World Trade Center High Wire Artist Philippe Petit’s Colorful Advice For A Career On The Edge
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.
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 (colorful) 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.
2. Court disaster.
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.
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.
4. Be a madman of detail.
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.
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.
[Image: Flickr user Carolina Pastrana]