Philippe Petit

Posted: May 23, 2010
By: Clay Cerny

[On Sundays, Career Calling looks at work and life beyond careers.]

Wonder Work

I was 13 years old on August 7, 1974 when something very strange happened in New York City.  A man named Philippe Petit ran a cable between the north and south tower of the World Trade Center.  110 stories above the ground, Petit danced, lay, and knelt on the wire.  At one point, he even looked down to see the crowd that gathered to look at him.  Petit’s 45 minute performance on the wire resulted from years of planning and practicing.

I recently watch a documentary, Man on Wire, that chronicles Petit’s effort.  Most of the film is about how Petit prepared as a wire walker and how he and his team planned every aspect of getting into the tower and rigging a cable.  It’s interesting that no law enforcement official (or anyone else) recognized Petit.  In 1971, he walked a wire between the towers of Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris.  Later, he pulled off a similar trick at Sydney Harbor Bridge near the famous Opera House.

Petit understood the consequences of his performance at the World Trade Center.  At one point in the firm he said, “If I die, what a beautiful death – to die in the exercise of your passion.”  His first thought on looking at the towers was “impossible.”  Challenge overcame fear.

The film depicts two teams sneaking into the tower with fake identities and ID cards. Petit and his friends knew they were committing a crime. They move equipment and evade guards as they make their way to the top of the building.  They make mistakes in transferring the cable between buildings and the walk is nearly spoiled.  Petit would not give up nor would he let his collaborators quit (except for one man who ran down 110 flights of stairs when his courage gave way).

What can we take from this story?  First, don’t try this at home!  More importantly, Petit was a model of preparation, confidence, daring, and concentration.  His friends said that his face turned into a mask when he was on the wire.  He was in the moment.  Most great work brings us to such moments of focus.  We lose our sense of time and the world outside of the task we are performing.  A police officer said Petit was not walking on the wire, but dancing.  Petit compared what he did not to a circus trick or magic (which he practices), but art and poetry. 

The police arrested Petit, but only charged him with a minor crime.  A judge ordered him to do a show for children in New York, the city where he now works as an artist-in-residence at the Church of Saint John the Divine.  I whole-heartedly recommend the movie Man on Wire.  It will take you back to an innocent time when adventurers like Petit could make jaws drop.  Now we live in an age of “reality” entertainment where Petit’s skill and effort give way to train wreck sensationalism.  Philippe Petit was a craftsman – may we remember his example in our life and work.

Happy Sabbath


Photos of the walk here and here

A funny interview of Petit by Steven Colbert

A radio report from the day of the walk