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What we can learn from the Amish

by Thomas Finch

Traditionally the Amish live very simple lives.

They value family and community. They don’t use electricity. They wear simple, plain clothes and live off the land.

The most intriguing lesson I think we can learn from the Amish, is how they have approached the adoption of new technologies.

A while ago NPR’s Planet Money did a podcast on the business secrets of the Amish. The Amish have a rich agricultural heritage, living off the land, but as their community began to grow and land prices increased they have been forced to embrace new business practices to create income. It has meant that they have had to diversify and adopt new technologies that don’t exactly align with their core values.

Carpentry is a common Amish business but since they can’t use electricity, they use a workaround such as a diesel engine to power the machinery by drive belts and most power tools are retrofitted to run on compressed air.

In one particular Amish community they allowed a business the use of a telephone. But rather than place the phone inside of their business where it could interrupt them and become a distraction, they keep it outside in a phone booth. If you call it you get an answering machine and every couple of hours they check for messages.

But why go to all this trouble? Why not just connect to the grid or why not put the phone inside and just use a normal answering machine?

This is the core misunderstanding that people have about the Amish. They don’t care about technology in and of itself, they don’t look at technology as something awful. When their family members are sick, they’re perfectly happy to go to the hospital with all the modern conveniences, have a car drive them there and use the most cutting edge technology.

Up until about 1920s the Amish were just like everyone else when it came to technology. But when some new technologies came out like cars, phones, airplanes; the bishops would meet to talk about it. Does this help or hurt us in our mission to stay humble before the church, to stay committed? Many of the bishops decided, we don’t like cars because what seems to happen is people start driving all over the place, they get away from the church and they start doing worldly things, sinful things. It’s the same basic idea with electricity; you should get what you need from your church community, not from the world at large. – Business Secrets of the Amish

Rather than mindlessly adopt change, they have very sophisticatedly embraced new technologies in way that reinforce the family and don’t weaken it.

Going back to their simple clothing, the Amish have considerable more talent and skill in sewing and repairing clothes yet overall they probably spend less time on their wardrobes than the average person. They see fashion as a distraction from their values of family, friends and faith.

They invest in quality because they understand that longevity is a form of sustainability. Needing to replace items less often requires fewer resources, less strain on finances and the earth itself.

Instead of letting their constraints and limitations hinder them, they have used them to shape how they adopt new technologies without compromising their values.

Perhaps you feel like something in your life might be compromising your values? Are you spending too much time on your phone, or you’re drinking too much of one thing, or do you wonder if you’ll miss a certain possession? If so you can try temporary, voluntary, abstinence.

This is why it is important to know what your own values are. If you don’t, you may find yourself in 10 years time asking, “how did I get here?”


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