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  • Julian Talbot

Do positive affirmations actually work?

"Argue for your limitations, and sure enough they're yours."

- Richard Bach


Like many people, I grew up with parents who regularly gave me advice to "think positive". Whenever I was down, it seemed that I had to reprogram my mind with positive affirmations and suppress any negativity. My parents, in turn, were just following advice that goes back at least 100 years ago to when French psychologist Emile Coué introduced a popular method of psychotherapy and self-improvement based on optimistic autosuggestion.

The application of his mantra-like conscious autosuggestion, "Every day, in every way, I'm getting better and better" is called Couéism or the Coué method. This method centered on a routine repetition of this particular expression according to a specified ritual; preferably as much as twenty times a day, especially at the beginning and end of each day

To this day, positive affirmations are a staple of every self-help manual and would-be guru. But, at some point, you have to wonder if it is all really just wishful thinking? Does any of this stuff even work, or is it just suppressing what we really think?

A few years ago, in search of the answer to this question, I did the NLP Master Practitioner program. NLP stands for neuro-linguistist programming. Basically using language to reprogram our brain. I gained a lot of insights from the course and improved my ability to manage my self-talk to keep it positive. Or at least, to become more aware when I drifted into negative self-talk territory. But it still didn't give me much actual evidence that positive affirmations changed long term outcomes. Nor did it really answer the question of how might it work? So I continued looking for information. Below are a few of the things I found along the way.


Self-talk is what we say to ourselves about our situation, our abilities, the events of our life. Simply put, they are the internal narrators of our life. Our ongoing conversation with ourselves. It can involve minor distractions or major decisions, or anything in between.

The sort of self-talk I'm referring to here, involves the statements we make about our reality or ourselves. There are a few examples in the graphic below. They are variations from different times in my own life but I suspect most people can relate to them. Group A are the ones that fit into the negative category. Group B are some examples that sit squarely in the "think positive" camp.

Positive vs Negative Self-Talk

You probably have some views which group are going to be the most successful in life, but over the next few days have a look around you at friends and family. Everyone has problems and challenges. If you live long enough you will at some point be on the receiving end of financial difficulties, bad grades, and illness at the very least. The question is, do Group A people or Group B people bounce back faster from such setbacks?

Whether from Group A or B, people will likely tell you that they are simply making statements of fact. In a sense they are right. But when the evidence suggests that when you make such statements you are not stating reality; you are shaping reality. Self-talk is programming for your subconscious, just as lines are code are programs for your computer and phone.


Before we ask whether self-talk is effective, it's worth thinking about why it might even matter. Surely we are in control of our thoughts so we are in control of our lives. Well, as it turns out, no, we are not in control of our thoughts. Self-talk matters, if it matters at all, because most of our decisions occur in our subconscious, before we are even aware of having made them.

"Self-talk doesn't state reality, it creates reality."

- Julian Talbot

Research with fMRIs has shown that most of our actions are initiated by the subconscious mind. By using brain scanners researchers can predict people's decisions up to seven seconds before the subjects were even aware of making a choice. [1] Think about this for a moment. Somewhere inside our head a version of us is making decisions for us. In fact so far in advance, that an Olympic sprinter can cover more than 60 meters before we even realize that a decision has been made!

Positive versus negative programs

In 2008, Chun Siong Soon, Marcel Brass, Hans-Jochen Heinze and John-Dylan Haynes teamed up at the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences to prove beyond all doubt that our decisions occur seconds before we become aware of them. [1]

It seems that we make our decisions at least four seconds before we become conscious of having made them. If you ask someone why they did something, a specific part of the brain fires up to justify and explain why they did it.

Try this experiment. Pick up a cup and pour something into it. Go on, I'll wait.

Your subconscious acted to pick up the cup and jug. By the time your conscious mind, made a decision to ‘choose’ to pick up the jug, some four to seven seconds after the fact, your cup was already full.

Whether you smile at a stranger, shout at your friend, pick up the book that will lead to success in exams or life, are all determined by your subconscious. The difference between the successful candidate in a job interview versus the not-successful candidates can be tiny. Body language, enthusiasm, and listening to questions, are primarily subconscious. We choose to act, then we act, and sometimes, but only sometimes, we are conscious of our choices. What you believe to be true, will come true. It will determine your actions and behaviors before you are even consciously aware of them.

