Career Lessons from Kim Kardashian

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Kim Kardashian and her husband-to-be / baby daddy Kanye West just landed on the cover of Vogue magazine (U.S. edition), which is supposed to the world’s most influential fashion magazine. Back in 2007, I thought her fame would fizzle out after 15 minutes, but it seems that it’s only strengthened over time. Now, the girl who used to arrange attention-hungry socialite Paris Hilton‘s closet has reached the pinnacle of fame.

According to Forbes, Kim Kardashian’s net worth is estimated at $10 million in 2013. From a sketchy sex tape to a business and media empire, you have to admit that Kim Kardashian has had one heck of a career trajectory with plenty of ups and downs.

What are some career lessons we can learn from her rise to a business mogul?

1. Who you know matters 

Kim Kardashian first garnered media attention by hanging out with famous people. As Paris Hilton’s close friend and personal stylist, they were often spotted and photographed together. She also briefly dated former boy band crooner Nick Lachey (when he was still relatively famous) as well as quasi-famous singer Ray J.

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While it’s quite unclear how exactly the Kardashians got their own show, reports suggest Kathy Lee Gifford, who is Kris Jenner’s long-time friend, and / or Ryan Seacrest knew the family and thought they were quirky enough to deserve their own show. Whatever the actual story was, famous people with good connections were involved.

Therefore, your connections and the strength of their connections matter tremendously. Whether you want to be a reality TV show star, a C-suite member, or a billion dollar start-up founder, knowing the right people is one of the most important things you can do to build a successful career.

 

2. Turn lemons into lemonade

This is probably Kim Kardashian’s biggest strength. Having a private home video leaked for the world to see is probably every person’s worst nightmare. Instead of hiding in a hole (which would be my natural reaction), she milked every ounce out of that limelight. She immediately signed up for a reality TV show and a Playboy cover. In fact, she changed the narrative. Instead of having the world focus only on the trashy nature of a sex tape, she opened the doors to her family, showing the world her other dimensions as a sister and a daughter.

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Whenever we may face a bump in our career, it’s important to look at all angles to see how you can turn an impossibly bad situation into a good one. If you’re fired, then will this finally gives you a push to start your own business? If you have an awful manager, then can you learn how to be a good one?

 

3.  Be vulnerable

Humans are social animals. We are hard wired to connect to each other. Being vulnerable, we admit that we are imperfect and that we have weaknesses. We drop our shield and open a door for others to connect. People want to connect with, help, and like others that show their vulnerable sides.

While Kim Kardashian lives the life of the rich and famous, she let’s the world see her vulnerable sides as well. For someone that has a team of hair and make-up experts, she often walks around paparazzi-infested L.A. with no make-up. On her reality show, she openly cries (in a less-than-beautiful way). People like that. People like to see her in good times and bad. It makes people feel like they know her and that she is approachable. Perhaps that’s why she’s a tabloid obsession for so many years.

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At work, it’s important to understand and admit your limitations. I don’t mean list all of your weaknesses to your colleagues. In a situation when you can’t get the information or can’t learn quickly, you need to ask for help. This will not only help you accomplish your task better and faster, but also allow you to learn more effectively. Another bonus is that it forms a stronger connection with someone else, building your network.

 

4. Build a strong personal brand

In addition to a hit TV show, the Kardashians have their own clothing line, make-up collection, boutique clothing stores, fragrances, fitness videos, and more! They have managed to build an empire around the Kardashian name. They’ve done so by becoming masters of media. They are everywhere all the time, keeping their brand relevant and top of mind. Kim Kardashian has over 20 million Twitter followers and 13 million Instagram followers.

They’ve also learned from past lessons. In the beginning, they endorsed almost everything under the sun from alcohol to diet pills, diluting their brand and credibility. Now, they seem to have found their niche and focused their business endeavors on beauty and fashion.

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Self-promotion at work is a necessary evil. People will not consider you for new opportunities or exciting projects unless you promote the good work that you’ve already done. You not only need to be top of mind for managers, but you also should build a reputation for a particular skill / expertise. When a senior manager thinks she really needs somebody to get a particular job done well (e.g., run a marketing campaign or start a new business), then your name should be one of her first thoughts.

