like, “Oh yeah I get into it!” Yeah. How about you?
Robyn: Yeah, I would say so. I think having multiple interests that almost feel like viable career opportunities or business opportunities. They aren't all, right? Because I don't have the time energy or expertise to devote to every single thing that I'm interested in.
But I would say probably every one of my passions is something that at some point I seriously entertained, “Okay, you know how in-depth can I go with this?” Right?
I had a moment… and maybe for example if I think of maybe dance… I was not very likely that I would get to a professional level of expertise there, but I do remember having a little moment of grief one day. It's around when I turned 30 and I was like, “Oh I guess that's it! I guess I'm never going to be a professional dancer!” Right?
So even if I kind of knew on some level that I didn't really have the skill to become a professional dancer, my interest in it was such that it felt like a very important part of me. And it didn't feel like something that I was… it didn't feel like just a fleeting interest that I would do for fun.
No, it felt like something very very central to what I want to do and how I want to spend my time like there's no one center.
That's the thing that's so tricky about this, right? It's ever-elusive and there's not necessarily one center. That's certainly not at the center of my life but it's an important piece.
Thomas: And you know here's the thing. You could easily find a partner and find a place at a local studio and say, "I'm going to give lessons. Come show up!" and people will show up. So you know that you could do it.
Robyn: Yeah. I did have… well there was a point actually when I was working with one professional dancer and he said, “Yeah, you should get into teaching.” Because I am a teacher by profession, just not in that area, that, “Oh you should get into it.”
And so I think I probably could have so I could have. Yes, I could have had some level of professional or expertise in it. But it didn't feel… it felt like that would then it would make it too close to my other job. So I didn't want that, but I do have lots of friends actually who become dance teachers kind of as a side gig.
Robyn: So yeah I guess another way to describe multipotentialite is someone who actually kind of likes having a bunch of side gigs. The gig economy got several downsides to it, but one upside is that if you are someone who wants to try different things often and wear different hats and use different skillsets, you can be benefited from this economic situation. That definitely allows for it.
Thomas: I think so And that that would definitely describe what I do I been self-employed for 16 years now doing basically whatever clients come and ask me for, whether it's setting up a website or working on databases or creating APIs, application programming interfaces, or combining it all, integrating them.
It's kind of neat because I don't advertise myself as just one thing. People, just by word of mouth, come to me and say, “Thomas do you think you could do something like this?” And I look at it and say, “Well let me give it a try. You know, why not?”
Robyn: It's that creative spirit, right?
Robyn: Yeah, it's wanting to find ourselves in situations where we get thrown in and someone says, “Okay, I trust you to just use whatever skills are at your disposal to figure it out.” Right?
And I think if you are a multipotentialite I think there's a kind of thrill that comes from being like, “Oh, okay, I'm in this relatively or even totally new situation. Can I figure out what has to be done here? And then comes the really cool part which is, you start drawing on your diversity of experiences and knowledge and training and saying, “Okay, how can I approach a situation uniquely?” Right?
Thomas: I'm curious, when do you did you first sort of sense that you had all these interests, that are more interests than other people did?
Robyn: Yeah I can't put my finger on one specific place. I think I actually knew for a while. I think I even knew as a teenager.
I'm reminded of how when I was applying for different programs at university or thinking about what I would apply to a university. A lot of people were telling me, “Oh, you should go into med school. You got good grades going to med school. Be a doctor.” Right? Because people equate good performance at school with an ability to succeed in the medical world and it’s not necessarily the same thing but that's just kind of a stereotype that was floating around.
I remember my dad when... he is really quite a laser-focused specialist. He's a scientist and he said, “No, Robyn shouldn't go into medicine. You need a lot of passion to be in that field. And she doesn't have it.”
So he was right about one thing and he was wrong about one thing. He was definitely right, I mean, I don't know, right. So it's a life I didn't take… I didn't go to med school.
I think he's right that I didn't have the single-minded focused that it would have, and commitment that it would have taken for me to get through med school. I mean I see people who even just the process of applying who will spend years of their life doing whatever it takes to get into the program and that's just to get in. Right?
And so I mean that's a level of commitment to one area of expertise. He's right, I just did not have that but where I think what he said wasn't correct. It's not at all true that I don't have passion. I just have too many passions to necessarily translate into one career, that would take me in different directions.
