Pushing the envelope is a curious phrase. Envelope, as in a letter envelope? Push, as in shove? Images of nudging an envelope across a table come to mind. It's an unusual saying but I like the sound and flavor of the expression. In fact, I find myself using it quite often, Hey, lets push the envelope! Or, if someone does a little more or tries a little harder, I might say, man, you're really pushing the envelope.
After watching movies like The Right Stuff, about the first astronauts venturing into the unknown, I have concluded that the phrase means going further or challenging yourself, or expanding your skills beyond what you thought were your limits. If you were extending yourself, you were . . . pushing the envelope.
Upon some reflection, I think the expression actually means that as people, we live in a cocoon, or bubble, or envelope . . . a self-contained biosphere. And for most of us, like myself, we get comfortable in that cocoon. We know the rules, the terrain and our perceived limits. So when we push the envelope, its as though were pressing against this cocoon; were trying to make it larger, expand our limits.
I guess the question is Why? Why push anything? After all, if were relatively comfortable in our cocoon, then hey, things could be worse. Unfortunately, when nature originally set things up, our software was programmed with a recurring directive . . . push . . . push . . . push. With this programming, we've managed to push from the stone ages to the age of space travel.
In spite of natures miraculous programming, there's a part of me that wants to overwrite most of it with the phrase, relax . . . lie down . . . take it easy. After all, wasn't that the purpose of all the struggling that came before me? They pushed so that I can enjoy.
So you see, I have this constant battle going on within. On one side, the voice says relax, have fun, and on the other side, the voice says push.
To push or not to push
There are rewards and drawbacks to all new ventures and pushing the envelope is no exception. Forcing yourself, or being forced by circumstances to confront new problems or challenges, means youre going to have to develop the resources and skills to meet that challenge.
Abraham Maslow, one of the more widely quoted psychologists of this century determined that there is a hierarchy of needs. Once each need is met, the individual is in a position to begin satisfying needs of greater complexity. For example, our basic survival needs form the base of the hierarchy. Only after survival is assured can we work on feeling safe and secure. Building on that base we learn to form relationships and understand where we belong. We then can gain self esteem from being successful in a particular task and finally, only after there is a core of individual strength, are we in a position to embrace self actualization.
Each step, we are pushed by circumstances or by desire. Each push brings us one step closer to becoming who we were meant to be as a person. One step closer . . . each push . . . one step closer.
Unfortunately, there are few choices in life other than to forge ahead. We must push. And if we don't forge ahead, continuously challenging ourselves, nature just might throw in a few challenges for us. The envelope is waiting . . . waiting for the nudge. Now, if I can only find the right software, one that will program in - push . . . relax, push . . . lie down, push . . . take it easy. After all, if Im going to push the envelope, I might as well have fun in the process!
Robert Ross is a columnist and can be reached by E-mail at: SanDiegoRoss@Yahoo.com
Copywrite 1997, by Robert Ross, all rights reserved
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