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Podcast: Help! I Hate My Job (Jim Hamilton)

This article is part of the The Crossway Podcast series.

What Job Is Right for You?

In this episode, Jim Hamilton, author of Work and Our Labor in the Lord, discusses what to do when you hate your job. He offers encouragement for those frustrated in their work, reflects on God's original intention for work at creation, and explains the difference between a job and a vocation.

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Topics Addressed in This Interview

Work and Our Labor in the Lord

James M. Hamilton Jr.

Well-known biblical scholar James Hamilton explores the theme of work throughout the whole Bible—its original purpose, how it was affected by the fall, and how we should think about it today. Part of the Short Studies in Biblical Theology series.

Enjoying Our Work

01:29

Matt Tully
So you currently work as a pastor and a professor of Biblical Theology at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. And I'm assuming you like what you do right now?

Jim Hamilton
Absolutely. I'm so blessed to get to teach the Bible and serve the Lord.

Matt Tully
But that's not always the case for every person. Most likely, there are a lot of people listening right now who don't like their current job. They don't like the thing that they have to do every day from 9 to 5. What was the worst job that you've ever had?

Jim Hamilton
It's interesting in that it sort of goes in cycles because there were times when I really enjoyed the job I’m about to explain. But when I was in seminary I was actually working two jobs. And the reason I took the second job was that I had met my wife and I was trying to pay for the engagement ring and then make extra money because I wanted to marry this girl.

Matt Tully
That's a good motivator to work another job!

Jim Hamilton
Yes, I was very motivated to work. But at the same time I was taking a full load of classes at Dallas Theological Seminary at the time, and then I was also working for Northwest Bible Church. So I really didn't have the margin to take on this other job. But I really wanted to marry my sweet wife. And so there were times when I went to Macaroni Grill to wait tables and it was like going to a party because there was music, and there were people, and I had something to do. And so there were times when it was just a joy. But there were also definitely times when there were lots of other things that I wanted to be doing that I couldn't be doing because I had to do this job. So I wanted to be reading my books for my classes, and I really wanted to be spending time with Jill, and I wanted to be maybe resting from all the other stuff that I was doing and I had to go into work. And I think what made it bad ,what made it–so there were times when I was great–but what made it come to mind as the worst job I ever had is the fact that it felt disconnected from the flow of everything else in my life. Everything else in my life was I was training for ministry, I was serving Northwest Bible Church, and I was pursuing this woman whom I wanted to marry in the hope that we would have a great marriage and it would be part of me serving the Lord's people. So everything else was moving in the same direction. And then I had this job that was just about making money. And so I think the disconnect between the general direction of my life and that job. Lamentations says, "It is good to bear the yoke in one's youth." Well, I was bearing the yoke. I mean I wasn't like strapped to some apparatus or something like that but it was labor. It was in addition to everything else to the point of being too much. And all of that made it where I didn't always have the best attitude about being there.

Working Just to Earn a Living

04:42

Matt Tully
I would imagine that people who aren’t currently training for ministry, aren’t in seminary, or aren’t wanting to be engaged or get married, can feel at times like their work is somewhat pointless. It doesn’t feel like it’s contributing something to the grand plan of life. I just have to do it because I have to earn some money.

Jim Hamilton
Yes. There’s a philosopher named Charles Taylor who talks about this sense of fullness. What he’s getting at has to do with the way that your sense of purpose in life—what you’re living for and the metanarrative in which you’re situating your life—you experience this fullness when everything’s moving in the same direction. And so for me at that time I had that job because I wanted to buy an engagement ring. And I had that job because I needed cash. And so it was disconnected from the way that everything else seemed to be contributing to that fullness.

Job vs. Vocation

05:47

Matt Tully
So Christians sometimes distinguish between their job and their vocation.

Jim Hamilton
Yes.

Matt Tully
Can you define the term vocation?

Jim Hamilton
The English word comes from a Latin root that has to do with a call. So it’s really about a sense that you’re called by God to do this work, this particular job. And the Lord has equipped all of us with different skills, aptitudes, interests, and impulses, and when we find our niche, I think that’s really what people are talking about when they talk about a sense of vocation. They feel that God has called me in particular to do this kind of work or this particular job, or it may be a particular kind of task, but I think that’s what people are after when they talk about vocation. And life in this world inevitably cycles around to seasons where it feels like everything is meaningless. “Meaningless! Meaningless! Everything is meaningless!” Or, “Vanity! Vanity! All is vanity!”