And I was more passionate about seeing what connections can be made. I used to love doing that, you know, when you're in school? One thing I liked about school is that they would allow you to take all sorts of different courses.
Especially in pre-university courses, where I was in a science program. But I had to take philosophy classes, English literature, language, sports/ We had to do all of that. And, yeah, I remember I'm really enjoying that mix and wanting to think, “Oh, okay, here's this question about the human condition. How did the psychologists answer it? And how did the philosophers answer it?”
And I would love like playing with the same idea back and forth and seeing it from different angles. I ended up going into university in a program that was half arts, half science. And then I finally settled on psychology, which for me was like a nice marriage of the two, but then you know I didn't settle on that either.
And then, I mean I won't get into my whole story just yet, but I think right around that age that you start having to think seriously about what your career path is going to be.
I was already resisting uncomfortably. I didn't feel good about it. Right? I didn't want to be someone who was doing multiple things… I wanted to be the single-minded expert type.
It probably would have been easier if I had just said, “Oh, okay, it's very clear, chemistry is for me. And I'm going to stay with that forever.”
I'm not saying that it's easy to study chemistry. Just it would have been clearer and simpler, but there are still are advantages.
And I think they crop up later. I think it takes longer, right? When you're planting a more diverse garden, takes a little bit longer for everything to grow in. And to see what shape it's going to take, and how the different.
I can't keep going on this metaphor. I don't garden. But maybe just see how the different colors fit together. I don't know.
I think it takes longer to reap the benefits, but they are definitely, there are definitely some.
What about for you? When did you put your finger on that narrative?
Thomas: For me, it's been sort of slow in coming. Although I already sort of knew when I started work out of college that I was a generalist. I wanted to be a generalist.
What's so funny about how you were talking about you know getting that laser focus… When I went into high school I was absolutely convinced that I was going to go into some sort of life science: biology, zoology, something having to do with animals, maybe microbiology, I don't know.
But it was like, that's what I wanted to do. I wanted to work with animals. That was it. And I had sort of designed my high school coursework in that way to be heavy on the sciences and all that kind of stuff.
And in my sophomore year, a friend of mine pulled me aside and he says… so this is now 1976… He pulls me aside, “I got to show you what's in his closet over here!”
And so this is on the third floor, which is like the math and science floor in our high school, and we go in this closet. There's a teletype and it's connected to a computer across town. A bunch of kids got together and formed a computer club and they were renting this so that we could actually sit on a computer, a real live computer in 1976. Right?
This is you know in the era of mainframes and stuff like that and it didn't take me like a week or two to decide, “Oh! This is what I'm going to. I'm into computers now. Forget biology! I mean who's going to make money in biology!?”
That was one of the things that was in my mind. Right? Because I was sort of steeped in that, you know, go get a job, a career here, whatever.
And by the end of high school, I had already started tutoring other kids how to program and all that. And when I got into college I decided, you know, I've had enough of software… I'm going to get into electronics. So I actually got my degree in electronics.
So now that I'm thinking about it, I definitely had that multipotentialite flexibility of just like, changing on a dime. Ooh, this is interesting, let's do this… And then, oh look over here…
So I ended up working in Silicon Valley as a test engineer, as opposed to being a hardware designer. And test engineers are generalists. We basically get whatever we get and we have to figure out how to test it so that we can sell it. And so there was a lot of MacGyvering and working up solutions on your own to figure out how to do this.
But it was around that time when I was in maybe a couple of years into my career and I thought, “This is what I want. I don't want to become a specialist in anything. I want to actually stay a generalist.”
And I was able to parlay that into vastly different jobs. I went from test engineer to software configuration management. Then I became a consultant and then I became an I.T. director and then went on my own. And now I'm everything. Sort of.
Robyn: There’s a couple of things that stand out there for me. One is I think kind of a good takeaway for anyone listening, who identifies with this profile, is you know pick up a generalist skill.
In your case, I guess it was being a test engineer. Right? And then in my case, well it's teaching.
These are things that you can then kind of pour out, into different contexts, and keep it interesting without starting entirely from scratch each time.
I feel like if you are embarking on a career and you're like, “Well, I don't see myself fitting into one thing where I get interested in so many things…” If you can pick up a skill set that can be used in more than one context, I think it gives you a good chance to feed that side of yourself.
Thomas: And I'm making a conjecture that being a generalist is actually more and more important nowadays. In the sense that jobs are changing so fast. I kind of think that (the focus on) specialists were sort of emphasized in the 20th century.
