The Tree, the Soil, and the Fruit

I love looking for connections between the books I read. When I see common themes in otherwise unrelated books, my ears perk up. To see unconnected authors’ paths cross seems to validate what both are saying.

As I look back on the books I read over the past year — which varied in theme from running to farming to motorcycle maintenance— I noticed a few common threads emerge.

Today, I’d like to pull on one of those threads (with apologies, this post is rather long-winded…).

Let’s begin where any good conversation should: with food.

Reaching for Gold

Ray Croc knew what it takes to win. In the 1950s he grew McDonalds from a little family restaurant in San Bernardino, California, to a global franchise. But Croc’s relentless appetite for business success flew in the face of the values around which the original Golden Arches stood for. The 2016 film The Founder depicts this tension been the modern “winning mindset” on which the American dream was built and the more conservative character-driven approach to business that the McDonald brothers valued.

One heated telephone conversation in the film encapsulates this tension well. At this point in the story, the McDonalds franchise has grown throughout the US, but the McDonald brothers are having their doubts about the means Croc is willing to use to succeed:

Ray Croc: “I wanna win. And you don’t get there by being some “aw shucks” guy sap. There’s no place in business for people like that. Business is war. It’s dog eat dog, rat eat rat. If my competitor were drowning, I’d walk over and put a hose right in his mouth. Can you say the same?
Mac McDonald: [pause] I can’t. Nor would I want to.
Ray Kroc: Hence, your single location.

And, because we’ve all eaten a Big Mac at a McDonald’s outside of San Bernardino, California, we know that it was Croc’s aggression that beat out the McDonald brothers’ conservative mindset.

But was this really a win? Was spreading the good news of McDonalds food around the world worth the sacrifice of Kroc’s marriage and relationships with the company’s founders?

And what about those of us who aspire to a life of character deeper than “success at any cost”? Are nice people destined to finish last? Can compassion and competition co-exist?

Chris McDougall, for one, believes that they can.

Love and running

In his book Born to Run, Chris McDougall studies both the Mexican tribe of super-runners called the Tarahumara and the elite athletes in the world of ultra-running. He notices a surprising trend among the best runners in the world:

The best runners were also the most loving and generous people.

…there was some kind of connection between the capacity to love and the capacity to love running. The engineering was certainly the same: both depended on loosening your grip on your own desires, putting aside what you wanted and appreciating what you’ve got, being patient and forgiving and… undemanding…maybe we shouldn’t be surprised that getting better at one could make you better at the other.

As McDougall pointed out in his TED talk, this trait was exemplified perfectly in Derartu Tulu’s winning run in the New York City Marathon.

In 2009, the accomplished 37-year-old Ethiopian marathoner returned to the sport to race the New York City Marathon. Just over halfway into the race, Tulu was running alongside the heavily-favoured Paula Radcliffe when Radcliffe pulled up in pain, nursing her hamstring.

This was Tulu’s chance to break ahead of her rival and take a commanding lead! And yet she did the unexpected.

“Come on,” she said to Radcliffe, “we can do it.”

This was a heart-warming display of sportsmanship, but we all know that nice people like Tulu don’t have what it takes to win, right?

Wrong.

As the race progressed, Radcliffe stopped a second time in pain. Again, Tulu stopped to encourage her competiton to continue. At that point Radcliffe said, “I’m done,” and let Tulu run ahead.

And run she did. Not only did Tulu manage to catch back up to the lead pack but went on to win the race!

Tulu is an example of someone who didn’t sacrifice compassion for the sake of competition. In fact, it might have been her depth character that also made her a great runner.

Often it’s easy to believe that we can excel in one area of life at the expense of others.

We can sacrifice our sleep or diet to find success in our work.

We cut other people down in a fight to the top.

When we vote, we think that a corrupt person will make a nation prosper.

But bad tree can’t make good fruit.

This principle has proven true in more places than the running world.

The perfect painting

In Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Robert Pirsig becomes obsessed with Quality. He discovers that the characteristic of Quality isn’t like a coat of paint that you can throw on at the end to give something Quality. Quality must be built in from the beginning. Even before plans are drawn, Quality must be developed. It must start at the core of the maker’s character.

