Self Disciplines of Buckminster Fuller
In 1927, Buckminster Fuller found himself in financial ruin and personal turmoil. Five years earlier, his first child, Alexandra, has passed away aged four from spinal meningitis. Now his business had failed, leaving him broke with investors, his family and friends who invested in him, at a loss. He drank heavily, was depressed and contemplated suicide, then something changed. As he considered drowning himself in Lake Michigan, he had an epiphany and began to redesign his life. The 22 self disciplines he subsequently established were to become the foundation of a successful career as an inventor, design architect and philosopher. Despite the absence of any third level degree, he lectured at universities and became a significant influence on the formation of ideas and work of subsequent generations.
I am not precisely sure how I came first to read the work of R. Buckminster Fuller. I suspect it was through an advocate of his, philosopher and author Alan Watts, in one or more of the many Watts lectures I’ve gathered over the years. Regardless, certain people come our way who make an indelible impact on our thinking and Buckminster Fuller, for me, has been one of those people.
Fuller believed in a Universe that was generative and self-supporting, self-sustaining and built with the inherent ability to provide substantially for all life forms it contained. Within the fabric and structure of this self-supporting universe, he postulated a self-managing universal accounting system that ensured success and abundance for all life on earth and beyond. However, opposingly he highlighted the folly of what he called the selfish and fearfully contrived “wealth games” that humanity plays under a misinformed survival-of-the-fittest ideology. In the playing of these wealth games, he highlighted, humanity would ultimately destroy itself. However, in that, he offered a solution.
If an individual free from the constraints of dogma and group ideology was to attempt via all resources available to him/her, through non-self-centred motivation, to create real solutions to humanity’s problems, then in our inevitable evolution towards better we would adopt these solutions. In today’s Sunday Letters article I take a look at a tiny but essential aspect of Fuller’s work – self-made commitments that reflected his core values and directed his life’s work towards solutions to global problems and the advancement of all life on the planet. Something to which he suggests that no nation, private enterprise, religion, or other multi-peopled, bias fostering combination of individuals has ever managed to accomplish.
My personal assertion is that given the current momentum and direction of human development we will eventually destroy ourselves, despite the honourable efforts of people like Buckminster Fuller. In our self-destruction, we will exercise the very self-sustaining forces of the Universe highlighted by Fuller. Because the survival of the gestalt entity will always supersede the survival of any individual species. It can never be any other way. The whole will always seek out homeostasis – equilibrium at the expense of any individual entity or species.
I want to be wrong but given our current stage of evolution and our openness to propaganda and mongering of fear, I can’t but expect our soon to be expiration. The vast majority of people only know self through associations with the larger group – the collective self. And it is through this group identity that our thoughts and beliefs are sculpted. Our thoughts are automatic and predictable. We crave more things, higher social status and acceptance even down to our micro-social interactions. Paradoxically, it is in this attempt to find validation of self through the relationship with others and broader society that we become incapable of seeing our true selves and therefore the impact of our actions on our collective existence.
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Who Was Buckminster Fuller?
Richard Buckminster Fuller was a highly regarded and respected 20th-century inventor and visionary, but it didn’t start out that way. He was born in Milton, Massachusetts on July 12, 1895, to Richard Buckminster Fuller Snr. and Caroline Wolcott Andrews. In 1913 Fuller entered Harvard University but shortly afterwards was dismissed from for excessive socialising and missing exams. Afterwards, he spent time working in a sawmill and after unsuccessfully attempting to renew his Harvard education, he later joined the US Navy where he became an officer.
After leaving the Navy after WW1, Fuller entered the business world. He joined his father-in-law in the construction industry opening four factories creating building components. But the business ultimately failed, leaving Fuller penniless and disgraced, losing investments made by family and friends in the process. Such was the financial loss and the loss to his sense of self; it is said that he became profoundly depressed and contemplated suicide. Spending nearly two years as a recluse, in deep contemplation about the nature of his relationship to the world and the broader universe, he realised that he had no right to end his own life. Instead, he decided to discover how he could make the most valuable contribution to the whole of humanity through the systematic design and application of technology.
