The Magic of the “Trim Tab”: Buckminster Fuller on the Greatest Key to Transformation and Growth
“What you do with yourself, just the little things you do yourself, these are the things that count.”
By Maria Popova
“The only transformation that interests me is a total transformation — however minute,” Susan Sontag wrote in her diary. It’s a sentiment both paradoxical and profound — we tend to think of the total and the minute as polarities, and yet any total transformation is the product of a series of minute, purposeful shifts. That, after all, is the transformative power of habit.
No one has articulated the machinery of transformation more succinctly and powerfully than architect, inventor, and philosopher Buckminster Fuller (July 12, 1895–July 1, 1983) — a man of timeless wisdom and prescience so extraordinary that he envisioned online education, TED, and Pandora decades before these ideas became a reality.
Fuller, who served in the U.S. Navy during WWI, offers a brilliant naval metaphor for how we transmute the minute into the momentous in transformation and growth, both as individuals and as a society. In an altogether fantastic 1972 Playboy interview, Fuller introduces the “trim tab” — a small mechanism that helps stabilize an enormous ship or aircraft — which would became a central metaphor in his philosophy.
In response to the interviewer’s question about how we can live with “a sense of the individual’s impotence to affect events, to improve or even influence our own welfare, let alone that of society,” Fuller offers his magnificent metaphor:
Something hit me very hard once, thinking about what one little man could do. Think of the Queen Elizabeth — the whole ship goes by and then comes the rudder. And there’s a tiny thing at the edge of the rudder called a trim tab. It’s a miniature rudder. Just moving the little trim tab builds a low pressure that pulls the rudder around. Takes almost no effort at all. So I said that the little individual can be a trim tab. Society thinks it’s going right by you, that it’s left you altogether. But if you’re doing dynamic things mentally, the fact is that you can just put your foot out like that and the whole big ship of state is going to go. So I said, “Call me Trim Tab.”
The truth is that you get the low pressure to do things, rather than getting on the other side and trying to push the bow of the ship around. And you build that low pressure by getting rid of a little nonsense, getting rid of things that don’t work and aren’t true until you start to get that trim-tab motion. It works every time. That’s the grand strategy you’re going for. So I’m positive that what you do with yourself, just the little things you do yourself, these are the things that count. To be a real trim tab, you’ve got to start with yourself, and soon you’ll feel that low pressure, and suddenly things begin to work in a beautiful way. Of course, they happen only when you’re dealing with really great integrity.
When Fuller died a decade later, this ethos was inscribed into his gravestone.
The trim tab metaphor was subsequently appropriated (regrettably, without attribution to Fuller) by Stephen R. Covey in one of his books and expanded upon (with proper attribution) by Rabbi Rami Shapiro in his book Recovery: The Sacred Art (public library).
Complement with Emerson on our resistance to change and the key to personal growth, then revisit Fuller’s scientific revision of the Lord’s Prayer and his manifesto for the genius of generalists.
Published August 21, 2015