In 1979, the deadliest peacetime disaster in New Zealand’s history occurred.
On November 28, a flight was scheduled for takeoff at 8:00 am from Auckland International Airport. The aim was to provide passengers with an aerial sightseeing experience that showcased breathtaking views of Antarctica.
An experienced guide would narrate as the plane dipped above McMurdo Sound, explaining various scenic spots and landscapes. By 9:00 pm on the same day, the plane would return back at Auckland, New Zealand.
Air New Zealand Flight 901 was not a particularly unusual air flight. There was, however, one minor exception: someone had entered a typing error in the coordinates, changing the route coordinates by two degrees. Although seemingly insignificant, these two degrees proved to be fatal.
In the hands of the experienced pilots, the beginning of the flight went smoothly. The crew busied themselves identifying landmarks as the plane flew over the Antarctic waters while passengers watched in awe and happily snapped away.
After several hours, those mere two degrees turned into a 27-mile (43 km) difference between their intended and actual route. Unfortunately, the two pilots had never flown to Antarctica before and therefore couldn’t rely on visual cues to steer them in the right direction.
Despite being off route, both the pilots and crew believed they were flying along McMurdo Sound. In reality, they were headed straight towards Mount Erebus. Outside, a thick layer of clouds blended with the volcanic mountain, creating a whiteout that made it difficult to differentiate between the clouds and the snow-covered volcano.
At 12:49 pm, the warning system alerted the pilots that they were headed towards terrain. Although the pilots attempted to turn the aircraft, it was too late. Six seconds later, the plane crashed at 12:50 pm, instantly killing all 257 lives on board.
It all happened because of a change in two degrees.
Why Trajectory Matters
Just because two people start in the same place does not mean they end in the same place.
Two individuals attend the same school. One constantly takes initiative, holds leadership positions, and excels in their work. The other performs decently well, trailing behind most of the time.
In the beginning, the gap between the two is insignificant. Some might even brush off that tiny difference as negligible. But what happens when you extend the time period?
Ten years later, one is gradually moving upwards in their career, gaining more responsibilities or growing their company. The other individual holds down a relatively stable role, with less opportunity for growth. In twenty years, the once barely noticeable gap widens until they’re as far apart as night and day.
Of course, there are always exceptions. Someone who held back in school goes on to do notable things, while a star student ends up falling short of expectations. But when you look at general trends, those who start good habits early are usually able to continue exercising those habits later in life.
Those good habits accumulate to create good, if not great, results.
How Many Extra Daily Calories Does It Take to Become Obese?
One of the most interesting examples of life trajectory concerns diets. Have you ever heard how eating a cookie a day results in 6 extra pounds after a year?
The math is simple. According to various health sources, you gain a pound for every 3,500 calories you consume. So if you eat an extra 60-calorie cookie a day, you gain half a pound after a month. Over a year, you gain 6 pounds, and after a decade, 60 pounds.
But is weight gain simply a linear math equation? According to a study by JAMA, researchers estimate conservatively that it would take an excessive 370 calories per day to gain 35 pounds in 28 years. To reach obesity levels in 25 years, you would have to consume 680 calories more in a day than you expend.
Here’s an idea of what 680 calories looks like:
- One medium serving French fries (117 g) – 365 calories
- Two cans of cola (12 fl. oz, 368 g) – 138 calories x 2 = 276 calories
- One shortbread cookie (1-5/8” square, 8 g) – 40 calories
Combined, these items total 681 calories. If you keep only the daily French fries, you get enough extra calories to gain 35 pounds after 28 years.
How much you gain also depends on your current body weight and eating patterns. A smaller person with smaller food portions will feel the impact of a sudden caloric intake more than a larger individual. This difference means that an extra cookie impacts some people’s weights more than others.
So, eating a cookie everyday isn’t enough to lead to obesity. But when you consistently consume more than what you expend, that extra amount builds up. Eventually, it becomes difficult to reverse the process.
The Buildup of Daily Habits
What’s a day compared to a lifetime?
While an average day may seem insignificant over the course of our lives, a lifetime is what happens when all your days are put together. And when you do something day after day, your actions begin to accumulate.
The more you accumulate, the more you acclimatize. When you do something for a long period of time, you become used to familiar patterns. Like threads, these patterns weave together in your life and become difficult to untangle. Even the most terrifying things can feel safe when we’re exposed to them long enough.
Let’s say that you’re in an unsatisfying relationship. In the beginning, there’s little commitment. It’s fairly easy to walk away. But as time goes on, more components of your lives become entwined, such as your family and friends, your finances, and major life decisions. It becomes increasingly difficult to break away.
Conversely, good habits compound to create the opposite effect.
Take for example the violinist Jascha Heifetz. Many consider Heifetz to be the greatest violinist that ever existed. Born in 1901, the Russian child prodigy had toured much of Europe by his teenage years. Upon arriving in New York at age 17, he became a sensation after his Carnegie Hall debut that same year.
Heifetz practiced vigorously to upkeep his performance. He once said: “If I don’t practice one day, I know it; two days, the critics know it; three days, the public knows it.”
Even someone as naturally talented as Heifetz worked consistently to maintain, not to mention improve, his violin playing. While his skill was phenomenal in a given day, it could easily drop if he stopped practicing in a short time.
No matter what skill or habit we want to work on, we all have our off days. There are times when we feel tired or an unexpected event veers us off course. That’s okay. Life happens.
But if you don’t show up today, the next day, and the day after, it becomes the start of a slippery slope. Your good habit begins to get replaced by a bad one. Excuses and rationalizations pop up.
Eventually, like a plane, you need to evaluate the direction in which your daily practices are taking you. If need be, course correct to set yourself on the right trajectory in the long run. Missing one day doesn’t mean it’s time to quit altogether.
Just think: If you repeat the actions that you performed today for the next 10 years, would you be pleased with the results?
The Power Behind Trajectory
We sometimes fall behind others despite our efforts. The results we receive fail to correlate with the work we put in. Setbacks cause a dip in our performance.
But the interesting thing about trajectory is that situations change. A company that is almighty and powerful today can gradually slip behind a startup when the former stagnates in technology and innovation. A perfectly suitable candidate who loses out on multiple job interviews can later hit the ground running due to the knowledge and skills gained during hard times.
Like a stock market graph, there are always peaks and troughs that form jagged edges. But when you look at the long-term trend, the line will invariably point in one direction. What direction is your trajectory headed?