And this is where the wisdom literature—particularly the book of Ecclesiastes—really helps us think well about work because in that book it’s like Solomon is saying, Okay, we have this master narrative in the Old Testament and we know that God created the world good, and sin entered into the world, and God promised to redeem through the seed of the woman, and he’s going to crush the serpent’s head, and we know that we’re moving toward a new heavens and a new earth. I think Solomon is taking all that for granted. And there are places where he ties in the book of Ecclesiastes with things taught in Genesis 1 and 2, speaking about how those who die return to the dust, assuming “dust you are and to dust you shall return.” And then he’s acknowledging that in this fallen world outside Eden we often find ourselves in places where even after a grand, brilliant building project it feels like it’s meaningless. And even after we’ve accumulated great wealth it feels meaningless. And even if everything goes right and then we step back and we reflect and we realize, Well, I’m going to die. And then I’m going to leave this to someone else who’s maybe going to be a fool, and that renders it all futile, it feels like. And then he keeps coming back in Ecclesiastes to what I think is the positive message of the book, which is how to respond to this meaninglessness. And he says, What you need to do is you need to eat your food, and drink your drink, and then you need to enjoy your work. Sometimes he modifies it slightly and says, Enjoy the fruits of your work. And then he notes—and the statement is repeated in different ways across the book—he’ll note, This is God’s gift to you. And at points he’ll say, There are people to whom God has not given the ability to enjoy their work. And that is a great evil.

And so it’s this wisdom that says, *Don’t think you’re ever going to arrive. You’re not going to arrive. Don’t think that the project itself is what’s gonna give your life meaning. It’s not. You really need to find that place where you’re walking with God and you’re able to eat with gratitude, drink with joy, and enjoy the work, and then enjoy the fruits of the work. And if you get there—if you if you find that balance—you will be experiencing the gift of God to you.

Finding Significance in Our Work

09:38

Matt Tully
If people who do have that sense of vocation that aligns well with the things that they spend their whole day doing, do you think it’s a greater temptation for them to try to load all of their significance and meaning into that work and ultimately be disappointed?

Jim Hamilton
Definitely. In our sinful flesh we’re all tempted to measure our outcomes by worldly standards. So you think, Well, if if I had so-and-so’s gifting then my company would have grown like his company has grown. We’re constantly doing this to ourselves. And again, we need to be thankful to the Lord, we need to enjoy what he’s given to us, and in a way be content with “our lot.” And we need to have our hearts reconfigured so that we’re not conformed to this world, but transformed by the renewing of our minds. And we get to a place where we know, because of the resurrection from the dead, that our labor is not in vain. So this is the contribution that the last statement of 1 Corinthians 15 makes when Paul says, “Your labor in the Lord is not in vain.” He’s just done this big exposition on the resurrection from the dead. And I think in a way he’s responding to the reality that you find in Ecclesiastes and in Psalms and in Job, this reality that we’re going to die. I mean we could think of Steve Jobs. He built this great company and he did all these wonderful things, but it didn’t rescue him from death. He’s dead and gone and a decade from now—maybe it’s already starting to happen—no one will remember him. And yet, if we are in Christ and will be raised in him our labor is not in vain. There’s a lasting value to it. And so we need this transformation that comes from locating ourselves in the big overarching story of the Bible.

Legacy Left by Work

11:54

Matt Tully
I read a lot of history and I’m often struck that in a history book we might learn about a historical figure who did something, we read a little bit from his journals or diaries and it’s bringing fresh life to their memory. And yet, it’s often struck me that this is the one spot that maybe they’re preserved, but if you haven’t read this one book, this person’s been forgotten. Even though they were in their time very significant in what they did and accomplished.

Jim Hamilton
You know it’s interesting you mentioned that. I listen to a lot of audio books.

Matt Tully
Yeah, so do I.

Jim Hamilton
Have you read Robert Caro’s biographies of Lyndon B Johnson?

Matt Tully
I have not.

