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It was American essayist and agriculturalist Wendell Berry who wrote, “the Amish question ‘What will this do to our community?’ tends toward the right answer for the world.” Reading these words recently in Berry’s book Sex, Economy, Freedom and Community, it occurred to me that I have, in my modest inquiry into different ways of living more sustainably, failed to consider this curiously antiquated group of people, who seem to tread so lightly and lovingly on this earth.
I’m not entirely to blame for this. Portrayals of the Amish in popular culture are not uncommon, but they are always somewhat tongue-in-cheek, usually depicting them as a backwards and rigid people. An unspoken truth looming the subtext of these articles is the notion that technological progress is always a virtue—a modernist narrative that makes it difficult for anyone with a microwave to take the Amish way of life too seriously, myself included.
This is what makes Erik Wesner’s book, Success Made Simple: An Inside Look at Why Amish Businesses Thrive, such a refreshing read. Wesner, a former traveling salesman, is clearly no stranger to Amish customs, and first established a rapport with their insular community many years ago selling Family Bible Library sets (an unsurprisingly popular item among pious, Amish customers). His continued observation eventually spawned a popular blog called Amish America (a valuable resource because the Amish, obviously, can have no presence of their own on the internet), and later, in 2010, this book.
Success Made Simple views the Amish through an interesting vantage point—their ability to be successful business people. In a friendly, accessible tone, it brings together dozens of rare interviews with an invisible segment of American entrepreneurs (I’ve yet to hear a How I Built This episode featuring an Amish enterprise), offering a valuable glimpse into a tight-knit community with little interest in promoting itself to the American public.
But despite its many virtues, Success Made Simple also treads a confusing line—between genuine commentary about the Amish way of life and fairly obvious, generic tips on business. The result often comes off as a one-dimensional self-help book with some really cool facts about Amish people sprinkled in. The author spends a great deal of effort convincing the reader all the ways the Amish are ‘not so strange, after all.’ Instead of focusing on the deeper structures at play that create an environment in which the Amish can be unlikely entrepreneurial success stories, there’s a sort of “if you cut them, they bleed” ethos running strong throughout the book, which is frustrating, because, well, of course they do. (Chapter Four, for example, focuses on the importance of business owners fostering strong relationships with their customer base. “The point,” writes Wesner after citing an interview with one Amish business owner, “is to avoid creating negative people while pumping out armies of contented clients.”)
The backstory here is that the Amish are historically a farming people, who have made their living off the land, but as land in and around settlements gets more expensive and less available due to suburban development, they have had to expand into other types of business. And apparently, they’re making a killing, with some even raking in millions. Donald Kraybill, author of Amish Enterprise: From Plows to Profits who wrote the introduction to the book, explains how, in one study, he and a colleague found the failure rate of Amish enterprises to be less than five percent over a five-year period. This is compared to the 65 percent failure rate for small-businesses in North America in the first seven years. The entrepreneurial success rate of the Amish is made all the more astonishing when taking into account their community’s formidable hurdles. “Imagine trying to start a new business without tapping electricity from the public grid, installing a phone, or buying a computer,” writes Kraybill in the book’s introduction, “nevermind a religious taboo on owning cars and trucks.”
But this premise, that Amish businesses are more successful across the board, is not altogether accurate. The truth is, we non-Amish are already pretty good at starting businesses. According to the U.S. Small Business Association, as of 2018, there were 30.2 million small businesses in the United States, which account for 66 percent of jobs. Yes, it’s true; over half of them fail after five years, but it’s critical to consider which ones, and why?
The types of businesses that the Amish pursue are vastly different from their modern counterparts. Many of the industries modern people start businesses and fail in are those that the Amish cannot participate in as consumers, let alone as entrepreneurs (i.e. tech). A more apt comparison may have paired Amish businesses to their non-Amish counterparts in the same sectors. How are non-Amish carpenters faring? Non-Amish seamstresses? Chances are, pretty good. In 2018, NPR reported that college-educated kids are graduating with more debt and fewer job prospects, while highly paid trade jobs, like carpentry and building (jobs which the Amish thrive in), run aplenty. There’s a much larger phenomenon at play here, and this is ill-addressed throughout the book.
