Be a Trim Tab.
“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.” ~ Buckminster Fuller
In his interview with the Playboy in 1972, Buckminster Fuller offered a metaphor to illustrate transformative potential of individual integrity. The trim tab principle suggests that if a person maintains their focus on what they know to be right, then they might be able to steer the world in a much better direction, despite being just one small individual.
There are many people trying to make a difference in the world today. Many do so in a way that is opposed to the trim tab principle.
For example, people passionately protesting and pushing all sorts of causes online or on the street. It might take some courage, passion, and responsibility to do this. But I would presume that most of those people are doing so because they are fitting in with their like-minded peers, not because they have done much independent thinking or have developed a belief system. They are simply following the crowd.
Individual integrity has the power to change the society and the world. But before we get there, we need to develop our minds and our belief systems. We need to start with ourselves.
Building our individual integrity is like building a house — one can only start from under the ground and build the base, brick by brick, before moving on to the roof or the chimney. It certainly cannot be done in one day or one act. But a tiny trim tab movement has leverage, because it means a right shift in the right place at the right time.
It is small, honest actions that gradually accumulate to make you the kind of bigger person you want to be and can lead to transformative change in the world.
Cultivating yourself in a truthful, patient, and organic is powerful. In the interview, Buckminster Fuller went on to explain his idea of the 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. You must be helping evolution.”
Su Shi, a renowned Chinese poet in the Song Dynasty, pointed out in a piece that “when one hair is pulled, the whole body moves.” So where you are moving depends on which direction you are pulling your hair towards. It is only one small act, but it helps you move forward towards where you want to go. Once you have become a person of great integrity, you become a trim tab in this world.
Nick Taber is a social commentator, future thinker, and East Asia expert. He co-founded Comprehensophy.org, a project distilling ideas about the art of thinking and its importance in the 21st century. Nick received his Master’s at London School of Economics, and has been living in East Asia since.