Confessions of an Outlaw

"My attitude as an artist," says World Trade Center high-wire walker Philippe Petit, "grew out of the realization I’d arrived at from an early age: that my intellectual engagement, my imaginative freedom, had a price: that of the forbidden. Whatever I decided to do, it was not allowed!"

Make no mistake.

I frown upon books about creativity.

Too often they gather only formulas, point at Einstein and the Beatles but rarely at the author, propose exercises that mistake the mind for a gym machine and conclude each chapter with a recap worthy of fifth-graders. In aiming at the universal -- to satisfy the commonest denominator of human thinking and behavior -- most of these books miss all of the originality, the humor, the serendipity, the grace, the exceptions to the rule, the idiosyncrasies that mold the way of art.

So if I don’t believe in books about creativity, why am I writing one? Although the original idea for this book was not mine -- it came from the outside -- its entire content comes directly from inside, from a life I have spent creating. I hope that my unconventional, insubordinate process of creativity will offer insight for anyone struggling to achieve his or her dreams.

Born into the confines of rigid parenting, repressive schooling and the narrow-mindedness of a country busy manufacturing 365 types of cheeses, quite early I started to rebel against authority. I was not very good at following. I had to distance myself from the norm, to venture along solitary paths, to teach myself.

At six, I taught myself magic; at fourteen, juggling; at sixteen, wire-walking. In the process, I was thrown out of five different schools. Regardless, I would never have let my schooling get in the way of my education.

Observation was my conduit to knowledge, intuition my source of power.

I spent my days taking things apart and rebuilding them; not asking how to do something, but finding out; hiding from people in order to stare at them, noting how they dress, talk, act, and noticing their mistakes...

As a teenager I spent considerable time at the circus and vaudeville theater, witnessing the best acts in the world -- thereby setting my artistic standards at an unusually high level. I would compare the overall effect different performances had on me and decide who was the best dancer, the best ventriloquist, the best stand-up comic. I would try on their styles and attempt their routines. Ha-ha! Yet trial and error provided results.

All of this trying and failing and watching and trying again bred in me an arrogant, proud and aggressive determination. Each discovery, no matter how naive, had to be jealously hidden from the rest of the world. Each victory felt like a stolen jewel. I fell into a natural state of intellectual self-defense. Let me explain.

Creativity-small Reprinted from Creativity: The Perfect Crime by Philippe Petit by arrangement with Riverhead Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) LLC, Copyright © 2014 by Philippe Petit. Buy a copy on Amazon.

Always trying my best, I became guilty of pursuing perfection -- imagine that!

Always working relentlessly, I became obstinate -- and almost felt guilty about it.

To protect what triggered my creativity, I became secretive.

Anxious about being discovered, fearful of being caught, I ended up always on the lookout.

At the outset of most projects, busy battling against overwhelming odds, I came to believe the entire world was against me.

This was a reflection of reality as well as the frame of mind I needed to be at my most creative. It coated my character with an outlaw sheen. And I’m sure that with my constant sneaking, my tiptoeing, my way of approaching people inconspicuously from behind to spy on them or surprise them, I must have looked like a criminal, and certainly others must have felt I was one. And so I was not surprised the world around me reacted with suspicion and mistrust!

Before I had reached eighteen, I had rewritten the Book of Ethics that had been forced on me earlier, and before I knew it, I had acquired the mind of a criminal.

My attitude as an artist grew out of the realization I’d arrived at from an early age: that my intellectual engagement, my imaginative freedom, had a price, that of the forbidden. Whatever I decided to do, it was not allowed! “Creativity is illegal” became my byword.

The creator must be an outlaw.

Not a criminal outlaw, but rather a poet who cultivates intellectual rebellion. The difference between a bank job and an illegal high-wire walk is paramount: the aerial crossing does not steal anything; it offers an ephemeral gift, one that delights and inspires.

Despite my outlaw approach -- or because of it -- a network of personal creative principles imperceptibly emerged. Lawlessness doesn’t mean lack of method: in fact, the outlaw I became needed method all the more, because I was swimming alone to the island of my dreams.

With the urgency of those who believe life is short, I found multiple ways of getting things done, I solved problems intuitively, and by refusing failure, I was able to achieve the impossible.

I dedicated myself to my arts, bringing to bear a fanatic attention to detail and little respect for the established values of competition, money or social status.

For my first major high-wire walks—at Notre Dame, the Sydney Harbor Bridge and the World Trade Center -- Oops! -- I forgot to ask permission. And after, I certainly did not seek forgiveness.

Over the years, I went on refining a highly personal creative process. I kept drawing on my autodidactic elasticity, all the time knowing that I was never alone in my progress: mentors, friends and illustrious artists in a wide range of creative fields guided me and opened doors. They were masters of one craft, however, and I was... a defiant Renaissance Boy wanting to do it all!

One day I was asked to share my creative process with others in the form of a lecture. I concocted a lively mixture of physical demonstrations, experiments with props, audience participation, storytelling, live drawings, quizzes and even magic tricks; and I took pleasure in revealing some of my creative secrets.

Word of my lectures spread and I was encouraged to do more.

My audience grew to be quite diverse: aspiring wire-walkers, Nobel Prize winners, clergymen; millionaires whose focus lacked focus and businessmen striving to become millionaires; young entrepreneurs, people seeking a direction in life, curious souls, and students of all sorts of subjects.

My audiences seemed to identify with my outlaw attitude, to be inspired by my propensity for venturing far off the beaten path. They asked me to elaborate on my “grammar of creativity,” and even the tech geeks I spoke to were hungry for more of this self-confessed Luddite’s primer on self-teaching and self-discovery.

Eventually I distilled my audience’s favorite topics into a one-man show, WIRELESS! Philippe Petit Down to Earth. And I began to see that despite my aversion to guides to the creative process, I really did have the makings of a book.

But not a book about creativity. A book about my creativity.

So think of this book as a conspiracy -- or, if you will, a manifesto. And think of yourself, dear reader, as an accomplice who is invited to explore your own field of intellectual or artistic “crime.”

See this book not as a blueprint for any specific crime but as a series of postcards from the labyrinths I build (to confuse those chasing me), the tunnels I dig (to escape), the dams I erect (to delay the invasion of the elements). Accept my invitation to become my student, my partner, in crime. Together we’ll take chances and yet leave nothing to chance. We’ll question the questions, yet arrive at definitive principles. We’ll be stubbornly focused, yet curious about everything.

I hope this book will provide guidance for your imagination. That it will help you to recognize all sorts of obstacles, in order to circumvent them, or -- if need be -- make them vanish. That it will reveal to you the surest way to bring your “criminal intentions” from inspiration to full-fledged execution -- to “coup.” And that along the way, it imparts what I have discovered about the benefits of passion, tenacity, intuition, misdirection, daily practice, secrets, mistakes, surprises and believing in miracles.

Most of all, I fervently wish it will remind you of the qualities hidden inside all of us, that we are rarely encouraged to recognize but that are essential to make our dreams come true, to plan, design and construct a wondrous life.

I wish you the most adventurous journey, epic pursuit and successful escape.

Vehemently yours,
Philippe Petit
10 Rue Laplace, Paris

Published 4:00 am Wed, May 21, 2014

About the Author

Philippe Petit has performed on the high wire more than eighty times around the world; he is also a magician, street juggler, visual artist, builder, lecturer, and writer. A frequent contributor to TED and other national venues, he is the author and illustrator of several books, including To Reach the Clouds, the basis of the 2009 Academy Award–winning documentary Man on Wire. He lives in upstate New York.

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