Heading Out on Your Own: Day 26 — 15 Maxims for Being a Reliable Man

by Brett & Kate McKay on August 26, 2012 · 33 comments

in Heading Out On Your Own

As we head into our last week of this “Heading Out on Your Own” series, I’d like to pause from our “harder,” more practical skills to talk about a character trait, that, like self-reliance, is both an important building block in your life’s foundation, and, unfortunately, too often in short supply amongst young men.

Being reliable.

The word reliable has its origins in relier, Old French for “fasten” or “attach;” the reliable man was an immovable pillar of strength on which you could hang your hat, someone you could lean and depend on, a man you could trust.

Compare that image with its opposite: the flake. Floating, drifting, fragile. Melting as soon as it meets any resistance.

We’ve all known reliable men, and we’ve all known flakes. We admire the former, and avoid the latter. To become the kind of man you’ve grown up trusting and counting on, read on.

Why Be Reliable?

“Only recently a prominent public man was criticized throughout the newspaper world as one not having enough character to keep his promises. He had not the stamina to make good when to do so proved difficult. He hadn’t the timber, the character fiber to stand up and do the thing he knew to be right, and that he had promised to do. The world is full of these jelly-fish people who have not lime enough in their backbone to stand erect, to do the right thing. They are always stepping into the spotlight in the good-intention stage, and then, when the reckoning time comes, taking the line of least resistance, doing the thing which will cost the least effort or money, regardless of later consequences. They think they can be as unscrupulous about breaking promises as they were about making them. But sooner or later fate makes us play fair or get out of the game.” –Orison Swett Marden, Making Life a Masterpiece, 1916

The reliable man forges deeper relationships. Relationships are built on trust; without it they wither and die. Being reliable builds that trust – your friends and loved ones know that they can count on you to keep your word, be there when you’ll say you’ll be, and do what you say you’ll do. They can also feel secure that you’ll be the same man day after day, no matter what happens. That you won’t be capricious with your warmth, blanketing them with affection one day and then withdrawing into prickly remoteness the next. That you won’t sometimes be patient with their foibles, and other times fly into a rage at the slightest provocation. Without this steady reliability in your mood and behavior, your loved ones will begin to withdraw from you, and feel they must walk on eggshells in your presence.

The reliable man receives greater opportunities. When people see that you can be relied upon, they will give you more challenging tasks and responsibilities that will in turn allow you to grow, learn, and become a leader. A boss promotes the reliable employee to higher positions; the professor offers research opportunities to the reliable student; the team picks the reliable man as its captain.

On the other hand, the flakier a man is, the lower people’s expectations become of him, and this easily becomes a self-perpetuating cycle, destining him to stay a follower, a bit player in every sphere in which he half-heartedly participates.

The reliable man is given more freedom. The unreliable young man must always be watched; he’s kept on a short leash. His boss has to constantly look over his shoulder to make sure he’s doing his job and hasn’t made another mistake. His parents check in on him even after he’s left home to offer reminders to take care of his car, thank his grandma for the birthday money, and make an appointment with the dentist.

The reliable young man receives much less supervision and is given greater responsibility over his time. His boss, his parents, and everyone else knows that if he is simply given the roughest outline of what needs to be done, he’ll find a way to do it – and do it well — in his own way.

The reliable man gains a reputation for integrity. The word integrity is related to the roots of words like “integrate” and “entire.” In Spanish it is rendered “integro,” meaning whole. Integrity thus implies the state of being complete, undivided, intact, and unbroken. Such a state contrasts with one that is scattered, fragmented, and incomplete. When a man has a reputation for integrity, others do not wonder what fragment of him they will get that day, and which fragment they’ll be dealing with the next. They know he is a rock of strength on which they can rely.

The reliable man lives with confidence and a clear conscience. In always doing his duty, keeping his promises, and fulfilling his obligations, the reliable man is free from the pangs of regret that haunt less dependable men. Not only can other people count on the reliable man, he knows he can count on himself. This breeds the courage and confidence he needs to take on greater challenges and adventures.

The reliable man leads a simpler life. When you’re the same man each day in every situation, when you don’t have to think up excuses for breaking your promises, when you don’t have to live with the regret of letting others down, you can enjoy a type of simplicity that goes way beyond decluttering your closet.