I live on Earth at present, and I don’t know what I am. I know that I am not a category. I am not a thing — a noun. I seem to be a verb, an evolutionary process – an integral function of the universeBuckminster Fuller
Buckminster Fuller realised that society was preoccupied with individual, local and national focused issues. In the pursuit of self-serving interests, it was impossible for politicians, business leaders and those of influence to give credence to global problems with any true conviction. The political vision was too narrow, collective thinking was too short term. When we see our lives as finite as opposed to ever-lasting through subsequent generations of human beings, when we cannot see beyond the scope of our own self-interest, when we fear loss, it becomes impossible to serve humanity as a whole. Resources seem finite in this finite state of mind and therefore we justify all kinds of abhorrent acts in pursuit of growth and survival. To Fuller, it seemed clear that only an individual operating on their own economic and philosophical initiative could reveal the solutions required to humanity’s global problems.
Fuller subsequently decided to dedicate his life to creating a world that works for all human beings equally rather than the gilded 1%. He became a practical philosopher demonstrating his universal concepts through inventions which he termed “artifacts.” Fuller did not limit himself to one field but worked as a “comprehensive anticipatory design scientist” to solve global problems associated with education, energy, environmental destruction, and poverty. Throughout his life, Fuller held 28 patents, wrote 28 books and was in receipt of 47 honorary degrees. Produced over 300,000 times worldwide, Fuller’s most well-known artifact and greatest monetary claim to fame is the geodesic dome – the hemispherical structure (lattice-shell) based on a geodesic polyhedron.
Self Disciplines of Buckminster Fuller
Upon reading of Buckminster Fuller’s business failure his story appeared to have a greater weight and significance for me. I could relate. With his time spent in solitude, I could relate. I felt further vindicated and redeemed for the experience of my own failures. It’s a strange feeling when we find others out there on the ragged rim of life who have gone through things we have. There is a camaraderie, a kinship and an understanding – we are cut from the same cloth.
We have to be careful, however, not to congratulate each other too much, or indeed wallow in our defeat. Reading Critical Path 1, Fuller’s final published book, there is certainly not the sense of his wallowing in that first defeat. On the contrary, after his emergence from the cocoon of his 2-year self-imposed solitude, it seems he had the seed of something diametrically opposed to that first failure, something that would subsequently grow exponentially bigger as he predicted.
Other things Fuller wrote about such as ‘spontaneously engendered support’ resonated with me also. We’ll discuss this principle later in more detail but for now, it’s sufficient to note that Fuller believed if he were working for the benefit of all humanity then the necessary support required would appear when needed. It served to re-enforce for me, the ideas that were coming together in The Artist’s Manifesto.
At that point in 1927 where Fuller found himself at his absolute low and contemplating suicide, with a young family, penniless, and as he put it; a throwaway in the business world, he made a series of resolutions. These self-disciplines, coupled with those formed in his earlier life, would prove to be the solid ground upon which he was to build his life and work success.
In Chapter 4 of Critical Path, Fuller outlines 22 self-disciplines although the first six or so don’t seem like self-disciplines to me. Instead, they seem like ideas planted in his young head by others around him or significant instances in his early life that subsequently led to the established self-disciplines that would guide his career. Regardless, he had a unique style of writing so I will be faithful as possible to the book and include them as he has done.
Self Discipline #1: Never mind what you think – listen.
Fuller’s mother said it, his teachers said it, every grownup authority he knew said it. Thinking wasn’t something one could engage in without the supervision of those who knew better and children certainly were not to be trusted to think for themselves. As he put it; thinking was considered to be an utterly unreliable process when spontaneously attempted by youth.
So he did what he was told, for a while.
Self Discipline #2: Love thy neighbour
Fuller was raised in the Unitarian church where his grandfather was a preacher. His grandmother taught him to love thy neighbour as thyself, do unto others as you would they do unto you. Although it seems he left aside the dogmatic ideology of his religion in favour of experience based scientific facts, a concept of God seemed to stay with Fuller, albeit somewhat different to traditional religionist thinking.
Self Discipline #3: Life is hard
As he grew older, his uncles and other males of influence in his family began to preach opposite of his grandmother’s christian principle. They reinforced the idea that life was hard and that although grandmother’s golden rule was nice, it wasn’t practical. His uncles’ life is hard principle encouraged young Richard to accept that if he were to provide for himself and a family then he would have to deprive other people of a comfortable life. Survival of the fittest took over.
Self Discipline #4: Follow the rules
The rules seemed to be written by others and Fuller began to accept that he needed to follow them. He ignored his own thinking and trained himself as you would train to play football, to follow the rules of the game of life.
