The Inevitable End-of-Year Wisdom Post

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When you realize how perfect everything is, you will tilt your head back and laugh at the sky. -Buddha

After the awkward lab parties, not-so-secret-Santas, and mistletoes, it seems that this time of year is all about rounding up memorable events of the previous 12 months. The best news stories, the best song, the coolest study I did not have time to finish, the highest paying grant I did not get, and the most interesting therapy case.

2013 was unprecedented in terms of professional growth. I was able to change my signature from “Doctoral Student” to “Doctoral Candidate”, I started a project based on my passion for yoga, and I gave some of the best presentations of my career (and won a prize for it, no biggie).

Having to start my dissertation over was by-far the most important professional event of the year. Let’s refer to it the great dissertation malfunction of 2013. In the spirit of moving forward and looking at the world from the top of the bell curve, here are some lessons I learned thanks to the great dissertation malfunction of 2013, and other events, but mainly GDM2013.

  • Have a plan B. Although it will double your workload, having a viable project to land on when your main project falls apart (or simply doesn’t take off!) will save you time and sanity points. As I wrote in previous posts, I started my dissertation from scratch and fell behind a year in my studies. If I had more than one project on the go with my primary supervisor, perhaps I could have fallen back on it.
  • Accept. Accept the situation you are in, regardless of your role in getting there. Acceptance is not synonymous with passivity; on the contrary it is the first step towards change and growth.  Accepting that I had to start my project over, allowed me to move on, with a new project and mindset. Accept an invitation. Saying yes to an impromptu wine tasting was the beginning of a new friendship this year.
  • Be kind, especially to myself. When my project fell apart, I looked for someone or something to blame and I was the main target. I would not let anyone treat a stranger the way I treated myself the few weeks after GDM2013.  I am an imperfect graduate student.
  • Buy someone a coffee. Or at least offer to buy them one. While participating in the 3-minute competition, I had the pleasure to meet a local journalist. At the end of the evening, I made sure to catch her and offer to buy her a coffee. I wanted to know how she came to write a science column for a well-respected newspaper. Over caffeine and emails, we started to build a professional relationship and an invaluable friendship. I have learnt so much from Ann and even had the opportunity to assist her! Similarly, when I ran into a clinical supervisor at a coffee shop, I offered to buy her the coffee. I took the opportunity to tell her how much I admire her work. Offering a coffee is to show interest in someone else, an opportunity to show gratitude, and a chance at a beginning.
  • 1% theory, 99% practice – Pattabhi Jois. So practice. I cannot take credit for this quote, but I realized its value this year. It is true for my yoga practice, my therapeutic skills, and writing. I can watch yoga videos or read books on therapeutic skills, but nothing is more enlightening as getting on the mat or into the therapy office. Falling on your face, sore muscles, and awkward moments are part of the journey. Just practice.
  • Be grateful. Say it or show it. Let the people who matter know and do not take them for granted. I am grateful for a professor who agreed to mentor me and teach me about qualitative research. I am grateful for my friends and family.  I am grateful for my yoga teachers. I am grateful for those who take the time to read my blog. I am grateful to have the time to practice, drink coffee, and write.

What do I plan to do in 2014? I am not sure. Having a rigid plan is a plan for disappointment. So I plan to be prepared and eat lobster.

Happy New Year candidates

Rana Pishva, the candidate.

I ate the marshmallow: Lessons in impulsivity.

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I ate the marshmallow: Lessons in impulsivity.

It was a simple experiment that changed the way psychologists understands self-control and the ability to delay gratification. Preschoolers were asked to sit at a table, with a plate of marshmallows. The experimenter left the room and gave the child an important choice: eat the marshmallow right away or wait until the experimenter returned and have two marshmallows instead.

Have one marshmallow now, or wait and have two marshmallows.

Some children ate the marshmallow. Other children stared at the sweets intensively and reminded themselves that it’s better to have two later than one now. They covered their eyes, looked away from the marshmallow, or even pretended to eat it, licking their lips from its imagined deliciousness. Yet they resisted temptation and delayed gratification for a better outcome in the future.

eat me.

eat me.