15 Maxims for Being a Reliable Man

“A disregard of promises, finally, is like a fungus, which imperceptibly spreads over the whole character, until the moral perceptions are perverted, and the man actually comes to believe he does no wrong, even in breaking faith with his warmest friends.” –William Makepeace Thayer, Ethics of Success, 1893

1. Keep your promises. Being a man of your word: this is the cornerstone of reliability. If you tell someone you’re going to do something, and do it in X amount of time, you better move heaven and earth to fulfill that promise. This is often easier said than done because of the so-called “Yes…damn” effect: when looking ahead to when a promise will need to be fulfilled, we predict we’ll have more time in our schedule, and say yes….but when the day of reckoning finally arrives — damn! — you’re just as busy as you always were.

But even when you don’t feel like doing something, even when more desirable opportunities arise, you still have to make good on your word.  Which is why you should make such grudgingly fulfilled commitments extremely rare by not overextending yourself, which brings us to our next point.

“Never affect to be other than you are—either richer or wiser. Never be ashamed to say, ‘I do not know.’ Men will then believe you when you say, ‘I do know.’

Never be ashamed to say, whether as applied to time or money, ‘I cannot afford it.’—’I cannot afford to waste an hour in the idleness to which you invite me—I cannot afford the guinea you ask me to throw away.’

Learn to say ‘No’ with decision, ‘Yes’ with caution; ‘No’ with decision whenever it resists a temptation; ‘Yes’ with caution whenever it implies a promise. A promise once given is a bond inviolable.

A man is already of consequence in the world when it is known that we can implicitly rely upon him. I have frequently seen in life a person preferred to a long list of applicants for some important charge, which lifts him at once into station and fortune, merely because he has this reputation—that when he says he knows a thing, he knows it, and when he says he will do a thing, he does it.”  — Lord Bulwer Lytton, from the Inaugural Address of the Lord Rector of the University of Glasgow, 1856

2. Don’t overpromise. The promise of the reliable man is an enormously valuable thing, since it will unswervingly be fulfilled. For this reason, you will find yourself being asked by others to take on more responsibilities and will be offered more opportunities than the flake. Some of these will grant to you valuable chances for growth, learning, and leadership. But some will simply overextend you and take you further away from, not closer to, your goals and priorities.

Thus, being reliable does not mean saying yes to everyone — quite the opposite. The reliable man must use great discretion when making promises to others. The “yes…damn” effect has two main causes, 1) an overly rosy forecast of how busy we’ll be at a future date, and 2) the desire to please others. To counteract these causes, you should:

  • Ask yourself whether you could do it tomorrow. If you feel like there’s no way you could do something tomorrow because you’re too busy, and you wouldn’t rearrange your schedule to make room for it, then you can bet that you won’t feel any differently a month from now, and will come to regret making the commitment.
  • Double your estimate for how long you think it will take. Part of our overly optimistic forecast for the future is thinking an event or task will take less time than it actually will. When weighing whether to commit to something, double your knee-jerk estimate of how much time it will require of you, to make sure it will really fit in your schedule. Better to over deliver than over promise.
  • Give yourself a day to think it over. It can be hard to say no in the moment — you’ll feel pressure to please the asker. So just tell them that you need to look over your schedule, and that you’ll get back to them the next day. This will give you time to really think it over instead of answering on impulse and regretting it later. If you decide to decline, it also usually gives you a chance to make the “no” less personal, by simply shooting them an email the following day.
  • Learn how to say ‘no’ firmly but politely. This is one of the most important skills a young man can master. Don’t hedge your no with some “I’ll have to see’s,” and “maybe’s” — be direct and clear. We often feel like turning others down isn’t “nice,” but it’s much more impolite to commit to something, and then bow out later at the last minute, or to come, but to fulfill the commitment in a half-assed manner.

3. Manage expectations. When you make a promise or take on a job, be careful to be realistic about when and what you will deliver. If you’re a salesman or a freelancer, you understandably want to make the thing you’re offering seem enticing to attract customers and clients. But inflated expectations can lead to big-time disappointment  — sinking your chances of repeat business with the current client and damaging your reputation for potential future ones.

4. Don’t leave other people hanging. If you do make a promise that truly dire and unforeseen circumstances prevent you from fulfilling, let the person know as soon as possible. Bite the bullet and don’t wait until the last minute to tell them you can’t make it. If you’re running late, call ahead to let the person you’re meeting know instead of letting them wonder where you are.

