Call me Trim-tab (thanks Bucky Fuller)

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Bucky.grave.skThe “trim-tab” metaphor came up during a conversation between some friends and I the other day. For those that’ve never heard this metaphor, it describes someone whose small action eventually leads to big, and often unpredictable, results.

Think Mohamed Bouazizi, the Tunisian man who set himself alight and sparked a regional revolution across half a dozen Arab countries. Or Gandhi’s salt march that eventually toppled the world’s greatest colonial power. Or that teacher in high school whose bit of inspiration set students down a different path. Or, think of Buckminster Fuller…

Buckminster Fuller (aka Guinea-pig B) lived his life to be a trim-tab. Heck he even had it printed on his gravestone! Bucky was a designer, author, and futurist and there’s lots of info on the web describing who he was and what his life was like (if you don’t know much about him definitely check out here, here, or here. He was an amazing man with much more to say than I can do justice to in this short post).

Here’s how Bucky described life as a “trim-tab” in the February 1972 issue of Playboy Magazine:

queen_marySomething hit me very hard once, thinking about what one little man could do. Think of the Queen Mary—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.

BuckyToday, especially considering all the protests that have recently happen around the world – from the obvious in North Africa and the Mid East, to smaller one’s here in Canada (Toronto), the US (wisconsin), and Europe (England, Spain, Greece) – and all that still needs to be done – from climate change, to agriculture, to human development and self-realization - I think it’s compelling to consider what life would be like if we chose to live by Bucky’s creed: to be a trim-tab, every day, for a better society, world, and human experience.

For the cynic in each of us that doubts if living an amazing life is possible, this sort of thinking may feel foolish or naive. But I actually think that reorienting ourselves in this way could be freeing and inspiring. Because a trim-tab isn't some fantastic piece of machinery that only astronaughts can use. It's just a simple piece of metal that flaps back and forth. As human trim-tabs we don't have to save the world; we can just (as Bucky says) stick our foot out and see what happens.  

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  • Comment Link Olen Wednesday, 14 September 2011 14:37 posted by Olen

    Berg, a great find here!! I love this metaphor. You've nailed something absolutely central to the whole evolutionary enterprise.

    How do we each come to access this deeper intelligence and act upon it (as symbolized by the trim-tab). I would imagine many of us have come upon little moments of profound insight, but that our trim tabs for whatever reasons, haven't been properly installed at the edge of our rudders.

    Stop and think of a culture that was highly committed to operating from such a place? How were they living? Admittedly I'm encouraged that the stirrings of this very micro culture exist right here..

  • Comment Link Gail Miller Wednesday, 14 September 2011 21:59 posted by Gail Miller

    Great stuff. I really love what you're doing/spreading at this site. 'Bucky' is amongst those who has inspired the thinking and action of two remarkable women who have recently launched The Human Project (and a Kickstarter campaign to help fund the first phase).

    Sticking feet out indeed!

  • Comment Link Bergen Vermette Friday, 16 September 2011 04:05 posted by Bergen Vermette

    @ Olen

    Great to see you on here Olen! I agree with your inkling about the trim tab within us all - I think we all have the potential but perhaps most aren't installed right. :) On that note, trying out your trim tab, so to speak, feels risky - and a better term (than sticking your foot out) may be sticking your neck out!, given the nerves it takes and the risk involved.

    But your question to consider what such a culture would look like is very inspiring, I think. And whether others would agree that this little website is such an expression I don't know. But I can confirm that it's been pretty scary at times to share intimate or unformed ideas, and has taken a lot of work behind the scenes to keep the ship running smoothly - let alone pointed where we want it! :) It's been great having people like yourself around to help out and contribute in the many ways you do. That makes a big difference.

    Cheers, and see ya soon.

  • Comment Link Bergen Vermette Friday, 16 September 2011 04:06 posted by Bergen Vermette

    @ Gail

    Thanks for the kind words. I didn't know that the Human Project was inspired by Bucky - but I love what they're doing over there. I actually donated to the project this week (funny you should post the link), and was considering asking them for an interview sometime on this site. If you know them personally please pass along my regards and let them know they're doing a smashing job! :)

    Thanks for diving in, hope to speak again soon. B

  • Comment Link Sarah Olson Saturday, 17 September 2011 18:13 posted by Sarah Olson

    I agree with the other commenters, a great 'little' contribution! I feel energized reading it.

