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“100 Years of Solitude”: Countering Loneliness, Maintaining Sanity, and Keeping the Magic

25 July

Nicole’s well-deserved vacation coincided with my re-reading of 100 Years of Solitude  by Gabriel García Márquez. I guess you could say it was perfect timing: as I work alone for the first time in, well, ever, I’m reading the story of a family that is united in their all-encompassing solitude. This family embodies the notion of “you don’t have to be alone to be lonely“: while they all live and breathe and engage in dysfunctional family behavior, each individual exists in his own cloud of isolation, separate from the rest of the world.

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While reading this novel, it’s difficult at times to keep track of all the family members. There are several generations of family members, and apparently they all have impressive life spans (excepting those who die of unnatural causes- this makes me appreciate Game of Thrones a little more). Úrsula, the family matriarch, lives to be well over one hundred (by the time of her death, no one knows her age-herself included). By the end of her life, she is described as being approximately the same size as a doll, with a raisin-y texture. I imagine she resembled whatever Benjamin Button looked like in his early life.

See what I mean?

See what I mean?

So, here we have this gigantic family, each member possesses his own unique story and personality traits (the Jose Arcadios tend to be reckless and impulsive, basically whirling dervishes, while the Aurelianos are reserved and introspective, a bit more brooding), they are all united in their solitude. This self-imposed solitude breeds a certain degree of selfishness. For instance, once Colonel Aureliano returns from years of war, his mother Úrsula reflects on his tendency to withdraw from the world:  ”

She realized that Colonel Aureliano Buendía had not lost his love for the family because he had been hardened by the war, as she had thought before, but that he had never loved anyone, not even his wife Remedios or the countless one-night women who had passed through his life, and much less his sons…She reached the conclusion that the son for whom she would have given her life was simply a man incapable of love. (248-9)

Seems pretty strong, coming from your own mother, huh? But, it brings up a good point- when you’re wrapped up in your own world, you tend to disconnect from other people, and in the case of the Colonel, your “IDGAF” level goes through the roof. Most of the characters are self-aware enough to realize that their solitude ultimately harmed others, but they wouldn’t change. (As a sidenote, my IDGAF levels were unaltered while Nicole was away. Woo!)

Besides following generations of the family, which I enjoy in a novel, 100 Years has some fascinating storytelling techniques. One technique is magic realism, a sneaky style of writing that describes something out of the ordinary in such a matter-of-fact manner that you can’t help but accept it. For instance, one of the characters is followed around by yellow butterflies everywhere, to the point where it annoys everyone except his lady-friend (the butterflies help her keep tabs on him). While you’re reading, you don’t think Alright, Gabe, nice try. Butterflies don’t follow people around, I buy none of this!  Instead, you think, Huh, that sounds lovely, but also inconvenient.  

With magic realism, the ordinary is given a little “extra.” One of my favorite parts of the novel is the brief moment when the first José Arcadio discovers ice: ”‘It’s the largest diamond in the world.’ ‘No,’ the gypsy countered. ‘It’s ice.’” (17). Sure, he was just looking at a huge chunk of ice, but seeing the world through that lens of wonder and amazement, where a chuck of ice transforms into a diamond, well- that keeps life interesting.

Along this idea of reality, the novel toys with the idea of our collective experiences and perceptions. Have you ever played the “Remember when” game with a friend, only to find that you both remember a certain incident very differently? There are several instances of this throughout the novel, and it kind of messes with you, because the information you’re given isn’t enough to determine the True reality. Additionally, there are a few instances (like the outbreak of insomnia in the city) when the characters become confused about “what is real.” When I spent too much time alone, physically or mentally, and with the insomnia booster, staying in touch with reality can be a headache (yet another reason why it’s great to have Nicole back in the office).

An example of insomnia logic, when strange things become reality (or so you think).

An example of insomnia logic, when strange things become reality (or so you think).

I may have felt like I was in my own 100 years of solitude while Nicole was gone, but in reality it was more like 10 days. Maybe it seems like it’s been 100 years since you started reading this post (although, I sincerely hope not), and I could probably go on and on about this novel for the next 100 years, until I turn all old and raisin-y. Instead, I’m going to go out and be amazed by everyday things, and enjoy the company of other people. Solitude is refreshing, but only for so long.

Surprising And Delighting People- Your Thoughts Please!

18 July

So we’ve been recently doing a Skillshare course with Seth Godin about marketing… And it’s been interesting to kind of see this business in a different way.

In general, I think we provide pretty good customer service. I will be the first to say sometimes I drop the ball but it’s relatively infrequent and I always try to do something to make up for it (like update a client’s software or design them a new Facebook cover), sometimes telling them but often times not. (Full disclosure: I do that extra something nice mostly for myself, so I feel like if it wasn’t a job as well done as it could have been, I’ve somehow made up for it.)

Not sure how to say it in Chinese but it means 'good bone water', which is delightful in and of itself.

Not sure how to say it in Chinese but it means ‘good bone water’, which is delightful in and of itself.