Always strive to be prompt in your responses to online communication as well. Try your best to reply within 24-48 hours of receiving a text or email, even if just to say, “I can’t give you an answer right now, but will look into it, and get back to you as soon as I can,” or “Got it. Will get to work!”

“You are now a man, and I am persuaded that you must hold an inferior station in life, unless you resolve, that, whatever you do, you will do well. Make up your mind that it is better to accomplish perfectly a very small amount of work, than to half do ten times as much. What you do know, know thoroughly.“  — Sir Fowell Buxton, from a letter to his son

5. Whatever you do, do it well. The maxim: “If something is worth doing, it’s worth doing well,” has been around for a couple of centuries, and is just as true today as it ever was. Do your best work whether the task is fulfilling and important, or menial and mindless. Some young men feel that it’s alright to half-ass work when it’s a task that’s “beneath” them, saying that they’d put in a real effort if the work was commensurate with their talents and abilities. But it’s the man who takes pride in his work, whatever it is, who moves ahead; he who cannot be trusted with little things, will never be trusted with big things.

“In great matters men show themselves as they wish to be seen; in small matters, as they are.” —Nicolas Chamfort

6. Be consistent. Consistency is a huge part of reliability. The guy who gets pumped about an exercise program, works out every day, and then after two weeks falls off the wagon for several months; the student who sometimes churns out A+ papers and sometimes doesn’t turn them in at all; the friend who hangs out with you every day but disappears when you ask for a favor; the boyfriend who apologizes for his temper and callous behavior and swears he’s going to turn over a new leaf…for the tenth time. These men lack consistency, and thus fail to gain the trust of others, and build faith in themselves.

The reliable man develops consistency by setting goals for himself that stretch and challenge him, but are doable day after day.

“I hate a thing done by halves. If it be right, do it boldly; if it be wrong, leave it undone.” –Bernard Gilpin

7. Finish what you start. A boy picks up one toy or craft or game after another, leaving a trail of half-finished projects through his childhood. A man carefully decides what projects he will begin — he does not rush into things in the heat of blind emotional enthusiasm — and then sees them through to the end.

8. Pull your weight and shoulder your own responsibilities. When you’re on a team or working on a group project, other people are counting on you. When you don’t fulfill your role, you imperil their success, and unfairly increase their burdens. For example, when you call in sick to work, when you really just want to loaf around, you make your fellow employees work much harder or force someone to work on what was supposed to be their scheduled day off.

“There is nothing like a clean record, the reputation of being square, absolutely reliable, to help a young man along. There is nothing comparable to truth as a man builder. Nothing else will do more toward your real advancement than the resolve, in starting out on your career, to make your word stand for something, always to tell the truth, whether it is to your immediate material interest or not. Truth and honesty make an impregnable foundation for a noble character.” — Orison Swett Marden, Making Life a Masterpiece, 1916

9. Be honest. If a news site frequently got a story wrong, readers would soon reject it as unreliable. We also offer “news” and opinions to others, and if they contain falsehoods, people will stop looking to us as a source of enlightenment. We can deceive others in very straightforward ways — lying, cheating, stealing — but in more subtle ways as well — in a look or a gesture, in silence, in telling only one part of a story and leaving out another, in passing along gossip, and so on. Anything that leads people to believe something that isn’t true is dishonest.

Another part of being honest is always saying what you mean. Don’t tell an acquaintance that you’d love to hang out and you’ll give him a call every time you run into him, if you have no intention of following-through. Don’t tell a girl you want to stay friends when you break up with her, if you’d really rather go your separate ways altogether.

10. Pay back money and return things in a timely manner. Whether you borrow $100 or a hammer, return the money or item as soon as you can. Your friend will remember that you owe him, but won’t want to ask, which can cause a rift in your relationship.

11. Be punctual. If you tell someone that you will meet them at a certain time, you have essentially made them a promise. And if you say you’ll be there at 8:00, and yet arrive at 8:15, you have essentially broken that promise. Being on time shows others that you are a man of your word.

We wrote about the importance of being on time just last month, and also offered some concrete tips for how to always be punctual. Check out these articles if this is an aspect of reliability you struggle with.