I would have eaten the marshmallow – no doubt. As soon as the door clicked closed, and the experimenter was out of sight, I would have told myself something along the lines of “Just wait. You can do this…. just – ohhh…that was delicious!”

End of experiment.

To clinical psychologists (or to-be-ones like me), self-control is essential. We have to inhibit our judgment, advices, and responses, and allow the client to lead the session. Delaying such reactions can be challenging for someone like me (i.e., impulsive and extroverted).

Inhibiting social responses is difficult. I want to jump with excitement when a client has done their homework and gasp when I hear sad news. Although these reactions may be appropriate between friends (although I don’t know why I would congratulate my friends for doing their assignments), positive feedback in a therapeutic setting be should attuned to the client’s mood and personality.

I notice improvement, I jump on it.

I hear change, I highlight it.

I see a marshmallow, I eat it.

Withholding advice is also challenging. Lawyers and doctors have it easy. Lawyers are (over?)paid to tell you what to do in order to get the best outcome and doctors write it out on a prescription pad. Whether or not you choose to follow their advice is your business. Psychologists on the other hand are taught to guide clients through their own recovery. Success is defined by the client, not the therapist. This is a challenging and time consuming process that requires – you guessed it – self-control. It would be too easy (and ineffective) to tell my client how to think, behave, and feel. In my work with offenders I have found myself sitting on my hands, biting my lips, while containing the urge to stand up and yell “THEN JUST STOP BREAKING THE LAW!” Thankfully I have managed to curb that urge so far.

I like to think of my impulsive nature as a reflection of my genuine interest in the client’s experience. Once in a while, my spontaneity fits the situation and engages the client. Particularly with children – they light up when you show excitement and interest. Perhaps there is such a thing as planned impulsivity: an oxymoron describing a therapist’s ability to assess whether it is best to be restrained and matter-a-fact or be more spontaneous and direct.

Averagely yours,

the candidate
Impulsive

Plot Twist

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Plot Twist!

Earlier this summer I received a text message from my close friend, on the morning she was supposed to leave for a road trip in New York State. She wrote to me saying that her partner lost his passport, and they decided to drive up to Newfoundland instead.

I could imagine the scene: Andrea and Louis looking through every drawer, on every shelf, and under every piece of furniture in the apartment looking for the single item that would allow them to leave on their much anticipated and well deserved vacation. Their car was already packed with tents, sleeping bags, and many overpriced, miniature versions of household items found in outdoorsy stores. They had unplugged their electronics and set up an “away from my mail” response to their emails. They had a plan.

I found myself in a similar situation last spring, when my dissertation committee decided that I would have to start my project from scratch. I originally had a “flawless” plan: apply for the pre-doctoral internship this fall, write-up in the spring, and graduate by summer 2015. Unfortunately, a 200-page document and five committee members stood firmly between my dream and I.

I instantly switched to problem-solving mode: reading articles, talking with colleagues, drafting research ideas, and writing new proposals. I was so preoccupied trying to salvage my project and clinging onto my original plan, that I ignored other responsibilities, such as sleep and maintaining whatever is left of my sanity.

Although a dissertation is slightly heavier than a Canadian passport, getting either involves an agonizing amount of time, paper work, and money. Both involve changes to the original plan.

Having known Andrea for almost a decade, I can imagine the turnaround when it became clear that Louis’ passport was nowhere to be found. She was likely looking feverishly through his messy desk before throwing her arms up in air and saying something along the lines of “Okay Louis, that’s enough. So we are not going to New York this year, but I am not wasting my 10 days vacation. Get in car, we are driving to Newfoundland.”

Bam! That was it. They drove on, had a wonderful trip, and ate delicious lobster.

I knew I had to do the same: accept the loss and the new direction I was facing. I had to accept that my plans changed and that I will be spending an additional year in graduate school.

Then I came across this piece of online wisdom:

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I have moved on. The new plan is to eat healthier so that I live an extra year and make up for the additional one I am spending in graduate school. I will also eat lobster.