You want to know how to paint a perfect painting? It’s easy. Make yourself perfect and then just paint naturally. That’s the way all the experts do it. The making of a painting or the fixing of a motorcycle isn’t separate from the rest of your existence. If you’re a sloppy thinker the six days of the week you aren’t working on your machine, what trap avoidances, what gimmicks, can make you all of a sudden sharp on the seventh? It all goes together.
The real cycle you’re working on is a cycle called yourself. The machine that appears to be “out there” and the person that appears to be “in here” are not two separate things. They grow toward Quality or they fall away from Quality together.

Picasso echoed this when he said, “It’s not what an artist does that counts, but what he is.”

If we hope to be great in any arena, whether art or running or business, we must embark on the long journey of cultivating depth of character in all areas of life. Despite what our culture tells us, there are no shortcuts to quick success on one day of the week, to borrow Pirsig’s words. For as he says:

It all goes together.

Tending the soil

Wendell Berry has become a favourite author in my bookshelf. His writing comes from a place unruffled by the tossing waves of today’s concerns. He draws from a deeper stream, and I’ve gleaned a lot from his perspective.

In his book The Unsettling of America, Berry emphasizes over and over the value of soil. Obviously soil is important for growing any crop or garden, but it’s far more than just the “dirt” seeds are planted in. Berry talks about the importance of particular crop rotations for returning nutrients to the soil, and minimizing tillage to avoid breaking up the bacterias and composition of the soil before planting. Now, the particulars of this are a conversation that finds this hobbyist gardener far out of his depth, but the principle rings true in many areas of life.

To grow quality fruit, take care of the tree. To take care of the tree, take care of the soil.

For this reason, the discussion of soil for Berry isn’t just about farming. Because the health of our soil affects the quality of our food and the health of those who work the soil. These affect the health of our towns and cities, and the health of our culture as a whole.

Because everything is connected.

This is why, if you want to take great pictures, you don’t start by getting a fancy camera.

And if you want to start a business that does great work, you don’t start with a killer logo or website.

And if you want to raise great kids, you don’t start by sending them to a great school.

No, to produce any fruit of good quality you need to start with the soil. (And that soil, by the way, is you).

Looking back at the example of McDonalds, you could argue that the franchise’s “fruit” — the food you eat at any of their restaurants, but also their impact on our health and communities, both the good and the bad — could be traced back to the “soil” of its founders’ character, which first nourished its growth.

Because bad soil can’t produce good fruit.

It’s all connected.

Connecting

There’s a scene in How to Train Your Dragon that keeps coming to mind (forgive me, as a parent I don’t get out much these days). The feeble son of the king isn’t seen as “future king” material. He’s small and lacking confidence. Any time he presses a critic on what precisely is wrong with him, he gets this kind of sweeping finger-point at his whole self.

“You just pointed at all of me.”

It’s the season of New Year’s resolutions, as we all hope to make the upcoming year better than the last. When you think about how you’d like to improve, you might feel like Hiccup. The finger is pointing at “all of you”.

Where do we begin?

If you were to ask the motorcycle-enthusiast Pirsig where to start, he would point at all of you, but in an encouraging sort of way.

The place to improve the world is first in one’s own heart and head and hands, and then word outward from there. Other people can talk about how to expand the destiny of mankind. I just want to talk about how to fix a motorcycle. I think that what I have to say has more lasting value.

Berry, too, points encouragingly to the hope of small steps. If everything is connected, then the smallest changes, the simplest acts of love and generosity, will affect everything else. (In fact, simply acknowledging these connections is also a step towards health. Berry writes, “Only by restoring the broken connections can we be healed. Connection is health.”)

How you treat your fellow runners affects how well you yourself run. What you eat affects how you run your business. How you listen to your kids or your friends affects how you do your work.

It’s all connected.

As you turn your calendar to a new year, consider the health of your soil. Aspire to become of person with depth of character.

Because if your soil is good, your fruit will also be good.

Life Is Not a Marathon

You’ve heard people say, “life’s not a sprint, it’s a marathon”. Ok, it may not be a sprint, but “marathon” isn’t the best metaphor either.

A marathon is long, but it has an end. Even while battling the 26.2 miles of a marathon, you can push yourself knowing that in a few hours the race will be over, you’ll be showered up and kicking your feet up at home.