12. Be fair and consistent in rewards and punishments. A reliable man makes very clear what requirements must be met to earn a reward, and what kinds of behaviors warrant punishment. When those standards are met or violated, he doles out rewards and punishments without regards to favoritism or his current mood. People know exactly what to expect from him, and this builds the resiliency of those under his leadership.

A man who showers one person with praise, and is stingy with another for the exact same accomplishment, or sometimes punishes punitively and sometimes leniently for the same transgression, breeds apathy and “learned helplessness” — a feeling of “what’s the point?” — among those he leads. Being consistent with your rewards and punishments is especially important if you aim to raise resilient children. Esquire Magazine called this “parenting like a video game.”  The rules of a video game are predictable — do this and get docked, do this and move ahead. When your kid does something wrong, you dispassionately dole out the agreed upon punishment, and hit the reset button — time to try again. When they do something right, you consistently give the agreed upon reward, and let them level up in your trust of them.

“While, then, the stubborn facts may not be altered, we can…make them serve our ends. He who thus adjusts himself to circumstances makes them his friends that hasten to help at every turn, while he who fails so to do is surrounded by enemies that continually annoy and attack.” –William C. King, Portraits and Principles of the World’s Great Men and Women, 1898

13. Don’t let circumstances dictate your behavior. Your values, ethics, morals, purpose, and so on should not be contingent on the circumstances in which you find yourself. A man who chooses to be happy can be happy anywhere, while the man who wishes to be morose will find reason for complaint in even the most favorable of situations. The reliable man is the same man no matter what befalls him and makes the most of whatever hand he is dealt.

14. Don’t collapse in emergencies. Your reliability will be most tested during a crisis. Plenty of men can be there for others and do a job when the sailing is smooth. But when the crap hits the fan they fold like a lawn chair. Fair weather reliability is no reliability at all. The reliable man practices and prepares for emergencies so he knows just what to do in a crisis. And he cultivates the virtues of courage and hardihood, so that when everyone else is running away from chaos, he digs in his heels and starts running towards it.

15. Show up. It is often said that 95% of life is just showing up. I don’t know how accurate that number is for life as a whole, but it’s certainly spot on when it comes to reliability. Show up to work on time. Show up to the party you promised to attend. Show up to your friend’s play, even if he only has a bit part.

Even when you haven’t promised someone that you’ll be there, if they need you, show up.

I was recently talking to a friend whose mother had just died. She said how surprised she was to see old friends of hers and of her family — some she hadn’t seen in two decades — show up at her mom’s funeral. She said she hadn’t realized how much their presence would mean to her, and how grateful she would feel to see them there. She had previously wondered how well you should know a person to attend their funeral, but now felt it was always a good idea to show up.

Being reliable means that when a friend needs support, he does not even have to ask you or wonder if you’ll show. He can say with certainty, “He’ll come.”


{ 33 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Louys G August 26, 2012 at 11:51 pm

First. That being said this post is beautiful thing.

2 Andrew August 26, 2012 at 11:56 pm

So much of this is applicable to teachers and people in education. Thanks for never ever being annoyingly new-agey or peachy. You’re writing is perfect: eloquent yet direct.

3 Billy Norris August 27, 2012 at 12:11 am

This is a timely post. This week in the UFC, light heavyweight champion Jon Jones proved to be very unreliable for a lot of people. Here’s the story.

4 Will August 27, 2012 at 1:03 am

Reliability seems to be so incredibly overlooked today. I wish people would stop saying things just to say it, when in fact they don’t mean it or don’t intend on following through with it.

NEVER say anything just to please someone unless you mean it.

5 John August 27, 2012 at 7:10 am

I feel like I should make this mandatory reading for my Community College students. There are too many children-in-bodies-of-grownups out there who could benefit from reading something like this. Thanks for posting.

6 Gary August 27, 2012 at 8:02 am

Great article! It’s going into the Wisdom file on my computer.

I’d like to address two points. First, No. 9. This is especially true with the Internet, doubly so in an election year. The Net is the most efficient source for disseminating misinformation. I have come to the point that when someone e-mails me a new character flaw or revelation about a politician I check it on snopes.com and any other site I can find. Spreading lies and half-truths doesn’t help your cause or political party, it weakens it by making it look bad (untrustworthy, power-hungry, holier-than-thou).

