Philippe Petit is the Frenchman who captivated the world by walking between the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center on a high wire in 1974--a historic feat which was vividly depicted in the documentary Man on Wire. I had the chance to talk to Petit at the ABC Courage forum about his 45 minutes between the towers and the steps leading up to this daring feat.
Sabine Heller: When did you realize you were different?
Philippe Petit: When I was four, and I started playing in a sandbox and I needed my rows to be very precise.
SH: How and when did you learn to walk on a tightrope?
PP: By intuition, when I was 15. I started practicing by myself. In 20 days I had taught myself how to do it.
SH: How did you feel when you were walking between the World Trade Center Towers?
PP: I felt elated, unconcerned, like the happiest man in the world. I was not scared. I felt no fear.
SH: So what are you afraid of?
PP: I'm afraid of animals with too many legs or no legs at all.
SH: Do you think you've lived your life with courage? Where do you find your will to do the things that you do?
PP: Courage is not my thing. It is passion, and faith. You have to have faith in yourself.
SH: What's the beauty in that?
PP: It is contagious. Like a magician, if he believes then the audience will.
SH: What does it mean to be extreme?
PP: Extreme has two meanings. We are living in a time when we abuse and overuse the concept of extreme. To me extreme is the end of conviction, a vision made real. It's beautiful and noble.
SH: Do you perform for others or yourself?
PP: I perform for myself. When artists perform for others, it's artificial. As an artist being selfish is the most generous way to be.
SH: You were once a pickpocket. Tell me why you were a pickpocket and also why you stopped.
PP: If I made the slightest mistake, I'd go to jail. That said, if I make the slightest mistake on the tightrope, I die.
SH: But generally in life mistakes are important to make.
PP: Yes, mistakes are important. I have an old friend who once told me "You cannot live your life on congratulations." If I could live my life again, I would make more mistakes.
SH: Why do you hate the word impossible?
PP: I do not believe the impossible exists. Look at the great pyramids. When you approach them you see that they are many giant blocks of stone made up of an amalgamation of rocks, which are, in turn, made up of grains of sand.