I’ve been really thinking a lot about surprising and delighting customers, which Seth Godin urges us to do in this course. Here’s something that comes to mind:

I’ve been getting acupuncture to help with my arm issues. After my last session, Lea (my therapist? pricker? puncturist? not sure what to call her?) gave me some ‘Good Bone Water’, basically like a natural BenGay.

I brought it home and the requisite I-am-a-12-year-old-boy style jokes ensued between Derrick and I…

Until I realized that two nights in a row, Derrick asked me to put the good bone water on his shoulder and I had been waking up with more relaxed arms after rubbing it on my arms the last couple nights. “I should buy more of this stuff.” I thought. Gosh, that acupuncturist is clever getting me dependent on this stuff…

I got the box out of the garbage to see how much my new habit was going to cost me.



That’s it?

With a $10 gift, she surprised and delighted me… even though I’ve probably spent over $500 with her at this point, I (and now Derrick) was psyched about the bone water which I never would have tried otherwise.

So I’m searching for other stories of times people have been surprised and delighted by a company. Please share yours! I am hoping to get some inspiration so we can think of new ways to surprise and delight our customers.

P.S. I will say also here how a few customers have surprised and delighted me: by including a thank you note with their mailed in payment. I can count the number of times it has happened on one hand and, while I didn’t get into this work to get praise, it warms my heart to get them and I’ve kept every single one.

Employee Satisfaction, à la Buzzfeed

11 July

So, you may or may not be aware that I spend a lot of time, um, researching, on Buzzfeed. Something that has stuck out to me lately is the way they use employees to humblebrag about their work environment. In June, Buzzfeed employee Justin accidentally sent an e-mail about running late because the hot water in his apartment building wasn’t working to the whole Buzzfeed community. Rather than being embarrassing and disastrous, the result was embarrassing and hilarious.

And, there was even a message straight from the top.

And, there was even a message straight from the top.



Another example of Buzzfeed employees at “work” is this post about a couple girls who decided to try their hand at Tarot Card readings. Two of them drew cards and answered questions based on what they assumed the cards meant. A third woman with actual experience with Tarot readings then chimed in. It’s pretty hysterical, and worth a read if you have some time.


What do these examples of employee tomfoolery have to do with my business, you may ask. Well, there’s a lesson in employee satisfaction within these Buzzfeed articles. Here’s the breakdown on what satisfied employees can do for your business:

1) Happiness Factor:  If you take a business management class (or, a marketing class in my case), you will probably be told that the key to customer satisfaction is employee satisfaction. This isn’t rocket science, I suppose: the faces of your employees equals the face of your business. Ideally, the face of your business is a happy one. On the flip side, if the face of your business has a rather sour disposition, people are less inclined to come back as repeat customers.

This Business Insider list shows the “Happiest Companies” in America this year. Curious about how one quantifies happiness, I looked into their methodology. The components of happiness in a job include: cash compensation (i.e. salary, bonuses, commissions, tips), stress level, flexibility around work schedule, and meaningfulness of the job (i.e. are employees made to feel that their job is important?).

So, while you may not be able to increase salaries or give bonuses, you CAN make changes to the work environment, and turn it into a place that employees love. Remember, you want the face of your business to smile (like it means it).

Interestingly, there are a lot of petroleum companies on this list...

Cities with the happiest employees


2) Engagement Encouragement  The example of Buzzfeed may be a bit extreme in terms of goofiness, but it shows that you can encourage employees to showcase your business. Justin was able to show off the Buzzfeed work environment by posting the various responses to his e-mail, including one from the CEO. While reading the post, I was thinking, “Man, these people are so clever! It would be so fun to work with them. I think I love Buzzfeed EVEN MORE NOW!” 

Encouraging employees to engage in the business in a fun way has a few benefits: self-promotion (in a subtle way), increased productivity, incentive to go above and beyond the call of duty, and overall better quality of work.

This article from Forbes describes the relationship between employee satisfaction and business performance in greater (and more technical) detail. There is also this flow chart:

Screen Shot 2014-07-11 at 1.59.09 PM

3) “We’ve Got Your Back”  This idea goes along with encouragement. If, for instance, the girls doing Tarot readings were somehow disciplined for their post, they a) would lose incentive to engage with the company and b) wouldn’t be convinced that Buzzfeed had their backs.

When a business or boss tells their employees “Yes, please go ahead and do X. That would be great”, following through and standing behind employees who do X is important. Unless they are completely missing the point of the task or botching it, punishing them will generate feelings of betrayal, and all incentive they have to do X.  And perhaps any other future task that’s asked of them. Basically, it’s all a downward spiral. Don’t create trust issues with your employees. 

Of course, I consider myself a satisfied employee here at Breaking Even… which may have something to do with Nicole indulging my Buzzfeed habit.

What Running 20 Miles in the Middle of the Night Taught Me About Life

08 July

Many months ago, one of my friends jumped out of bed and proclaimed (with meaningful background music), “I’m going to go for a 100 mile run this summer!”

