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Deliberate Under-Performance

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Susie: I got an "A".
Calvin: Really? Boy, I'd hate to be you. I got a "C".
Susie: Why on earth would you rather get a C than an A?!
Calvin: I find my life is a lot easier the lower I keep everyone's expectations.

When being graded or ranked on anything, it's typically better to be at the top. You get the satisfaction and validation of being one of the best, the people around you know you worked hard, and it can lead to better opportunities in the future. What's not to like about being in first place?

Well, not every character wants the spotlight of being at the top, the pressure of doing well, the expectations of others. They'd rather be average, or even below average. Often, as long as they can scrape by and fly under the radar, they don't care about doing better—and, if doing better would make them get unwanted attention, then doing worse is more beneficial.

It could be a kid purposefully giving wrong answers on a test, a competitor in a tournament only aiming to not lose immediately, someone panicking when they do better than average, or a variety of other variations, as long as the intent is that they don't want to do too well, and make an active effort to do worse than they're capable of. Similarly, the motivation for doing poorly can also change, such as being to avoid attention, or to avoid any danger associated with first place, among many other possible reasons.

Contrast The Perfectionist, who refuses to under-perform in anything. For the school version, contrast The B Grade, where a character finds even a B to be too low. Compare Second Place Is for Winners, Declining Promotion, and Do Well, But Not Perfect. May overlap with Obfuscating Stupidity, Brilliant, but Lazy, Laborious Laziness and Professional Slacker, I Let You Win, Wounded Gazelle Gambit, I Am Not Left-Handed, and Throwing the Fight. This could be caused by The Perils of Being the Best, Dismotivation, or Tall Poppy Syndrome, or for the school variation, someone just being an Apathetic Student.


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    Anime and Manga 
  • The titular character of The Disastrous Life of Saiki K. knows that he could ace every test with his nigh-infinite Psychic Powers, but doesn't want to draw attention to himself and just wants to live a quiet life — so he uses his powers to get grades that are just high enough to keep him in the middle of the rankings.
  • Dragon Ball Z: The Z-Fighters occasionally hold back to not stand out among normal people, but they always fail miserably because they are that much stronger. And can fly. In particular, Gohan is very proud of himself for holding back to appear as any other student when he goes to high school. He is oblivious to the fact he is the center of attention repeatedly for really not passing as an ordinary person. This leads to a very funny moment where the Z-Fighters try to hide their power by gently tapping the punching machine that determines whether they qualify for the tournament and still getting astronomical scores. Then Vegeta, who'd rather die than hold back, breaks the machine.
  • Dr. Ramune: Mysterious Disease Specialist: This is the source of Takaharu's problem in “Chilli Pepper Fingertips”. He is actually The Ace, but he deliberately underperforms (e.g. wearing fake glasses to hide his good looks, submitting test papers with wrong answers to get a lower score, and runs slower than he could have because he doesn't want to outshine his best friend, Bungou, and hurt his feelings. He stops holding himself back when he realizes that Bungou would rather be taken seriously as a rival and lose on that terms than win a pity victory.
  • Full Metal Panic!. Sousuke Sagara and Kurz Weber did this during basic training for Mithril because neither of them trusted the organisation they had joined. However, when the other recruits get captured during an apparently routine mission, they're required to show just how good they are.
  • Yoshikage Kira from JoJo's Bizarre Adventure: Diamond is Unbreakable wants to live a quiet life and stay in the background. Jotaro speculates from the trophies found in his room that he made it a point to rank no higher than 3rd in any given competition to avoid standing out.
  • Kaguya-sama: Love Is War:
  • Medaka Box: Kumagawa Misogi is described as someone who never, EVER wins. But as the story goes on, it becomes more and more apparent that most of his defeats are due to deliberate self-sabotage. With a crippling sense of defeatism that makes it impossible for him to even imagine himself "winning" (even though he actually does want to beat the "winners"), he instead devotes his energy towards "losing" in a certain way. Even in a situation where anyone else would be practically guaranteed victory, he'll always be able to find some way of securing his defeat.
  • In My Hero Academia, this was the downfall of Class 1-B in the Sports Festival. While 1-A gave it their all and fought to win, 1-B strove to stay in the middle of the pack and avoid being everyone's target. However, as Aizawa pointed out, 1-A's drive to be the best is what pushes them to go beyond, as they're willing to take the necessary risks, which will in turn make them better heroes. Heroes who ultimately get complacent and satisfied with their current placing won't make it far in the hero world. A great hero has to always be constantly pushing for more.
    • Defied by Aizawa in the Quirk Apprehension Test: he makes clear that if a student doesn't give his absolute all in the test, he will expel them on the spot. The fact that there are Quirks that can be dangerous (or at least extremely painful) to the user if used full-out doesn't matter, he considers this a "logical ruse" worth invoking for the sake of seeing what his students can do. Izuku ends up completely demolishing his arm fulfilling this request.
    • It is common in the series for characters to not use their Quirks at full capacity for the sake of not exhausting themselves in the middle of important battles.
  • Saki: During Saki's first game against the Mahjong Club members the club's captain Hisa quickly notices that instead of playing to win Saki was keeping her score at exactly zero, which is actually harder to do intentionally than winning.

