Cheating the Impossible: Wire-Walker Philippe Petit on Education, Creativity, and Patience
The art of self-correction and the value of tenacity in a world obsessed with instant results.
By Maria Popova
On August 7th, 1974, shortly after the World Trade Center was erected, French high-wire artist Philippe Petit stood in front of the impossible and took it full stride as he walked 200 feet between the Twin Towers, 1,368 feet above ground, on a 55-pound balancing rope. Dubbed “the artistic crime of the century,” the feat — which took place almost exactly a century after the first crossing of the East River on wire — took six years of planning. Petit — who never finished formal education — had to acquaint himself with the most esoteric details of engineering, architecture, and the physics of wind, among other preemptive intricacies. In Cheating The Impossible: Ideas and Recipes from a Rebellious High-Wire Artist, the latest release from TEDBooks, Petit tells his story in a broader context of how to live life with “patience and tenacity” in an age of silver bullets and shortcuts.
A lifelong autodidact, Petit dedicates much of the book to the nature and conditions of learning, and how those relate to concepts like curiosity and discovery, including an emphasis on the role of serendipity in invention and creativity:
Why does problem solving bring me joy? Because it’s a game. The multitude and the diversity in shape and color of the building blocks, the solutions, found in my basket provide me with extensive and entertaining permutations — and the solutions keep multiplying: those lurking as shadows of existing ones; those not yet invented; those that hibernate, awaiting the spring of chance. Among the few things I retained from my brief high school attendance was, ‘Man’s greatest inventions were found by accident.’ At the time, I wondered if there were a point to staying indoors collecting knowledge.
Maybe I have an advantage over the classically educated. Often, students are encouraged to abandon the problem in the cold and to rush to warm themselves at the table of contents of thick books of knowledge. I cannot stress enough the importance of learning to unknot the problem (I’m tempted to say ‘the streetwise way’) as opposed to focusing on acquisition of the right answer — possibly one major flaw of what I would refer to as a ‘formal education.’ Are my street education, my autodidact beginnings, my Luddite inclinations and my disregard for rules what allow me to approach a problem and hear whenever it whispers its solution — which is most of the time? For instance, I delight in the types of quizzes that present a problem related to one element and which can be solved by that same element. Allow me to describe just one among a great variety of clever little bar challenges that are supposed to reward the perpetrator with a free drink: the well-known ‘How can you pick up three matches using only a fourth one?’ Here the problem has to do with fire (matches), and it is solved by fire. Set the three matches into a little tripod, red heads touching on top. Light the fourth match and bring the fire under the match heads, let it burn for a second, then gently blow. You can now lift the ‘welded’ tripod using only the fourth match because fire has fused the three heads together. Is it my unorthodox way of life that permits me, once I assemble a display of clever solutions, to know for sure that the best one is undoubtedly the most pleasing, the one exuding simplicity, elegance and poetry?
Petit echoes Mark Van Doren’s famous aphorism that “the art of teaching is the art of assisted discovery” in this anecdote about the intellectual spark of his early education experience:
I was measuring myself by dint of rejections and invitations while my experiments, mostly foolish, forged my personality. From 6 to 16, the only teachers I listened to were those who hardly talked to me: once a week, the old lady at the Art Institute and the old man at the Horseback Riding Academy. I was the youngest student at both places, and both those masters were miserly with their words, although expert at opening doors — and keeping them ajar — for their students to venture in (I always felt I was sneaking in). These two teachers were masters of instructions by gestures — instead of a verbal compliment, they offered a barely perceptible nod of the head. They favored education to come from within; they wanted their pupils to be overcome by the excitement of discovering. I remember vividly my first class in both establishments.
He argues against the industrialized model of formal education and makes a case for the autodidactic way:
The knowledge I acquired through constant struggle was much more valuable to me than if it had been dispensed by a talkative, didactic professor intending to fill my head. Today’s education, with its crash courses, its CliffsNotes, its how-to videos, its Internet instant answers and its multitude of shortcuts gives the impression of winning the race against time, but what it really does is spread insidiously the frailties of artificialness. I have the certitude that although the sum of my autodidactic discoveries took a long time to crystallize, I did not lose any time. In fact, I won; the result remains solidly anchored inside me, and it will fuel my creativity for the rest of my life.
(An ideal model for education would, of course, incorporate both, making room for “useful useless knowledge” and fostering a new culture of learning that borrows the best of both academia’s structured guidance and the curiosity-driven approach of the autodidact.)
Petit stresses the importance of integrating mind and body — an argument echoing sociologist Howard Gardner’s celebrated theory of multiple intelligences, among which is the bodily-kinetic.
It is by entering the road that leads to perfection that I will amaze and inspire myself, then by extension, inspire others. When the path is steep, I instruct my mind, my soul to pull my body by the sleeve. How could I pursue intellectual challenges were I not to remain awake and working furiously? How can my arts profit from the physical discipline of constant practice if I am not on an intellectual lookout, every second, to understand the reason something escapes my control? I must become my own coach, my own stage director, my own critic and reviewer. My thoughts must balance my actions.
I’ve turned self-correction into an art.
Petit ties this intermeshing of body and mind to the additive nature of creative influence, something we’ve recently discussed:
Definitely, body and mind swim in concert. So when I ‘attack’ (here, by electing this term, I choose to feel how aggressive and harsh a first step can be), when I attack a white sheet of Vergé with graphite to render a rigging knot, I become the rope. I travel backward in time inside the rope’s core, through my own naively truncated history of art: I hold hands for an instant with the vermillion dancers of Henri Matisse; I startle Egon Schiele as he is about to begin the self-portrait with his head bent; I carefully step over the creaky oak floor being scraped, so as not to disturb Gustave Caillebotte; I hide with Georges de La Tour to observe in delight the intricate pickpocketing choreography of three daring Gypsy girls; I help the young assistant of Leonardo da Vinci to tidy up the atelier before the master returns from his study at the morgue, and prior to entering the Lascaux cave to marvel at the freshly painted bison, I always find myself on Easter Island, standing still at the base of a giant Moai rock-smiling at me with all his sacred 30 tons.
Ultimately, Petit’s message is one of self-empowerment:
I make a dream come true via the dual conviction that life is not worth living if I do not dedicate it to the making of the dream and, simultaneously, that I would choose death over not working on making the dream come true!
Empowering, yes, but perhaps a bit extreme — then again, let’s not forget we’re taking advice from a man who walks on wire.
In a refreshing touch, each chapter of Cheating The Impossible — which you can get directly through TEDBooks for the full multimedia experience — is accompanied by Petit’s recommendation for a song and a work of literature that capture the essence of the section’s message — for the chapter titled “Where, why, when?,” for instance, Petit recommends Erik Satie’s Six Gnossiennes performed by pianist Evelyne Crochet and Italo Calvino’s story The Baron in the Trees, and for “In pursuit of the impossible,” he suggests a score of Duke Ellington’s “Sunset and the Mockingbird” from The Queen’s Suite and Paul Auster’s Moon Palace.
Sample some of Petit’s singular brand of “holy madness” with his 2012 TED talk:
Published August 1, 2012