 

5. Take chances

The Kardashians have a multi-million dollar empire because they saw opportunities and took them. Some worked out (e.g., her fragrance) and some didn’t (e.g., her song “Jam”).

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The lesson here is the more calculated risk you take, the higher your likelihood is to succeed. You basically won’t know until you try. The next time at work, sign up for a new project, work with someone new, or just think differently. If you try and fail, then try again and do things differently.

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How to cold email (and get a response)

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Yesterday, I received a cold email that went something like this:

“Hi. My name is __________, and I am a student at Harvard Business School. I would like a job as  a _[INSERT vague job title]___ at your company. Attached is my resume. I would like to chat about this opportunity. I look forward to your response.”

I think this is a great example of what NOT to do with a cold email. First of all, I don’t know you, so why would I want to give you a job right off the bat. Second, this generic job title doesn’t even exist at my company, so it’s clear that you haven’t researched my company.

There’s nothing wrong with cold emails. In fact, I get quite a few cold emails from eager and ambitious MBA students and alumni. My response rate thus far is 100%. However, there is a good way and bad way to reach out, and how you reach out can affect how likely and willing someone is to help you.

What NOT to do:

1. Give too much or too little information: In my last company, an anxious student wrote to one of our partners saying that he had a dream last night. He wandered around the corridors of our office and suddenly found himself in front of the partner’s office. He was so excited and eager to enter until he found himself completely naked. Can you believe he wrote that in a cold email?!? Creepy….

Alternatively, giving too little information is also counterproductive. I’ve gotten emails with as little information as: “My name is ______. Give me a job______. Reply to me soon.” I don’t talk to people or refer them to my contacts because I get paid to do so. Therefore, your job in a cold email is to give me a reason to be interested in you. Why should I want to talk to you? Why should I refer you to one of my contacts?

2. Misspell contact’s and / or company’s name: This is one of the worst mistakes you can make, but the easiest to prevent. Last year, I referred a student to one of my contacts because I thought she had a great background and seemed quite sharp. Things were peachy until she referred to my contact by the wrong name, even though his name was in the email address and I spelled out his name clearly in my prior exchanges with her. Nothing says I don’t care about you more than messing up their name. Also, misspelling the company’s name shows that you just don’t care enough about the company. Double check. Triple check. Just make sure this does not happen.

3. Spelling and grammar mistakes: I tend to be more forgiving if someone is a non-native English speaker, but I’m probably an exception. Use spell / grammar check or a grab an English-speaking friend. These simple mistakes make you look unprofessional and incompetent.

4. Ask for a job straight away: It’s good to indicate what you’re interested in. However, demanding a job in the first cold email is too much. It’s like asking to marry someone on a blind date. You don’t do it. In the cold emails, the primary goal is NOT to get a job straight away. The goal is to get the other person interested in you. Once I am interested, then I will want to spend my time talking to you. In a phone conversation, your goal is to get me to trust that you are a capable individual with great IQ and EQ and could be a good fit in my company. Once you gain that trust, then I will be more likely to refer you to one of my contacts. This is a marathon not a sprint.

What to do: 

1. Give them a hook: Cold emails should provide a reason why the contact should be interested in you or would want to talk to you. The reason could be anything. It could be giving the contact an opportunity to talk about themselves and how fabulous their career trajectory has been (people love talking about themselves). It could be that you joined the same student clubs or have similar backgrounds, so the contact feels some sort of invisible tie to you.

2. Offer a (reasonable) next step: Instead of asking directly for a job as the next step, you should ask for something that is still relatively non-committal. Ask the contact for a 30 min chat. Make sure that the chat is for you to learn about them and them to learn more about you.

3. Personalize the email: I hate receiving emails where you can clearly tell someone used a template and just changed the recipient’s name. It feels like dating one of those douchey guys that just call every girl “Sweet Cheeks”.  It’s shallow and repulsive. You don’t want to convey either of those feelings. Therefore, it’s important to make it seem that you’ve done your research on not only the company but also the person you need a favor from.