    Comic Books 
  • Greyfriars: In one comic, Miss Stackpole has the means to take two of her students along on a vacation and decides to make it a contest: whoever does best in school the next few days gets to go. Bessie Bunter has no desire to spend any time in Miss Stackpole's company and so she sets out to deliberately do badly on a test. Thing is, all the intentionally incorrect answers she writes down are correct (and everything she thought was correct would've been incorrect) and she aces that test. Miss Stackpole equally doesn't want Bessie to ruin her vacation, so she arranges a running competition Bessie won't ever win. Bessie, aiming to lose, goes to take a nap in an open barn's haystack. Then it starts to rain and all the other students take shelter. Bessie wakes up to think it's evening already and rushes back to school through the rain to not be late for dinner, thus making her the winner.
  • Robin (1993): Tim Drake intentionally does significantly worse than he easily could in gym, even failing certain exercises, to help maintain his secret identity.
  • In the Supreme Power universe, Dr. Burbank has been a child prodigy since he was born, but spent much of his early academic career getting average grades because he found that getting perfect grades led to bullies beating him up and teachers accusing him of cheating.
  • During the Silver Age, both Superboy and Supergirl would occasionally be shown missing a question or two on a test, deliberately. Neither was playing dumb, exactly, as both Clark and Linda were seen as good students. However, the constant perfect scores that their Super-memories would have enabled might have raised questions, and furthermore wouldn't have been exactly fair to their non-super classmates — the latter being the same reason neither played high school sports.
  • In Watchmen, Adrian Veidt was always brilliant, but deliberately downplayed his intelligence in school to avoid unwanted attention.

    Fan Works 
  • Cheating Death: Those That Lived: Dragon Batofel deliberately sabotages himself throughout the 27th Hunger Games (such as by taking a nap during training rather than displaying any skills and walking instead of running in the arena) just so that his ultimate victory will feel more impressive. His chapter is even titled "10 Ways Dragon Batofel Made The Hunger Games Much Harder Than They Really Needed To Be."
  • Vow of Nudity: In one flashback, Haara deliberately trips and loses a meanspirited race orchestrated by a quartet of Genasi hooligans because she'd rather suffer the punishment herself than the slave who she was going to outpace. In another story, she also intentionally loses a game of darts to give herself an opportunity to pickpocket the winner.

    Films — Animation 
  • All Dogs Go to Heaven: Grand Chawhee is the absolute worst horse at the horse races. But it's his birthday so the other horses underperform to make Chawhee the winner for once.
  • In The Incredibles, Dash's parents encourage him to finish second in a school race, because his ability to easily finish first would give away their secret super-hero identities.
  • In Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, Miles Morales' physics teacher at his prestigious new school, Brooklyn Visions Academy, shows him that he got a 0% on a true-or-false test. She sees through it because it's incredibly unlikely to get every question wrong with true-or-false; by design, even random guessing will be half-correct, so Miles had to know the correct answers and deliberately choose the opposite. Sure enough, Miles has been feeling out of his element at Visions and was trying to flunk out so he can return to his comfort zone at his old school, but said teacher tells him otherwise and encourages him not to quit, changing his grade to a 100%.