The research with fMRI confirms that this sort of behaviour is the norm. Breathing, walking and most activities are autonomous. We can control our breathing with our conscious mind if we choose to, but the majority of the time, the subconscious mind is in control. And it isn’t just breathing and walking that this applies to. “Your decisions are strongly prepared by brain activity. By the time consciousness kicks in, most of the work has already been done.” [2]

"We cannot always control our thoughts, but we can control our words, and repetition impresses the subconscious, and we are then master of the situation."

- Florence Scovel Shinn

The implications of this research are that by the time we’re conscious of having chosen an action, behaviour, or thought, that choice has already been made for us. Made by our genes, our programming and our environment. Our conscious “I" is reporting something determined beforehand in the brain.

Most of the time that’s a great way to go through life. Imagine having to remember to breathe, to walk, etc. We’d be exhausted within a couple of hours. Much like babies, we’d have to sleep most of the day because we’d be so exhausted just working our way through the day.

“Your consciousness is only aware of some of the things your brain is doing.”

- Mark Hallet [1]

We should be grateful that most of what the subconscious mind does is to our benefit and usually works out well for us. But it acts in accordance with previous programming. Your experiences, knowledge, capabilities, habits and even genetics pre-dispose you to certain actions and reactions. This is a good thing. You shouldn’t need to think consciously to take your hand off a hot stove or run from a sabre-tooth tiger. But it means that for most of your life, your subconscious mind controls speaking, eating, walking, driving a car, and most of your behaviours.

Yes, I mean you. And me. And everyone. The part of us that we think of as ‘me’ or ‘I', the conscious mind is not in control. It’s a passenger for the most part. Our control is just an illusion. A happy illusion for sure but an illusion. Can you remember a time when you said something stupid, embarrassing, or hurtful. And then regretted it later. Sometimes even just a few milliseconds later, virtually as you spoke the words. That is your conscious mind judging what you said or did. But it happens after the subconscious mind has already done the deed.

The good news is that your conscious mind can program the subconscious. If you ever learned to ride a bike, drive a car, or operate a software program you have experienced the process of reprogramming the subconscious mind. It might take a lot of persistence, repetition, and energy, but that’s the process. Once programmed, the subconscious will run on auto-pilot.

"Any thought that is passed on to the subconscious often enough and convincingly enough is finally accepted."

- Robert Collier

Like a playful but obedient puppy, your subconscious will be distracted with all sorts of things until you give clear instructions. It wants to please. It is looking for directions and goals. Even more powerful is to think of it as a powerful horse, and your conscious mind as the rider. A good horse is loyal and smart and much stronger than the rider, but it has it’s limitations when it comes to abstract thought or goal setting. A rider without a clear destination will go where the horse is inclined to go. That’s you, if you don’t have a goal. Most horses have no particular goal from one day to the next. And powerful as they are, they have little sense of complex ideas such as climate change, higher education, etc.

A horse can get from city A to town B much faster than the human can. But it has no real reason to get there, so, if it arrives at all, it will probably take a long time to do so. But if you put the rider on the horse, combine the goals of the rider (town B) with the strength and speed of the horse, they can take a wagon load of goods to town B faster than either one alone. Your conscious instructions plus your subconscious capabilities are a powerful combination.

"One comes to believe whatever one repeats to oneself sufficiently often, whether the statement be true or false. It comes to be the dominating thought in one's mind."

- Robert Collier

If you tell your subconscious that “I’m no good at remembering names” then it will obediently deliver on that. In all seriousness, the single best memory trick I’ve ever learned to help me remember names has been the positive affirmation that “I am really good at remembering names and faces.” It took a few months, but I’d remember to say that every time I was at a function or workplace where I had to meet new people.

And guess, what? Yes, I’m pretty darn good at remembering names now.

The same principle is around affirmations such as “money is difficult”, “I’m always going to be poor”, etc. Quick as a flash, the subconscious mind will take this as a command, as a new reality, and your life will reflect this.


The evidence suggests positive affirmations do work. But only some of the time, on some of the people, with some of their issues. There are, or course, many ways that you can reprogram yourself. Self-talk is just one of them. There are also lots of different approaches to self-talk but here are a few simple strategies which have some good science behind them.