Some seasons of life are like marathons, but life is different.

Life is more like a persistence hunt.

In Born to Run, Chris McDougall tells about the Bushmen of the Kahlahari Desert who are the last people known on earth to use a hunting technique known as “persistence hunting”. The technique includes a group of hunters running after an antelope for hours and hours, slowly wearing the animal down.

(Wait, outrun an antelope?!? Turns out humans are uniquely capable of running, not because we’re the fastest, but because our independent breathing and cooling systems let us run much longer than any other mammal. Go humans! The Bushmen outrun an antelope by running longer, not faster, than the animal.)

Louis Leibenberg, who lived with this desert tribe for several years and learned the technique, explains the process:

The pace wasn’t too fierce; the Bushmen average about ten minutes a mile, but many of those miles are in soft sand and brush, and they occasionally stop to study tracks. They’d still fire the jets and take off in a sprint, but they knew how to keep trotting afterward and recover on the run. They had to, because a persistence hunt was like showing up at the starting line without knowing if you were running a half marathon, marathon, or ultra.

As a runner, I definitely prefer knowing how far I’m running before I start, so I know how to pace myself (or, because if the distance is too far I wouldn’t bother starting in the first place ;) ).

But I think there’s a life lesson in these Kahlahari hunters’ approach to running.

We can take on any amount of stress, busyness, and ambition for a short period of time. We “push through” the end of a semester, or a busy season of work, knowing that the end is in sight.

But the arc of your life is different. There’s no specific end in sight, so you have to set a pace that’s sustainable for a very long time.

That means learning to rest.

And saying “no” sometimes.

And knowing when to push, and when to ease up.

After a while, Louis began to look at running the way other people look at walking; he learned to settle back and let his legs spin in a quick, easy trot, a sort of baseline motion that could last all day and leave him enough reserves to accelerate when necessary.

How do you pace yourself when there’s no finish line in sight?

Because unlike a marathon, the goal in life isn’t to finish as quickly as possible.

The goal is to keep running.

Christmas Bells

On Christmas Day of 1863, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow was feeling melancholic. The famous poet who had penned his depiction of Paul Revere’s Ride a few years earlier was feeling less than triumphant.

This Christmas, for Longfellow, there was no peace on earth. As an abolitionist he felt the full burden of the civil country was in the midst of civil war which was tearing his country in two. The war had also taken its toll on his family. Longfellow had recently received word that his son had been injured in battle.

Adding to that weight was the memory of his beloved wife who, three years earlier, had died in a tragic fire.

Maybe the weather that Christmas Day reflected Longfellow’s mood. Maybe it was one of those foggy winter days where the sky pressed down to blend seamlessly into the snow-covered Massachusetts ground.

No, this Christmas was neither merry nor bright.

But, as was his practice, Longfellow sat down to write a poem. Maybe this poem would be gray to match the sky, an outpouring of his melancholy.

But that’s when he heard the sound.

Church bells, ringing through the crisp winter air, announcing peace on earth, good-will to all. The sky unexpectedly lifted, and Longfellow’s spirits began to rise. He penned a poem called Christmas Bells (which was set to music years later and became I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day).

I heard the bells on Christmas Day
Their old, familiar carols play,
And wild and sweet
The words repeat
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

And thought how, as the day had come,
The belfries of all Christendom
Had rolled along
The unbroken song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

Till, ringing, singing on its way,
The world revolved from night to day,
A voice, a chime,
A chant sublime
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

Then from each black, accursed mouth
The cannon thundered in the South,
And with the sound
The carols drowned
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

It was as if an earthquake rent
The hearth-stones of a continent,
And made forlorn
The households born
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

And in despair I bowed my head;
“There is no peace on earth,” I said:
“For hate is strong,
And mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!”

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
“God is not dead; nor doth he sleep!
The Wrong shall fail,
The Right prevail,
With peace on earth, good-will to men!”

Hearing

When I think of hearing the bells, I think of that kids movie The Polar Express. That’s the one where young boy jumps on Tom Hanks’ magical train to the North Pole to visit Santa. Maybe not a “modern classic”, but I enjoyed it, probably because I saw it in 3D when it first came out :).

In this movie, the boy has a problem: he can’t hear the bells.

