It’s 1974. A man has decided he’s going to walk across a wire stretched a quarter of a mile in the air between the Twin Towers of New York City’s World Trade Center. As he does it, pedestrians below gawk in awe. An entire city swoons. Wire-walker Philippe Petit becomes an international celebrity for performing what many called the artistic crime of the century.
Forty-one years later, Petit’s feat is the subject of director Robert Zemeckis’s 3-D spectacular, “The Walk,” starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Petit. The film, which hit theaters this weekend, puts audiences right there on the wire with Petit, and is a powerful reminder that even the most perilous feats can be accomplished one careful step at a time.
And indeed, when we interviewed Philippe Petit for our book The Art of Doing, he told us there was a method to his madness. Having gone on to perform dozens of other high-profile wire-walks, authored several books, and become an adept equestrian, fencer, carpenter, rock-climber, and even bullfighter, Petit would bristle at the idea that his work could be reduced to a system. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t lessons that any entrepreneur, artist, or aspirer to big deeds can’t learn as they gear up for their next big challenge. Here are three.
Many people dream of inventing a new product, starting their own business, or ditching it all to become an artist. After taking the plunge, many are surprised to find it wasn’t as easy as they thought it would be. Whatever it is you set out to do, you’ll face more chaos and uncertainty than you ever imagined, and it can sometimes cause you to lose your footing. (This tendency to radically underestimate how hard it is to achieve a goal is called the “planning fallacy.”)
The problem is that people don’t like chaos. In fact, according to survival psychologist John Leach, up to 90% of people panic or freeze during life-threatening disasters. The same goes for vocational or personal disasters. We can get so emotionally overwhelmed by chaos and uncertainty that our companies fail, our families fall apart, and our careers disintegrate.
Few of us possess the extraordinary mindset and composure of a Philippe Petit. But it’s worth remembering that he overcomes those fears not by resisting but by actively seeking out and embracing chaos. He told us:
There is positivity in putting your nose in disaster, in fiasco, in accidents. If you go where the 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?
Note to innovators: When it comes to chaos, it’s love it or leave it.
Petit’s walk between the towers–a guy up in the air, effortlessly dancing on a wire no wider than his big toe–may have seemed magical. It was anything but.
Petit may have embraced the danger of his mission, but it was relentless preparation that kept him alive. He set out to to learn every relevant detail that was knowable, gathering information, as he put it, with “cunning and precision.”
With every scrap of additional information, Petit built up a base of knowledge about what he would face when he stepped out on the wire. He gamed out the walk on a scale model of the tower rooftops that he built in his backyard. He made 200 reconnaissance visits to the towers, often disguised as a construction worker, a tourist, or an architect so he could take accurate measurements, time the elevators, and learn the guards’ routines. He hired a helicopter to fly above the towers so he could examine what he couldn’t from below.
All that meant learning thousands of micro-details, he said, like how a particular “door opens to the left this wide with this many steps of a certain thickness, and how the 450-pound cable must be brought up this way to avoid detection.”
Petit laid out the brutal logic: “If I want to live to be very old, I must be a madman for detail. A half a millimeter of mistake, a quarter-second’s miscalculation, and you lose your life.” Entrepreneurs who fail to prepare for their missions with Petit’s fanaticism probably won’t perish, but their businesses might falter.
No one wants to be a flash in the pan, a one-hit-wonder, or an almost-was, but sometimes an easy triumph in life can lead to overconfidence and complacency later. The true test of success, of course, is endurance.
“You’re never victorious until you’ve walked the entire wire, crossed the other side, and stepped onto the platform,” Petit told us.
“Many wire-walkers 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. And then you die.”