In these polarized political times, I sometimes wonder how I, one person, can change the entire world.

Yet, a couple of months ago, I was with Martha Beck and Elizabeth Gilbert at a Celebrate Your Life event, and Martha briefly referred to the trimtab concept to encourage us to take small steps toward our dreams every, damn day.

Unfamiliar with trimtabs, my curiosity led to research and what I learned assured me that one person, indeed, can create big change by acting like the trimtab on the rudder of a ship.

I don’t often claim something to be life-changing, so hold on and come along.

Buckminster Fuller, the inventor of the geodesic dome and a visionary thinker, was commissioned by the Navy to solve a problem during World War II. Fuller developed a small strip of metal, named a trimtab, that was attached by hinges to the trailing edge of a ship’s rudder. As an engine’s hydraulic force moves the trimtab into the path of oncoming water, the pressure against it assists the rudder in making its turn.

Fuller, the thinker, went on to posit that if this small piece of metal can alter the course of a ship that is vastly larger, then you and I can change the course of humanity.

To turn a large ship, one first turns the trimtab. To change the course of humanity, one first takes a small action.

A small, creative, expansive action.

The rudder and trimtab are hidden underwater. As the trimtab encounters the water, it opens a space, a vacuum, that is filled by the rudder of the ship. Ultimately, this small vacuum causes the movement of the large ship.

To change the course of humanity, therefore, we must create a vacuum, just as the trimtabs do. A vacuum creates space. Our job is to open a space for people to see a different, positive reality.

Let me offer this contrasting example. Years ago, right after smoking laws had been established in public places, I was standing in a store checkout line with my (ex) husband. An older man, who looked a bit like popeye--an anchor tattoo on his strong forearm, faded over years-- paid for his items in front of us while holding a burning cigarette between his teeth. My husband caught the man’s attention and said, as if to correct bad behavior, “Smoking is no longer allowed in stores like this one.”

I thought that this popeye character was going to knock my husband’s head off as he turned toward us and protested that since he’d fought in the government's wars, he could do anything he wanted. Add in about eight expletives and accentuate the words with bulging eyes and you can picture the tense scene. The man took his package and strolled out, puffing all the way to the door.

Once my husband and I were in the car, I breathed for the first time since I thought that popeye was going to start swinging his powerful fists and calmly said, “If you really care about this topic, then do something in service to help people to stop smoking. Volunteer. Mentor people. Do something to inspire people to love their good health more than they love smoking. But don’t ever again, in my presence, pick a fight with an ol’ veteran in a big-box store. It’s not productive and results in nothing but tension.”

You see, to be a trimtab, we must first create the space for our message to be heard. We can be direct, but we must open the space for our ideas to be shared. And we, the people, must expand our capacity to act like a trimtab every, damn, day in order the impact the direction of any big ship--or big country.

Contribute, through action, like you are the trimtab on the rudder. That is the mechanism that ultimately changes the course of the ocean liner.

How can we each be more like trimtabs and create a vacuum for expansion?

  • Instead of engaging in a social media feud with an individual, write a new post that addresses what you want to see happen in the world. A great model for creating space on social media for positive change is @Lin_Manuel on Twitter! His “Gmorning” and “Gnight” posts are perfect trimtabs.

  • Use clear, direct language that defines and describes the vacuum you desire to create so that others understand you; then, they can join the space you’ve created. If it’s your goal to bring others into the space you have created, then create and hold your vision for the future; know where your ship is going!

  • Get out your high school English class notes on logical fallacies and be sure you construct arguments that do not violate them; at the same time, correct logical fallacies (in a new post!) with zeal. The ancient Greeks studied, practiced, and polished their skill at logic; indeed, you could take year-long courses in classical “Aristotelian” logic. If this excites you, seems a good time to hone your skill.

Finally, and most importantly, do all of these with great belief in what’s possible.

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