What happens when your career is stuck?

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Recently, a friend of mine quit her job. She had been in the same position for 4 years without any prospect of moving into a new role. She had tapped her manager and her internal network for years, but nothing came. In her mid-thirties, she knew she needed to take action before she became truly stuck.

Unfortunately, my friend’s case is not unique. Especially in the 30’s / post-grad school level, I’m seeing quite a few talented, young business professionals getting stuck. They are stuck because 40 and 50 year-old’s in the next level are also stuck, creating what is being coined “the grey ceiling” and backing up the talent pipeline along the way. They are stuck because the company doesn’t get rid of under-performers but simply “repositions” them.

As a result, the following scenarios usually play out when young professionals are stuck:

1. You work longer and harder. To vie for that one promotion (because someone finally retired!), you compete with at least 10 smart, capable, driven co-workers for that golden spot. As a result, you try to get an edge by gluing yourself to the office. If you do end up getting the promotion, then the question is will you have to go through this all over again?

2. You keep moving laterally. You squeak long and often enough to your manager, your manager’s manager, and anyone who’s willing to listen. As a result, the powers-that-may-be answered your prayers for a new position, but it turns out that it’s not up but sideways. The good thing is that at least you get a holistic perspective trying out different job roles. The bad thing is that years later you still find yourself moving in a crab-like fashion.

3. You’re bored. This is the worst scenario because you’re young, good looking, and ready to do something meaningful. At this point, you’ve invested a boatload of money and time into your education, so the worst thing that can happen is that you waste all that potential by sitting idle at your desk, pretending to work while surfing Facebook / Instagram / Twitter. 20 years later, you find yourself still sitting idling but at a desk in the basement with the same job title (and stapler).

4. You’re bored but enterprising. This is basically Scenario #3 but instead of surfing social media sites, you end up using that idle time and potential to start your own gig. Another friend of mine has been doing this for months. He wakes up early every morning, goes to work to fulfill the minimum requirements, and focuses his energy on his start-up. He’s about to quit his corporate job and launch his start-up full-time. Good for my friend, but not so good for his company.

5. You quit. Sometimes, you gotta get out to go up. As much as you may like your company, if there’s limited upward mobility, then sometimes the best thing you can do for your career is to look elsewhere. Another friend of mine did just that. He went from years of being individual contributor to a job at another company that was willing to give him people and a budget to manage. The company and your manager may have the best intentions to help you progress, but sometimes you have to be very keen about what is possible and what is probable.

 

The best time to look for a job…

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The best time to look for a job is when you’re not looking.

A head hunter recently gave me this piece of sage advice after I told her that I was happy in my current position. This statement really made me think. Looking for a job when you’re still happily employed means…

  • You’re not desperate. Since you’re not begging everyone and their mom to give you a job, your self-confidence is still in tact. I’m sure having a healthy self esteem helps your job search. Employers can smell the desperation. You’re also more desirable to recruiters when you have a job title and a business card.
  • You’re financially stable. Having a steady stream of income while job hunting helps in so many ways. You can afford to buy a nice suit. You can hold out longer in a salary negotiation for higher pay. Your landlord or family won’t be pressuring you to take whatever paying job that comes along.
  • You can set a high bar. Since you have time on your side, you can be selective in your options, waiting until an exciting opportunity comes along. You don’t have to settle for the first offer that comes along in fear of a prolonged gap on your resume. Especially if you’re happy at your current job, the new opportunity would have to really go above and beyond your current situation, where you already enjoy the work and where you’ve already built a network and track record.
  • You learn more about yourself. The aforementioned head hunter pitched me a job that made me realize how much I really like my own job. It also made me realize what areas I like about it and what areas I would like for it to improve.

When we’re in a job, we often get too comfortable until we’re not (because we’re bored, overworked, or unappreciated). And that’s when we start looking for the next gig…whether it’s because you’re desperate to leave, asked to leave, or already voluntarily (or involuntarily) unemployed. From this piece of advice, I think we need to keep our eyes open at all times for opportunities that may come within or outside your current organization.