The second is No. 11, Punctuality. I had a problem with this myself until I saw a motivational film geared for salesmen, in which Vince Lombardi took the time to counsel a salesman who wasn’t trying to sell something to Vince as aggressively as he might have. Vince gave him some rules to live by, one of which was Operate on Lombardi Time. That simply meant arrive fifteen minutes early. If practice was scheduled for 10 a.m. and a player arrived at 9:50, he was five minutes late. Coach suggested that if you had to, set your watch fifteen minutes forward. Once I started operating on Lombardi Time I was rarely late for work, or a meeting, or a date. It has a great halo effect when people see you early and calmly prepared. I do this to this day with my Tae Kwon Do classes. Partly it’s because I need time to warm up and stretch my old muscles and joints, but it also show respect to the teacher that I don’t come in and join a class already in session.

7 Reva Tomko August 27, 2012 at 8:17 am

Will you be complining all the 30 days into one book. I will be interested in buying that book. Thank you for the excellent work that you do. Keep it up.

8 Billy August 27, 2012 at 9:09 am

As always, great stuff!

9 mark August 27, 2012 at 9:38 am

easily one of the best pieces ever here. this article alone begs for a Hall of Fame to be created where the best of the best can easily be accessed again and again at AoM. give this piece a bronze bust and put it in there!

10 Cody August 27, 2012 at 10:33 am

Thanks very much for the great post!! I have been following this series and I picked up many things, but this one is the best. What amazed me was how many things just hit me like symptoms of a disease. I realized that I have been unreliable and flaky at many points in my life. I can definitely identify with “pangs of regret” that I feel time to time. I’ll work on building up reliability in my character from now on.

11 Kevin August 27, 2012 at 11:32 am

Interested in your reply to Reva … I’d buy that book.

12 Andrew August 27, 2012 at 11:44 am

Another wonderful article that concisely packs so much good advice for living into such a short space. Like many other articles from this website, I’ll be printing this one out so I can review it whether I’m near a computer or not.

Solid work.

13 Jared August 27, 2012 at 12:30 pm

Great post!

14 dapo August 27, 2012 at 12:53 pm

beautiful article… thank you! :)
Decided to read this first thing in the morning again to make sure it sinks in cos im falling off on many points raised here

15 Andrew F. August 27, 2012 at 1:07 pm

“I hate a thing done by halves. If it be right, do it boldly; if it be wrong, leave it undone.”

My grandad used to quote this phrase often. It was the words he lived by, and as a result developed a reputation of being a dependable, trustworthy, and character-filled man. This site reminds me a lot of him, thus it is always a joy to read a post like this one and be reminded that there are still men in the world who value such traits. Thanks for the great writing.

16 Ruby August 27, 2012 at 3:53 pm

This is my 1st venture into the world of blogging and I must say I am completely impressed. This article is so full of wisdom. I thought this kind of thinking had gone out of style and passed on with my dad. Thank you for a wonderful experience.

17 commenter101 August 27, 2012 at 4:54 pm

I always manage to follow through, but I say “yes” too many times. Though I get it done, I don’t often complete those tasks with the best attitude. It’s very passive-aggressive.

I am discovering that at work as a teacher. I noticed that because of my reliability, I get asked to do more and more things outside of my normal responsibilities. There’s a trend of doing something above and beyond one time turning into something that you’re expected to do forever. It’s not like I can go into the office and ask for a raise because of the value I’ve added to the school.

Now, I find myself trying to get out of these long-term “commitments” I apparently made which I only intended to be one-time tasks.

18 Joseph August 27, 2012 at 9:22 pm

Thank you so much for this post. I’ve been feeling down today knowing that I had let people down through my own foolish inaction. Or laziness, or stupidity. I took a lot for granted but this has helped me cope and figure out how to better myself from this point forward. Thank you.

19 J.Delancy August 27, 2012 at 10:38 pm

Another great post on manliness or to be precise, how to be a better human. It is sad that so much of pop psychology dismisses these basic tenants, yet look at the results it has on our young men.

20 Chris August 28, 2012 at 5:55 am

“Always do sober what you said you’d do drunk. That will teach you to keep your mouth shut.” – Ernest Hemingway

I think this quote fits quite well with the second maxim,

21 Kevin August 28, 2012 at 10:11 am

I’m an engineer, and I can say that these are very important.