Over the course of the journey he finds out that hearing the bells is dependent only on his belief in Santa. Once he believes, his ears open and he finds out that the bells have been ringing the entire time, everywhere. He simply wasn’t able to hear them.

I’ve noticed lately that a lot of our favourite Christmas songs actually have this theme of hearing baked right in.

Said the little lamb to the Shepard boy
Do you hear what I hear?

Even this one:

Sleigh bells ring, are you listening?

Are you listening? Can you hear them?

Part of the Christmas season is about the gift of Jesus, and warmth and light and peace on earth and all that good stuff. But another part is asking, are you paying attention?

The Ringing

Christmas can be a heavy time for all of us. Bills to pay, stresses of family, friends that are hurting, loneliness, difficult memories from years past. It all comes together during this season. And if Longfellow’s poem is any indication, it’s always been this way.

Life, even at Christmas, is not all merry and bright.

But also true, just as in Longfellow’s day, is that the bells are ringing.

Now, chances are your ears are also ringing this time of year. Mine are. We’re inundated with a forced capitalist merriness, full-volume holiday tunes, tables full of bright Christmas treats, and malls packed with shoppers trying to check off all their lists while maintaining sanity. This kind of merriness can be fun, but it doesn’t resonate deeply or satisfy once the sugar-high has worn off.

The kind of bells that I hope to hear every Christmas can’t be mass-produced or planned into the program. They’re not loud. In fact, they seem to be clearest in moments after the party guests have left, or in that breath right after the choir finishes singing.

These bells are merely a whisper, but they’re ringing loud and deep through the crisp winter air.

May you have ears to hear this Christmas. May you, in the dark of winter’s night, in a moment of surprise and grace, hear the hushed and steady pealing of the bells.

Merry Christmas.

If This Works: Book Update

A few short months ago I first released my book, Pay Attention. The project was an experiment, first in gathering and writing a batch of ideas, then producing a digital book, then a printed book. Each step of the process was a new experience for me in various ways, each really enjoyable as well.

Seth Godin talks about the importance of taking on projects that might not work, that venture into unknown territory where there’s a risk of failure, but also a chance that it will work.

The hope was that this book might help someone adopt a posture of attention, curiosity, and wonder.

And the crazy thing is:

I think it’s actually working.

I’ve been humbled to hear how the book has resonated with readers from a variety of walks of life. It’s helped people see their life from new perspectives and be more curious and grateful for what they have.

I’ve also been really inspired hearing people’s own stories of learning to pay attention. We all experience moments of distraction, disillusionment, and boredom. But we also share the desire to be present and filled with wonder.

I love it. Thanks so much for the privilege of sharing words and experiences with you and being part of this experiment.

If you haven’t read it yet, the digital version is free on my site, and I still have some printed copies available. The printed book comes bundled with a companion notebook for recording your thoughts and observations as you develop your habit of paying attention.

(You’ll notice they’re the perfect stocking-stuffer size too, so they might make a great gift ;).)

Thanks for reading.

Ordinary Moments and Light

Ever seen such joy?
A child’s imagination
In one inch of snow

I took our oldest girls for a walk this evening. Well, I walked, pulling them behind on our wooden toboggan as they took it all in.

There’s a magic about winter nights. It’s dark out, but with the ambient light of the city, the twinkling Christmas lights on trees and rooftops, and a moon nearly visible through the clouds, all reflected by a white blanket of snow, the darkness carries a glow that is filled with nostalgia.

We walked down a few trails, and up the neighbourhood sledding hill. From the top of the hill, our oldest declared, “This is the best place to see all the Christmas lights!” After taking in the view, the girls begged to sled down the hill. I cast aside my fear that they’d steer straight into some homemade jump invisible in the low light, and gave them a push. They hooped and hollered the entire way down, filling the silent night with their joyful giggles.

It’s these ordinary moments that are magical, aren’t they? These are the moments where I find I wake up, can breathe more deeply, and am filled with gratitude and awareness.

Rachel Liu, a photographer with a knack for capturing the magic of the daily life of a family in photos, put it beautifully:

Everyday I’m more convinced that magic is the chemistry of ordinary moments and light, both tangible and intangible.

Isn’t that great? Ordinary moments, and light.

May your eyes be open to seeing the magic of ordinary moments, mixed with light.