So the next question is: how do you passively look for a job (either internal or external)? Unless you have Peter Thiel‘s track record and high profile, it’s unlikely that headhunters and others would be calling you every second for a new and exciting opportunity.

  • Learn more about what opportunities you would be interested in. As mentioned, the bar for the next big thing should be high, but also make sure you make the bar specific. For example, if you love everything about your job except for the availability of international opportunities, then make sure you look out for opportunities similar to your job with a global slant.
  • Keep your LinkedIn profile in tip top shape. This head hunter (and others) found me through LinkedIn. It’s important that you keep your information up-to-date. Also, putting a professional picture (that doesn’t make you look like Mr. Burns from The Simpsons) probably helps as well.
  • Stay connected to your network. Whether it’s your school’s alumni club or even ex-co-workers, catch up with them on a periodic basis. See what they are up to and maybe they’ve stumbled upon opportunities that may interest you.
  • Talk to your mentors, boss, and co-workers. If you do like your job, then chances are you like your organization. Why not casually talk to your co-workers to see what other job vacancies are around the organization? Also, if you know what you are looking for, then it could even be helpful to steer your boss / mentors by saying…”For my next position at XYZ company, I would love to get more exposure to [insert what you’re looking for]”.

Once you have opportunities lined up before you, the difficult part then is to decide if and when to switch. But I guess that’s a good problem to have…

3 conversations to re-energize yourself at work

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I had been getting bogged down at work. It happens almost without you noticing. You attend one too many meetings (with questionable value add). You juggle more office politics than usual because someone’s ego issues (aka. insecurity). You have to work with negative people (with little rainy clouds over their heads). You spend hours on tedious work (also with some questionable value add and that could be outsourced to monkeys). It happens.

However, in the past 1-2 weeks, I engaged in 3 conversations that remarkably renewed my sense of purpose at work.

1. Talk to your customers

This could be the easiest way to lift you out of a work rut (unless you have really terrible customers or your organization provides a really terrible product or service). Since I work in agriculture, speaking to my customers (who are mostly smallholder farmers) reminds me how I am able to help them increase their incomes. With higher incomes, they are able to keep their children in school, provide them with more opportunities, and break the cycle of poverty.  For me, that is incredibly motivating.

For people without customer-facing jobs, this is particularly critical because it puts into context the purpose of your role which may not always be obvious. For example, if your job is packaging in supply chain, then visiting a customer’s warehouse makes you realize that good packaging could really make a difference as your company’s boxes would stand out next to those of competitors, or your products are easier to move because they have handles on the side, or different products are easily identifiable so the customer doesn’t pull the wrong box, etc.

For people with customer-facing roles, it’s meaningful to engage your customers on a more personal level. Shelf the normal business talk (e.g., sales next quarter) to truly listen and learn about the way they use your products / service and what they think about it. Negative feedback can also provide good motivation for you to do something about it.

2. Talk to people that want to work at your organization

Through alumni networks, LinkedIn or other references, I get pinged by people that are interested in working at my company. I find it refreshing to talk to them because it reminds me what it was like when I was in that position — how excited I was to get an interview, how eager I was to get an offer letter, how I visualized myself walking around the office. Most importantly, it reminds me why I wanted this job in the first place.

Therefore, go ahead and chat with those eager beavers that want your job! They can help you take a step back, realize what you take for granted, and re-inject a sense of purpose.

3. Talk to a stranger about your job

2 weeks ago, I attended a networking event, where people inevitably trade name cards and ask about what you do. At first, I felt like a broken tape recorder saying, “My name is…. and I work at ….. as a …….”. However, I ran into a few people that were somehow genuinely curious about my work. I started explaining in more detail about the purpose of my company and my job as well as industry trends. Before long, I was really getting into it. I almost felt bad for taking up so much air time.

Talking to a stranger about your job forces you to strip out the monotonous work involving pointless reports or pre-pre-pre-meetings and forces you to focus on the important parts of your work.

Next time, when you find yourself in a deep dark rut, where you’re about to stab yourself in the eye. Go out and talk to people. They will help you re-focus and strip out the noise. If you’re still grumpy after these conversations, then perhaps it’s time for a new job. As Mother Teresa astutely once said:

Work without love is slavery.

