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The Power of Trim Tabs – How Small Changes Create Big Results

Buckminster Fuller Trim Tab

By Linda Gabriel

Buckminster Fuller, one of the great geniuses of the 20th century, loved the metaphor of “trim tabs” for understanding how to leverage personal power. Famous  for inventing the geodesic dome and coining the word “synergy,”  Fuller felt he’d wasted the first part of his life. He would often go on drinking binges, neglected his family, and hadn’t achieved much. Then when he was 32, his only daughter died. Blaming himself  for not being home when the child passed away, he fell into a severe depression. The story goes that soon afterward Fuller went alone into the ocean, wading further and further from shore, contemplating suicide. In that moment of desperation the thought occurred  that he hadn’t really given his life a chance. Who was he to waste a life? Was life really was worth living? Fuller decided the only way to answer that question would be to turn his life into a sort of experiment. From that moment on he resolved to spend all his energy finding out what a single human life could achieve. It turned out to be quite a lot.

In a 1972 interview Bucky explained the power of trim tabs:

“Something hit me very hard once, thinking about what one little man could do.”

“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.”

“So I said, call me Trim Tab.”

The first time I read this I was astonished at the elegant simplicity of the idea of using a trim tab. But while Bucky Fuller was speaking about the power of one person to affect society, I began to wonder about the power of the trim tab metaphor in a more personal way. Instead of trying to change “society” what about just changing myself? What trim tabs could I find to create small shifts in awareness or behavior that might leverage a much larger effect in my life?

Micro-Gratitude is certainly a trim tab. Another powerful trim tab we have is language. Our everyday way of speaking has so much power to shape the quality of our lives with very little effort. The words you choose can affect your level of self-confidence, your mood, and even your perception of the world. I offered some suggestions about the power of language in Three Words That Can Change Your Life.

Here are a couple more ideas:
Think of something you’ve been procrastinating about doing. I suggest starting with something small like, “I have to organize my desk,” or “I have to go to the dentist.” Notice how you feel when you say or even think the phrase, “I have to…”

Now think about something you enjoy doing. Again pick something small. When it comes to things we like to do, we usually say something like, “I get to go to the movies this afternoon,” or “I get to have some time to myself this weekend.” Notice how you feel when you say or think the phrase, “I get to…” Feels good, right?

Notice how you feel when you say or think the phrase, “I get to…” Feels good, right?

Here’s where it gets fun. Notice what happens when you start changing your “have to’s” to “get to’s.” Try it see if it reduces your resistance. You may be surprised to find a dramatic change for the better. Don’t worry if at first you feel sarcastic or develop an urge to giggle. “I get to do the dishes!” “I get to walk the dog.” “I get to pick up the kids at school.” “I get to go to work.” “I get to go run some errands – anyone want to join in the fun?”

If you want to “kick it up a notch” take a moment to really let the “get to” feeling sink in. With the new label your subconscious will actually begin to file things differently so you will tend to experience less resistance. And with less resistance, it becomes easier to realize that you truly are lucky to “get to” do almost anything in life, even those things that you’ve been resisting.

The more you can appreciate each moment of your life, the happier you feel.

It’s really very simple.

Bucky Fuller Call Me Trimtab Gravestone

To learn more about Buckminster Fuller visit www.bfi.org

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{ 27 comments… add one }
  • Tushar Barad

    First time I read about Trim Tab effect – from Stephen Covey’s Book : 8th Habit, where leadership metaphor was explained with statements called – Small Rudder, moves Big Rudder, which moves entire ship.
    There small rudder was compared with grassroots level employee, which drives the management, customers, investor’s etc and that drives the entire company/organization.
    This is similar to citizen voting the candidate who represents their thoughts, and which becomes part of national govt body, and which runs the country.

    • Have not read 8th Habit, but happy to know Stephen Covey, Bucky Fuller and I are in agreement!

  • Linda, thanks so much for this. I’m a bit of a “trim tab” collector – always on the lookout for new twists to a brilliant premise. Your thoughts are a nice addition! I have a coaching program called The Shift System about creating a life you love 90 days at a time. I use the Trim Tab story to explain how small shifts can lead to big changes. I will be sure to include your article. Thanks.

  • Jones

    Some really great content on this website, appreciate it for contribution.

  • Debbie


    I have been reading some of your articles on this site and also on Tiny Buddah and I really think so much of what you say is fantastic and positive and so assuring.