Whereas before, I mean we talked about the Renaissance era and times before. The people that really stood out in those times we're the Renaissance people, the Renaissance souls, the people that sort of did a whole bunch of different things.
And then now we're sort of getting back into the time where, I think again it's just sort of a conjecture, but being a generalist is not a bad thing to be.
Robyn: Well it might be a little bit too early to say, but I think you have a point that there's some reason to think given the current global situation that people who have adaptable skillsets, transferable skill sets, and who actually excel at moving quickly from one context to another one, would be an advantage right now. Right?
Because we're living in a very quickly evolving time that's full of uncertainty. Right?
I'm thinking back to the beginning of the pandemic when some people who are used to having stable employment and the stable paycheck are quite worried about, “Oh, this is awful! I don't know when I'm going to be paid next! I don't know what I'm going to be doing in six months!”
And I think a lot of us freelancers we're sitting there going, “Welcome to the club!” We've been doing this for years. I mean, I go through periods of being paid more regularly but I go through periods where, okay, one contract is up and I don't know in six months what project I will actually be working on. Right?
Yeah, I don't know exactly where the money's going to be coming from. It all always sort of seems to work itself, out especially the more you build the client base with a series of contracts that are related to each other and you have a good network.
That definitely makes it easier to get consistent work, but underpinning that you know… and not every multipotentialite is a freelancer either or self-employed… But I think it's a lot of us and so when that happened I was like, “Eh, this again.”
Now I'm not the only one. At least that aspect of it, the uncertainty aspect, right? Which is never pleasant but I think you do build up a certain resilience. An ability to deal with it, or if nothing else, just a familiarity with it.
And I think more and more people are going to be faced with that. So yeah it does give us an advantage.
Thomas: I don't want to argue that that being a generalist is in any way better than being a specialist. We need both.
I guess the only thing I wanted to point out is that I think there was a little bit of an overemphasis of specialization and I think we're now getting to understand a better balance, I think.
Robyn: Right. I mean specialists will continue to be extremely valued, I think. Yeah, in any context, especially the more that we do have particular problems with climate, with epidemiological problems. Right? I think that that will take a lot of specialist knowledge.
So it's not as if expertise is going away.
And it's also not to say that generalists don't have expertise. They do. It's just not necessarily condensed in one area. It's more about being multidisciplinary or interdisciplinary as well.
I think you're right. That there will be hopefully, maybe we'll see how it goes, but there may be more room and more appreciation of that skill set.
Thomas: There there are a couple of books that I've been reading. One is called Refuse to Choose, by Barbara Sher
And the other one is How to be Everything, by Emilie Wapnick, and I'll put links to these in the show notes.
I haven't gotten very far in Emilie's book yet. At least in the beginning it's more focused on careers.
But I'm really, really enjoying Barbara Sher's book Refuse to Choose. Because one thing we haven't spoken yet Robyn is about the challenges of being a multipotentialite which there are many.
Robyn: Oh yeah.
Thomas: And the Refuse to Choose book has really been an eye-opener for me because Barbara Sher goes through and describes so many variations or styles of being a multipotentialite.
And there's one style that I particularly identify with. She calls it the cyclic scanner. (She refers to multipotentialites as the scanners.) And that is someone who will go back to certain interests over and over again.
And that describes me so well. For me, it's trains and then it's fishing and then it's mushrooms and it's music and dance, and I'll always come back to them. I'm always coming back to them.
Robyn: I can relate to that too, in my case, I've always had an interest in psychology, philosophy, language, literature, education and teaching and personal development, and then also dancing and music. And these have always come back in different forms.
When I was saying that it may take longer for us to reap the benefits of this profile, I think sometimes it's because it may just take us a while to notice the pattern and see the cycle. Right?
I'm actually coming back to... I'm closing a loop that has been kind of open for a long time. I spent the last eight or so years as a language teacher.
And just this session, I got offered a contract to teach psychology, which was my undergrad. So, you know, several years later I'm actually drawing on this. I had never lost my interest in it. I was continuing to read books and listen to podcasts and lectures on the side.
But it was always like this weird, you know, painting my room and listening to lectures on ADD, and my roommate was like, “What are you doing?” Yeah. Okay. That's weird! But it was because it was an enduring interest, that now I don't do. Now I'm not listening to psychology podcasts because I'm preparing a course on it.