How to motivate others to work with you

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Whenever a particular co-worker passes by my section of the office, I witness grown men and women attempting to dive under their desks to hide from him. Whenever he leaves, you hear comments such as:

“He just scheduled another hour long meeting with 20+ people to talk about nothing.”

“He asked for 5 minutes of my time, and he ended up talking for an hour!”

“I already gave him this information. I don’t know why he’s asking me again and again.”

“He always wants something from me. I don’t know what he’s done for me in return.”

To avoid being that guy, here are some ways to increase your likelihood that people would want to work with you.

1. Cherish people’s time

We are all busy. For people to pay attention to you, you are competing with a zillion things – emails, unfinished work, phone calls, meetings, urgent matters, instant messages, and (potentially more important) people. It’s more likely that people will pay attention to you if they know you respect their time.

A. Understand clearly what you need and what they can offer

I think the key to respecting people’s time is to first clearly understand what you need from engaging them. Instead of approaching someone with a vague question, think carefully beforehand so that you can ask them very specific and pointed questions which are relevant to their function / expertise.

B. Do prep work to save time

People hate giving you information that they know you have or that is widely available. If you have questions to ask someone, be sure to check first whether you have this information on hand. Additionally, be sure to get background information before you approach someone. This will save both of you some time.

C. Select an appropriate mode of communication

Has this happened to you before? Someone sets up an hour long meeting for something that could have been easily resolved through a quick email. Or, someone sends two dozen emails for something that could have been resolved through a quick face to face or phone call. Think about the nature of the conversation and select the most appropriate form of communication.

D. Keep to your reserved time

My fellow co-worker is quite famous for his drive-by’s. He will walk past my group’s section and stop next to someone’s desk and say “Hey! Do you have 2 minutes?” The problem is that 62 minutes later, he’s still there!  The opposite extreme is the people that reserve your time for a meeting, but then they themselves are 30 minutes late! People do not want to work with you if you waste their time.

 2. Listen

People are inclined to work with you if they know you genuinely listen to them. I’ve been on telecoms where a question is asked, and someone will immediately start answering the question only to realize that they have no idea what the answer is 3 minutes later. Thus, 3 minutes of everyone’s time could have been spared if the person just listened to the question in the first place.

A big part of listening is giving people a chance to speak and asking probing questions. I’ve seen people that just ask a series of questions and then try to answer the questions themselves or keep on explaining the questions. The other person only needed to be given the chance to answer. Often times, probing questions are necessary if you are listening to understand rather than listening to get a superficial yes / no answer.

Remembering is proof of successful listening. OK. Maybe we don’t all have great memories with so many things going on. However, if you don’t remember, then people don’t think you’ve listened to them.

3. Earn their time

People generally respond well to give and take relationships. Even outside of work, you would probably stop inviting / hosting a friend for dinner if she never reciprocates. Hence, nobody likes a taker, so don’t be one.

The best way to get someone to do work for you is to do something that benefits them. The first step to do that is to have a good understanding of what they do, what common issues they may face, what support they need, and what you could offer, which could include:

  • Relevant Information: In today’s data-driven world, information is key to effective decision-making, but there is so much of it and often resides in disparate places. If you have access to a system or have seen a news article / report that could be helpful to the individual, then share it freely.
  • A good word: A super easy way to get on someone’s good side is to give their boss positive feedback about them and let them know that you’ve done so.
  • Contacts: You could refer someone that could help this person’s work or career. For example, for this person’s role, you may know his Africa counterpart. It could be good to put them in contact to share best practices across regions.
  • Funding: Providing someone with extra budget to pursue their project is probably one of the most powerful ways to get someone to work with you.
  • Career Development: If you know of any good opportunities that the person could be interested in, then you should not only point them in that direction but also put in a good word if possible.
  • Personal Interests: Bring up information that may serve their interests outside of work. For example, if you know someone is really into fusion food, then you could alert them if a new fusion restaurant is opening.