Jim Hamilton
So far there are four volumes, and Robert Caro is aging, and everyone who’s read the four are hoping for the fifth. But he has written a memoir on his whole process and he talks about how there were these two brothers whose company in Texas was Brown and Root. And these two brothers George Brown and Herman Brown really funded Lyndon B. Johnson’s campaigns. And Robert Caro tried and tried to get access to them to get the inside story of what went on in the Johnson campaigns and why they funded him and he needed access to them. And they kept refusing to take his calls. And then what Robert Caro did was he moved to Texas and he was going to all these places where Johnson had grown up and all these places that had been his stomping grounds and he kept seeing these public libraries that were paid for in memory of Herman Brown. So George Brown was still alive. Herman had passed away and George was building all these buildings in his brother’s memory. And Caro reached out. He finally communicated to George Brown. He said, Listen. No one is ever going to remember your brother and his story unless it’s in a book. And he gave Robert Caro access because he was going to tell his brother’s story. And then it’s fascinating how in this four volume biography of Lyndon B. Johnson there are these minibiographies of the key figures. So you learn the whole story of George and Herman Brown and how they got their company going and it’s really fascinating, but it’s exactly like what you said.

Matt Tully
So even if you are fortunate enough to have a have a four-volume or five-volume biography written of you, as did Johnson, that doesn’t capture a life.

Jim Hamilton
That's correct.

Matt Tully
That’s a sobering thought to think about for ourselves. Most of us will probably not have a five-volume biography written of us.

Jim Hamilton
Right. And so we have to find our meaning elsewhere. This is where this thing that I refer to as biblical theology is so important, which I would understand as trying to get inside the perspective of the biblical authors. We’re trying to read the Bible the way the biblical authors did, we’re trying to look at the world the way the biblical authors did, and if we are successful at this what happens is our little life story gets situated in this grand overarching story of the whole world and we come to understand the role that has been given to us to play in this world, and our work is part of that. And even the most insignificant people by worldly standards—as Andrew Wilson points out—they’re lottery winners because of the sheer fact that they’re alive is a miracle. And they’ve been given a speaking part in the grand drama of the ages that the master artist is enacting in real life. So coming to understand the way that the Bible presents who God is, and what the world is, and what our lives are, really gives meaning to everything.

Does Everyone Have a Vocation?

16:04

Matt Tully
Jumping back to that conversation about vocation, does everybody have a vocation?

Jim Hamilton
There are different possibilities. From our perspective, that might seem to be in question. If we think about it theologically, I believe that God is in sovereign control of everything that has ever happened and everything that ever will happen is fore-ordained and predestined from before the foundation of the world. That doesn’t mean it feels like it’s playing out that way to us. And it doesn’t mean that our decisions and choices are insignificant. The Lord is able to cause what he has sovereignly predestined to come together with the choice that we want to make. I think that in people’s capacities and desires, the Lord has equipped us with unique abilities and opportunities even if two people may have the very same vocation. So for instance, Denny Burke and I both teach—I at Southern Seminary and he at Boyce College—and we’re both pastors at Kenwood Baptist Church.

So you could look at us and you could say, Well, they have the same vocation. Yes, but we do things differently, the two of us. And I regularly talk with students about PhD dissertations, and the student will say, Well, this topic has already been researched and written on. And my response is often, Well, two people could write on the same topic and it could come out very differently. So, yes, I think the Lord is going to direct people and we just have this way of finding out what we’re good at. We humans are made in the image and likeness of God. Our capacities and ingenuities are really stunning. And the devices in our hands, the technology that surrounds us, even the invention of the wheel—however long that’s been in existence—what humans are able to do, and then the way that people can tweak things to make them better, is truly remarkable. It’s really just stunning what humans are capable of.

Figuring Out a Vision for Vocation

18:28

Matt Tully
What would you say to the person who’s listening and wants to believe what you’re saying about our ability to find what we are called to do, what are made to do in life, and have that purpose but really just doesn’t know. Maybe they’re a college student, maybe they’re a high school student, maybe they’re older than that. Maybe they’ve been working a job they hate for years now and they just don’t know what their life should be oriented to. They don’t have a strong sense of vision for what they should do with their life. How do you go about finding that vocation, or figuring out what God would have for you to do?

