Philippe Petit lives creativity. Since the age of five, the man who walked across the World Trade Center buildings on a high wire in 1974 has dedicated himself to unconventional living. In addition to his daring and often-times illegal high wire acts, Petit juggles, develops theater pieces, plays a silent street comic, and has written 10 books, including children’s books. In his latest book Creativity: The Perfect Crime, out this month, Petit shares a lifetime worth of what he calls creativity secrets.
“I call them secrets because they are discoveries that I made through a lot of work–a lot of trial and error, a lot of mistakes,” Petit told Fast Company. “When you acquire something in an uneasy way, you cherish that knowledge. You don’t want to give it out easily–it becomes your secret.”
Petit insists that unlike other creativity guidebooks clogging the bookstore’s self-help section, his comes from 60 years of personal experiences. He didn’t learn his secrets vicariously, he lived them–and he recently shared a few with Fast Company.
The book has the word “crime” front and center in the title for a reason: Petit has been arrested over 500 times. Breaking rules is what creativity is all about, he says. “I think the rebellious nature of the mind is essential to create. If not, you’re going to start creating in a format and start observing the rules–that’s a timid creation.”
Not all creative endeavors have to literally break the law, like Petit’s. But he suggests taking “thinking outside the box” to its extremes. That starts with questioning the status quo. For people who can’t afford to break the law with elaborate high-wire acts, that can even mean rebelling against your day, says Petit. If you have a morning routine, break it. “For me, every day is a blank canvas,” Petit says.
When Petit takes a break from practicing one of his many crafts, he doesn’t take a break from whatever tools he is using at the moment. “It’s almost a crime, an artistic crime to set your props apart and abandon them,” he said. “What you did all morning communicating with those props–all the dialogue, all the impossible to explain communion between the artist and the tools will go to waste.”
Petit instead continues to carry his stuff around with him while resting, even if those things are cumbersome. If he’s practicing juggling, for example, he won’t set aside his balls–even if he has to do something requiring two hands. “I put a ball under my armpit, one under here [his chin] and one under my knee.” That way, he maintains continuity.
The trick works for almost any creative endeavor, since creating often involves tools. A writer would stick a pencil behind her ear, for example. “It’s almost a reminder that your mind as a writer has not ceased to write, it has suspended its flight,” explains Petit. “The pencil maybe knows the next words and the minute you put it on the page it will continue your thought.”
Before he goes to bed, Petit puts a single idea under his pillow–metaphorically–to mull in his sleep. That might keep a lesser person up at night. But Petit has trained himself to think in his sleep. “If you just allow yourself to swim in your subconscious, you will be amazed that your brain doesn’t really need you to solve things,” he said.
Getting to that point might mean a lot of sleepless nights contemplating your next great idea. But imagine all the things you could get done if you learn to think in your sleep.
Despite his mantra on rule-breaking, Petit still uses lists. His scratchings might not look as organized as your average checklist. But they work for him. “It helps me organize my mind because I often start with chaos and I need order to create, obviously,” he said. “Artificially, if you start making lists you’re going to shape this chaos and slowly it will be a structure like plan, a skeleton for your project or your dream.”
All of these secrets apply to people who already have discovered their passions. But what about those who haven’t found a creative outlet, we ask? Petit has advice for those people, too. Everyone has the seed of something creative inside of them; they just have to find it. “It’s in all of us,” he said. “You should rebel and try things, surprise yourself and believe that you can create and start creating.”