The de Havilland Comet. It was the world’s first commercial jet airliner in production, and first flew back in 1949. It was known as a landmark in British aeronautical design. It was one of a kind.

The chief test pilot John Cunningham, who was a famous wartime fighter pilot, commented, “I assumed that it would change aviation.” And change aviation it did, although not in the way he expected.

The plane began to crash, repeatedly. More than once, it totally disintegrated over the ocean, killing all passengers on board.

After each crash the plane wreckage was investigated, the engineers scrambled to find out what was wrong. Each time, they failed to pin down what was causing these crashes. Inevitably, the plane would fly again, and soon there would be another crash.

Finally, in 1954, upon experiencing another crash, engineers submerged the entire airframe from one of these planes in the water, and then subjected it to repeated pressurization and over pressurization, upon which they found the culprit: catastrophic metal fatigue. But it wasn’t so much a manufacturing flaw as it was a design flaw. You see, the Comet had square windows.

The window corners compromised the structural integrity of the plane, and when under the enormous pressure found in high-altitude performance, cracks would form at these window edges, eventually causing the whole structure to disintegrate.

Indeed, the Comet did change aviation history—now all jetliners have rounded windows and doors.

There are three important takeaways from this.

1. The importance of structural integrity

Often, in our pursuit of what matters most (or just life in general), we are often subjected to extraordinarily high pressures, especially at times of peak performance. These are the times when everything seems to happen at once, when you’re the very busiest, when it matters the most—these are the times when the pressure is on.

If we find ourselves in these times, even the smallest design flaw or error in planning can compromise our structural integrity, or our ability to hold up under pressure.

If you want to do something meaningful, it is imperative that you pay close attention to your own structural integrity BEFORE you find yourself in a position of peak performance pressure.

That leads us to the second point…

2. The importance of the Microcosm approach to accomplishment

Explained more fully here (The power of microcosmsMicrocosms make you stronger, and Controlled failure, how to fail on your terms), the idea of a microcosm is simple. It’s a smaller-scale representation of something larger.

The microcosm approach to accomplishment suggests that the best way to perform well under high pressure is to deconstruct your larger objective into a series of smaller skills, methods, and objectives, and then to work on perfecting these slowly, one at a time.

When I decided to run a marathon, I didn’t just go run 26 miles. I started small. When I set the goal to shoulder press 300 pounds, I didn’t just go load up the plates and try it out—that would have been suicide.

In physical performance, this model makes sense, but we tend to ignore it when it comes to other areas of accomplishment. If you want to win big, start by winning small first.

3. The importance of performance simulation

The final lesson to learn from this is the importance of creating simulated environments where we can test our ability to synthesize all the skills, abilities, and methods we perfected in the microcosm stage, but in a controlled environment where there’s less risk.

I didn’t say no risk, but less risk. In marketing you can do this by test marketing a product before pushing it out to the masses—you market a product first to a subset of the market to see how it is accepted.

This is done with brands and messaging by trying several different ads and gauging performance on each before settling on the one you use long term, to everyone.

Product managers do this by beta testing a product (allowing a few users to use it first) before releasing it to everybody.

Parents can do this with their kids by creating environments for them to succeed, but that allow them to test the principles of life on a smaller scale and in a controlled setting (don’t forget to let them fail; that’s part of the process).

Whatever it is you are doing, there’s power in simulation. Had the Comet adequately simulated the rapid repressurization their fuselages would have to go through during high-altitude performance BEFORE flight, hundreds of lives would have been saved.


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