    What strikes me is how the action taken by the trim tab is a small one. I think the ease and accessibility of this is really key. If we look at other expressions of personal evolution, whether we're asked to embody unique self, our fullest potential, our destiny, the 'ubermensch', etc, there can (for me) be a weighti-ness, a seriousness to the call that feels daunting.

    I think that at times the gap between where we currently are, and what we know we could be embodying, is overwhelming, and this could cause some people to settle into stasis. What I love about the trim tab is that the action that is called for it just a small one, and the risk, courage and breaking out from our norm that is required feels accessible.

  • Comment Link Bergen Vermette Wednesday, 21 September 2011 04:52 posted by Bergen Vermette

    Hey Sarah,

    Great point. Hadn't thought of that, but I think you're right.

    It's true that bigger changes or embodiments are harder to perform/hold. It makes sense, I guess, the bigger the shift the harder the task. In my experience, change takes an incredible amount of will-power, consistency, and help.

    Yet as you say, change also requires a 'first step'. Maybe the trim-tab metaphor is also a helpful reminder of that old saying "a long journey is started with the first step". At least in this way we're not as daunted by the sheer size of effort required, but can tweak that trim-tab again and again until our ship is headed towards bluer waters.

  • Comment Link Trevor Malkinson Wednesday, 21 September 2011 21:47 posted by Trevor Malkinson

    Something that's come up for me as I've re-pondered this post, is that the trim-tab metaphor could also serve as an antidote to all the over glorified trimuphalism nonsense that we hear coming from people in the broader integral world (elsewhere too I'm sure). This incessant talk about being "on the leading edge", of a teacher or thinker being "unprecedented", to the absurdly long introductions to people on most of the teleseminar series (which I otherwise enjoy). Maybe that all needs to heed to a bit of humility, and this trim-tab metaphor really helps with that. It's probably more accurate too. The ship of state is big and complex, and the odds of someone "on the leading edge" completely overturning that is doubtful. But getting our trim-tab on, working on all levels of our lives (family, work, community, personal etc), might slowly start shifting the boat toward a future we'd like to see.

  • Comment Link Barbara Wallace Thursday, 22 September 2011 13:34 posted by Barbara Wallace

    thanks so much Bergen for reminding me of trim-tab. it's such a powerful tool for evolution. i spent a few days with Bucky in the mid-1970's and was extremely impressed by what we now call clarity of intention. he had zero time/energy for trivia; his focus was intense, caring, and fruitful. how about this? trim-tab plus focused intention?

  • Comment Link Bergen Vermette Friday, 30 September 2011 18:05 posted by Bergen Vermette

    Br. Trev, thanks for chiming in here. I think in practice you're right, but I would want to distinguish between the humility that you bring up (which we all need a good dose of) and the guts to publicly stand for something which may still be on the fringes, or yet not fully formed.

    What do I mean by this distinction. Well I think the point you raise about "incessantly talking about being on the leading edge" is a good one. I'm probably quite guilty myself of speaking in this way, as it can feel exhilarating in the midsts of new, mind-blowing paradigms like integral theory and evolutionary spirituality. In that exuberance, of myself and others (I'm pretty sure you and I have had some good rants together, in all transparency for the reader ;-), I think there can also be an immaturity expressed that comes across as less-than-leading-edge and more proselytizing or naive. Even if what you're saying is true.

    I think being excited about new ideas is natural and not limited to the realm of philosophy or spirituality. And I think we've all, at one time or another, taken a firm stand that our way was the best way and everyone else should get on board (a few examples: vegetarianism or the new food movement, low carbon lifestyles, social equality, even free-market capitalism). In these cases the proponents feel that what they're talking about is new and progressive, even if it isn't. So it seems like a pretty common position, and not limited to integral or evolutionary spirituality. Maybe there's something more essential, or archetypal, at play here.

    On the other side - what about standing up for something that you really do believe is new and cutting edge? To me there's something very important in that. If you *don't* stand up when you feel called to, do you lack integrity? Sometimes it feels that way. On the other hand, it's also quite scary because there's always the possibility that you're WRONG. And we all know the stories of those that were wrong and ended up on the wrong side of history because of it.

    I think the humility you bring up and the integrity I'm suggesting can go hand in hand. If we stand for what we believe to be most true, we have to maintain some sober humility in the possibility (and risk) that we're wrong. In the end only by speaking about our ideas can they be tested and we'll really find out.

