The trim tab principle

“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 an interview with Playboy in 1972, Buckminster Fuller offered this metaphor to illustrate the transformative potential of individual integrity. The “trim tab” principle suggests that if a person maintains their focus on what they know to be right, they might be able to move the world in a 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 very different from the “trim tab” principle. An example would be people protesting and pushing all sorts of causes online or on the street. Sure, it might take courage and a sense of responsibility to do this. But probably most of those people are doing so because they are moving with their “school of fish” of like-minded peers who are all being moved by a bigger current.  They may not be protesting because they have done enormous amounts of independent thinking. They may not even really have developed a belief system. They are followers that think of themselves as leaders.

Individual integrity has the power to change society and the world for the better. But before we get there, we need to develop our minds and discover our belief system. We need to start with ourselves. Having 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 small amount of pressure in the right place at the right time can have a disproportionately large impact. It is small and thoroughly truthful actions that gradually accumulate to make you the kind of bigger person capable of acting as a trim tab and able to effect transformative change.

Cultivating yourself in a truthful, patient, and organic way has power that too few people understand. 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 Chinese poet from the Song Dynasty said, “when one hair is pulled, the whole body moves”. The direction you’re moving depends on which hair is being plucked. It is only one small act, but it effects disproportionate change. Develop integrity and you’ll know which hair to pluck.