Q&A TED Books

TED ebook: High-wire legend Philippe Petit offers advice for the balancing act of life

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Philippe Petit startled the world when he walked on a taut cable between the soaring twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York City in 1974. But even a death-defying high-wire artist has to start somewhere. In Cheating the Impossible: Ideas and Recipes from a Rebellious High-Wire Artist, Petit takes you on a highly personal, entertaining and exciting journey from his first card trick at age 6 to his now-legendary walk through the skies of lower Manhattan, offering inspiring advice guaranteed to make your own life’s balancing act go a little smoother. We recently spoke with Petit about his new ebook.

Although your book reveals what “Cheating the Impossible” means, can you give us a little taste of what it entails?

The impossible—we are told—cannot be achieved. Thus a ‘fair confrontation’ is out of the question. To overcome the ‘impossible’ we need to use our wits and be fearless. We need to break the rules and to circumvent—some would one say to cheat. It’s important to not let the impossible know we defy it, as we’re busy planning a checkmate.

You call yourself a ‘rebellious high-wire artist.’ In what ways has that rebelliousness served you well? And in what ways has it posed a challenge?

First, my rebellion was that of a student who refused to attend school; then my rebellion led me to refuse to wait for the powers-that-be to ask me to demonstrate my talents. I chose to perform without permission. In many ways my rebellion blessed me: I felt the world was offered to me without limitations, I thought I could do anything I pleased—and that includes what most people deemed could not be done.

Reading your book, it seems that one of the keys to empowerment and cheating the impossible is believing in yourself. What are the key factors in turning this internal confidence into real-world success?

I am not a success guru dispensing secret formulas. I am an artist and a craftsman who loves and lives to create and to journey in the direction of perfection. Therefore, I do not have a list of key factors that could turn believing in oneself into real-world success. Plus—what is success? The answer depends on your personal goals and on the purity of your soul. Believing in yourself—I know from experience—is the catalyst that allows you to take hold of your destiny and permits you to shape each day the way you wish. If you are able to shape one day in the way you wish, that day is going to be an extraordinary day. You are going to move mountains, of whatever size, and that could be one definition of success.

You’ve spent a good deal of your life as a high-wire artist, magician, street performer, juggler, writer, lecturer, and you continue at 62 to create and pursue your arts. What have those skills taught you about dealing with the day-to-day challenges of life?

I was not born with those skills; I had to engage in hard and long-fought battles to master them. But mastering is not enough in today’s world. I must still fight for my visions. But these everyday battles: to learn, to practice, to rehearse, to perform, to improve relentlessly, are the day-to-day challenges of my life. Believe me, if you’ve taught yourself to juggle five balls—which takes a few more years than hiring a professional juggler to teach you—your learning has a more valuable and long-lasting effect on your soul. And that feeling of joy, of pride, you will carry with you in the everyday moments of life.

Cheating the Impossible is part of the TED Books series.