Loaves and Fish

Five loaves and two fish
Will not satisfy those who
Expect steak dinner

Two Goddesses

I’m thoroughly enjoying Christopher McDougall’s book Born to Run, about the hidden ultrarunners of Mexico’s Copper Canyon: the Tarahumara people.

I had the privilege of hearing stories from some Tarahumara runners last week who had participated in the annual Polar Bear Marathon in Churchhill, MB, and wanted to learn more about them.

McDougall’s book reads like a page-turning mystery novel. Unexpectedly, aside from secrets to running well, he also bumps into what might be secrets to living well.

Take this quote from coach Joe Vigil:

“There are two goddesses in your heart. The Goddess of Wisdom and the Goddess of Wealth. Everyone thinks they need to get wealth first, and wisdom will come. But they have it backwards. You have to give your heart to the Goddess of Wisdom, give her all your love and attention, and the Goddess of Wealth will become jealous, and follow you.”

As it turns out, maybe the things that make you a good person – things like wisdom, character, and love – might make you a good runner as well.

Lift With Your Legs, Think With Your Hands


We all learned years ago that lifting heavy objects was a job for our entire body, not just our hands. Turns out that thinking is the same. It’s not just a job for our brains, we need our whole body to think.

“Mrs. Lynne, Gillian isn’t sick; she’s a dancer.”

In his landmark TED talk (and later his book, The Element), Sir Ken Robinson tells the story of Gillian Lynne.

In school, Gillian wasn’t very bright. In fact, her school was quite concerned about her. She had difficulty paying attention, was always fidgeting, and disrupted the class. They thought she might have some kind of learning disorder.

Her concerned parents eventually took her to a specialist to figure out what was wrong with Gillian.

In the end, the doctor went and sat next to Gillian, and said, “I’ve listened to all these things your mother’s told me, I need to speak to her privately. Wait here. We’ll be back; we won’t be very long,” and they went and left her.

But as they went out of the room, he turned on the radio that was sitting on his desk. And when they got out, he said to her mother, “Just stand and watch her.” And the minute they left the room, she was on her feet, moving to the music. And they watched for a few minutes and he turned to her mother and said, “Mrs. Lynne, Gillian isn’t sick; she’s a dancer. Take her to a dance school.”

In dance school, Gillian found a tribe of people who, just like her, “had to move to think”. Having discovered her passion for dancing, she went on to become a dancer in the London Royal Ballet, and the famed choreographer behind such productions as Cats and Phantom of the Opera.

Not bad, for someone who couldn’t sit still in school.

Moving to think

I’ve been thinking about “full body thinking” in a couple contexts.

First, as a parent, am I helping my children develop into humans who make the most of their entire bodies, not just their brains? Schools have changed a lot since Mrs. Lynne disrupted her class in the 1930s, but we still often prioritize the thinking that happens in our heads above the other kinds of intelligence. As Robinson went on to exhort in his TED talk, “Our task is to educate [our children’s] whole being.”

And as a grownup, am I making the most of my whole body’s ability to move and think? In today’s “knowledge economy”, many of us spend all day sitting in front of a computer to do our work. Machines do much of our heavy-lifting at home and work. If you have a desk job, it can be hard to keep your whole body involved. Once your legs have to carried your brain and fingertips to said desk, then their job is largely done for the day! But by leaving thinking to your brain alone, are you really at your best?

Like Lynne, I often find that I have to move to think. My mind feels its clearest after a good run, which is part of why a morning run has become such an essential part of my daily routine. I also take frequent breaks throughout my day to re-engage my legs. A simple change of scenery can bring clarity to the toughest problem, jog memory, and reduce stress.

I’ve also started carrying a notebook around everywhere I go. By turning to pen-and-paper rather than my phones to jot down notes, I engage my fingers in a different way, which helps me remember what I’ve written, and draws on my fingers’ intelligence in working out problems and drawing connections.

How do you get your mental wheels turning? With your hands, your feet, your voice? How do you engage your whole body in your routine?

Because sometimes your brain can’t do all the work alone; you need your whole body to think.