However, there are many genuinely informative sections throughout Success Made Simple. The author pays close attention, for example, to faith and the important role it plays in Amish people’s work ethic and integrity. And the book’s most useful moments are the descriptions of meaningful traditions the Amish have developed to subvert a dependence on technology, like for example, the “circle letter”—a “low-tech way by which Amish people with common connections keep in touch.” It is like an analog newsletter, but instead of being mailed en masse to a group of people all at once, it is mailed down a list of recipients, one-by-one. It is essentially a chain letter that encourages each recipient on the list to add their contributions to its contents as it stops reaches their house. Wesner offers Verna Zook, a variety store owner, as an example. Zook uses the tradition to get business advice from female entrepreneurs in her own state and three others, despite not having access to email or telephones.
Another helpful Amish tradition is the “frolic,” when the Amish source manpower from their entire community to complete a project belonging to one member or family in the community. There are all types of frolics, devoted to quiltmaking or roofing, but the most “legendary” is the barn raising where “upwards of a hundred men erect a barn in a single day.” (Must be pretty nice to have an enormous supply of ‘free labor’ when one needs it.) Wesner, who takes part in one such frolic during his fieldwork, reflects that men who participate were rewarded by a sense of accomplishment from having done good work, as well as a feeling of having done good by their neighbor and, of course, homemade treats from said neighbor’s wife. This detail acts as a segue into a broader and disappointingly generic discussion on the importance of building a good team. But never is it mentioned that such a team, as made up the “frolicking men,” is simply not replicable in very many settings.
Perhaps the book would have been more useful if it had centered on how the Amish build communities, because that seems to be at the heart of what separates them from “moderns” (the term the Amish use to refer to cell phone-wielding outsiders). While our modern society is good for a lot of things (i.e. creating life-saving medicines, securing human rights, etc… ), it is weak in many others. There is ample evidence to suggest that this is the loneliest society that’s ever existed. Last May, a survey by health insurance provider Cigna revealed that half of Americans view themselves as lonely, with 54 percent of respondents feeling there was no one in their lives who “knows them well.”
Many of the values that modern societies value is, furthermore, embodied in their businesses. For example, a deep antipathy toward traditional community-building can be observed in the rise of social media technologies, which have turned the word “friend” into a verb. Journalist Andrew Solomon wrote in The Guardian in 2014, “we often confuse the ambient intimacy of websites with the authentic intimacy that comes with sharing your life’s challenges with someone who cares… We are imprisoned even in crowded cities and at noisy parties.”
So isn’t there a deeper message we can take from the success of Amish businesses? They thrive, it seems, not in spite of their rigid lifestyles, but thanks to them.
It’s the egalitarian nature of their society that makes the Amish’s work, well.. work. So while maybe we non-Amish can stand to learn a few surface level business tips, there is much to their success that we moderns cannot replicate because our societal values simply prevent us from doing so. At one point in the book, Wesner describes an Amish schoolhouse, which contains “future farmers, factory workers, business owners, and housewives. But no doctors or lawyers, no concert pianists-to-be or superstar athletes.” In the latter scenario, such growth is vertical and individualistic. The Amish are a horizontal and communal people. Perhaps the Amish offer insight about a fundamental price we must pay to coexist harmoniously. But is this a price any modern individual is willing to pay?
Sometime last year, I gave up my iPhone in favor of a Nokia 3310 cell phone; the newer version of the old cult classic that our parents had in the early aughts and we eagerly inherited. In doing so, I swapped out a newer and better technology for an objectively less sophisticated one, hoping such a move would help me unplug from the constant chatter of the internet in my pocket and connect more closely with the people and places around me. I didn’t think it was a big deal. (I have to memorize Google Maps before I leave the house if I’m going someplace new, but it’s not like I’m living in the Dark Ages.) Then, a few months ago, after missing a few get-togethers because the invitations were sent out as group texts, which this phone cannot receive, I realized how, rather than helping me connect more closely to those around me, decreasing my reliance on tech had further isolated me.
That the Amish share their way of life with others is essential to understanding their success. Doing so necessarily entails restricting the growth of some aspects of a society. And it’s why switching from a smart to a dumb phone can create such a communication vacuum in my life; meanwhile the entire Amish population—200,000 strong and growing—are building remarkably resilient communities (and in tandem, businesses), one hand-written letter at a time.