Speaking with Andrea about this post, she informed me that Louis recently found his passport, tucked between the pages of a dictionary. It looks like they will make it to New York after all.

ImageAveragely yours,

the candidate

The End of a Love Story

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Two years ago, I was in love. The type of love that made me stroll through the hallways of the department with a absurd smile on my face, my heart overflowing with hope, my head swarming with dreams. I had a dissertation that would change the world. My project would single-handedly change the faith of anxious youth. It was beautiful. I loved what it represented and its simplicity. Anything was possible; the world was within my reach! My dissertation and I were gallivanting into an academic sunset.

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Our love story came to an end when my dissertation committee told me that the data I spent two years collecting was “not valid”. My entire being melted into the floor, taking my hopes and dreams with it. The past two years flashed before me: the hours I spent coding audiotapes, the Sunday mornings and Friday afternoons I spent at the hospital waiting for participants. All these efforts were as useful as sunscreen on a rainy day.

I am experiencing the loss of my dissertation much like a break-up. I cry, feel sorry for myself, eat chocolate ice cream, and listen to Adele songs on a loop. I talk about it to anyone who will listen. I watch Bachelor Pad re-runs while my colleagues have participants on weekends. I watch my friends do statistical analyses the same way single gals at a wedding watch the bouquet toss. Here I am, starting over while everyone else seems to be breezing through data collection, analysis, and write up.

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A little investigation has led me to believe that my story is not unique.  Others have experienced this dissertation love story and the devastating, inevitable heart break that often follows. Minor and major bumps in the dissertation process are the process. What is shocking is that no one talks about it. Many of us are struggling to get through, to get support from our supervisors, to develop ideas, and simply move forward – yet we are quiet about the process and assume that we are alone. We assume we are the problem: that there is something wrong with us because the process is supposedly easy for everyone else. That is wrong, and this false belief will continue to isolate us from each other if we do not open up about the difficulties we are having through our graduate process. How are we supposed to learn from each other, with each other, if we are quiet and stick our heads into the ground?

Like any heart ache, moving on is the hardest part. From one perspective, I get to start over with a new project: fresh and clean. It’s an opportunity to try something new and hopefully better. On the other hand, I have six months to do two years worth of work.  I am also limited by the topics my committee will accept and my resources.

Despite having written a new proposal (i.e., three new studies) in a month, I am not convinced that I am ready to move on. I’ll be honest: I don’t like my new project. It won’t change the world and it won’t even have a fancy title. There is nothing worse than working on something that is not interesting.

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This is where you – the reader – come in.

I have three options:

1. Go on with this uninteresting but practical project. The proposal is nearly finished, and part of it being revised as we speak. If all goes well, I should be able to collect data in the fall and be done by the winter. It is a boring topic, something that I will never want to look at again. Even my committee members are likely to deny any involvement with it. But it is a project; it is a scientific contribution, and a possible (uninteresting) dissertation.

2. Follow my heart and continue with a new project I love. I have this yoga study on the go – and I love it. The response to the project has been great, both in terms of participation, emotional support, and financial support. I feel like I’m contributing to society by doing this project. Unfortunately, if I were to take this route, I would have to find a new committee and supervisor. I might even have to take an extra year. Being more than half way through my PhD, that is not an easy task….

3. Drop out, move to California and become a wedding planner/baker. California is beautiful and I have friends there. I am a great host and event planner. I love baking. I just bought a car so I could drive there. Seems reasonable.

So what do you think?

What challenges have you faced?
Averagely yours,

the candidate.

A Profile Picture is Worth a Thousand Intentions

 “Profile Pic!” says my friend as she returns my camera.

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Excited, I scroll through the pictures where I am standing in a strong yogic “tree pose” with the beautiful Moraine Lake in the background. In the picture, my fingers are reaching to the sky and I stand tall on my right leg, with my back to the camera. As I place the camera in its case, I can already imagine all the “likes” and comments that would appear under my picture once I upload it onto a social media site. I walk away from the scene without taking a second look at one of Canada’s most beautiful sceneries.

