When Failure Is Not An Option, Typical Career Advice Does Not Apply

"Art happens when you work millions of hours not to make it look hard but to make it look effortless," says famed World Trade Center high-wire walker Philippe Petit. Read on for more insight that applies to entrepreneurs as well as daredevils.

In 1974, Philippe Petit committed the “artistic crime of the century” when he wire-walked across the void between the two world trade center towers. Since then, Petit has gone on to perform many other spectacular wire walks, authored over half a dozen books and singlehandedly built a barn using eighteenth-century tools and design. But, for all of his meticulous preparation, Petit bristles at any attempt to systematize his methods. Asked to explain his artistic process, he says, “It can be boiled down to a few words--from chaos to total control to perfection.”

We found Petit’s philosophy of how he lives his entire life as if he’s on the high wire could be applied to anyone’s work or personal life.

1. Listen to the song of the wire. Tie a wire between two points and slap it with your hand, you’ll see the three natural moves of the wire. It will sway left and right. It will sway up and down. And, it will turn on itself. That is the song of the wire. If you bang your feet across the wire, disregarding the wire’s song, you will be a very ugly walker and you will not go very far. To be a true walker you must recognize that the wire is alive. You have to research its breathing. And once you feel you are getting it, you will synchronize your own breathing, your steps and the shifting of your weight to the song of the wire.

2. Banish doubt. To walk the wire, I must be fearless. I must be in total control. I cannot take the first step if I’m not sure that the last step will be a success. When incidents occur on the wire that are very dangerous, let’s say a problem with the rigging, I can’t let myself fall prey to doubt. Fear will invite losing all your strength. You need faith in yourself, faith in the wire and the millions of hours of rehearsing. Sometimes, strangely, fear comes after the walk, when I look back and think, “Oh my god I did that? In those conditions? I am crazy.”

3. Make the gods your accomplices. I am not a religious man in the way the term is normally used, but when I walk on a wire I have subliminal, invisible encounters with the god of the void, the god of the balancing pole, the god of the cable. If I drop my balancing pole, I won’t be able to balance. I’ll be killed. I have to hang on to the balancing pole and negotiate with its mood, so it will never, never leave my hands. If you rise up to be higher than a god and condescend you will fail. When I walked the World Trade Center, I spoke to the swaying gods of the Towers, “Let me go, let me pass, let me reach you.” Each time I place my feet on the wire, it’s not an imposition of my personal strength, it is a communion with mysterious forces that are much stronger than myself.

4. Don’t congratulate yourself too soon. You’re never victorious until you’ve walked the entire wire, crossed to the other side and stepped on to the platform. Many wirewalkers have died three feet before arrival because in their heart, they said, “Hey, I did it! I did it!” The audience screams and cheers, you think of your dinner or your paycheck. And then you die.

5. Be effortless. When I first saw circus wirewalkers with their stunts and tricks to prove they were risking their lives by doing dangerous things, I knew my life was going to go in the opposite direction. I knew as a wirewalker, I would be a poet who writes in the sky. Art happens when you work millions of hours not to make it look hard but to make it look effortless. The beauty for an audience is to be inspired and awestruck because you made them forget that the wire was even there.

--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.

[Image: Man On Wire]

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