Office Cliché Etymology: "30,000-Foot-View"


A mix of clichéd metaphors and hyperbolic buzzwords such as “mission critical” and “scalability,” the ubiquitousness of office clichés will make you feel like you’re taking crazy pills. Because if you work in an office long enough you know this seemingly innocuous jargon is actually loaded in hilarious subtext. This week in Office Cliché Etymology we take a look at “30,000-foot-view.”

The cliché: “30,000-foot-view”

What it means: A broader perspective on a project; understanding the “big picture” to help guide business strategy.

What it really means: Your supervisor can’t be bothered with the details. Typically accompanied by an overt look of condescension, as if he’s got a fitting for a $3,000 suit later and, frankly, you’re wasting time throwing a lot of big, confusing words around. Whatever you say next is met with a blank stare because it’s clear he was never that interested in the first place. Recommend setting your phone’s memo app to “record” in case of the inevitable “Bob poorly communicates project objectives” note showing up in your next review.

Used in a sentence: “Ok so, how about you just give me the 30,000-foot-view on the status of the new rotary girders—Michael Bolton tickets go on sale in about three minutes and I’ll be damned if I don’t get front row.”

Origin: 30,000 feet (otherwise known as “Flight Level 300”) is the typical cruising altitude of a commercial jet. As one marketing consultant has wryly noted, this cliché probably began as “a note scribbled on a cocktail napkin by an executive in a first class airline seat in the mid-80’s.”

The term was popularized in the early 2000’s by best-selling author and productivity guru David Allen, who used aviation jargon as metaphors for “horizons of focus.” At 30,000 feet, he says, we must ask, “What do we want and need to accomplish, specifically, within the next 12-24 months, to make this happen?”

Bonus fact: As a plane gets higher, the air pressure in the cabin drops while humidity levels plummet. At about 30,000 feet, humidity is lower than 12 percent, which is drier than most deserts. This can affect your taste buds and sense of smell. Or, put another way, the “30,000-foot-view” means that your senses are distorted and unreliable, which is kind of a good way to describe how your boss walks around in general.