This picture reflects a number of intentions: I wanted to show off my yoga skills and remember the breath-taking scenery of Moraine Lake. The picture would become an anchor of one the best trips of my life. The picture was also an attempt to exemplify my “hoped-for-possible self”, which unfortunately, came at a cost.

The “hoped-for-possible self” is a socially desirable representation of what a person would like to be, or become, given the appropriate conditions. The intention is infinite when selecting a profile picture: one might want to present as adventurous (e.g., a picture of you rock climbing), mysterious (e.g., your shadow on the beach at sunset), outgoing (e.g., you at the lab Christmas party last year, holding your fifth glass of eggnog), or caring (e.g. playing with your new nephew). Social networking sites amplify the public process of identity construction and identity announcement. Clicking the “Like” icon, or adding a supportive comment such as “you look incredible!” are examples of identity placement – the act of endorsing another person’s identity announcement. When profile pictures are carefully selected and supported by others, an online hoped-for-possible self is born. In the online universe, identities that aren’t necessarily true in the “real-world” are actualized with the click of a button.

In my opinion, the picture is ideal for my online profile as it reflects my love of travel and yoga. Yet, I continue to wonder whether the picture or any other of my profile pictures truly represent who I am. I wonder whether a single picture can really encompass an individual’s personality, likes, dislikes, strengths, and weaknesses. Undoubtedly, the opportunity we have to represent ourselves in various realms (i.e., the internet and the ‘real-world’) comes with its set of downfalls.

Most importantly, I realized that maintaining an online identity has bled into my everyday life. Living a dual life – online and in the ‘real-world’ – has taken me away from living in the moment, because capturing snippets of my experiences into pictures becomes more important than the actual experience. Looking back at the picture of me in the tree pose in front of Moraine Lake, I cannot help but wonder what I would have seen if I had taken another moment to indulge in the surroundings. Instead, I have static picture to remind me of an infinite number of moments, and many friends “Liking” it.

Averagely yours,

the candidate

originally published in http://www.cpa.ca/docs/File/Students/MindPad/mindpadspring2013/

References for this posts

The Tough Mudder Trilogy: Blankie ever after

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On May 11th 2013, I took part in the Tough Mudder race, a 16km obstacle course inspired by the British Special Forces training protocol. This is the third and final post about the experience and how it compares to my graduate school studies in clinical psychology.

You can check out the first and second instalment of the Tough Mudder Trilogy here and here.

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Blankie ever after

It was cold. After the Hold Your Wood and Dirty Ballerina, my hands were freezing so badly that Saturday Night Live’s Mary Katherine Gallagher could not have warmed them up. I ran with my arms tucked under my armpits, occasionally dropping a knee into a lunge and screaming “SUPERSTAR!”.

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Superstar!

Before the Trench War-fare obstacle, I asked a first aid volunteer if she had any towels that I could warm my hands with: she offered me a garbage bag. When I told her that all I wanted was to wrap my hands in cloth, she looked through her red box and offered me a triangular bandage.

Meet Blankie.

Safety behaviours are strategies, such a repetitive behaviours or objects that serve to cope with a threat or reduce anxiety. For instance, you might refuse to write an exam without your “special eraser” or feel safer giving a presentation while holding cue-cards just “in case” you forget something. I felt safer completing a ridiculous obstacle course with a triangular bandage.

Once my fingers were wrapped in the warmth and love of Blankie, there was no getting away from her. She became my race-mate. I wrapped Blankie around my neck to cut off the wind, used her to wipe mud off my face and keep the hair out of my eyes. My sole purpose was to keep Blankie dry (keeping her clean was impossible given the circumstances) and she would keep me warm and safe in return. Blankie was my security blanket, my safety behaviour.

You might think I was in a mud-induced delusional state. That is highly likely.