Self Discipline #5: Learn to cope
With this ideology taking firm hold, it seemed that he couldn’t bring himself to win over and sacrifice others to his own ends. After leaving the Navy and finding himself in the competition based business world, he turned out, as he called it, “a spontaneous failure”. He says; “I was sure I could cope with hardship better than the other guy, so I would yield”. It seems he struggled to operate in this dog eat dog world of business.
Self Discipline #6: Form an integrated self
In 1907 it was poet Robert Burns who inspired Fuller with his 1786 poem, To A Louse, and the line; O wad some Power the giftie gie us
To see oursels as ithers see us! 2 Fuller opted to integrate the self he saw as him, with the self others saw and to deal as objectively as possible, the world around him. With this conviction, he began recording his life in what he called “The Chronofile”, which consists of every written record of his engagements both good and bad, with the world and others in it.
Today, Fuller’s Chronofile is housed at Stanford University 3 and contains an entire account of his life and work from that fateful day in 1907.
Self Discipline #7: See oneself as an experiment
After his return from the edge of dispair, Fuller sought to set himself as the subject in a life long experiment with himself as the guinea pig. The experiment was designed to uncover what, if anything, a healthy young male of average size, experience and capability, with dependants, no capital or access to credit, could do to effectively alter the fortunes of humanity.
A brave move, something that goes against popular convention and advice one would be expected to receive given Fuller’s financial condition at this time. Later in the book he admits that things not always went to plan. Sometimes he had to take jobs to pay the bills, but eventually he would return to his base commitment and continue his experiment.
Self Discipline #8: Serve all humanity
Perhaps an idealistic and naive position to take, Fuller dedicated himself to provide solutions to all humanity’s problems and to serve the interests through his work, of all human beings as opposed to traditional personal and business motivations which aim to self serve first and foremost.
He insists that the decision was not taken recklessly or on an naively altruistic basis, but rather on the basis of evidence contained in his Chronofile, which demonstrated that when he was motivated to serve others first, then he would be adequately compensated.
Self Discipline #9: Do your own thinking
He sought to do all his own thinking, confining it to information gained directly from his personal experience. He sought to move from a centred place of innate motivational integrity rather than trying to accommodate the opinions, values and theories of other people.
Self Discipline #10: Never at the cost of others
He sought to pursue and develop his ideas for the benefit of everybody and at the expense or cost to nobody else.
Every atom and electron is an essential part of the eternally regenerative – ergo, totally inexhaustible, but always ebbing and flowing – pulsative Universe.R. Buckminster Fuller
Self Discipline #11: Emancipate humanity from unfavourable conditions
Buckminster Fuller sought to reduce his technological ideas to physically working models, designed to counter existing unfavourable conditions, predominant customs and societal afflictions so much so that he could emancipate human beings from their unfavourable conditions.
These new inventions would provide society with technological advances and reforms that previously proved impossible by social reform. He sought to reform the environment through technology, not human beings.
Self Discipline #12: Never promote oneself
Fuller sought never to promote or sell himself or pay anyone else to do so. A remarkable position to take, the extent of the detail of which I am not fully aware. However, this self-discipline is very interesting to me, for how does someone spread the word about their product or service if we were not to promote it? This question needs further investigation on my part.
He went on to say that he would never hire agents or personnel who would solicit the support of any kind for his work. He held that humanity would adopt his new systems and inventions when there became a survival need which would come about by evolutionary means.
Self Discipline #13: Develop patience
Fuller assumed that nature and the universe as a whole, had its own unique gestation period, not only for biological elements but for technological inventions also.
Self Discipline #14: Accept the spontaneity of acceptance
Fuller believed that humanity would inevitably adopt the devices and systems he created and so he sought to develop his artifacts with the necessary time margin anticipated. In other words, he believed that there was no need to rush his work or push or pressure for his ideas to be adopted. He assumed that nature would evaluate his work as he progressed providing he worked with nature’s fundamental principles.
Self Discipline #15: Learn most from mistakes
He sought to learn the most from his mistakes but never to ponder in worry or procrastination. When he did so he felt sad, but when he always sought to learn and progress, he felt happy. Therefore the way forward was practical.
Self Discipline #16: Waste no time in worry
As mentioned above, Fuller sought not to ponder failure and instead, as he put it; I sought to…increase time invested in discovery of technological effectiveness.
Self Discipline #17: Document progress in the official records
Fuller had no university degree, so in order to document his progress in the public records, he sought patents for all his inventions. Some of these expired worthless, some provided an income but as he stresses in Critical Path, his motive was not to make money from the patents.
