What it means when we ‘push the envelope’

The Santa Clarita Valley Business Journal

Winston Churchill famously once said of the United States and Great Britain that we are just “two countries divided by a common language,” and I have so often found that to be true.

One of the phrases in the workplace I hadn’t heard until we moved here was “pushing the envelope.” I initially thought it meant “hard work” or even “pointless work” — I mean have you ever actually tried pushing an envelope and that’s before you ask yourself why anyone would even want to push one? Can you believe I get grief from calling an eggplant what it really is — an aubergine?

I’ve come to learn that “pushing the envelope” means testing limits and trying out new, often radical ideas. The expression comes originally from mathematics and engineering, where an envelope is a boundary. Who knew?

At the time of this writing we’re on the verge of the COVID-19 lockdown being lifted. States, counties and even cities are strategizing on the safest way to gradually open up their economies. Some of them may be “pushing the envelope” as they test limits and try out often radical ideas to help us get back to our old normal.

It’s people who populate cities, counties, states and countries, and so we shouldn’t be surprised to see some people pushing the envelope. Whether it be churches, hairdressers or restaurants — we see collections of people wanting to be back together. People seem simply fed up with Zoom video conferences and virtual hugs. In their creativity, we’re seeing businesses — and indeed individuals — come up with innovative ways of being able to serve customers, be the customers or be with other customers.

We have to balance this envelope pushing with the scientific guidelines we’re being given. I am full of admiration for our local city government and proactive professional associations, such as our local chamber of commerce, that are pushing, balancing and guiding through these uncertain times. We simply cannot continue as we are — the economy has been devastated by this dreadful disease.

It will be the “envelope pushers” of the scientific world who will find a cure for this coronavirus and they’ll likely do it by working as a team. It’s inspiring when I listen to daily podcasts such as the “BBC Global News” or “World Business Report” to hear of individual scientists within individual countries sharing their individual trials and errors with each other.

Through technology and the communication methods available to us nowadays, they’re able to share what seems to be working and what isn’t. These scientists are looking at the envelope from all angles — even looking outside of the envelope completely. Their common goal is larger than their individual egos. Isn’t this the definition of an effective team?

Someone will likely arise a hero in all of this. There will be an individual scientist who has a “eureka” moment and will discover the cure. Yet, I remain hopeful they will give credit to the combined efforts of the many. Isn’t this the definition of an effective leader?

After Scottish-born Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin, he was knighted by the Queen of England in 1944, becoming “Sir” Alexander Fleming. In his acceptance, he gave credit to his biology school teacher for igniting in him a passion for the subject. One year later, he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine but was keen to deflect the praise he received to the arduous duties performed by his work team, who labored with him.

Let’s all be hoping and praying that the envelope will be pushed far enough by the interdependent scientific communities around the world to find a cure. May they suspend their individual egos and patriotic pride to stay focused on the fact this will require a worldly effort to combat the world’s virus.

In the meantime, let us as customers, employees and business owners safely stay “within the envelope” — respecting the guidelines we’re being given by governments we entrusted to lead us and protect us, so help them God.

Paul Butler is a Santa Clarita resident and a client partner with Newleaf Training and Development of Valencia (newleaftd.com). The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The Signal newspaper. For questions or comments, email Butler at [email protected]. 

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