  • Variation and possible inversion in Animorphs. Marco complains that the Chee impersonating him while he’s on missions is doing too well in one of his classes. It gets noticed and now he feels too much pressure to turn in similar results.
  • Early in the Apprentice Adept series, Stile is careful to avoid performing too well in the Game, in order to avoid reaching the top five places on the ladder which would automatically enter him into the citizenship tournament.
  • The Asterisk War: As a fighter, Saya Sasamiya is approximately on a par with Seidoukan's #5 rank, Julis von Riessfeld, but is completely unranked because the rankings don't interest her. She only enters the Phoenix Festa tournament on a bet to make a rival engineer apologize for insulting her father's memory.
  • In Cookie, Beauty mentions that she used to deliberately flunk her schoolwork or pretend not to know the answers because her classmates pick on her for being a know-it-all, but her teachers picked up on this and got upset with her for lack of effort; this made her feel worse, so she now does the best she can in class even if it makes her a target for ridicule.
  • Discworld
    • In Moving Pictures, student wizard Victor Tugelbend aims to fail his Final Exams every year — but only just. His aim is to fail by the slightest and most narrow of margins — so that he gets to remain a student in perpetuity. But he can't fail so completely that the University can then throw him out. His reason is that he has a trust fund allowing him to live in some comfort — provided he remains a student. The moment he graduates, the money goes. The moment the university throws him out, the money goes. Therefore he has to avoid getting a pass mark of 88% but not let his mark drop below the threshold of 80%, which would cause the trust fund to be cut off. To be precise, he aims to score 84% every time. Since having such fine control over his score means getting the material down pat, he has to study as hard as he would if he were trying to get 100%.
    • In "The Sea and Little Fishes", Nanny Ogg (who is possibly the most innately powerful witch in the Ramtops, but long ago decided she'd rather be the funny one in the background) carefully chooses a trick for the Witch Trials that shows she's joining in but is unlikely to win, and is worried that with Granny not competing and no other witches having their head in the game, she might do so anyway. She loudly praises the trick before hers, just in case.
    • Pyramids reveals that the Discworld's camels are an entire species of this. They are extremely intelligent, and also realize that if humans knew of this they would have camels doing all sorts of things constantly. Therefore camels behave in a way that makes them barely suitable for work, which means humans don't expect them to do more than the bare minimum while still providing food and shelter and the camels are left with plenty of time to themselves.
  • Encyclopedia Brown does not want to seem too different from the other boys his age, so he deliberately takes his time answering questions on school tests.
  • Ender's Shadow: Bean is just a little bit smarter than Ender, the top student at the Battle School, but performs averagely in classwork because his harsh homeless upbringing has conditioned him to view attention as too dangerous. He eventually starts performing better once it becomes clear the teachers are still finding his behavior suspicious and aren't going to be fooled by what would fool a street bully.
  • Robert A. Heinlein's Friday. The title character is a genetically engineered woman with supergenius intelligence. She says that in school, she was taught to answer questions on IQ tests to hit a pre-determined score in order to not show off her intelligence.
  • The Irregular at Magic High School:
    • The Yotsuba Clan are espionage specialists who get a lot of mileage out of nobody knowing their identities or what spells they have, so the clan's children are directed to hide their magical ability from other students. It doesn't help that nearly all powerful magicians come from Clans, and Clans get a lot of attention both good and bad.
    • In the Insurrection arc, Fumiya is instructed to let enemy spies follow him so his coworkers can observe them and figure out their goals. He understands the logic, but it's still a blow to his pride as a professional.
  • Krabat (Otfried Preußler version): The Master is a mage who gains his powers from the devil and as part of his contract has to sacrifice his best student every New Year's Eve. Juro is known as one of the worst students, but he is in fact the smartest. He knows very well what's going on and just how far the Master's magic reaches and purposely underperforms so as not to end up dead. The Master is vaguely aware of Juro's deceit, but that doesn't make Juro any more suitable for the sacrifice, and other attempts to get rid of him fail.
  • In A Long Petal of the Sea, Victor Dalmau learned on the job as a medic during the Spanish Civil War and became famous for bringing a wounded soldier back to life through directly massaging the heart. After he goes to Chile as a war refugee and enrolls in med school, he has to be careful in laboratory and practical classes because he does not want to embarrass his professors.
  • My Teacher Is an Alien: Played with; Peter informs the kids in school that aliens are going to kidnap 5 students: the best, the worst, and the three most average. This causes immediate chaos, with the top students deliberately trying to get in trouble or flunk tests; the worst students and troublemakers suddenly sucking up to the teachers, and mediocre kids paralyzed by uncertainty not knowing how to avoid being one of the three most average.
  • The Red Dwarf novel Backwards opens and closes with Arnold Rimmer's school sports day, headed "The Difference". In the first one, Rimmer desperately wants to win the race, and nearly manages it, until another student fouls him. In the second, the future Ace Rimmer, having been held back a year, is winning easily, until he realises another boy needs it more than he does and falls back on purpose.
  • In The Report Card, Nora is a child prodigy but hates the attention it brings and so aims for earning average scores on her school assignments. Unfortunately, her usual tactic of "get 70% of the answers right" doesn't maintain her cover when taking an IQ test.
  • In the first Spy School novel, Cynical Mentor Murray Hill could be a brilliant student if he wanted to, but as he explains to the narrator, students with high grades are sent into the field and are always at risk of dying horribly, while students with middling grades are instead given (safe, well-paying) desk jobs. As a result, Murray makes sure to deliberately and conspicuously fail every class that he has. The entire school (save the narrator) are completely taken in by his facade, until the end, when It turns out that Murray is The Mole and was also deliberately failing so he’d need tutoring from the RA and have the access to steal all of her files about the students and the school.
  • The Witch of Knightcharm: LaTasha is a rookie witch at an evil Wizarding School whose incoming students have to complete an obstacle course full of lethal magic traps for orientation. LaTasha has powerful magic and knows she could try to come in first in her heat during the official orientation test, but she'd have to fight off the other students who would be trying to hurt or kill her so they could win instead. She thus decides to go more slowly and let the other students in her heat fight it out for first place while she focuses on finishing at all.