Related:

Draw, Shoot, Write to See

Lately I’ve been realizing the importance of creative practices to develop the skill of seeing. Often we think of art as a means of self-expression, a gift we can offer to adoring fans. But art – the process of making it – is important for the maker of it as well. It’s through drawing, shooting photos, or writing, that an artist develops their eye, and learns to see.

Today, more than ever, seeing one of the most valuable skills we can learn.

In my recent book, Pay Attention, I suggested that seeing is like a muscle that needs to be exercised in order to become stronger. Seeing needs to be practiced in order to become habitual and instinctive in new situations throughout our day.

Creative exercises force us to slow down, process the information we’re taking in, and notice details that often get overlooked.

Draw to See

“The act of drawing is seeing…”
– Chris Ware

Drawing is a great way to learn to see. Children are the best examples of using drawing to learn to see. (I’ve written before about how my daughter learned “look drawing” at school, which helped her learn to see animals in particular).

Austin Kleon, in his recent conversation with Jocelyn K. Glei on the Hurry Slowly podcast, talked about how his young son draws. As his hand traces the shape of a truck, for example, his mind is taking the truck apart, putting it back together again, understanding how the pieces fit together.

Apparently Kleon’s enjoying thinking about “drawing to see” as much as I am, as a couple days ago he also shared the above quote from Chris Ware, who also noticed how children use drawing as a way of seeing.

When’s the last time you got lost in doodling? I recently picked up a scrap of paper and drew some doodles of the birds at our backyard bird feeder. For 15 minutes, my hands traced my mental images of chickadees, juncos, and blue jays.

Through the process I was surprised to realize how little I’d actually seen some of these birds before. We all would say we know what a blue jay or chickadee looks like, but when we’re forced to actually draw one, it reveals how little we take note of the details. The exercise helped me see more of each of these birds the next time they showed up at the bird feeder, and appreciate the intricacies of their markings and behaviour.

Shoot to See

“Stop looking and begin seeing.”
– David Duchemin

Used intentionally, taking photos can help us appreciate and participate in the world around us.

One of my favourite voices about photography is David Duchemin. In his book Within the Frame, Duchemin discusses how to see even iconic travel destinations with fresh vision, using photography as a tool for honing your vision. When Duchemin visited the Taj Mahal, for instance, he jumped off the bus and quickly snapped the postcard photo that we’ve all seen before. But it was only when he slowed down, taking time to listen and look beyond what he expected to find that he saw the iconic structure from a different perspective. He took a beautiful photo from behind the Taj that captured his unique experience of the iconic tourist attraction.

Duchemin’s photo from a new perspective of the Taj Mahal.

Unfortunately, cameras can also provide barriers to seeing. The moment we pull out our phone to snap a picture, we’re viewing the world through a frame formed by a screen, which can limit our ability to experience it.

Before quickly snapping a picture, take a moment to consider what it is you’re trying to capture. Try moving to find a new perspective, let your eye wander through a moment to create a “seeing” exercise rather than a simple “snapping” one.

Write to See

“If you notice anything,
it leads you to notice
more
and more.”
– Mary Oliver

Writing also has the ability to help us learn to see. By taking the time to organize your thoughts, you learn to hone your vision.

Long-time daily blogger Seth Godin recommends that everyone start writing a blog; not to be heard, but to learn to see.

Lately I’ve been drawn to poetry as a way of processing my experience of the world. Mary Oliver is well-known for her poems about the natural world. What becomes clear if you read her poems is that what makes her a great writer is her ability to see. All the details and nuances of the creatures and landscapes come to life in her poems, as she points out the miracle of each blade of grass and each grasshopper inhabiting that blade of grass.

To follow in Oliver’s footsteps, I’ve been experimenting with writing poetry as a way of learning to see. I’ve been writing regular “RunHaikus” during my morning running routine (I post each haiku to Twitter, check them out here).

Learning to See

Seeing is an important skill, one that’s worth cultivating through regular practice. Pick up a pencil, crayon, marker, or camera, and let a creative practice teach you how to see.

True Geniuses of Technology

The term “genius” is normally reserved for leaders in a particular field. The forerunners who chart new ground or make new discoveries are dubbed “geniuses” by the rest of us who are following behind.

When you think of technological genius, you probably think of the kind of people who are inventing and creating at places like Google, Apple, or NASA.

