How I learned to be the trimtab and not the boat

Working for a university is hard work. There is a lot of pressure to perform and you always know that a failure at your work affects if students can do their work. There is also the pressure that comes from the perceived pressure to be great all of the time. Finally, there is the issue of impostership. When you are constantly surrounded by really smart and accomplished people there is a sense that you don’t quite measure up and you will one day be “found out”. I find from time to time I suffer from this lack of confidence and push myself to be all things to all people. But I am getting over it, here’s how.

Years ago, I was asked to teach a class title SLS 1501 at the University of Central Florida. This was a standard introduction to college course and my class was focused on working with students who were more likely than not first generation college students. many of them came from the same places I went to high school, urban, low income, working class. I was recruited because I have skills in teaching and connecting with these students and I have a passion for working with first generation students. What I noticed right away was how much pressure these students are under.

Researcher Tara Yosso writes about these students in her Cultural Capital Theory. She points to the pressure these students feel because they are the first to go to college and all of the hopes and dreams of their families rest on their shoulders. It is up to them to help elevate the family to a place they have never been. Students put a lot of pressure on themselves to be perfect, to be dominant, and to excel in ways that may not be productive for them. This can result in their being anxious and nervous about their future.

In an effort to help these students to not put so much pressure on themselves I looked toward, of all people, Buckminister Fuller. On his gravesite he has the words; “call me trimtab”. As the story goes, Fuller, an architect and systems theorist, used this analogy when describing how each human can impact their world even if that contribution seems small. During the early days of building and floating the massive steam ships of the ocean there became apparent a very real navigation problem. Getting these ships to maneuver was no small task. Their size and bulk made them impossible to turn. But an unusual solution was found. See, the rudder was a source of the problem. They were so big that moving them was just as hard as moving the ship itself. So engineers devised a solution in the form of the trimtab rudder. This is essentially a rudder for the rudder.

This trimtab moved the rudder, which then moved the ship. Without this tiny piece of technology the ship cannot navigate the waters of the oceans and seas. It’s wild to think how one small piece had such a big impact. I used this analogy with my students and their response was great. I let them know that while they may feel they have to giants, really all they need to be is themselves. By just making it this far they have advanced their families and their communities and the best way they can honor them is to find and do Many of my students pointed to that lesson in their assessment of their own self-confidence.

Of course I am great at giving advice and short on taking my own. It was not too long ago that I went through a period of self-doubt. My impostership was sky high and I was having a crisis of confidence. The way I worked through it was to remember the trimtab and to make sure I recognized that my job in life is not to be the ship but be the trimtab. I just have to move my part with efficiency and grace and let the ship do it’s own thing. of course, easier said than done but it has helped. So be the trimtab and everything else will take care of itself.

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