Six Powerful insights from the creative shape shifter, R. Buckminster Fuller.
“There is nothing in a caterpillar that tells you it’s going to be a butterfly.”
This quote, I remind myself of regularly. Its needless to say, I am a huge fan of R. Buckminster Fuller. He’s up on the top of my list of visionary thinkers and creative doers who have changed the world in incredibly positive ways. His provocative, and somewhat crazy, ideas of how to operate this beautiful planet, which he called Spaceship Earth, can help us all discover how one person, even one with limited resources and power, can make significant contributions to creative change in their lifetime.
About Bucky, the ultimate creative shape shifter
Designer and all around boundary-pushing change maker, Buckminster Fuller was a revolutionary thinker and doer. It is him that we have to thank for geodesic domes, tensegrity, synergetics, the concept of ‘Design Science,’ and many other wonderful contributions. He authored 30 books and was a prominent systems theorist. Few people know that he also called himself ‘Guinea Pig B’ and spent most of his life researching the ways in which one person with limited power and influence can make a significant difference to humanity.
In an attempt to understand what one individual can accomplish for the benefit of all of humanity, he documented and explored this through his own life over what was later called the 56 year experiment.
Finding opportunity in the dark
Bucky was born in 1895, a total rebel at heart (he was expelled from Harvard twice). Early on in his career he tried and failed many times to create new propositions to the world. Ultimately it was his severe depression, following the death of his daughter, Alexandra, who passed away at a young age due to complications with Polio, which catalyzed a path towards creative contributions to the world.
After his daughter’s death, at age 32, Bucky stood on the edge of Lake Michigan, and he found himself considering suicide as the solution. Instead of jumping, he had a moment of clarity and considered what if, instead of killing himself, he were to dedicate his life to helping make this world a better place? He knew he had limited resources and power at that time, his ‘sphere of influence’ was small, but his commitment was big. Over the next 56 years of his life, he tested, explored, thought, challenged, solved, evolved, emerged and created amazing interventions that made and continue to make positive change in the world.
In a time when so much of the discourse around the environment and human society is plagued by negativity framing, we need to be proponents of the optimistic possibility that humans do indeed have the potential to shift the status quo from un-sustainability to regenerative systems, which benefit all humans, for all time, on this beautiful planet we call home. Bucky left us many gems to learn from, and a suite of brilliant quotes to reflect upon, that can aid in our quest to make that shift:
1. “Call me Trim Tab”
Even the biggest ship changes direction thanks to one of its smallest parts. Way in the back of a boat, down inside the rudder, is a small part called a trim tab. This mechanism moves one way, and the ship turns in a new direction. Bucky reminded us that we are all trim tabs, tiny parts of a big systems, all working to move the ship in different directions. He had served in the US Navy during WWI, hence his naval knowledge and metaphor.
I often quote Bucky on this when I get asked how one person can really ever make a difference. The world is constantly changed by the individuals that make up the larger collective. Everyday people are actively working to challenge the status quo, and when we look at these people, they are the quiet superhumans shifting the larger systems at play; they are the trim tabs of the this beautiful round ship in space, Earth.
2. “Integrity is the essence of everything successful”
This concept of personal integrity being the essence of all that one does, was provided by someone who sought out to prove the viability of integrity as a force for good. For Bucky, integrity was structural; anything that has integrity holds its own shape regardless of the external forces, so to make change, one must first find their own shape. In his last public statement before he died he said “only integrity is going to count.” Begging the question, If you don’t have integrity in what you do, why would you do it?
3. “There are no passengers on Spaceship Earth, only co-pilots”
The pure magic that is planet Earth was a constant reminder of possibility to Bucky. He wrote an entire book, called “Operation Manual for Spaceship Earth,” and reminded us that we are all on this ship together. We all breathe air produced by the same trees, eat food farmed from the same fertile land, and drink fresh water to quench our thirst. Even if we are to find ways of populating another planet, we would still need these three life support services to survive — and this, my friends, is the bounty provided by this Planet. So far, no other planet has been able to provide even one of these life-giving services.
4. “The best way to predict the future is to design it”
Participating in the construction of the type of future you want to live in is a perfect way to describe a change maker’s agenda. The future is anything but defined, it is created by us. And no mater how shit things can be, there is always the possibility to change the trajectory of the present hurtling towards the future — we just have to design it well! Bucky also said, that if you want to change a systems, don’t fight the existing forces, design a version that makes the old one obsolete. For me this translates, as designing new normals.
5. “There is nothing in a caterpillar that tells you it’s going to be a butterfly.”
Nature is full of wonder and the metamorphic potential of a slimy little grub is totally mind-blowing to me. In the case of a butterfly, extreme metamorphosis occurs at every level of its being — from a land-locked, legged, leaf eating grub, to a beautiful, symmetrically appealing, flight-gifted, peaceful butterfly. Everything has the potential to metamorphosis into something better than before. Can-do inspiration aside, this also means we’d ought to think twice before dismissing or judging someone — who knows what talents they’ll develop, what insights they hold, what impacts they’ll go on to make.
6. “Don’t fight forces, use them.”
It was in 1932 that Bucky first made this statement. He noted that tension and compression are not opposites, but rather complements that can be found together. The synergy between these two is what he called ‘tensegrity’.
I think about this when I deal with tension and challenge. They are forces that have much power over us humans, personally and socially. But there are creative catalysts buried deep within them (remember how even something as horrible as Bucky’s daughter’s death became a creative catalyst?). When we can understand and overcome tensions and challenges, we are rewarded.
To sum it all up…
Use forces well, be a co-pilot on Spaceship Earth, remember the caterpillar’s potential to become butterflies, be the trim tab that shifts the status quo, and design the future you want to live in! Lessons for life, not just for change agents (although, the point is that anyone can be a change agent!). Thanks Bucky! ❤
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Want more? Check out this great article on Bucky’s work >
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