But recently I stumbled upon not just one, but two writers who pointed away from the front of the pack when highlighting technological genius. Both Royden Loewen and Wendell Berry found what they called “technological genius” where you’d least expect it – in so-called “horse-and-buggy” communities of the Old Order Mennonites and the Amish. While this might seem crazy to you (it did to me!), I think that these writers and the communities they observed can teach us something about how we interact with technology.

Horse-and-buggy genius

Royden Loewen dubs traditional horse-and-buggy Mennonites “geniuses” in the title of his book Horse-and-Buggy Genius, which shares research on the struggles of today’s Old Colony and Old Order Mennonites in their struggle to resist the influence of the modern world. As a good researcher, Loewen avoids casting judgment – positive or negative – on these people as he shares their stories of fleeing modernity in pursuit of a life lived close to family, community, and the soil, but the title of his book suggest that these communities may have a strength for the rest of us to learn from.

It’s easy to dismiss these Luddites as outdated and backwards. In doing so you’d evidently stand in agreement with most of the modern world. But is their decision to avoid much modern technology made out of naivety or stubbornness, or is there some wisdom guiding their resistance?

Is there something we can learn from this little community of horse-and-buggy people?

Loewen admits that the Old Colony Mennonites, striving for a theology that is lived rather than spoken of, lack eloquence is describing their culture to outsiders. And maybe that’s why they’re often easy to dismiss by modern society.

Fortunately, we have other more eloquent writers who can help.

Enter Mr. Wendell Berry.

Restraint makes them whole

Wendell Berry, in his book The Unsettling of America, shares Loewen’s opinion of true technological genius. His book is a critique on our modern industrial culture, and how it has in particular affected agriculture (which, if you eat food, also affects you). Berry cautions is in our love of the future, the greed that drives much use of technology, and our uncritical adoption of any new technology without consideration of its effects on the earth and culture. He points to the Amish as “true geniuses of technology.” Their mastery of technology, he says, doesn’t come from being on the leading edge of invention, but in their consideration of the effects of technology on their culture, families, and way of life.

But it cannot be denied that [the Amish] have mastered one of the fundamental paradoxes of our condition: we can make ourselves whole only by accepting our partiality, by living within our limits, by being human — not by trying to be gods. By restraint they make themselves whole.

The way of genius

What can we learn from these horse-and-buggy geniuses? Is it time to sell the car and the iPhone and live off the grid? That sounds as extreme as it is unrealistic. But rather than dismiss these fringe cultures as crazy, maybe we can consider their approach to technology and let it inform us in our own contexts.

Here are a few takeaways I’ve been chewing on lately.

1. New isn’t always better.

Any old grumpy person will tell you that “they don’t make things like they used to.” That may or may not be true depending on the context, but one thing we know is that our culture is in love with shiny new things, regardless of their quality. We also place a lot of importance and social pressure on keeping up with the times. (What, you only have an iPhone 7?!? That’s, like, almost a year old!) It’s worth considering the quality of a technology, rather than being seduced by its shininess.

2. Consider the side effects of technology.

When the first iPhone was unveiled, few of us who have imagined how attached to these little screens we would become in such a short amount of time. After a decade of coming to grips with the power of these little pocketable mini-computers, we are finally also realizing the potential damage these devices can cause to the fabric of our society. Who would have imagined ten years ago that we’d all be walking around starting at these little devices for so much of the day?

In a recent interview on the podcast Hurry Slowly, Craig Mod describes the internal chemical response of merely glancing at his phone. He compares it to a tank full of guppies that at the first scent of food come rushing for a hit of dopamine. Using technology wisely involves understanding the full effects of a technology, both positive and negative.

Technology is a tool.

No technology is inherently good or evil. True mastery of technology means we are able to show restraint in our use of it rather than letting the technology dictate how it is used. Social media can be used as a powerful connector of people, but can also be used to perpetuate loneliness and keep people from developing healthy relationships. How will you use the tools which you have been given?

Becoming whole

Today we have more technology at our fingertips, more ability to connect, create, and help others than ever before. But with much power comes, how does that go again? Right, responsibility. We have a responsibility to use technology wisely, with restraint, with hopes of it bringing benefit to our own lives and those around us.

Maybe by using technology with restraint, wisdom, and true “genius”, we can make ourselves, our families, and our communities whole.