Be careful not to make the relationship too transactional — only doing something for someone when you need a favor. It’s important to keep the give and take dynamic in mind, so be sure to give even when you don’t need to take.

4. Maintain the relationship

Once you develop the working relationship, it’s important to maintain it even if you no longer work with the person directly. This is good practice since you may work with this person again or need something else in the future. Periodically, be sure to catch up over coffee or lunch just to see how they are doing. It’s much easier to rekindle a relationship than to establish one from the beginning.

The benefits of working internationally

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Whenever someone asks me the question: “Should I work abroad?”, it’s a no brainer answer for me. Of course, YES!!! I’m tempted to just buy the inquirer a plane ticket on the next flight out of his / her country.

Understandably, some people can be quite hesitant about working abroad for many reasons, including:

  • My work network is strong and established in XYZ city. If I move outside, I will have to start all over again, and that would set my career trajectory back.
  • My family and friends are all here. I won’t have a personal support network abroad.
  • I don’t speak the language. How will I even operate there?
  • The industries there are under-developed, and I want to learn industry best practices.

Working and living abroad (especially for long periods of time) may not be for everyone. However, gaining international experience even for a few short months can be tremendously beneficial for anyone from a professional and personal development perspective. Here are some reasons why you should do it:

1. Adopt a different perspective

I think the key to connecting with others and working well with them is to understand their perspective. Spending time in another country and in another culture forces you to develop a new perspective. For example, when I was living in Kenya, I realized how simple money transfer can be using M-PESA, which sends money to anyone through your mobile phone. In the US, people were still heavily dependent on writing checks or wiring money through bank tellers.

2. Become more adaptable and resourceful

This is a particular benefit you could gain from living in a developing country. In developed countries, you take many simple things for granted, such as good roads, reliable transportation system, or electricity. In a developing country, you learn to adapt when there are deficiencies, and I think that is an incredibly valuable skill. For example, in Northeastern Tanzania, there were frequent electricity outages, especially at night time. To adapt, keeping a solar mobile phone charger around was quite handy.

3. Develop patience

The other hidden gem from these experiences is that you learn to be more patient. I remember in India I was rushing to attend a meeting. However, there was a cow in the middle of the road that refused to move for 20 minutes. At this point, you realize that there are some things in life you have control over and others you simply don’t. There, in the middle of traffic under the hot sun, you develop patience.

4. Learn a new language 

If you’re really motivated and dedicated, then you could take the opportunity to learn a completely new skill, such as language. However, learning a new language is usually much easier if you are surrounded by people that don’t speak languages you already know. Even if you don’t become fluent in a certain language, I think there is still alot of value in acquiring basic local language skills: (1) you have basic survival skills, (2) you develop rapport with locals as people tend to appreciate the time / effort you put into learning their language, (3) you can better understand their culture (For example, I always wondered why our Indonesian colleagues would refer to a female as “he” until I learned that in Bahasa he or she is the same word!).

5. Gain interesting experiences

I believe you are the product of your experiences. Spending time in different countries forces you outside of your comfort zone and normal routine. As a result, you appreciate the varying wonders that this world has, and I think that  in turn makes you into a more interesting person.

6. Expand your network

A wonderful perk in living internationally is meeting people that have a completely different background and upbringing as you. These people also have a different social network compared to you, and connecting with them thus also significantly expands your network. At home, you would most likely mingle with people that you already know, so making new acquaintances would be more challenging. Abroad, you will need to make new connections to form friends and colleagues.

7. Enhance your employability 

We all know that we operate in a highly globalized economy. Companies big and small now operate across multiple countries in pursuit of growth opportunities. Having international work experiences and especially a language skill can open your career up to many more opportunities than someone who is more insulated. Additionally, if you’ve worked in a different country before, you have a higher chance of succeeding if your company decides to parachute you into Uzbekistan because you understand the nuances of working within a different culture and environment.

So stop thinking about it. Do it now (or soon). It could be interning abroad, taking a sabbatical, requesting an office rotation, or just applying for a new job abroad. It’s really a no regrets move! It also doesn’t have to require a ton of money to live and travel abroad. The key is to find a company that will pay for you to do so.