The “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:
Something 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.
Today, 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.