    My only observation in your above article is the practice of changing “I think” to “I have”- are you saying this is a positive or negative suggestion of wording?

    For me, I have become exhausted by saying “I have”- The pressure I put on myself because in my head when I say “I have.. to do this, or I have to do that” is crazy! My friends, family and people who know me well tell me I set my expectations for myself too high, and put too much pressure on myself, and others, by “having to do too much”. I stress when I don’t get things done. For me “up until now” this phrase “I have” has been overused. Going forward I’m going to use a priority assessment for myself to determine, do I really “have to” do something? What will be the repercussions if I don’t do something? I find myself thinking the words I’d like to use more often than “I have” are “I’d like”. This somehow feels less loaded with responsibility so if I don’t get something done I don’t beat myself up! However, I do note that you say if there is something you have been procrastinating about, and I concur then the words “I have” are very powerful.

    Thanks, Debbie

    • Linda Gabriel

      Dear Debbie,
      Thanks so much for your response. I agree with you completely. If you reread my article, you’ll see that I’m actually suggesting you change the words “I have to” to “I get to.” Instead of saying, “I have to pick the kids up after school,” or “I have to go to the bank,” say to yourself, “I get to pick up the kids after school,” and, “I get to go to the bank!” And yes, “I’d like to” is an equally effective phrase.

      Thanks again for commenting.

  • I’ve only just discovered this great article. Trim tabs are a wonderful analogy for personal power that doesn’t have to be ‘showy’ or ‘heroic’. If you can just find the right way to be a trim tab you can make a big difference. It’s the ‘just find the right way’ that may be a challenge.

    • Linda Gabriel

      Hi Andy,
      Thanks for stopping by and letting me know you enjoyed my article on trim tabs! It’s such a great concept. Our small thoughts and actions can provide surprising leverage.

  • You’re right. So often when we get rid of our ‘stinkin’ thinkin” we turn our lives around for the better. “As a man thinks in his heart, so is he.”

  • Linda, this was a fabulous article. I never knew this about Buckminter Fuller. How fascinating.
    Yes, we can and should use the power of trim tabs in our lives. What a simple and elegant way to shift our perception on our daily to do list by saying we “get to do it” vs. “we have to.”

    Marvelous. Thank you so much for giving me a great tool for my self development tool box.
    .-= Angela Artemis´s last blog ..Intuition- 25 Ways to Become Carnac the Magnificent! =-.

    • Linda Gabriel

      I’m so glad you enjoyed the article Angela! Great idea to apply the “get to” trim tab to our daily to do list. Imagine if the whole world felt this way every day! The cool thing is even when we don’t, we can choose to use a “trim tab” such as Micro-Gratitude to correct course.

  • Lovely, insightful article Linda.

    I loved this line, “The more you can appreciate each moment of your life, the happier you feel.” Simple but powerful truth.

  • Linda Gabriel

    Thanks for reminding us how pets can grace our lives in ways we might not have expected. I appreciate your comment.

  • Linda,
    I love your post on trim tabs and “getting” to do something. Every morning I “get to” walk the dog. When I adopted my baby, I got her so that I would walk every day… and it worked! What I didn’t do on my own, I did for her. Now she isn’t so jazzed about being walked, but I still “get to” walk. I had tried for years to want to walk every day and I never got there on my own. She got me there and I will always be grateful that I can walk every day.

  • Linda, what a great post! This was not only a great reminder about the preciousness of our life’s moments and the power and possibility they contain within them, but also an extremely practical post. I’m going to try that.

    Thanks for the inspiration!
    .-= Meredith´s last blog ..help wanted =-.

    • Linda Gabriel

      Thanks for commenting Meredith. I love that you see the practicality!

  • Linda, this is very inspiring. I love Fuller’s way of thinking about life. It is so true, we can change our path, have an impact and achieve so much more than we believe sometimes. Even just switching from “have-tos” to “get-tos” is great. Thanks so much for introducing me to the ideas of trim tabs. I’m all aflutter with inspiration!
    .-= Katie´s last blog ..A Beginner’s Guide to Juggling Life =-.

  • Toc and Tree

    Toc says: Fascinating! I get to leave a comment! (I secretly cringe at the idea of leaving comments – having opinions). I get to have opinions!

    Tree says: It works instantly!

    We love you

  • Linda Gabriel

    Thanks for stopping by Marek. So glad you enjoyed the post.

  • Marek

    Excellent piece, Linda. Really spot on material. Thanks.

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