When you are very angry, think about how momentary a man’s life is.
Marcus Aurelius

I worked in the router software marketing group at Cisco in the early 90’s. I had left engineering and taken up residence in the marketing department. I was playing asteroid to a number of dinosaur protocols: we had realized that it wasn’t about supporting as many different protocols as possible (PUP, Chaosnet, Arcnet come to mind as examples) but to be really good at supporting IP. At one point I sent out an e-mail with the subject line “The following protocols are ‘on the roof‘.”

We had male admin named Ken. Cisco was a rapidly growing company then, with the stock doubling every year, and the culture was tolerant of a high level of direct conflict, what we would refer to as “a full and frank exchange of views.” Ken maintained a small but durable force field of calm in the midst of the frenzy.

I made him a sign for his cubicle wall (clearly I didn’t have enough to do):

“Boy Scout in Residence: Odd Jobs With An Even Temper”

He was always prepared and never rattled. He came from a family of four boys raised by a single mother. He told me a story of the time that his mother had saved up and bought a couple of gallons of yellow paint to re-decorate the kitchen. The boys woke up early and decided to paint her Volkswagen bus with the latex paint. He said “she went right past anger to tears. She was so angry and then she just started to cry. It took a while to get most of the paint off the windshield and windows, the rest of the car stayed more or less yellow.”

Ken passed away a few years later. It was a sad death for so young a man. I am not sure how he maintained his calm, perhaps it was such a huge opportunity for him compared to where he started that he was just grateful to be there. Or he may have been blessed with equanimity.

I think every startup above a certain size needs someone who can do “odd jobs” with an even temper. Especially as things get tougher in Silicon Valley, don’t underestimate the value of small kindnesses, a sense of humor, and cultivating calmness.

Update June 20, 2014: I think everyone on a startup team needs to do “odd jobs with an even temper.” It’s useful to bring on someone, even part time, who is detail oriented and can tackle the swarm of small tasks that need to get done.