Struggles, Hurdles, Challenges and Observation


the tree

When I was about 12 I read a book where there was a father and son living in a simple house with a simple yard and a big tree behind the house. Somehow things were such that the father could spend all day, every day under that tree. He would read books. He would visit with friends that came by. He would tinker with things and maybe dabble in a bit of art. And napping seemed to be a part too. The son would go to school. The son told the father that he was embarrassed that the father didn’t work like the other fathers. So the father got a job and became miserable. The boy liked his father from before more than the working father, so he asked his father to go back to his old life. And they lived happily ever after.

The big tree, the books, the puttering … that is the part that I remember. I think about that quite a lot.

I suppose a few years ago I was at a point that I could do that. But I traveled another path. Maybe I can still get to that path, but it seems there are so many things I still want to do. Maybe, in a way, I am sorta doing it now. I am doing a bunch of things I want to do rather than having a workee-job. So it is a bit like the puttering part of the story.


paul-grimmaceBut here is another part of the same story. Something that isn’t discussed in the story. Why is it that the main dad doesn’t have to work, but it would seem that all the other dads do have to work?

So we activate permaculture observation and see that there are people who “have to work” and we see people that seem to work in order to fill their days. We also see people that are retired and we see people that don’t need to work at all even though they are not of retirement age.

I’m not yet of retirement age, but I suppose I could say that I am retired …. from being a software engineer. Sorta.

We could explore the fictitious path of the characters in this story or other stories. Another possibility is to observe my path and compare it to the paths of those that are still working. Or those that feel that they “have to work”.

a challenge

On January 2, 1989 I started a new job as a software engineer. I was handed a huge gob of code and told to make this program work within four weeks. There is no slip in this date, because the company has a million dollar bond on the project. If the project is not done on time, then the bond must be paid. The program was written in C – a language I had never used. The program had been getting worked on for 18 months. Over the first week, I learned that seven other engineers had, one by one, worked on the project and quit the company. What I was handed wouldn’t even compile. I looked through the code and I could see the many different styles of writing. I learned C and got the program done on time by working very long hours. I ended up pretty much rewriting the whole thing. Today I calculated that I earned $3.78 per hour on that project.

I built a reputation within that company for being a freaky awesome developer despite my youth. I added excellent resume material. I learned a lot about the C programming language, which then became the language I worked in for the next 11 years. I got paid while building my skills, which I would later leverage into a lot of money.

So I did not benefit directly. But I did benefit indirectly.

I can only speculate about the seven developers that came before me. Through the decades of my career I met lots of engineers, so, in hindsight, speculation is pretty easy.

Some things we know for sure: They had 18 months. I had four weeks. They all knew C already. I didn’t.

Now for the speculation: They had oodles of meetings. For each concern or problem they had more meetings. When an obvious solution did not present itself, they would need to ask others, do research, etc. They worked no more than 40 hours per week and when they went home they did not refine their craft or build their knowledge – they …. relaxed. Maybe even at the foot of a tree.

Further speculation: they feel that their job is to show up and gently move software forward. Business needs are generally “unrealistic”. Basically, they want a job where they are paid a professional wage, but the part where you do the professional work is “unrealistic.” So they work to find a job where they can get maximum pay for least effort. And then they are baffled that other developers are earning ten times as much.

what does that make you?

Krista Miller/For the Independent Paul Wheaton hosts the largest permaculture forums in the internet in the world, with over 1 million visitors per month.

Photo by ©Krista Miller courtesy of the Independent Newspaper

Sometime around 1999 there was a software product out called “EJB”. What it does or how it works is not important. But it broke all software engineers down into two groups: “long hair developers and short hair developers.” A “short hair developer” worked 40 hours per week and was mediocre at best. A “long hair developer” worked 100+ hours per week … so many hours that they usually just slept at the office. These were the superstar programmers. The promise of EJB was that the long hair programmers developed the EJB engine and then if the short hair programmers wrote code to the EJB specs, the resulting program would have super powers.

