Getting to Your Essence: A Lesson from Buckminster Fuller

Recognizing what makes us a whole person at our core should feel natural, but it so often eludes us in rocky times. Tuning into your innermost essence can help you navigate the next chapter of your life, and make the difference you need to make.

For decades, I’ve drawn inspiration from the life and work of the late R. Buckminster Fuller (1895–1983). Truly an American original, Fuller saw himself as the synthesis of “artist, inventor, mechanic, objective economist, and evolutionary strategist.” It’s a bold concoction of identity traits for a man of his times. These days, his life story seems a dazzling example of self-determination drawn from the darkest of failures to the brilliant realization of who he was at his core.

Fuller championed a way of pattern thinking and design that wasn’t so much futuristic, a grandiose word; he preferred to call it comprehensive anticipatory design science. It’s a more holistic approach that understands trends and forces shaping our desires while emphasizing ways that humans can gracefully adapt in an ever-changing world.

Many of Fuller’s inventions—geodesic dome, Dymaxion house, Dymaxion car, synergetic geometry—led to US patents, 28 in all. As you can imagine, a trailblazing life like Fuller’s was full of turning points and brutal dead ends. The most dramatic was the decision to end his life. Broke and out of work, he stood at the edge of Lake Michigan, contemplating committing suicide so that his wife and child might benefit from the life insurance.

By his own reckoning, that moment was numinous for Fuller. The word numinous comes from Latin, meaning “divine will”—where a greater force intervenes to reveal another destiny. Fuller wrote, “The thought then came that my impulse to commit suicide was a consequence of my being expressly overconcerned with ‘me’ and ‘my pains,’ and that doing so would mean that I would be making the supremely selfish mistake…” He explained the new outlook that would guide his future this way:

“In committing suicide I seemingly would never again have to feel the pain and mortification of my failures and errors, but the only-by-experience-winnable inventory of knowledge that I had accrued would also be forever lost—an inventory of information that, if I did not commit suicide, might prove to be of critical advantage to others, possibly to all others, possibly to Universe.”

Crucially, what grew out of his existential crisis was a decision to listen for a different kind of guidance—one that emanated from his essence. He could endure failure as long as his talents were applied in the service of others. Always a canny brand-maker, he even branded his awareness an “ego suicide” that resulted in a “me-less” individual. It was only then, he wrote, that his “thinking began to clear.”

This discovery that his sizable imagination could find a more meaningful purpose eventually led him to see his essence. He gave it a name, of course. He called it a “trimtab” meaning a small rudder attached to the trailing edge of the larger rudder of a ship. When steering the ship in a new direction, the very first thing to move is the tiny trimtab, which guides the larger rudder to move the whole ship.

The trimtab is Bucky Fuller’s metaphor for human initiative. In fact, the epitaph on Fuller’s gravestone reads: “Call me trimtab.” Keeping his imagination alive and flourishing, while keeping his ambitions to a size that could maneuver strategically meant he was capable of inciting large-scale changes.

Our moment now in human history calls us to become trimtabs. Right now, the big rudder is heading us toward more anger and ego inflation among our leaders. The violent clashes on our streets and the strife among neighbors are symptoms that we are radically falling off course. If we anticipate a more sustaining future, we’d do well to engage our tiny rudders and turn ship. Treat each other with kindness. Listen first to understand, not to judge. And vote. Admittedly small ambitions. But they help me flex my trimtab. That’s the person I want to be in the world.

My own life of loss and busted beginnings has taught me one thing: the numinous is not out there in some ethereal realm. It’s within us. It’s at the core of the self. It’s our essence. But to avail ourselves of it we must first see ourselves as part of a larger human project that we serve. It must be an identity we strive for, as it was for Buckminster Fuller. To want to become a certain kind of person.

Call me trimtab.

Photo Credit: Bennington College, Crosset LibraryArchive