    Live-Action TV 
  • In Awkward., after Ming makes good with the Asian Mafia, the leader Becca gives her a cheat-sheet for the next test...but she only gets a B. Becca explains that if they gave her a perfect cheat-sheet, it'd look a lot more suspicious to everyone, so they're keeping her slightly above-average.
  • Blue Mountain State: Alex has the skills and athletic ability to easily become the Quarterback for the BMS football team. Instead he remains content as the backup QB, as he would rather spend his college years drinking, partying and sleeping around then put in the work as a starter QB. Best shown during the first episode when Alex runs a perfect maneuver during practice. Coach Daniels tells him if he keeps it up, he's a guaranteed starter. Come next round, Alex deliberately botches the same maneuver. This attitude ends up biting him in the ass when his lack of drive ends up getting him demoted to the third string team.
  • In Brooklyn Nine-Nine, when Terry complains about not being able to score higher than 70% on the practice lieutenant's exam, Gina says it's a good thing:
    Gina: C-. The perfect grade. You pass, but you're still hot.
  • Dog with a Blog: Tyler is revealed to secretly be a math genius, but chooses to get lower grades in school out of fear it will upset his social status.
  • Gilmore Girls: Jess is like this, even though he's intellectually on par with Rory and Paris. He doesn't believe he'll get into college, so he doesn't bother to try. He ends up failing out due to this and skipping class.
  • Girl Meets World: In the Alternate Universe of "Girl Meets Scary World 3", Maya makes Riley do her homework. She threatens Riley with violence if she gives her any grade better than a C+, as she doesn't want teachers to pay attention to her or think she has potential.
  • Good Luck Charlie: "Teddy's Little Helper" has both Ivy and Teddy receive a B in class. To Teddy, this is The B Grade, and she desperately tries to do better. For Ivy, it's at first a miracle, as she almost never gets a grade that high...until it happens again, in which case, she starts to panic, realizing her parents will start to expect this from her.
  • House of Anubis: Eddie admits he skips 15-20% of his classes — it's just enough to maintain his reputation, but not to be kicked out of school.
  • Don West of Lost in Space (2018), who feels that the Robinsons are all a bunch of overachievers. He tells Penny at one point that his core principles include "never raise your hand," "always sit in the back" and "never, ever be too good at anything."
  • In an episode of Modern Family, Haley does this when she has to bake cupcakes for school in order to trick her mother into doing all the work. By the end of the episode, her mother catches on and makes her bake the cupcakes by herself. The results are quite lethal.
  • Person of Interest: Caleb, who was very much a Junior Counterpart to Finch, went out of his way to appear average. Finch catches on by the fact that his test scores fell exactly in the middle, not just near it.
  • In The Orville, LaMarr came from a farming colony where everyone was focused on bare survival and no one had the time or inclination to deal with a genius kid like him. So, he deliberately hid how smart he was so he wouldn't get in trouble, a bad habit that followed him until Kelly Grayson looked over his aptitude scores and questioned why he was acting stupid.
    • Downplayed in the same series when the ship was outfitted with new shields and they were sent into a war games scenario to test them. Helmsman Malloy is so good at evading the other ship's attacks that Captain Mercer has to remind Malloy that they want to take a hit to test those shields.
      Malloy: Aye, sir. Dumbing it down!
  • Star Trek: Deep Space Nine
    • In season one, Doctor Bashir admits that he missed a simple question on his final exam at the Academy, which dropped him to second in his class. A season five episode reveals that he deliberately underperformed to avoid drawing attention to his superior brainpower, which is the result of illegal Bio-Augmentation, as well as a form of rebellion against his parents for giving him the augmentation in the first place, since he felt they cared less about him than his grades.
    • Bashir also intentionally underperformed when he played racquetball with Chief O'Brien. O'Brien was a casual player, while Bashir was captain of the team back at Starfleet Medical Academy—and when he played down to O'Brien's level it infuriated the Chief to no end.
      O'Brien: I don't need your charity! Next time, you either play your best game or you don't play.
  • In the last season of The West Wing, a video of Leo's practice in the Vice Presidential debate gets leaked to the media showing him struggling (Leo is an experienced political operative, but a very raw politician). The Santos campaign freaks out over how bad it looks until the real debate occurs and Leo demolishes his opponent. He then reveals he deliberately performed poorly in practice and leaked the video himself to both lower media expectations and catch the Vinick campaign off-guard.
  • In Willow (2022) Kit, the tomboy princess is with soldier Jade on a quest. Jade cautions Kit about going on her own with Kit snapping she can handle herself as "every time we spar, you can never beat me." Seeing the guilty look on Jade's face, Kit realizes that Jade has deliberately been holding back on orders from Kit's mother. Indeed, when facing enemies, Jade shows she's the most capable fighter of the entire group while Kit can be overwhelmed.