The superstars would do epic shit and some would collect epic coin. The short hair programmers accomplished little things for little coin. One could argue that most of them led little gray lives in little gray houses. They would read books and articles. They would sometimes attend a conference or a training seminar. In their 60s they would humbly retire.

Taking a moment to forget about the tree and forget about the money. How does it feel to know that seven people tried and quit, but you were given the same project with more hurdles and you got it done? How do YOU feel based on YOUR standards? How do you feel when you’ve been put to the test and YOU found YOU to be a champion by YOUR standards?

A life champion. A superstar by your own standards. No one else needs to know. You know.

good luck comes from hard work

The company sold that software for years. Unmodified. I never touched it again. The company gave me no recognition. I was given more tasks. After about eight months I got a healthy raise. My work life was easier, despite my youth, because I had accomplished so much.

I had a lot of philosophies about programming that were contrary to the norm. So I started to flesh those out, on my own time, in C. And, later, in C++. I don’t think I would have learned C or C++ if it wasn’t for that job. But even more than that, I proved to myself that I had become relatively competent. I rapidly built a lot of software, both at work and at home. The quality and quantity grew exponentially. I racked up lists of stories like this. Most of them were of little value as resume fodder. They were mostly of value to me and some of my peers online.

As I made things and shared them, opportunities kept popping up. And my own ideas kept me busy which would lead to more and more notoriety/opportunities. In time I became something of an authority. The struggles I took on during that four weeks played an important part in rapidly expanding the new world in which I would become something awesome by my own standards.

struggles, hurdles, challenges

IMG_4710I suppose there is a certain level of comfort in following a normal path. Your income is predictable. Your retirement is predictable. You have your evenings and weekends to relax and enjoy life. Maybe a nice restaurant and/or a fun movie. Bowling. Rooting for the home team. Parades. Bars, parties, barbecues, video games, concerts …

And when presented with problems … the solution sought is for finding “normal” or “average” or “good enough”. Which, of course, is “good enough”. Sometimes the solution is to change your job, or maybe even your career. This path is fine. It works. You still get paid and life is … calm.

But if you take on a large problem and don’t just solve it, but create an EXCELLENT solution (maybe even the best ever), you build a great deal of knowledge and skill. You are now able to take on a larger problem. And then, by the time you are old, who are you by your standards? What have you done? What is your mark on the world?

So you take on bigger problems and bigger problems. Each preparing you for something bigger than you thought possible. Each solution so excellent that you are an authority on these problems (or you could be). This is not a life of “good enough” this is the life of F**KING AWESOME! This is the life of being a superhero by your own standards! Do epic shit!

Permaculture, as a whole, has a lot more hurdles to overcome. Thousands?

Homesteading, in general, is going to be a long list of hurdles.

When it comes to rocket mass heater innovation there have been oodles of hurdles. I debate a lot with ernie and erica about this stuff. For big issues there have been things where they were right and there have been things where I was right. And there have been accidental discoveries too.

Without the challenges, you can never be f**king awesome!

And that is what I should have said yesterday.

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Paul Wheaton is the tyrannical dictator of, the largest permaculture forum on the web. As a certified master gardener and permaculture designer, he’s built an empire around what he calls, ‘infecting brains with permaculture’. His forums are full of rich information, and there are a number of great free resources, guides, and articles that can be found on his sister site, as well.

He worked with rocket mass heater experts Ernie and Erica in developing a series of movies about making your own rocket mass heater and produced a series of movies on permaculture gardening on permaculture gardening, which detail how to use hugelkultur, swales, and natural ponds to capture and utilize water without irrigation. His recent work with natural buildings based on Mike Oehler’s designs has resulted in the creation of the Wofati, a semi-underground natural home design.

Crowned the Duke of Permaculture by Geoff Lawton and the Bad Boy of Permaculture by the Occupy Monsanto movement, Paul continues to educate and inspire at his property – dubbed Wheaton Labs – in western Montana, where he conducts experiments in permaculture and natural building, hosts workshops, and entertains the curious passerby. Learn more about staying at Wheaton Labs.