Self Discipline #18: Comprehend the principles of regenerative Universe
Above all, Fuller sought to understand and work with, the fundamental principles of what he termed; “eternally regenerative Universe” and subsequently implement these principles in the design and manufacture of his artifacts.
Self Discipline #19: Educate oneself comprehensively
The breath and depth of scientific knowledge is vast, but that didn’t stop Fuller from undertaking the comprehensive education of himself. He sought to digest comprehensively the inventory of human understanding of all chemical compounds, weights, performance characteristics, effect of the interalloyability and so on.
It didn’t stop there. Fuller undertook to consume all the data he could related to economics, global demographics, energy production capabilities, logistics and vital statistics yet amassed by human beings.
A tall order.
Self Discipline #20: Operate on a do-it-yourself basis
He sought only to operate as a business of one – a remarkable undertaking I’m sure you’ll agree. If he couldn’t do it by his own ingenuity then it wouldn’t be done.
Self Discipline #21: Provide advantage to new life
Inspired by the healthy birth of his second child, Allegra in 1927, Fuller says; I oriented what I called my “comprehensive, anticipatory design science strategies” to primarily advantage new life to born within the environment-controlling devices I was designing and developing”.
He realised the problems humanity encountered would take fifty years to solve and organised groups such as governments and corporations were incapable of providing the solutions. For his daughter and all new human life to live in a better world, he would have to get his hands dirty.
Self Discipline #22: The role of God
Given Fuller’s religious upbringing, it seems from reading his work that he needed to somehow integrate the God of his religion into the set of beliefs he built based on scientific knowledge and personal experience. For many God does not belong in science, however, I believe that a God can be reconcilable with science and the fundamental laws of the universe. Buckminster Fuller understood the same.
In his final note on his self-disciplines, he refers to this final one as perhaps containing the greatest weight and influence. As such I think it best to offer Fuller in his own words.
At the outset of my resolve not only to do my own thinking but to keep that thinking concerned only with directly experienced evidence, I resolved to abandon completely all that I ever had been taught to believe. Experience had demonstrated to me that most people had an authority-trusting sense that persuaded them to believingly accept the dogma and legends of one religious group or another and to join that group’s formalised worship of God. I asked myself whether I had any direct experiences in life that made me have to assume a greater intellect than that of humans to be operative in Universe…I said to myself, I am overwhelmed by the only experientially discovered evidence of an a priori eternal, omnicomprehensive, infinitely and exquisitely concerned, intellectual integrity that we may call God, though knowing that in whatever way we humans refer to this integrity, it will always be an inadequate expression of its cosmic omniscience and omnipotence.Buckminster Fuller, Critical Path
A Final Word
It appears to me that for Buckminster Fuller, in the depth of his depression and upon the imminent destruction of self, there appeared in his consciousness a greater meaning and purpose for his survival than he understood himself to represent. In this, he found a reason to live and play the game at the highest level he could.
His achievements were remarkable and I have significant admiration for him. But I don’t see it imperative for myself, or anyone else, to attempt to emulate Buckminster Fuller’s achievements. That is not the purpose of this article. To attempt do so, in my opinion, is naive and foolish because he was him and I am me, you are you. We are meant to be who we will be and although we can admire the achievements of great people, we must accept that they are as unique as we are.
Motivational speakers and writers, personal development gurus and such like, are perhaps well-meaning in their presentation of remarkable people as the benchmark for human performance and achievement. However, they are often misguided in their intentions.
We each have a responsibility to only ourselves, to be true to whatever it is that calls us. Buckminster Fuller was the perfect example of this for me. Sure, let’s take inspiration from other people, but in honour of Buckminster Fuller’s 9th Self-Discipline, let’s not allow other’s experiences to dictate our direction.
To discover more about this remarkable human being, visit The Buckminster Fuller Institute 4 who continue to promote his work.
- “Self-Disciplines of Buckminster Fuller.” Critical Path, by Richard Buckminster Fuller, St. Martin’s Press, 1981, pp. 123–160.
- Burns, R. (n.d.). To A Louse. Retrieved May 06, 2019, from http://www.robertburns.org/works/97.shtml
- Fuller, R. B. (n.d.). R. Buckminster Fuller Collection. Retrieved May 06, 2019, from https://library.stanford.edu/collections/r-buckminster-fuller-collection
- Bfi.org. (2019). The Buckminster Fuller Institute. [online] Available at: https://www.bfi.org [Accessed 6 May 2019]