Before we get to them, let me say that Im all in favor of inspirational ideas and motivational stories, but when it comes to actionable information, I'm a big fan of evidence. Here are three strategies that are based on solid evidence:

  1. Self-talk

  2. Questioning

  3. Distancing


Self-talk is a form of self-hypnosis. And it works. For some people. It doesn't work if you don't believe them in the first places. One study, found that for people with low self-esteem, those who repeated a positive self-statement (“I'm a lovable person”) or who focused on how that statement was true felt worse than those who did not repeat the statement. So don't waste your time or energy on something that you don't believe. [8]

When it does work however, it is probably even more effective at self-programming than even professional hypnosis, simply because we can repeat it endlessly. Try an experiment on yourself if you like. Repeat something positive to yourself every day, several times a day. For example “I will get great results in my exam," “the harder I work, the luckier I get," “money comes easily to me”, etc. Pick an area in your life that you want to improve. But make sure it is something that you can believe.

There is no cost to try this. It's completely free. So long as it is something that could be true, it has to be worth a try. If it works for you, you stand to gain immensely. And believe me, it works. If you don’t have any ideas, here are some suggestions that have worked and continue to work for Cate and I. If you are in a relationship, try doing them together.

“Affirmations are our mental vitamins, providing the supplementary positive thoughts we need to balance the barrage of negative events and thoughts we experience daily.”

- Tia Walker

Having a partner to do it with is like turbocharging your programming. If you are single or your partner doesn’t want to do it, no worries, They will still work for you. Just change the ‘we’ to an ‘I’ and you’re good to go.

  1. We sleep enough to wake refreshed and energized every day.

  2. We are always in the right place at the right time to meet the right people to do the right deals.

  3. We are grateful for all the wonderful family, friends and colleagues who help us in life.

  4. Our business is thriving!

  5. We are geniuses and we apply our wisdom

  6. Everywhere we look we see opportunity and we trust our intuition to follow where it leads.

  7. Money comes to us easily.

  8. We are blessed with wonderful family and friends.

  9. We wake each day with clarity, calmness and abundant energy.

  10. Our memories are amazing and we have effortless recall of names, faces and facts.

Pick an affirmation that you believe. We all have a range of ideas that we are prepared to accept. If none of the above work for you, start with something small that you can believe. Don’t say “I’m a great writer” if you actually believe “I’m a terrible writer.” Start with something you can sign up for such as “I will get better with practice.” Change “I can’t do it” to “I will improve with practice.”

“What the mind can conceive and believe, it can achieve.”

- Napoleon Hill

If a message lies within the boundary of what you can believe, it will be more persuasive than messages that fall outside it. Affirmations outside these boundaries meet the greatest resistance. If you don’t believe me, try telling a friend how good they can be good at something that they don’t believe they can do. You’ll hear a series of statements arguing for their previous point of view. You might even set them up to hold onto their original position more strongly. [3] So pick something you believe.

There is a clear body of evidence that if you believe you can do something, your outcomes and performance will improve. Tests with water polo players improved their accuracy significantly with two different types of affirmations. An instructional self-talk phrase of “ball-target” and a motivational phrase of “I can” both increased performance by roughly 40%. [4]

Speed, precision and reaction time have also been noted to increase significantly with the right talk in a range of activities, Basketballers who used instructional and motivational self-talk improved their speed, accuracy and reaction times. [5] OK, so that’s a very target-oriented, short-term, and physical example but it’s hard to demonstrate self-talk performance over decades. Just take it for given that it improves performance in virtually all sports. [6]

Another study showed that self-affirmation improved problem-solving performance in underperforming chronically stressed individuals. It suggests a possible means for improving peoples abilities to solve problems under stress conditions. It may also have important implications for understanding how self-affirmation boosts performance in school or the workplace. [9] "The results showed that participants who were under high levels of chronic stress during the past month had impaired problem-solving performance. In fact, they solved about 50 percent fewer problems in the task. (However) ... a brief self-affirmation was effective in eliminating the deleterious effects of chronic stress on problem-solving performance, such that chronically stressed self-affirmed participants performed under pressure at the same level as participants with low chronic stress levels." [10]


If using positive self-talk is still a bridge too far, or you just can't get yourself out of the dumps to believe some positive self-talk, here is another strategy that is backed by research and only needs you to change the position of two words.

