Why Bucky Fuller’s near-suicide was the best thing that happened to him.

Maybe you know Buckminster Fuller from the iconic images of the friendly old man with his signature horn-rimmed glasses. Or perhaps you know him as the “bucky balls guy” or the “geodesic dome guy.” If you know the word synergy, you can thank Bucky for that, but more on synergy in another post. While it is true that he invented many remarkable artifacts and held 28 US patents, his inventions are not the primary reason you should be interested in him. In fact, his inventions and prototypes, and his personal success are side effects of a particular choice that he made in 1927.

At that time he was 32 years old and had a newborn daughter and a dependent wife. He was flat broke, unemployed, and un-creditworthy. Desperate to provide for his family and somewhat ashamed of his apparent inability to do so, he decided to commit suicide so that his wife could cash his life insurance policy and make a new life for herself and their daughter. Standing on a cliff above Lake Michigan, Bucky prepared to jump. Just as he did so, he had a realization that was to dramatically change the course of his own life, and eventually the lives of countless others.

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.

Though very unlikely, he decided that if there was even a “one-in-an-illion” chance that his unique human experiences might be of “evolutionary value” to others, then his life was not merely worth living — it might be said not to belong to him at all, but in fact, to belong only to others. This was the moment when he steered his ship into uncharted waters and began living his very own kind of life with an intention both admirably courageous and exceptionally disciplined.

If I take oath never again to work for my own advantaging and to work only for all others for whom my experience-gained knowledge may be of benefit, I may be justified in not throwing myself away. This will, of course, mean that I will not be able to escape the pain and mortification of being an absolute failure in playing the game of life as it has been taught to me.
Earthrise, photo by William Anders, Apollo 8 moon landing

From this moment forward, Bucky committed himself to doing his own thinking and to rigorously questioning everything he had previously been taught to believe. He theorized that the organizing principles operative in our Universe would provide for his material sustenance aboard Spaceship Earth if he were properly contributing to the continuance of those principles. He assumed, and this is important, that humans existed for a reason, that humanity was the product of an unfathomably intricate design. And if humans existed for a reason, that is, if the human mind was an essential development in the Universe’s evolutings, then the principles that govern the behavior of Universe would naturally support those actions that supported humanity’s continuance.

He then set out to live his own life as an experiment to prove these beliefs. For if they were true, and he were to commit himself to solving those of humanity’s problems which he could, then he would no longer have any need to “earn a living,” in the traditional sense — he could do his thing and trust the Universe to provide.

I sought to use myself as my scientific “guinea pig” in a lifelong experiment designed to discover what — if anything — a healthy young male human of average size, experience, and capability, with an economically dependent wife and child, starting without capital or any kind of wealth, cash savings, credit, or university degree, could effectively do that could not be done be great nations or great private enterprise to lastingly improve the physical protection and support of all human lives.

Imagine for a moment the conversation he had with his wife when he got home. ‘Honey, I’ve decided to stop trying to get jobs altogether. Instead, I’m gonna do my best to think of ideas that would help all of humanity raise its standard of living. Don’t worry — I’m fairly confident the Universe has my back on this.’ And she went with it. Wow. She, Anne Hewlett, who would ultimately be married to Bucky for 66 years, must have been as bold and bodacious as he was.

The early road, as one might imagine, was a little bumpy.

Friends would say, “You are being treacherous to your wife and child, not going out to earn a living for them. Come over here and we will give you a very good job.” When, persuaded by their obvious generosity and concern, I did yield, everything went wrong; and every time I went “off the deep end” again, working only for everybody without salary, everything went right again.

Over time, Bucky’s hypothesis began to prove itself and the bumps got smoother and smoother as his experience multiplied and his faith in the integrity of his mission steeled. Predictably unpredictable patterns began to emerge.

So we — my wife and family — have for 56 years realized a series of miracles that occur just when I need something, but not until the absolutely last second. If what I think I need does not become available I realize that my objective may be invalid or that I am steering a wrong course. It is only through such nonhappenings that I seem to be informed of how to correct both my grand strategy and its constituent initiations.
During all these last 56 years I have been unable to budget. I simply have to have faith and just when I need the right-something for the right-reasoning, there it is — or there they are — the workshops, helping hands, materials, ideas,money, tools.
Bucky’s Dymaxion Car, photo by Norman Foster

Not only did Bucky and his family survive the experiment, they thrived. Without any kind of public relations or marketing support, he would eventually be mentioned in over 100,000 articles, books, and broadcasts. In his last twenty years of life he circled the globe 47 times and spoke to 30,000 students. He published 24 books and funneled $20 million into prototyping and design of dozens of artifacts, from domes to cars to prefab bathrooms. Though his annual earnings eventually rose to $250,000, he never made a profit; he always spent every dollar on research and development, “always operating in proximity to bankruptcy without going bankrupt.”

Now that you know bit of the backstory, I hope you are as blown away and inspired by Bucky’s life as I am. Of course, Bucky’s personal expression of helping humanity succeed was to design physical artifacts to help us efficiently accommodate ourselves physically on Earth. And he proved that an unknown individual could do so and be taken care of. My question is this: beyond the design of physical artifacts, what other disciplines does this “mechanism” of Universe support? Can an artist who is wholeheartedly working to solve humanity’s problems expect the same kind of support from Universe? A programmer? A farmer?

What do you think about all this?

(all quotes from Critical Path and one of my favorite little books, Guinea Pig B, both by R. Buckminster Fuller)