Actually, I’m not sure how it all went down, but I like to imagine it with a dramatic flair.

Once I determined that he was still sane, I agreed to help to run a fraction of it with him. After all, this is the person who convinced me a couple years ago that I could totally run a marathon, and has dragged me through a couple so far. So, I figured the least I could do was return the favor.

And that’s the story of the (first) time I volunteered to run 20 miles in the middle of the night on the Sunrise Trail. My friend started running around 4 p.m., and I joined in from midnight to 4 a.m. (aka The Graveyard Shift). Here are a few life lessons I learned along the way:

1) Sometimes, you need to readjust. Less than 2 miles in, I got vague pain in my head. No worries, I reassured myself, this is all new territory, you had a lot of caffeine today and are running at midnight. But by mile 5, this headache had grown to epic proportions.  I didn’t want to say anything, partially because of the searing pain and partially because I felt responsible for getting my friend through the next few hours of running. Don’t be a flake! screamed the voice in my head.

And then, we made a brief pitstop to adjust headlamps (this was my first time wearing one). Almost as soon as I took mine off, a surge of blood rushed back into my head. That’s right. My headache was the result of cutting off circulation to my own brain via headlamp.

A crude artistic rendition of the incident. Note: There was actually a bunny, and the stars were amazing.

A crude artistic rendition of the incident. Note: There was actually a bunny, and the stars were this amazing.

While this was, to say the least, uncomfortable, there’s a good life take-away: as you move about your day/life in general, if you feel like your head is about to explode (literally or figuratively), then something needs to change. The answer may not be as simple as oxygen deprivation, but once you find the solution, moving forward becomes a lot easier.

2) Trading passion for glory isn’t worth it (that’s right, Eye of the Tiger). So, the biggest question people had about the whole running 100 miles was “Why?” Well, my friend basically said, “Why NOT?” It amazed me that someone could be so passionate about, well, anything. The fact that there was no tangible prize at the end of this thing baffled me. He was just doing it for the sheer sake of doing it.

This reminded me how refreshing it is to do something you love free of ulterior motives. I’m guilty of getting a bit too competitive when I run, despite the knowledge that it’s bad for my mental well-being. In this undertaking, my friend reminded me (note: he has also told me this on many, many other occasions) that relying on external factors, be they medals, praise, a promotion, etc., isn’t a great reason to do something. Do it because it’s what you love to do, and let that be all.

3) It’s an adventure! Towards the end of my shift, neither one of us spoke unless necessary (me due to sleep deprivation, and my friend because he’d been running for almost 12 hours at this point). The only noises were our feet hitting dirt, some bullfrogs, and an owl. At one point, probably around 3 a.m., it was dark- as if all the light but our headlamps had been sucked in a vacuum. And then, the sun started to rise.

Perhaps delirious, I got inexplicably excited by this. We were running toward the sun! It was all an adventure! Life is an adventure!!! My brain was full of exclamation points.

This was definitely the song playing in my head.

This was definitely the song playing in my head.

At this point, I was reveling in the craziness of running 20 miles at midnight, and was struck with how awesome my surroundings were- the trees, the frogs, the flowers, the sky. Finding joy in the simple things genuinely makes the world seem like a better place, no matter where you are.

4) Never underestimate your friends. I know I’ve said this before, but I’m going to say it again: it’s comforting to know that other people will support you, no questions asked. Even if they think you’re a little off your rocker for wanting to run 100 miles in the heat of summer. I was just one of many who participated in this run, and there was a ton of support via Facebook. Sometimes, just showing up is enough. No matter what your goals are, it’s always good to have a support team.

5) Push your limits, but know when enough is enough. Ultimately, due to the heat and humidity, my friend decided to stop running after 85 miles. It was a smart decision, anddifficult to make. Setting goals and aspiring to do things you didn’t know you could do (running 85 miles, learning how to use Photoshop, teaching yourself how to breakdance) leads to personal growth (which you probably already knew), but the tricky part is balancing this with knowing when it’s time to tap out (and not viewing it as ‘giving up’). This is something that I struggle with, and don’t have a cookie-cutter answer for (maybe because it doesn’t exist).

I’m thankful that my friend asked me to be part of this run, and am so proud of what he accomplished. It was a tremendous feat, and it all happened because, quite simply, he wanted it to happen. How many times will you get to run the Sunrise Trail at midnight with a good friend? As many times as you want.

Tech Thursday: Being Pun-ny Online

03 July

Warning: Terrible jokes ahead.

Have you seen those businesses on Facebook or Twitter that just seem hilarious? How do they do it, anyway? 

We have a few ways you can showcase your sense of humor online, and they’re pretty punny. As a disclaimer, Nicole only knows one joke (which you’ll see in the video), and Kassie can’t get through telling her jokes without laughing pre-punchline, but in terms of online marketing, we can tell you what’s going to be good for business!


As a bonus, here is a chart that demonstrates our take on approaching humor:


Nicole's Chart of Funny

Nicole’s Chart of Funny