Do you know where the phrase “pushing the envelope” came from? It’s what a test pilot does. An aircraft is designed to operate within a set of boundaries called the performance envelope. How fast can it fly? How high? How quickly can it take off, turn, and land? How much weight can it carry? These are the limits of what it can do.

But when a new airplane is built no one really knows exactly where those limits are. So test pilots fly the thing to find out. They take the aircraft to the edge of the performance envelope and see what happens. If all goes well, they push beyond the existing boundaries. They explore unknown territory to see what they can find.

If they have a good day, and land in one piece, they have successfully pushed the envelope to establish a new boundary. Now the plane can be flown faster or higher. So the next day they’ll attempt to push the envelope out another little bit. If they have another good day, they’ve made more progress and helped create a better product.

Eventually, bad things will begin to happen. Components or systems or people will begin to reach the limits of their own performance. Sometimes, things will break and the pilot will have a not so good day. With skill and maybe some luck, the plane will land safely. The team will study what they’ve learned. They’ll dial things back a bit and establish the edges of the performance envelope. The limits of where the thing can be operated safely and reliably.

But no one knows where those limits are until they begin to go beyond them. They don’t know how fast or high or far they can go until they try.

You can do this in your own life. In your business. You can be your own test pilot. How do you know where your limits are? Have you pushed your own envelope lately?

I used to be afraid of heights. Then one beautiful San Francisco day, I took a walk across the Golden Gate Bridge. Traffic hurtled by a few feet away. The bridge moved under my feet. The wind felt like it would sweep me over the rail. But nothing bad happened. I had a really good day. And now, I’m a lot less nervous about being in high places.

A few months ago Arlene Battishill, the president of GoGo Gear, rode her motorcycle the entire length of the Baja peninsula. She met up with some scruffy-looking guys in Southern California, crossed the border into Mexico, and rode all the way to Cabo San Lucas. Eleven hundred miles in five days. With some traveling companions she really didn’t know.

I’m pretty sure Arlene told us in the first days or maybe hours of that trip that this was by far the biggest ride she had ever attempted. She said she would be doing something she had never done before. She planned to push her own envelope.

We had a great trip. Arlene proved to be one of the best riders in the group. She was definitely the most fun and now she and I are good friends. Recently I read about how she jumped on her bike and rode north, to San Francisco; 575 miles in a long weekend. She shared a picture of herself and her motorcycle at the Golden Gate Bridge. I could feel the wind and smell the ocean. I wanted to tell her about the time I went there and came back different.

Arlene Battishill at the Golden Gate Bridge

Arlene celebrates another day of pushing the envelope.

I originally wrote this as a guest post on the GoGo Gear blog. When Arlene published it she also said some very nice things about me. Here’s her version.