So then I've cycled away from that habit because I've put it somewhere else in my life.
I think that that pattern is there. I am a familiar, a little bit more with the Emily Wapnick book. I've read that one and I've started getting into Barbara Sher's book. I think Barbara Sher says more specifically, or it goes a little bit more in-depth about the different profiles, with the different types of scanner that you could be.
I think they both share a general message that people may have a sense that there's something wrong with them. Because it comes with certain challenges. And then both are trying to say, here's maybe a different way to look at this profile.
So instead of just saying, Oh, you can't commit, or you're scattered, or you never finish anything, instead of saying that saying like, well maybe... I like the way Barbara Sher puts it. She says, well, maybe what your objective, your goal, or your reward in doing something is different than what a specialist would be looking for.
A specialist would be looking for, how can I find out as much as possible about this? How can I reach a certain level of knowledge or skill or expertise that most people don't have, because I love this thing so much?
Whereas for the scanner, the objective could be very different. It could simply be, you know, let me find out everything I can about this area. And then once I've found everything, I move on to the other thing.
So if you have a more general interest, let's say in, in learning and education. And so you stay in one area and you think about, “How does knowledge about biology affect this? What does that tell me about learning and education?” Okay, great.
Now let me go find out. I don't know, let me go look at arts education at home. Okay. “How do you, how do you learn art? How's it different from learning science at home? Or where do I learn as someone who's becoming an artist?”
“What do we notice about my process of education and growth in this area?”
So it's less about, let me learn about biology and more like, let me take what I need from this.
I think this is a really good metaphor…
So I think my reading habits reflect what it's like for me to be a multipotentialite. Even, even the fact that I've often internalized a negative view it, so I've always said I'm a bad reader, in the sense that I have so many unfinished books on my shelf or books that have kind of, you know, meant to read, but didn't really get to.
I'll just read a couple of chapters at the end, you know, or in the middle and then kind of left for something else.
And then I realized, I noticed at some point that it's not that I was, you know, picking up a book, getting bored and leaving it. Sometimes that happened.
Oftentimes times I keep coming back to a book and I would say, okay, now I'm going to read chapters three and four. Okay. I'm done. And then, ah, chapters, I don't know, six and seven are catching my interest. Oh, let me go read it.
And then two years later, I said, you know what? I really want to read that book religiously. And then I'll go back and read the whole thing, start to finish.
And I noticed I did this with a lot of books. And again, I think it's that cyclical nature coming out. And I think it's because I often I was, I was looking for whatever was relevant.
I was getting whatever I needed from the book. I wasn't a slave to the book, you know, I wasn't there to say, Oh, what does this author have to say about this point.
I was trying to take what was relevant to me from that book. And if something wasn't relevant, Okay. Maybe I'll it's noted in my mind. I know it's there. Maybe I'll come back to it and maybe I won't and often I do.
Thomas: I so appreciate that she (Barbara Sher) put it in that language to, she put it in that way, that you go get what you need and you get out.
And that describes me to a tee. I don't know about you, but I have probably close to 30 books that are lying next to my bed. And they're all partially read. Right? I haven't read, I haven't completed a one.
I mean, I've completed a few. So sometimes there's something that's so wonderful and it reads well that it holds my interest. It's just a joy to read.
But for the most part is like, yeah, I'm getting in there. And, and I'm reading this one chapter about this specific thing. And it's like, Oh, that's interesting. That leads me to think about this other thing. And now I'm in a different book, you know?
Robyn: Yeah, exactly.
Thomas: So Barbara Sher's book has been a great help for me, specifically in the suggestions that she gives in how to make the most of this profile. I used to drive myself nuts with making plans like here, I want to do this project.
And then I would make a checklist and all that kind of stuff. And lo and behold, I would start out and do some of it and then put it away and it'd be sitting for two months, three months.
And I would feel bad because I'd looked at all these checklists that were just, you know, a few things checked off and now I'm doing something totally different. I'm taking just a portion of all these different things that I might want to complete.
For cyclical scanners, she says, develop a 15-month goal calendar.
But I did that and sure enough, I have maybe a dozen things on there that I'm wanting to accomplish in the next year.
And so the metaphor she uses is like the school day. Like, you get to go to different classes, like five different classes. Right? So I do it in the terms of a weekly, I call it my weekly sprint.
