01 January 2007

Bucky's Story - Living Life as an Experiment

In 1927, a 32 year-old man stood on the edge of Lake Michigan, ready to throw himself into the freezing waters. He was bankrupt, the result of his third business failure in a row. He’d been drinking heavily and was grief stricken over the death of his first child. He didn’t know how he would support his wife and newborn daughter. At that moment, his life seemed like a pattern of failures to him. Before the bankruptcies, years earlier, he’d been expelled from Harvard during his freshman year and never did complete his degree.

But fortunately, in this moment of drunken grief, Buckminster Fuller had the presence of mind to make an extraordinary decision. He realized that he was about to throw his life away and decided that if he was contemplating that, why not take half a step back and do something unorthodox. Rather than throw his life away, why not throw away his old notions of goals and achievement? He decided to turn his life into an experiment – an experiment to see how much difference one ordinary person could make. [1]

The difference that Fuller’s life made has yet to be fully understood or felt. He was a pioneer of ecological thinking and sustainability – balancing economic and environmental needs. His influence spreads as a growing number of people adopt the thinking that he helped to introduce. Although he never did complete his degree at Harvard, Fuller was awarded 44 honorary doctoral degrees, granted 25 US patents, and authored 28 books.

When Buckminster Fuller turned his life into an experiment (many called him Bucky, but he referred to himself as Guinea Pig B), he created the conditions for an extraordinary life. Perhaps best of all, his failures were feedback for an experiment, not a reflection of who he was, not something to take personally, not a reason to jump. Turning his life into an experiment gave him the best of both worlds: he ended his life even more accomplished than someone driven to achieve to prove something and remained more sanguine than someone who avoided risks altogether.

The modern world was born when scientists during the Enlightenment began testing hypotheses and conducting experiments rather than blindly quoting Aristotle or church authorities. The modern world – its science, technology, and even social institutions and practices – has emerged from the application of the empirical method to objective reality. Planning, or theorizing, followed by doing, studying the results and then adapting the plan or theory is the cycle of progress.

Consider the possibility that you could apply the empirical method to your personal, subjective reality. It’s possible that you will find similar breakthroughs in your own life if you make your development the product of intentional experiments rather blind adherence to advice from Napoleon Hill, Tony Robbins, the motivational thinker de jour or worse, the voice in your head that insists on narrating your life, the voice that we often mistake for reality.

[1] See http://architecture.about.com/library/bl-fuller.htm and http://www.bfi.org/introduction_to_bmf.htm for quick biographies of Richard Buckminster Fuller, 1895 to 1983.


Eric Byers said...

I read about this guy a few years ago from some magazine, I remember being really amazed at what he had done. It's really amazing he came to that point.

The human body when pushed to it's limits (in this case close to ending it), is amazing. This completely changed the rest of his life.

ChristineKane said...

What a great post to read this morning. I love Buckminster Fuller, and at my last birthday I wrote that I, too, wanted to live my life as an "experiment." You give some information here that I didn't know already. Another cool little thing that happened is that you used the word "pioneer," which is my word of the year. (I just wrote a post on picking a word of the year.)

I, too, agree with you that defining our own meaning of success and wholeness is a great (and brave) thing to do. I was just listening to a random Napoleon Hill lecture while doing the dishes, and I thought to myself, "Do I REALLY want to believe this?"

Anyway, thanks! happy new year!

Ron said...


Great question. What you really believe determines what you actually do and doing something different can make you look pretty foolish.

Now, I wonder if I really believe that? :)