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May 13, 2007 » 11:59 pm

Bucky Fuller, Trim Tabs, and Trains

One of my great deficiencies is my lack of literacy regarding Buckminster Fuller, someone who has greatly influenced many people in my sphere. Last Friday, I was having lunch with Kaliya Hamlin, Karri Winn, and Tiffany Von Emmel at the beautiful Thoreau Center in the Presidio. Kaliya was explaining my philosophy about identifying the pain points in order to catalyze a system, and Karri responded, “Oh, like a Trim Tab.” Kaliya and Tiffany both nodded their heads, while I just looked confused. So Karri explained to me what a Trim Tab was, and it is an apt metaphor indeed. Bucky Fuller explained it best in an interview with Playboy in 1972:    (M8W)

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.    (M8X)

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.    (M8Y)

So I said, call me Trim Tab.    (M8Z)

(I did a little research after lunch that day, and ended up incorporating what I had learned into Wikipedia.)    (M90)

The Trim Tab story reminded me of a puzzle I heard on Car Talk almost ten years ago. A train with 750 cars has stopped in a freight yard. It starts to move, when the engineer realizes there’s a problem with the caboose. The engineer stops the train, they remove the caboose, and the engineer tries to start again. But the train doesn’t move. What happened?    (M91)

The train doesn’t move because the couplings between each car are rigid. When they’re rigid, the engineer is essentially trying to move the entire train at once. You have to back up before you can move forward. This loosens the couplings. Now, when you start the engine, you’re pulling one car at a time, building momentum as you go.    (M92)

The lessons?    (M93)

  • Small shifts can catalyze great change.    (M94)
  • Sometimes you have to back up before you can move forward.    (M95)

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