The Big Small

“The only transformation that interests me is a total transformation — however minute,”

Susan Sonntag

I find myself at present in between two polarities. At one end, concerns for the significant issues that face us, which are difficult to get hold of and affect, and which can seem overwhelming. At the other end, the small communities I am part of and can influence to make things happen but which can feel helpless in the face of the big issues. 

Somewhere between these extremes is somewhere that can have an impact by working with others. Big enough to trigger consequential effect, small enough to have agency. I have it in my head as “the Big Small.”

It feels like a paradoxical place because it is not about hankering after ‘big” in the form of growth that has brought us the problems we face today. It is more about what Buckminster Fuller called ‘Trim Tabs.” In a 1972 interview with Playboy Magazine (those were different times), he said:

“Something hit me very hard once, thinking about what one little man could do. Think of the Queen Elizabeth — 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.”

The truth is that you get the low pressure to do things, rather than getting on the other side and trying to push the bow of the ship around. And you build that low pressure by getting rid of a little nonsense, getting rid of things that don’t work and aren’t true until you start to get that trim-tab motion. It works every time. That’s the grand strategy you’re going for. So I’m positive that what you do with yourself, just the little things you do yourself, these are the things that count. To be a real trim tab, you’ve got to start with yourself, and soon you’ll feel that low pressure, and suddenly things begin to work in a beautiful way. Of course, they happen only when you’re dealing with really great integrity”

I think this is where we find ourselves today. It is easy to feel helpless, and that this is unfair, but the reality is that here we are, like Frodo in “Lord of the Rings”

“I wish it need not have happened in my time,” said Frodo.

“So do I,” said Gandalf, “and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.” 

The “big” is not going to make the changes we need. If it could, then the one hundred billion dollars we spend every year on leadership development would have prevented us from getting to where we are. Instead, it feels like we send people to a period of pleasurable time in a costly theme park before returning to the real world and corporate cultures they inhabit. We need to find a different way, a way to which we can each contribute as ourselves, not just emissaries of an employer.

I am an optimist. I believe that not only can we address the problems we face, but that we can build something better out of the wreckage over time. I have no idea precisely how, but I believe it will be driven by the “Big Small” by all the Trim Tabs out there. (Buckminster Fuller has “Call me Trim Tab” on his gravestone)

One of the first things we teach people about resilience is that nobody is coming to rescue us. We need to remember that now.

We need to find our own big small, or build our own (and there are those who can help us) and make a difference, not an excuse.

3 responses to “The Big Small”

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