“Successful people ask better questions, and as a result, they get better answers.”

- Anthony Robbins

In another series of studies, researchers gave test subjects a puzzle to solve. Before starting they asked some of the participants to say to themselves, “I will solve the anagram.” Others were told to ask themselves “Will I solve the anagram?” The results were astounding. The subjects who said “Will I … “ were 85% more successful in solving the puzzle. Yes, asking “will I?” is more likely to deliver success than saying “I will”. [7]

You might well ask, why is asking more powerful than telling. More research is probably needed but the researchers concluded that "This effect was found to be mediated by the intrinsic motivation for action ... .” [7]

In other words, it programmed (aka motivated) your mind to take action and look for answers. The interrogative as opposed to declarative talk (e.g., Will I vs. I will) seems to lead to increased intrinsic motivation. Basically, it makes your mind want to succeed. Simply saying “I will”, “I am”, etc is fine if you already believe it. If you don’t, your mind simply goes into argument mode, rejects the idea, and proceeds to demolish it with a list of reasons why you cannot or are not ….

Instead, asking the question, “will I” is like unleashing a bloodhound on the trail. It makes the brain curious and directs your subconscious to focus the subject of the question.


If all you can do is to change your self-talk to the third-person you will perform better and feel better according to some research. If your name is Mary, just change “I can’t do it” to “Mary can’t do it” or “She can’t do it.”

Putting some distance between you and the person who can’t do something has been shown to make people feel better about it and perform better. [8] Worth a try.

“Every decision you make, makes you. Never let other people choose who you’re going to be.”

- Cassandra Clare

Just pick one affirmation or question to start with. Memorise it. One line of good programming that you know by heart is more powerful than 10 lines of code you can’t remember. If you need to, put it on a post-it note on your fridge or on your phone. One way to keep it handy is to send it as a text message to yourself. Every time you need to look it up, send it to yourself again. Pretty soon you’ll have it memorized. And before you know it your subconscious will put its heels together and salute with a “Yes boss. Consider it done!"

You’ve got nothing to lose and everything to gain. The trick is to start saying it with passion and conviction. Even if you don’t believe it or you think it’s all bunkum. Make your emotions, body language, and tone of voice match the intention. Pretty soon your subconscious will take the programming. Even once a day for 21 days will start to show the benefit. You can even just read it quietly to yourself over a morning coffee (or tea, water, hot chocolate, tasty beverage of choice).


If you’re not already sure which program (affirmation, question, or third-person statement) to run; it’s not hard to find the right one. The biggest clue to help you find your own is to listen out for your negative thoughts. Pay attention to your self-talk and to the comments you make to others.

When you hear something negative pop out of your mouth or appear as a thought bubble in your mind, that’s your hint. Ask yourself if this is really true? Perhaps is was once but not now? Even if you think, it’s true, ask yourself the simple question “does this statement help me or hinder me?”

Try writing out an affirmation which is an improvement on what you just said. “I’m no good at school” can be “I’m getting better at studying.” “I’m always broke” could become “Money will come to me over time” or even just “I have enough money for my needs”. As you can see even a simple question such as “Will I have enough money this year?”, “Will I have enough money to afford the holiday I want?”, or “Will I get better grades in my next exams?” can be powerful.

Small shifts in self-talk will influence your ability to regulate your thoughts, feelings, and behavior under social stress.

"Choosing to be positive and having a grateful attitude is going to determine how you're going to live your life."

- Joel Osteen

You can find lots of information on the interweb-thingy to help you change your self-talk, but here is also a good primer: "9 Phrases You Should Stop Saying if You Want to Be Happy and Successful" by Elle Kaplan.

See if you can improve your life by reprogramming your self-talk and report back, please. I’m offering a money back guarantee if you try it for 21 days and it doesn’t work.



  1. I’ve done my best to pepper this article with the sort of quotes and ideas that will help you believe that you can take control and reprogram your subconscious but don’t blame me if my random scribbles don't work for you. In my defence, I had no choice in writing this, just as you gentle reader have had no choice in reading this far. At least 4 seconds before you consciously decided to read this article, you had already ‘decided’ to do so. Life is like that. Apparently.