Jim Hamilton
So if someone is listening to this and they do not believe in Jesus, the first thing they need to do is wrestle with the knowledge of God and come to grips with the fact that this whole experience that we’re having in life is impossible apart from God. And so if they really want to find their meaning and their purpose, I think they’re going to have to come to know Jesus and place their hope and trust in him and embrace the way that the Creator has ordered the world. So I think repentance from sin, rebellion against God, leaving the worship of false gods that are never going to satisfy, turning to Christ, embracing the teaching of the Scriptures, and beginning to walk with God—this is the first step.

Assuming someone is a believer, they really ought to plug themselves into a local church. And in the context of a healthy local church you’re going to learn what you’re good at because you’re going to be rubbing up against other people. And it could be that someone is going to recognize, Hey, you know you’re really good at administration. Have you thought about going to business school? And these kinds of conversations and suggestions that are made to us are helpful. Someone might say, You know, you’re really good at communicating. Have you thought about pursuing teaching? People who know us, people with whom we have worked or or even played a sport, people we’ve done life with—they’re often able to see things about us that we don’t realize about ourselves. So I think plugging into the life of a local church is vital.

And then following your interests is also important. Assuming those interests are not evil, right? So let’s just assume that we’re not talking about an interest in what we might call the sin industries. Those things are never going to lead to joy, those are never going to lead to satisfaction; you’re going to harm other people, you’re going to harm yourself. So aside from the fact that it will incur the wrath of God, it’s also going to ruin your life. And those two things go together: the wrath of God, the ruination of your life. So you shouldn’t pursue the sin industries.
Assuming we’re we’re talking about a legitimate, legal endeavor, I would say follow your interests. So if you like horses, go get around horses and then see how your particular skill set contributes and adds value.

Last night I was talking with Robert Yarbrough, and he was telling me that when he was a young man he was a lumberjack. He was a believer in Jesus, and he was honest. He was explaining that when he was working this job it was assumed that the lumberjacks were going to overestimate the amount of work that they had produced. So they send these guys out into the forest and then they report on their own productivity. And the companies actually planned for these guys to lie to them by like thirty percent of their productivity. So the lumberjack is trying to get more money out of the company, but he’s not giving the company that amount of work. And Dr. Yarbrough said, I was honest. I told the truth about how many trees I had taken down and how how much work I had done. And he said eventually the locals figured out that I was not lying. And he said people began to say to me out of nowhere, You know, you’ll always have a job out here. You will never not have a job because they know you’re telling the truth. And so if we do our work with care, and we do it with integrity, I think people are going to notice the value that we’re adding and then they’re going to compensate us for this. And there will be a growing gratification and deepening of our skill, and it will be productive and useful.

Outside Perspective and Discerning Life Vision

23:38

Matt Tully
You mentioned the value of having other people—other Christians in particular—speaking into our skills and giving us ideas. Were other people important in your own discernment of what you were called to do?

Jim Hamilton
Definitely. I have a fifteen-year-old son and I can see he’s beginning to ask the question, What am I going to do with my life? What am I supposed to do? And I can remember agonizing over what major I should pursue in college. And I’m so thankful for an English professor—whose name I’ve forgotten—at the University of Arkansas. I think one of the reasons I forgot his name is because I only had one class from him, unfortunately. And so it was like he was there in my life for one semester, but he had a tremendously significant conversation with me.

Matt Tully
It was just one conversation?

Jim Hamilton
Yes, it was just one conversation. I wrote a term paper for his class and turned it in. And at the time I was playing baseball and if you’d asked me, What do you want to do? I would have said, Well, I want to be a major league baseball player. Well, that was not going to happen. I was not even cracking into the lineup. So I was not going to be a major league baseball player. That was a pipe dream. That was never going to materialize. And so because I was on the baseball team I was a communications major because I just needed an easy major.

Matt Tully
You had to get through.

Jim Hamilton
That’s no offense to communications majors. I needed something that was not going to be demanding so that I could devote myself to baseball. And I wrote this term paper and along the way people had challenged me to memorize Scripture. So I was just filling my mind with Bible. And I loved literature. So I was memorizing Scripture and I was also memorizing portions of Shakespeare’s plays just because I loved them. And I was a communications major and so I wrote this paper and my professor called me in and sat me down in his office and said, If you wrote this paper we need to talk about your major. And if you didn’t write this paper I’m gonna nail you to the wall. So he assumed that I cheated. He thought that there’s no way that this baseball jock could have turned in the paper that he was reading. And I said, No sir. I wrote the paper. I wouldn’t cheat for your class. I’m a member at University Baptist Church, I’m trying to share the gospel on campus, and there’s no way I would cheat for your class. And he said, Well, what’s your major? And I said, I’m a communications major.

