Every October, swarms of starlings and blackbirds float over the freshly mowed wheat and corn fields here in NE Ohio. In a symphony of graceful magic, they go first against the wind then with the wind. They’re so amazing to watch, I can’t help but stare. In that moment, all my anxieties and pressures are temporarily suspended. It’s very meditative. Just seeing them often lifts my whole day.
You can never predict which way they will go next. In fact, one part of the swarm will often move away from the other. But, in the end, they always pull back together.
Recently I was talking with an Amish friend of mine. I explained to him our secret of testing new products. (Yes, this is related to swarms of migratory birds. Read on and you will see how.)
If we want to know whether a new item will be successful, all we have to do is sell one to an Amish family. If the product is good, it will start selling on mere word of mouth. On the other hand, if the item doesn’t work out well for that first family, it will never be a good seller. Most likely, we need to drop it from it from our line up.
He laughed out loud at this. Yes, he said, among the Amish we have a saying. “If one Amish family found a good chiropractor on the moon, soon all Amish would be astronauts.” (Many Amish prefer non-traditional homeopathic and chiropractic cures over conventional medicine.)
We had a good conversation. As I drove away, I replayed the conversation in my mind just for the pleasure of it. At that very moment, I saw one of those swarms of starlings, blackbirds and grackles taking off from a stubbly corn field along the road. I realized that those birds obsessively sticking together were a lot like the Amish.
The Amish are a community. There are two things that make this community immensely strong.
Belonging – In a community, people put their sense of belonging above personal preference. What others think takes on huge importance. It affects behavior. Recommendations are trusted. The need to be part of the group often overrides personal preference.
Communication – Among the Amish, talking with each other is both an art form and a passion. With no TV and little radio, it’s the primary form of entertainment. In fact, many of the best conversations of my life have been with Amish folks. Communication, of course, is the main thing that leads to understanding.
Scientists say that blackbird and starling swarms seldom have a leader. Instead, every bird in the swarm takes part in the navigation. Each bird determines where to fly next by watching the five or six birds in its immediate proximity. Their direction is set by “community thought”, which seems like it would be very counterproductive. Certainly, the peer pressure go with and keep your place in the flock must be oppressive.
But, in the end, those swarms of birds always end up in the right place. Most of the Amish folks I know are in the place they want to be and heading in the direction they want to go, as well. Their sense of community is undeniably an amazing and attractive part of who they are. There is occasional dysfunction (just like there is among any group of people). But, I believe that for the most part they are in a good place.
I uphold the Amish and their desire for community. I embrace their concept of mutual support. And, I believe that no matter where you live and no matter where you go, your ability to find happiness and success in life will be related to how strong that sense of community is in the place you call home.
Seeing those swarms of birds every fall and rubbing shoulders with my friends (both Amish and non-Amish) and family every day reminds me of community. My hope for the future lies in our ability to continue building community. May we do so with love, respect and self-sacrifice. In so doing, I believe we can achieve personal success above our wildest dreams.