Blankie and I’s first separation occurred at the Walk the Plank challenge. I didn’t want to her to be drenched in muddy, cold, water as I jumped from a 15 foot cliff. I seriously considered bypassing the obstacle. However, water is my element: I was a lifeguard and swimming instructor for almost 10 years; I could not allow myself to skip a water challenge. So I asked a spectator to hold Blankie. He gave me an odd look, similar to those I get when I ask for the time while holding my cell phone or when I tell people that finishing my graduate degree will take seven years in total. He did not further question the sanity of someone who was doing the Tough Mudder challenge and held my Blankie. I was grateful.  I got the same look over and over again when I asked spectators and participants to hold Blankie or to leave her on the ground at the other end of a challenge.

Blankie supported me through the “I’m not happy” portion of the race, which took place between the 5th and 12th kilometer of the 16 kilometer course. During this period, running did not warm me up and my vision was playing tricks on me. I think I had hypothermia. Megan, who seemed to have been injected with happy hormones (I obviously missed that station) tried her best to cheer me up. I saw mirages of a warm blanket and hot coco. I held onto Blankie until the sun made its first appearance of the day and I found hope again.

After the Wounded Warrior Carry, I realized two things.

First, having a security blanket (i.e., Safety Behaviour) is not as bad as one would think. According to some research, Blankie might have encouraged me to do more in the initial portion of the race! She helped me face challenges that I would otherwise skip. I tucked her into my shirt as we ran through the electroshock therapy challenge – one that I had promised myself I would bypass. Yes, I could have completed the race without Blankie, and if for some reason I had to leave her behind, I would have finished the race in her honour. Having her with me gave me a reason to finish – Blankie had to make it to the finish line as much as I did.

Meet Blankie after the race.

Blankie after the race.

Second, as cliché as it sounds: shit gets better. No matter how cold, muddy, or tired as I was, a water station and snack were always nearby, my teammates gave me a pat on the back, and I managed to complete an obstacle and run between different stations. Our bodies and mind can endure incredible circumstances. Just like in graduate school, when our supervisors are unhappy, our results are not significant, when participants and clients don’t show up or clients don’t get better…eventually, things turn up. We find a solution and a reason to keep going. Someone, or something, no matter how faint or muddy is cheering us on.

And if things don’t get better, they will eventually end.

After 16 kilometers, 14 obstacles, 8 challenges, and 4 hours, Blankie and I (and my teammates!) made it to the Finish Line. Someone put a headband on my head, a bracelet on my wrist; I grabbed a protein bar for someone and headed towards the person giving away shirts. I graduated. The next half hour is a blur. My teammates and I were so cold, injured (all of us hurt our knees on the Everest challenge). We cleaned up under the freezing cold showers. It was awful.

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When I ran into my other teammate Rob, who finished the race 2.5 hours earlier, he said “You did it! How did it go?!” I couldn’t think of anything positive to say…. “I don’t want to talk about it”.

People asked me the same question for days after the race. “How was it???” I wish I said that it was a fantastic experience where I pushed my body and mind to its limits, where I discovered how strong I can be, where I met interesting people, and faced my fears. What typically came out was some variation of “It was painfully cold, awful really…but I’m glad I did it”. As our minds like to do, I had to justify the agony I put my body and mind through, so I elaborated “If it wasn’t for the cold, it would have been better….it was hard….we had a great time…the team was awesome…check out my bruises and battle wounds!” and typically ended withyeah….I would do it again”.

That is strangely similar to the answer I give when someone asks “how is that PhD coming along?

Averagely yours,

the candidate.

The Tough Mudder Trilogy: Obstacles and Challenges

The Tough Mudder Trilogy: Second instalment

Obstacles and Challenges

On May 11th 2013, I took part in the Tough Mudder race, a 16km obstacle course inspired by the British Special Forces training protocol. This is the second of three posts about the experience.

It’s race day.

We make it to the off-site parking lot, where contestants are piled onto yellow school buses. With an apprehensive cheer, someone passes along yellow and black face paint that we smother across our cheeks without thinking twice about the bacteria we are sharing. The camaraderie has begun.

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Registration – check.

Meet up with the rest of our team, “99 problems and Tough Mudder ain’t one” – check.

The area between registration/bag check and the start line is a unique sight. Muscular men wearing tutus or suspenders – or both – are gulping down sports drinks; women in brightly coloured tights and wigs are hugging each other as if its last call on prom night. Nervous smiles and arrogant rants are plenty. It was a tornado of excitement and anxiety, mostly the latter.