    In sum I'll just say: Yes, immature superlatives only turn people off. But we need to call a spade a spade. If you've got an idea you think is a good one, you may have a duty to get others to pay attention. At this point in history, we need all the trim-tabs we can get.

  • Comment Link Bergen Vermette Friday, 30 September 2011 18:16 posted by Bergen Vermette


    Great to see you here, welcome. That's so cool that you got to spend some time with Bucky! That must've been something.

    Very interesting to hear about his level of focus and care. I think it's a great addition you're making to the whole trim-tab metaphor.

    I don't have much more to expand on this point, it just seems self-evident to me. If anything's going to change - even something small in ourselves - it'll take a heck of a lot of work. Work takes focus, not just hope or exuberance (as Trevor reminds us). Thanks, to me it all sounds good.

  • Comment Link Barb Wallace Sunday, 02 October 2011 15:39 posted by Barb Wallace

    To Trevor and Bergen,
    valuable discussion re humility and integrity. and, again weighing in on my experience with Bucky, he had both those characteristics in spades. but he was weak on the collective aspects outside a pretty small circle. so trim-tab plus humility, integrity, clear intention, and collective action might be a good way to slowly alter the course of the cultural ship.

  • Comment Link Philip Corkill Monday, 03 October 2011 21:50 posted by Philip Corkill

    Hi all, super interesting thread.

    What strikes me about this metaphor is the efficiency aspect. As I'm understanding this piece, the trim-tab is positioned at the point in the design where it can cause most shift with least intervention.

    I think that addresses the concept of leverage that I - an integral neophyte (credits to B and S vocab assimilation process;-) - have heard sprinkled around Integralland.

    For Integral there must be a golden key here, since from what I've gathered so far, it's a tiny movement, in the grand scheme of things, with a HUGE vision for where the ship needs to go. Maybe the whole movement should focus more on positioning it's self in exactly the right place. A trim-tab with a compass.

    I jumped here from Bergen's Next Generation Solutions piece. Considering Buckminster Fuller as a trim-tab and many in his generation and many in following generations, I can't help but wonder/hope that the coming together of various "movements of movements" or even a single "movement of movements" might be the first signs of the rudder shifting. Bringing that collective aspect right in. Taken to it's conclusion this would involve "everybody-all-at-once" i.e. the whole queen Mary (a Total Mobilization Trevor?)

    I'm also a little freaked out by the way Gail, via this piece, led me right to The Human Project. To find that they'd already raised way more than their initial intention. Then I discovered that Bergen Vermette was not the only name on the list of backers that I'd heard of!

    This had me ponder in what ways little things like the "Like" button on Facebook the "donate" button on a website and plugs in Beams and Struts comments might all be little trim-tabs. Or be positioned as such.

    I guess what I'm seeing is a quickening in the alignment of peoples values and their investment there in. The speed at which you can be linked to something somewhere on earth that exactly represents what you stand for and the direct opportunity to invest in it astounds and heartens me.

    Just waiting for Beams and Struts to go viral now and all will be well;-)

  • Comment Link Bergen Vermette Friday, 06 January 2012 07:28 posted by Bergen Vermette

    Just watched this cool video interview between the President of the Buckminster Fuller Institute and Bright Green advocate, and former EnlightenNext magazine editor, Ross Robertson.

    Sounds like the institute is doing a host of things to carry on Bucky's legacy - including a lot of tantalizing, systemic level stuff.

    Worth checking out

    Also, sorry Barb and Phil, your comments slipped through my radar.

    @ Barb
    "trim-tab plus humility, integrity, clear intention, and collective action" may look like a (seemingly) tall order at first, but after watching the interview above, this type of all or nothing attitude seems to be working quite well for the institute and its collaborators.

    @ Phil
    I totally agree that sharing via social media could be considered "tabbin' it", er, trim tabbing for effect. Br. Trev and I have been endlessly amazed by the power of sharing and online commenting through FB. And we have great online discussions here at Beams, but many (most?) are fed through FB links and shares.

    Who knows, a choice post on facebook may become the next Ninety-Five Theses on the Castle Church doors!

  • Comment Link Philip Corkill Friday, 06 January 2012 18:02 posted by Philip Corkill

    The Eternally Creative Testament

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