Matt Tully
But you weren’t personally interested in it.

Jim Hamilton
That’s right. I didn’t want to do communications. And he said, Why not study English? And I said, Well, that’s what I want to study. And he said, Well, you should. You have abilities, you compose things well, and you can reason, and all of that can be sharpened by reading the clearest thoughts of the best writers of the ages, which is what the English degree will allow you to pursue. And that was really significant for me. And so I became an English major and then the question was, Do I want to pursue a PhD in English or a PhD in Bible and theology? And at the time I was already thinking ministry, and I was already thinking I would love to communicate truth that hopefully will help God’s people. And I realize looking back on it now that one of the biggest reasons I was even thinking about a PhD in English was simply because C. S. Lewis had been an English professor who had done ministry. So it wasn’t long before I was steered decisively into pursuing Bible and theology and doing ministry vocationally. Looking back on it, I think the only reason I was interested in English was as a platform for ministry.

So that was the way the Lord directed my steps. And there were significant people in my life that I talked with, wrestling through different requirements of pursuing these kinds of endeavors. All those people were helpful to me. Friends were helpful to me. The people who challenged me to memorize Scripture were really significant because I think what had made that paper good was the fact that I had stockpiled my mind with the high thoughts of Scripture and the clear statements of the Bible, and then I think Shakespeare helped as well because his thoughts are so clear and beautifully expressed.

Small Defining Moments

28:38

Matt Tully
It’s amazing when we think about our lives, and there often are these moments—these kind of defined small moments often with other people—that just prove so influential as you look back and see how God used that as a big turning point that led to the next thing, and then led to the next thing.

I wonder if you can comment a little bit on vocation and how we think about it in relation to ministry. I think sometimes I’ve heard, to be honest, mostly pastors—maybe seminary professors, people in that context—say things like, Pastoral ministry, or some kind of ministry context, that is the highest calling that a person can have. That is the greatest type of thing you could give your life to. And I think for some people who don’t feel called to that or don’t feel equipped for that, maybe they would love to do it in theory, can feel a little discouraged. It can make them wonder, Well, does that mean then my work as a computer programmer, or as a bus driver, or as a business person, is less significant? How would you respond to that?

Jim Hamilton
It’s one of those situations where we all wish that we had put things in more sensitive or appropriate ways. As you say this I’m thinking of the way that I’ve probably communicated those very things that you’re articulating.

Matt Tully
That's not what prompted the question.

Jim Hamilton
I understand. I appreciate that. I do think that there are definitely people to whom the Lord has not given aptitude for certain ministry roles, and it’s not that they are of less value. And then there are people to whom the Lord has given aptitudes that enable, for instance, pastoral ministry. I think that it is foolish short-sightedness of people who do ministry and who don’t have the perspective that they need to have on the way that the Lord is working through so many different things. And really from the Lord’s perspective, it’s not it’s not as though he needs any of us to do his work. And it’s not as though he values certain kinds of integrity, and self-sacrificial service, and endeavors for the glory of his name more than other kinds of endeavors to bring about his glory. So those are the issues. What are you serving? Whose glory are you seeking? How are you going about it? And it’s definitely possible to do ministry in a way that is self-glorifying, not self-sacrificial, dishonoring to Christ, and denying everything that is godly. So I think that living out the gospel and living out a life that honors the Lord is really what we’re pursuing, whether we’re doing that as a plumber, or a carpenter, or an engineer, or a scientist, or a minister. The key things are whose glory you’re seeking and whose kingdom you’re bringing and doing all things in a Christlike way. And by that I mean you look to lay down your life on behalf of other people so that they benefit from your self-sacrifice. So the Christ-likeness is what we’re seeking.

The Dignity of All Kinds of Work

32:31

Matt Tully
And that seems like that was one of the big recoveries of the Protestant Reformation. Martin Luther talks about the dignity of the work of the street sweeper, or the mom. There is value in these vocations from a Christian worldview.