But I pick just certain tasks from all these different goals, my 15-month goals, and put them on my weekly list.
And now I'm finding that I'm I have a lot less stress about it because I'm am completing stuff. I'm actually going through and, let's do this little chunk here. And let's do that little chunk here. And tonight I'm going to work on this. And tomorrow night I'm going to work on something totally different, but it all comes from my 15-month calendar.
So I really appreciate some of the suggestions that she's come up with to work with it.
Robyn: Yeah. One that I got from the book was the idea of having this, I think she called it a day book, but you can call it a dream book or a potential project book.
And I have this book that's just full of little tabs and every time I have a new idea for a project, I start a new tab and I jot down what I think would be involved. And potential resources that might be in there.
And then I leave it and I come back to it as often as I want or need to. And it's nice because it feels like everything… It feels like there's a place for it. And it allows me to worry less about, “Am I going to get there?” Right. Because it's there, it's written down. So in case I do come back to it.
Thomas: It's not going to get lost.
Robyn: Exactly! It's there for safekeeping. But also when I see the number of projects that I have there, it also is a nice reality check.
And I tend to not beat myself up as much for not doing it like, oh, okay. I came up with 10 projects. I only got two of them done this year. That's okay. You still got something done. Did you really think you were going to do 10 projects in one year?
Depends who you're talking about right. I know some people can accomplish 10 projects in one year, but I think that's something that helps as well is just seeing how many places our mind is taking us and accepting that it's okay not to get everything done at once.
So doing this method, like on the one hand, it's a reality check. It allows you to not feel bad about not doing everything. And then it also gives you a more workable way to come back to the things that are important, because I have seen that when things come up again and again and again, I do find ways to get to them.
I had been thinking about doing a podcast for a couple of years and I was taking notes and basically it's just timing, right? It's just waiting for the right opportunities to come along. Sometimes we have to go out there and seize those opportunities. But other times, especially if it's something creative, you kind of have to let go of the control a little bit and let it come to you.
And actually, interestingly, that's what happened with our other podcast there, HSP World. I was starting to look around at ways to get it off the ground. And Rayne just came to me and said, “Hey, I'm getting a podcast going. And would you like to be a cohost?”
So I think had I not already been clear with myself and had a section in my book, dedicated to that, it would have been maybe a bit harder. I would have had to think about it more.
But, yeah, it was easy and it was like, huh, okay. I guess this is done, you know, and I know also one day I'm going to move on.
This is another thing, right? You start building in this expectation one day, “I don't feel like doing this anymore.” Or I don't feel like I'm this topic anymore. I don't feel like doing this in this medium anymore.
And it's not, I already know that it's not personal. It's not a failure. Right. So maybe setting a goal about, you know, how far would I like to get, but then also not really having your, in your head yourself into it too much, either.
Right? Thinking about thinking more, more broadly, maybe not quantitative, right?
Maybe it's not about saying like, okay, I'll get out when I've done a hundred podcasts, but like, I'll get out when I feel like.
Thomas: You're done whenever.
Robyn: Yeah, whatever it was. Right? Like, whatever it is, whatever your reason for getting in, once you accomplish that reason.
And sometimes you can't necessarily put words on it until it happens.
Thomas: Right. It's just a feeling it's like, Oh, you know, this is done now.
And it may just be because there are so many other juicy, wonderful things pulling at you, at your interests. You know, and that's, that's been one of the things, one of the wonderful learnings for me is, this is who I am. I'm interested in a lot of stuff and there's nothing to apologize for.
Robyn: There's nothing to apologize for. And I am going to be, I know that if I move on, I'm not moving on because... I'm not moving on for bad reasons. Like I have valid reasons and I'm probably moving onto something else that's also worthy of my time and interest. Right?
So I agree. That was a very, that was a very helpful realization to say, well, it's not something to it. It's not something to fear. It's something to start building into your life.
Well, Robin, thank you so much for having this conversation with me. I'm delighted to be able to share this with you and just to know that you are also sharing this journey that's similar to mine.
So I appreciate that.
Robyn: Yeah, my pleasure. Happy to talk about it.
Thank you so much for listening to this podcast. I really appreciate that you took the time to listen. I hope there was an idea too, that will help spark your creativity. And I would love to get any feedback that you have.
You can email me at firstname.lastname@example.org
I hope you will join me for the next episode of Creative Shoofly. Until then stay safe and stay creative.
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