Phillippe Petite on What Criminals Can Teach Us About Creativity

Image: Alan Welner
Image: Alan Welner

Is breaking the law a creative pursuit?

Philippe Petit, the street performer, magician, and wire-walking subject of the documentary Man on Wire, says it absolutely is. In his new book, the man whose illegal high-wire performance between the towers of the World Trade Center in 1974 became the stuff of legend explains the intimate link between lawbreakers and creative thinkers. But, Petit says, it’s not your typical how-to tome about creativity.

“This is not a thesis on creativity; this is a kind of outlaw confession,” Petit told NPR in an interview about the book, entitled Creativity: The Perfect Crime.

Petit, who is entirely self-taught and was expelled from five different schools as a child, isn’t the kind of person who usually pens books on the subject of creativity — he didn’t invent a brilliant app or start a tech company that’s changing the way we interact with information. But, he says, that makes him all the more qualified to write a book about the creativity that it takes to operate outside of the rules — in the literal, illegal sense.

“I was trying to orient myself toward perfection. I was very individualist. And then the more I adopted the faces of a criminal — of course, an artistic criminal — the more I felt that the world was against me, that I had to tiptoe, that I had to hide my discoveries. And, of course it’s a metaphor, but to me, the real creativity, the full creativity has to be rebellious — maybe not unlawful — but outlaws of the laws that we’ve created,” he explains.

“To be able to create fully, it’s maybe fine that you learn the rules, but you have to forget and to rebel against those rules.”

Renegade art has long been the subject of debate; Petit himself was arrested for the famous wire-walk, though the charges were dropped when he became a folk hero, and graffiti artists like Banksy still largely prefer the legal shelter than anonymity provides.

However, says Petit, there’s a key difference between true criminals and artistic criminals.

“In a bank heist, you steal, you rob, you take away. In an illegal high-wire walk, you bring forth, you inspire, you give a gift — the gift of beauty and inspiration. … The big difference is, you don’t take, you give.”

Regarding his most famous stunt, Petit says even coming up with it was a mark of creativity — because really, all he did was reinvent something we do every day, in a more dangerous and illegal way.

“…Walking is the hardest thing in the world. It’s like breathing, you know — we take it for granted. But we should go to school for breathing and walking. And there is nothing more difficult, but also nothing more easy than walking…I love the difficulty of showing how easy it is.”

And while you’d think that perfectionism would be important to a man who’s made his living walking across high-wires hundreds of feet in the air, Petit says embracing mistakes is another key element to his success as a rogue creator of art.

“I have discovered that my best teachers were my mistakes, and instead of covering a mistake with a list of excuses, I actually unwrap the mistake and I look at it and approach it, and I see why … it’s my fault, and that’s how I’m going to learn. So, I love mistakes.”

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Hanna Brooks Olsen is a writer and editor for CreativeLive, longtime reporter, and the co-founder of Seattlish. Follow her on Twitter at @mshannabrooks or go to her website for more stuff.