Buckminster Fuller was one of the 20th century’s greatest innovators and an influence in my life.
As a child, he argued with teachers at school because they “didn’t make much sense.” Many of these confrontations grew because he would return to class with another perspective, particularly in areas such as science and geometry. Early on, the man became a drunk and a misfit. He didn’t feel much of a connection with society. Relatively bright, “Buckie,” as friends later called him, was kicked out of Harvard twice, first for affiliating himself with a vaudeville troupe of ill repute and then for his apparent disinterest in classes altogether.
In 1927, Fuller’s life changed. His beloved four-year-old daughter died from polio and spinal meningitis. Always into design and invention, he joined his father in opening a company called Stockade, which design lightweight and weatherproof housing. Overwhelmed, he drank constantly and often wandered the streets of Chicago at night considering suicide. But one day, his close friends and wife encountered a changed man. He was enthused, humble, focused, and began a new life that would flood the world around him with innovation.
Years later, Buckie shared that an “entity” had visited him that night and told him he was wasting his life; he did not belong to himself. “You think the truth,” it said, “you do not belong to yourself; you belong to the universe around you.” Fortunately, he waited to tell that experience until there was evidence he was on the right track. Burning bush, an angel, alcoholic delusion, whatever it was, the world benefited from his life of innovation that included designing the first hydrogen fuel cell, designing much of what later became recycling. His geodesic dome became a model of efficient building design. About 80 years ago, he told political and business leaders that if we continued pumping pollutants into our atmosphere, the world would become too poisoned to sustain any form of abundance.
Mr. Fuller’s strangely poetic life ended in 1983 at the age of 87. His wife and soulmate Anne died within 36 hours of each other and are buried in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Buckie gave us a gift! He showed the world that action is far more important than thinking. How many of us sit on the sidelines of our own lives because we are afraid of action?
As we emerge from this strikingly difficult year, we can no longer afford to think that work will go back to normal. What is that? Nor can we repeat the mistakes of the past.
The last big wave of task work took place around 2006. Remember that? Money was everywhere. The middle class could finance their way into the upper class. Paperwork needed to be filled out. Quotas were still the rage. Two years later, all that activity came to a screeching halt. Many employers shifted gears from letting talent know they were valued to making sure people felt expendable. So many of us hunkered down waiting to get back to normal.
As we witness the biggest restructuring of work in 300 years, there is an opportunity to reset our lives around work that is meaningful and far more profitable. Right now, millions of task-based jobs are being turned over to technology. That doesn’t spell the end of work. Many of today’s task workers will find themselves becoming problem solvers.
We close with an example. In the early 80s, Buckminster Fuller received a letter from a 12-year-old boy named Michael. He asked if Buckie was a thinker or a doer:
Thank you very much for your recent letter concerning “thinkers and doers.” The things to do are the things that need doing: that you see need to be done and that no one else seems to see need to be done. Then you will conceive your own way of doing that which needs to be done that no one else has told you to do or how to do it. This will bring out the real you that often gets buried inside a character that has acquired a superficial array of behaviors induced or imposed by others on the individual.
Try making experiments of anything you conceive and are intensely interested in. Don’t be disappointed if something doesn’t work. That is what you want to know – the truth about everything – and then the truth about combinations of things. Some combinations have such logic and integrity that they can work coherently despite non-working elements embraced by their system.
Whenever you come to a word with which you are not familiar, find it in the dictionary and write a sentence which uses that new word. Words are tools – and once you have learned how to use a tool, you will never forget it. Just looking for the meaning of the word is not enough. If your vocabulary is comprehensive, you can comprehend both fine and large patterns of experience.
You have what is most important in life – initiative. Because of it, you wrote to me. I am answering to the best of my capability. You will find the world responding to your earnest initiative.