You’ve probably heard your boss tell you at one time or another to “push the envelope” on a particular task or project.
Somewhere along the line you learned that phrase was a metaphor for going all out. But what envelope was the boss actually referring to? And what’s so inspiring about pushing an envelope anyway? Would pushing a mailing label accomplish the same thing? What about pushing other forms of office stationery?
The phrase has nothing to do with stationery. It comes from the world of aircraft design and refers to an aircraft’s performance envelope, the limits of speed, altitude and acceleration which a particular aircraft cannot safely exceed.
Back in the 1950s, when the U.S. Air Force was testing new types of jets, test pilots would strap themselves into planes fresh off the drawing board. Then they’d take to the air with the mission of pushing the plane beyond the edges of its performance envelope. That was the only way to really learn what kind of stress a particular plane design could handle. It was a dangerous job, and many ended up auguring in, another charming metaphor that refers to the crater an aircraft makes when it crashes into the ground at high speed.
If you’re picky (like me), you really don’t want to push the envelope on any task, despite what the boss demands. When you think about it, that simply amounts to – pardon the metaphor – moving the goal posts. What you really want to do is push at the edge of the envelope, to transcend established limits like a fearless test pilot. With any luck, you’ll do so without leaving your office in smoldering ruins.
By Charlie Smolover