Jim Hamilton
Right. Indeed. That’s an emphasis that I think Tim Keller is well-known for reviving in our generation and I’m tremendously thankful for that emphasis. And I think we need to continue to communicate to people that what they’re doing is good.

Work in the New Heavens and New Earth

33:08

Matt Tully
So I think we’re all used to living and working and laboring in a fallen world. And even in Christian organizations and ministry contexts, we’ve all experienced the brokenness of work in a fallen world, whether that’s just the futility of the work, the inefficiency of the work, or the conflict that we can experience sometimes in our jobs and in our relationships with other people. Do we have a sense from Scripture what work will be like in the new heavens and the new earth? You talk about the importance of the resurrection for giving meaning to our work now, but what can we expect to be doing and what does that work look like when Jesus returns?

Jim Hamilton
So I think we go back to the original creation. And it’s fascinating that the Lord, when he makes man and woman in his image (“in the image of God created He them”), the next thing he does, in the opening words of Genesis 1:28, is bless them. The surprise increases when you think about the way that we naturally expect God to regard us. We have this sort of instinctive sense that God is going to be angry with us, that God’s unhappy with us. And that’s reflected in the myths where the gods will send the flood because the people are making too much noise, or Zeus is frustrated with all these people who are distracting him from what he wants to be doing.

Matt Tully
They’re not necessarily doing things wrong, they’re just kind of annoying.

Jim Hamilton
Yeah, they’re just there. It’s just that they exist that bothers them. It’s like what Sirius Black said about Severus Snape: It’s just that he exists. In Genesis 1:28 God blessed them. God is happy about the people that he’s made. And then he wants them to be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth, and subdue it, and then have dominion over the animal kingdom. So you take those statements—to subdue the earth and have dominion over the animals—and that’s reformulated in Genesis 2:15 when God puts Adam in the garden to work it and keep it. So I think the working is like the tending of the garden, and then keeping it is like the dominion over the animals so they don’t destroy the garden. So there are two aspects of this. And then you keep reading and after sin he has one son who is a worker of the soil, a tiller of the soil, and another son who is a tender of the flocks. So those two activities are happening. Now after sin, what’s interesting about the early narratives of Genesis is that it’s like every time the people sinned, their work gets harder. So after the initial transgression they get driven out of the garden and the land is cursed. And then after Cain’s transgression his work is made more difficult. He’s going to be a restless wanderer. And sin just makes everything about our endeavors break down.

So in the unfallen world I think the idea is that we would be imaging God in the sense that we would be bringing the character of God to bear on our subduing of the earth and dominion over the animals. And I think the character of God translates into people making it so that life is better for everyone else. So you’re going to subdue the earth and make God’s very good creation even better somehow. And then you’re going to exercise dominion over the animals. Everything that God created was very good, but it’s going to be better because those who bring into visible reality the character and authority and ways of the invisible God. We’re exercising his reign, in his stead, in his realm, over his creatures. And I think that’s what the new heavens and new earth will be like Eden before the Fall, but better because we’ll have experienced the other side: the transgression and the death.

Technology in the New Earth

37:44

Matt Tully
We have this picture of Eden and it’s a very low-tech kind of environment, right? I envision Adam on his hands and knees digging in the dirt with his hands. But how would that fit with the world that we live in today? Will technology be a factor where we’re doing those things, we’re keeping the earth, we’re subduing the earth, but doing it in a way that would be more in keeping with what we see around us today?

Jim Hamilton
In 1 Corinthians, Paul talks about how the seed goes into the ground and then it comes up as something different. So I don’t know what our glorified, resurrection bodies are going to be capable of. I don’t know if reality and our experience of it is going be transformed so that we won’t need some of these technological innovations. I think of Jesus in his resurrection body passing through those closed doors in that scene in the Gospel of John, and I think of Arthur Weasley marveling over the technological innovations of the Muggles and he says something like, The things these Muggles do to avoid magic. He’s talking about telephones and these sorts of things. I don’t know if we’ll need these kinds of technological innovations in a resurrected, glorified body. I mean maybe we’ll need boats, but maybe we’ll be able to move across water in a glorified body along the lines of what Jesus did. Paul says, “We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed.” And it’s impossible to predict what that change is going to entail.

Matt Tully
But we know it will be good.

Jim Hamilton
It's gonna be awesome. Yeah.


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