The main topic of conversations I eavesdropped on was the cold weather. At approximately 8 degrees  (46 degrees for you Americans), no one could imagine running through icy cold waters, running up a mountain, or climbing mud piles. Having hoped for a sunny day, I wore short and a tank top but the sun was being lazy, and my rain coat felt very cozy in the misty weather. My teammates’ hugs and attempts to convince me that “I’ll warm up anyway” simply did not register.

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At the start line the four of us were kneeling in mud along with 60 other “mudders” while an obnoxious MC reminded us of the 78-page waiver we signed and made us repeat the mudder pledge. I scream “BOYAAAH” while the rest of the crowd screams “HORAAAY” because for some reason I am racing in 1995.  We remind Rachel and Brooke to be silent during the National Anthem….eye and tactile contact only remember?

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I am excited and I fearless; I can do this.

After the first few obstacles that included the Glory Blades, where 10 foot wooden walls are tilted to a 20 degree angle, the infamous Arctic Enema, which left us invigorated instead of as walking popsicles, I realized that Tough Mudder is composed of obstacles and challenges.

Obstacles are occupational hazards we subjectively agree to when accepting a contract. They may be time-consuming, annoying, and mildly painful, but in the end obstacles are “check marks” before the Finish Line. In Tough Mudder, I considered the Dirty Ballerina and the Boa Constrictor as obstacles because jumping over mud piles or squirming through watery tubes is uncomfortable and tiring, but not life threatening.

Obstacles in Tough Mudder are comparable to the research ethics application in graduate school, where I had to explain that a treatment group for parents of anxious children will not have a detrimental impact on any fetuses. For many, the weekly lab meeting, where articles are discussed and the annual Easter egg hunt is organized, is an occupation hazard. A dark spot in the weekly schedule that is inherent in the graduate school curriculum.

You know you’ve hit a challenge when your brain freezes, heart sinks into your stomach, and your diaphragm forgets to expand and allow air to flow from my lungs. A challenge is a sudden, not-so-subtle reminder of your mortality and the fact that you did not send your mother flowers on Mother’s day. From an evolutionary perspective, your body’s response to a challenge is a reminder that you should not be doing this.

I should not crawl in water while being electrocuted.

I should not jump over a mountain of burning logs.

A challenge is the possibility of failing my comprehensive exams and being kicked out of the program (or gently asked not to return). A challenge is having my dissertation committee tell me that I have to rework my project (i.e., two years of work) and submit a new proposal in two weeks.

The tricky thing about obstacles and challenges is that when you skip one, it becomes easier to skip another. Avoiding fear gives you a free pass to continuously sidestep other uncomfortable situations. For instance, delegating a public speaking opportunity or continuously communicating over email as opposed to setting up a meeting with your supervisor. Avoidance yields more anxiety, it increases the threat. For reasons I still do not understand, I decided to skip the Firewalker challenge, where contestants jump over a pile of burning logs into cold water. After skipping one challenge, the “by pass challenge line” became more tempting every time. I had to push myself not to skip subsequent events – take a deep breath and remind myself of the commitment I made by accepting the Tough Mudder challenge. On a less philosophical and more coercive note, Megan regularly reminded us that “if you skip a challenge you didn’t do Tough Mudder”.

Overcoming a challenge brings about an anticlimactic sense of exhilaration. After allowing myself to drop through the Smoke Chute, a 15 foot “slide” similar to an air conduct, I emerged from the muddy waters thinking “that’s it?” Similar to when I walked out of (successfully!) completing my oral comprehensive exam. I was happy but could not ignore how lack luster the achievement was.

Perhaps writing about my Tough Mudder experience, or graduate school in general, is a way to stretch my “achievement” as much as possible. Milking as much satisfaction I can from events in order to justify the effort.

What are your graduate school obstacles? Challenges?

Did you manage to skip any?

Where any achievements anticlimactic?

Averagely yours,

the candidate

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