When I was first starting out, I made the mistake of sharing sub-par experimental work with some coworkers, big mistake! Never put out sub-par work.

It also took me a while to learn, but don’t promise the moon! I can’t emphasize that enough. Its very important to give realistic estimates, and then multiply that time by two or three! (my first boss taught me that trick, it serves one well)

22 Phil August 28, 2012 at 11:36 pm

My heartfelt thanks to Brett and Kate McKay. Truly appreciate what you have been doing here.

23 Kyle August 29, 2012 at 2:48 pm

These are all really great maxims. The one that has special resonance with me right now is “Don’t let circumstances dictate your behavior.” You say that “A man who chooses to be happy can be happy anywhere, while the man who wishes to be morose will find reason for complaint in even the most favorable of situations.” but I interpret this maxim a little differently. There are cicumstances right now that I am dealing with (9-5 job, debt, etc.) that are in fact dictating my behavior. They are not changing who i am, per se, but rather dictating what I am able to do. My dream is to travel the world yet my circumstances make it difficult to at the moment. Yet I strive to do what I love as much as I can and am doing everything to make my passion a reality and thus subvert my circumstances, if you want to put it like that. I think that it is equally important to work towards CHANGING your circumstances if they do not allow for the behavior you desire.

24 Murray August 31, 2012 at 4:56 am

I agree with all of this except number seven: finish what you start. If I start something, but find out later I hate it (like college), why should I stay and graduate? It will cause me much financial, emotional and physical stress. Or what about a job you hate? Should you stay because it pays the bills, or should you look for something you truly enjoy, and that makes you happy? It’s good that you say you should carefully choose what you do to avoid these occurrences, but sometimes you’re ignorant or have been misled into making certain decisions (like college being necessary); and sticking through with these situations can lead to more harm than good. Know when to put something down, but only if it’s sincere; not because you’re too lazy to finish, or you’ve convinced yourself “it’s too hard” or some other dishonest reason. Other than that, excellent article. Soon to be moving out on my own, this series has been excellent reading. Thank you very much.

25 Realist August 31, 2012 at 7:28 am

All good advice but chuckled to myself because hardly anybody follows it in blue areas ie… liberal dominated areas of the country, actually the inverse there is “true”.
The current administration is a perfect example. I know what you are going to say but thought I would ask anyway. Got any advice for those deep in Mordor? Especially since its spreading?

26 Chris C August 31, 2012 at 11:06 am

The theme “reliability” fits nicely into my philosophy of life. Basically, I have found that the Stoic philosophy (throw in a little Objectivism, too) has suited me well.

I particularly like this part: ” Don’t let circumstances dictate your behavior. Your values, ethics, morals, purpose, and so on should not be contingent on the circumstances in which you find yourself. A man who chooses to be happy can be happy anywhere, while the man who wishes to be morose will find reason for complaint in even the most favorable of situations.”

An internal guide is very important for true happiness. My thoughts on the matter are at http://www.heroicstoic.com.

I will definitely share with my children!

27 George R August 31, 2012 at 12:25 pm

A few minutes to read, a lifetime of sound advice. Absolutely perfect!

28 Rob August 31, 2012 at 8:09 pm

I’m sorry to say, there aren’t a whole lot of men in Orange County.

29 Mark R September 2, 2012 at 2:35 pm

My football coach has always told the team “That it is always better to be an hour early than a minute late”

30 Dave September 6, 2012 at 3:32 am

Here’s a #16 for “Realist”: don’t be a sanctimonious judgmental prick who’d rather believe politicians’ lies about how half the country feels and behaves than go out and find good people everywhere.

31 Rhys, UK September 10, 2012 at 2:37 am

Been following posts on the site for months now, and this is the first time I’ve posted!

Reliability is one of my core beliefs for being a decent person let alone a man.

I’d like to suggest an addition for Maxims 1 and/or 2:

Double the amount of time you expect a job to take, then carry it out with your all as though you have only half the time.

32 johnnyreb September 11, 2012 at 8:33 pm

RE: #3………..

over deliver.

33 Sam January 7, 2013 at 12:33 pm

Man, this is a great ‘covers-all’ list. I’ll definitely give this or at least use this list with my son.

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