  2. This article is only a small part of the equation for better living through software. Coming soon is a longer article on 'How to Reprogram Your Subconscious'. It too, in case you were wondering, will come with a money back guarantee.

  3. Subscribe to my sporadic newsletter and I’ll let you know when it comes out. Or just drop by from time to time. You can subscribe using the form on the right or click this link.



Speaking of subscribing, is it just me? I really, really dislike the trend to put lightbox style "SUBSCRIBE NOW" popups on every website. If you don't know the sorty of thing I mean, they are the little windows that block your viewing of a webpage with a popup saying "Subscribe Now" or similar.

If I want to subscribe, I’ll subscribe thank you. If I'm not subscribing, it's because I either don't want to or haven't decided yet.

I have developed a new automated response when I see these popups interrupting my browsing experience. They help me decide. I close the page. You can always find similar or better information in a book or at another website. All that being said, they allegedly work(?) and I will confess to trialling a lightbox popup on my subscribe page, but I also provide three other ways to subscribe. Every marketing article says that lightboxes are so effective as to be virtually mandatory. Hmmm. Maybe, if you just want quantity rather than quality. I figure true fans (of the Kevin Kelly ‘1,000 True Fans’ type) will sign up no matter where you put the 'subscribe now' button.

Let me know what you think. If enough people leave a comment saying “I hate Lightbox popups too” I’ll get rid of it from my website. If you don't care either way, I would be curious to hear that too.

OK, enough writing for the moment. Cate and I are off to clear our heads with a motorcycle ride in the mountains to enjoy coffee in a Spanish pueblo and think about other articles. At least, that is what my self-talk is telling me.



It's a longish list but if it helps convince your brain that there is good science behind this self-talk business, then it was worth it. Please let me know if you spot any errors or can recommend any good peer-reviewed research that would advance our understanding.

[1] Chun Siong Soon, Marcel Brass, Hans-Jochen Heinze & John-Dylan Haynes, “Unconscious Determinants of Free Decisions in the Human Brain.” Nature Neuroscience, April 13th, 2008.

[2] Brandon Keim, Brain Scanners Can See Your Decisions Before You Make Them, Wired.

[3] Joanne V. Wood, W.Q. Elaine Perunovic, John W. Lee, Positive Self-Statements: Power for Some, Peril for Others, Psychological Science, July 1, 2009,

[4] Hatzigeorgiadis, Antonis & Theodorakis, Yannis & Nikos, Zourbanos. (2004). Self-Talk in the Swimming Pool: The Effects of Self-Talk on Thought Content and Performance on Water-Polo Tasks. Journal of Applied Sport Psychology. 16. . 10.1080/10413200490437886.

[5] Shahzad Tahmasebi Boroujeni, Mehdi Shahbazi, The Effect of Instructional and Motivational Self-Talk on Performance of Basketball's Motor Skill

[6] See long, long list at the end of this article.

[7] Albarracin, Dolores, Ibrahim Senay, and Kenji Noguchi, Motivation Goal-Directed Behavior through Introspective Self-Talk: The Role of the Interrogative Form of Simple Future Tense. Psychological Science. April 2010. Volume 21, Number 4. [8] Kross, Ethan; Bruehlman-Senecal, Emma; Park, Jiyoung; Burson, Aleah; Dougherty, Adrienne; Shablack, Holly; Bremner, Ryan; Moser, Jason; Ayduk, Ozlem. "Self-talk as a regulatory mechanism: How you do it matters." Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol 106(2), Feb 2014, 304-324.


[6] The list as borrowed from Alexander T. Latinjak, Miquel Torregrosa, Jordi Renom, Studying the Effects of Self-Talk on Thought Content with Male Adult Tennis Players, Perceptual and Motor Skills, August 2010

Just in case you need a little more proof or a cure for insomnia:

  • Bell J. J., Hardy J. (2009) Effects of attentional focus on skilled performance in golf. Journal of Applied Sport Psychology, 21, 163–177.

  • Cutton D. M., Landin D. (2007) The effects of self-talk and augmented feedback on learning the tennis forehand. Journal of Applied Sport Psychology, 19, 288–303.

  • Finn J. A. (1985) Competitive excellence: It's a matter of mind and body. The Physician and Sport Medicine, 13(2), 61–75.

