The Art of Doing

How to Live Life on the High Wire with Philippe Petit [Part 1]

Photo: Flickr user Carolina Pastrana

On a summer day in 1974, a 24-year-old Frenchman stepped onto the world stage with one of the most astonishing performances in modern history–walking back and forth on a wire illegally rigged across the void between New York’s World Trade Center Towers, three quarters of a mile above spellbound onlookers. It all began six years earlier when the young Philippe Petit was inspired by a rendering of the not-yet-constructed towers he saw in a magazine. He spent the following years refining his wire walking skills and making countless visits to the towers to plot how to surreptitiously enter the buildings and solve the complicated logistics of rigging his wire between the swaying towers. Petit has gone on to perform many other spectacular wire walks, authored over half a dozen books, was the subject of the acclaimed documentary Man on Wire, and singlehandedly built a barn using eighteenth-century tools and design. Whether on the high wire or not, Petit’s philosophy is epitomized in his response to reporters shouting “Why?” after his dramatic Twin Towers crossing. Petit’s answer: “The beauty of it is, there is no ‘why.’”

When we spoke to Petit about how he walks the high wire, our conversation expanded to Petit’s philosophy of how he lives his life on the high wire. We found that his improvisatory, chaos-courting, risk-managing principles could be applied to anyone’s work or personal life. Here they are in his own words:

1. Let life be your teacher.How can you achieve greatness if you haven’t experienced the hard lessons of life? To become a great theatrical director, a great actor or a Renaissance man, you have to do all the jobs most people don’t want to do, like washing dishes and shoveling horseshit. When I was young, I did everything myself. I had so much to prepare before my shows I had no time to sleep. If I had twenty-seven minutes before a performance, I had to fall asleep in a minute flat to have twenty-six minutes of sleep before this very important moment in my life. I had to learn to sleep in any position on anything–a bumping bus, a concrete floor. You will never learn that googling “how to” from a comfortable armchair.

2. Court disaster. When I first became a magician, a juggler and a wirewalker, word was out. I was so arrogant that no circus director would hire me. It was as if I made sure that the whole world was against me, which forced me to do things without permission. There is positivity in putting your nose in disaster, in fiasco, in accidents. If you go where trouble is you will find a magnificent transformation. After all, if I had followed the rules, would I have traveled across the ocean to a foreign country and illegally snuck into and then wire-walked across a building a quarter mile above the ground?

3. Make your art a joyful adventure. When I begin a new project, I embark upon an adventure that has many forks in the road. At each one I must decide, “Should I take the left or the right?” This joy of exploration is childlike, though not childish. It carries me along and gives me my energy to fight and succeed. Without this sense of a solitary joyful journey of a child who is free to go where he or she wants, I would not do good work. If I were to sit at a desk, write a list, make a schedule, and go and meet the building and then make a plan to do a high wire walk in the most safe and intelligent way, I would not have that sense of adventure and exploration. And, there would be no point in living. Although today I would add wisdom to my madness!

4. Be a madman of detail. If I go to climb a place that is rocky, I will find out what kind of rock it is. If the rock is rotten, [because then] the rope I’m hanging from will dislodge pebbles that will break my head. I would be a fool to hope that the rock is healthy. Before I walked the Twin Towers, I gathered information with cunning and precision. This door in this place opens to the left this wide with this many steps of a certain thickness, the 450-pound cable must be brought up this way to avoid detection, and so on. There were at least a thousand other details to solve. When it comes to doing my homework, I’m obsessed. I want to live to be very old. A half a millimeter of mistake, a quarter second’s miscalculation, and you lose your life.

5. Improvise. Improvisation is turning away from a well-polished plan within a millisecond because there’s no such thing in life as a well-polished plan. One of my favorite activities is to jump from rock to rock in a running torrent in the bed of a river. When I jump, I do not know where I’ll land. I’m in the air and there are six rocks around me and in a millionth of a second I see that I’d slip on the one to the right because it’s covered with moss, the one to the left is a little too far and I decide to come down on that little flat rock just ahead. But, before landing, I’m planning my next move. Of course, in our twenty-first century full of helmets and knee-pads and “don’t-try-this-at-home,” people will say: “You should go with three people observing you, just in case you fall so they can rush you to a hospital.” But, if you put all your energy, talent and intelligence into an action such as landing on the right rock, then failure is not an option. You cannot slip. You cannot fall. You cannot land in the water.

–Excerpted by arrangement with Plume, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc., from “The Art of Doing: How Superachievers Do What They Do and How They Do It So Well” by Camille Sweeney and Josh Gosfield. Copyright 2013 by Camille Sweeney and Josh Gosfield.

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