  • Goodness Gracious Me: One of the techniques advised for young men looking to get rid of a smothering mom in "Fifty Ways to Leave Your Mother" is to fail an exam.

    Tabletop Games 
  • A common criticism of the rules mechanism in the Extinction Curse adventure anthology for Pathfinder Second Edition, which allows the players to run a travelling circus. PCs are meant to generate Anticipation points by promoting the circus, then put on the show to earn a corresponding number of Excitement points, with a critical success generated if the numbers of points exactly match. This presumably was intended to represent that the show delivered expectations but wasn't undersold, but in practice it resulted in players having their PCs deliberately sabotage their own performances if the show was going well, to avoid generating excess Excitement.

    Video Games 
  • Bug Fables: Delilah and Stratos, a.k.a. "Team Slacker", can easily solve any problem with barely putting any effort as their Optional Boss fight proves. However, it results in them taking no joy from completing their missions, so they prefer to slack off instead and let others finish the job for them.
  • Fire Emblem: Three Houses:
    • Sylvain intentionally shirks his studies and skips training to flirt with girls because he's tired of the expectations placed on him for bearing a Crest. As shown by his wide range of proficiencies, he's actually good at nearly anything he puts his mind to, he just doesn't want the attention.
    • Hilda is The Slacker because she's constantly been compared to her ultra-talented brother, so she feels like she shouldn't bother putting effort into anything because she'll never get any recognition anyway. Like Sylvain, she's extremely talented in a few areas but chooses not to capitalise on them.
  • In Fortnite, one weekly challenge from Chapter 4 Season 1 tasks you with finishing anywhere in a match but first place, meaning that players must avoid winning a match in order to progress and complete this challenge.
  • In Idol Manager, your business partner Fujimoto schedules for you to appear on a Newlywed Game-style game show to get some publicity for your new idol group. After clearing the first round, you go head-to-head with your rival for a chance for the winner's group to appear on a local variety show. However, Fujimoto tells you that if you win, you'll miss out on a contract that could potentially get you even greater exposure, and advises for you to lose on purpose to get the more lucrative job. Unfortunately, your rival also knows about this bigger opportunity and sabotages themselves to avoid winning the game show. Win or lose, it turns out that the whole thing was a Candid Camera Prank, and neither prize is real.
  • Jamil Viper of Twisted Wonderland makes sure to always get average scores so as to never outperform Kalim Al-Asad, and goes as far as throwing the slim majority of games he could easily win in order to downplay his abilities and keep his opponents happy. This attitude was fostered in his since childhood, being taught that he should never try to exceed Kalim in anything to fulfill his role as his servant. Jamil grew to resent his position, and eventually plots to overthrow Kalim as the dorm leader so he can stop holding back and prove himself as the better of the two.
  • War Thunder: Happens when there are tasks like "get a certain amount of assists". You force yourself to not kill the enemy, but only critically damage him/her, hoping that someone else will finish the job. Easier with airplanes, particularly in arcade battles, possibly with machine guns but not cannons. Harder with ground vehicles, mostly because if you don't kill immediately an enemy, it's likely that you will soon receive a counter-shot, or at least reveal your position to other opponents.
    • On the other hand, one could argue that if you hit it's easier to simply land lethal shots, while it's harder to manage to damage enough without killing, so counter-intuitively getting a deliberate assist might require more skill and luck than a complete kill.

  • Cursed Princess Club: Prince Frederick of the Plaid Kingdom grew up loving to read. But when he was sent at age 12 to a military boarding school, he was bullied by his classmates for being a nerd, and his father King Leland's written advice was merely "Sink or swim, son." So Frederick, figuring that there was no use trying to impress peers or family who didn't care about him, gave up on exerting himself and ultimately graduated without any honors or accolades. In the present he's the least accomplished of the three Plaid Princes, even though he's still very well-read and capable of surprisingly useful administrative support whenever he can be motivated to apply himself.
  • Penny Arcade: Taken Up to Eleven by Gabe who claims he's been faking a learning disability since he was 7 just so his family wouldn't have any kind of expectations of him.
    Gabe: If I wear pants, that's a good day for them.
  • Stephen from Weak Hero is usually ranked around the 20s when it comes to exams — however, when he wants to make a point to Gray, he immediately shoots up to first place to demonstrate his hidden genius.
  • In the xkcd strip "Priorities", a student deliberately fails one of their classes so that the grades on their report card are in alphabetical order.

    Western Animation 
  • In The Adventures of Jimmy Neutron, Boy Genius episode "Trading Faces", where Jimmy Neutron and Cindy Vortex switch brains, at one point had Jimmy and Cindy taking advantage of the situation by intentionally doing things that would make life harder for each other. One scene has them deliberately flunk their tests just so the other person would get a failing grade out of spite.
  • A familial variant in American Dad!. In "Pulling Double Booty", Stan admits he never shows love to his daughter, Hayley, because he's preparing for the possibility that she dies before he does. That way, he can make up for years of neglect with a big act of love in her last moments.
  • Spud in American Dragon: Jake Long is revealed to be a Child Prodigy in the second season of the series, but purposefully scores low as he is happy being lackadaisical and doesn't want any type of expectation put on him, especially due to an overbearing father. Considering that when Jake and Trixie trick him into actually scoring high, he nearly gets used by Jake's enemy Eli Pandarious, he's got a point.
  • In the series My Gym Partner's a Monkey, it's revealed that Adam Lyon's friends intentionally bomb any tests they take because if they were to achieve good scores, they would be placed with the spiffies, a group of super-nerds led by a particularly egotistical dolphin.
  • Rick and Morty: In the episode "Lawnmower Dog", Summer offhandedly mentions that she chooses to get C's in school out of the belief that smarter people are always meaner (not that this actually makes her nice).


Video Example(s):


Castle on the Shooting Range

Castle is goofing around to raise Beckett's spirit, but when she dares him to score bullseye he immediately shows what he's capable of.

How well does it match the trope?

5 (6 votes)

Example of:

Main / DeliberateUnderPerformance

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