Yesterday, I had the pleasure of seeing Philippe Petit speak as part of the Chicago Humanities Festival. Philippe Petit was the man who did the incredible skywalk between the World Trade Centers in 1974. He’s the man at the center of the Oscar-winning documentary Man on the Wire. It’s well worth checking out. In addition to wirewalker, he’s also a writer, a magician, juggler and carpenter. My fiancé and I have a special association with him. When we took our very first tight wire class over four years ago, we watched the documentary after the first class. It was so inspirational and I think that I’ve been using it as a guide ever since. No, I’m not thinking about doing a skywalk ever. EVER. But I think that the movie hits on something wonderful: do amazing things and inspire wonder into people.
It was well worth seeing Philippe Petit in person. He is a truly charming and remarkable man. He talked about his recent work: Creativity: The Perfect Crime that is about his specific views on creativity. I think there were some important gems there. Michael Phillips, movie critic and moderator, asked him about his claim to hate the phrase: “Measure twice, cut once.” Petit explained that he thinks that the phrase suggests laziness or lack of focus. You can measure twice or three times or more and still get it wrong if you aren’t paying rapt attention to your work. But if you are focusing on your task, then you don’t need to do all this extra work to cut.
Petit also talked about a lesson he learned from an early juggling manual. In this book, the author says that his only concern in life was perfecting a specific three ball juggling trick. Petit really likes this idea because he thinks that it admirable to try to become an expert in some thing even if it is very small. He loves the amount of focus this author had on perfecting this one trick.
One thing that really resonated with me was Petit’s recommendation to never end a practice on a failure. If he is doing one last trick and it gets screwed up, he’ll work on it until he has a small victory. He believes that you must always end on a victory. I think that’s really important. He feels that a failure at end of practice may result in lethargy. It’s bad for the psyche. This is something I’ve already tried implementing in my practice. Last night I practiced my saxophone. I had a limited amount of time but I kept working on the last line of notes to ensure that I ended up with some success. I made it.
Petit also talked about how much he loves improvisation. He taught himself to be a pickpocket and loved the challenge of choosing a victim or “a client” and figuring out to relieve this person of some possession. He doesn’t like to plan things out. He lets intuition guide him. Even though I’m a die-hard planner, I think there is something admirable in this. I want to be more spontaneous, more adaptable to situations. Before the Q&A session, he advised the audience, “Don’t think. Improvise” when coming up with questions.
He also mentioned that he thinks that lock picking and pick pocketing (to a lesser extent) should be taught to children. He thinks that kids should learn to pick locks so they don’t see walls as barriers. There is always a way around or through a wall. He thinks that creativity, not just in the arts, is really important for everyone, especially kids. I think he should talk to the Maker/Hacker community. They share some similar ideas.
Also, it was really gratifying to hear him say that life is short. He told us to “Gallop” and do it all. Anyone who knows me knows that I’m a little crazy and really push myself to explore all that the city has to offer while working on my many projects. But I feel that there is so much to do, learn, and see, why shouldn’t one try to do it all? I want to look back and think: “Wow, I did some amazing things.” But I certainly hope that I’ll be looking forward and seeing myself doing the same. He says that he still learns something every single day when he practices and foresees that world of wonder and learning in his future.
In the Q&A, he explained how he became the artist in residence at Cathedral of St. John the Divine in NY. After his twin tower skywalk, he decided to take a three-month stone carving class at the unfinished cathedral. I think he did a high wire walk at the church, probably helped them raise funds to finish it. As a result of his efforts, the deacon said that he could have any space in the building for his studio. So he found a place (near the flying buttresses) where he works. He’s been there ever since 1974/75. So cool.
So that’s just a taste of the conversation with Philippe Petit. I can’t wait to see what he has going on next.