  • Hardy J. (2006) Speaking clearly: A critical review of self-talk literature. Psychology of Sport and Exercise, 7, 81–97.

  • Hardy L., Jones G., Gould D. (1996) Understanding psychological preparation for sport: Theory and practice of elite performers. Chichester, UK: Wiley.

  • Hatzigeorgiadis A., Theodorakis Y., Zourbanos N. (2004) Self-talk in the swimming pool: The effects of self-talk on thought content and performance on water-polo tasks. Journal of Applied Sport Psychology, 16, 138–150.

  • Hatzigeorgiadis A., Zourbanos N., Goltsios C., Theodorakis Y. (2008) Investigating the functions of self-talk: The effects of motivational self-talk on self-efficacy and performance in young tennis players. The Sport Psychologist, 22, 458–471.

  • Hatzigeorgiadis A., Zourbanos N., Mpoumpaki S., Theodorakis Y. (2008) Mechanisms underlying the self-talk-performance relationship: The effects of motivational self-talk on self-confidence and anxiety. Psychology of Sport and Exercise, 10, 185–192.

  • Hatzigeorgiadis A., Zourbanos N., Theodorakis Y. (2007) The moderating effects of self-talk content on self-talk functions. Journal of Applied Sport Psychology, 19, 240–251. Landin D. (1994) The role of verbal cues in skill learning. Quest, 46, 299–313.

  • Landin D., Hebert E. P. (1999) The influence of self-talk on the performance of skilled female tennis players. Journal of Applied Sport Psychology, 11, 263–282.

  • Latinjak A., Torregrosa M., Renom J. (2009) Aplicando el auto-habla al tenis: Su impacto sobre el foco atencional y el rendimiento [Applying self-speech to tennis: Its impact on the attentional focus and performance]. Cuadernos de Psicología del Deporte, 9(2), 19–29.

  • Latinjak A., Torregrosa M., Renom J. (2010) El papel de la exigencia de la tarea en la aplicación del auto-habla y su efecto en tenistas de ocio [The influence of task exigency on a self-talk application and on its effect on recreational tennis players]. Revista de Psicología del Deporte, 19(2),187–201.

  • Malouff J., Murphy C. (2006) Effects of self-instructions on sport performance. Journal of Sport Behavior, 29, 159–168.

  • McPherson S. L. (2000) Expert-novice differences in planning strategies during collegiate singles tennis competition. Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology, 22, 39–62.

  • McPherson S. L., Kernodle M. (2007) Mapping two new points on the tennis expertise continuum: Tactical skills of adult advanced beginners and entry-level professionals during competition. Journal of Sports Science, 25, 945–959.

  • McPherson S. L., Thomas J. R. (1989) Relation of knowledge and performance in boys' tennis: Age and expertise. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 48, 190–211.

  • Nideffer R. (1993) Attention control training. In Singer R. N.,

  • Murphey M., Tennant I. K. (Eds.), Handbook of research on sport psychology. New York: Macmillan. Pp. 127–170.

  • Papaioannou A., Ballon F., Theodorakis Y., Yves Vanden A. (2004) Combined effect of goal setting and self-talk in performance of a soccer-shooting task. Perceptual and Motor Skills, 98, 89–99.

  • Theodorakis Y., Chroni S., Laparidis K., Bebetsos V., Douma I. (2001) Self-talk in a basketball shooting task. Perceptual and Motor Skills, 92, 309–315.

  • Theodorakis Y., Weinberg R., Natsis P., Douma E., Kazakas P. (2000) The effects of motivational versus instructional self-talk on improving motor performance. The Sport Psychologist, 14, 253–272.

  • Wulf G. (2007) Attentional focus and motor learning: A review of 10 years of research. E-Journal Bewegung und Training, 1, 4–14. Ziegler S. (1987) Effects of stimulus cueing on the acquisition of groundstrokes by beginning tennis players. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 20, 405–411.

  • Zinsser N., Bunker L., Williams J. M. (2006) Cognitive techniques for building confidence and enhancing performance. In Williams J. M. (Ed.), Applied sport psychology: Personal growth to peak performance. (5th Ed.) New York: McGraw-Hill. Pp. 349–381.



One of my favorite affirmations is "I'm gonna make it! I am made for this!"

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