Philippe Petit “Cheating the Impossible”
Petit’s writing is as ebulliently precise as his high wire performances, achieving a level of such perfect control that it feels like reckless improvisation. From the start of the book to the end, surprises fill the pages, filling a madcap bag of tricks that ring of profundity when juxtaposed against his insights into life, success, and achieving the impossible. It should be no surprise, really, considering that this is the man that once illegally tightrope walked 1,350 feet in the air between the World Trade Center towers, with no safety harness. Such a man is incapable of the mundane, and anything he produces is bound to be unique.
Before each chapter, Petit recommends a song to listen as a backdrop to the story. I took the suggestion for one section and listened to Sting’s “Let Your Soul be Your Pilot” while reading about the essential virtues of patience and virtue in achieving anything worthwhile in life. The trick worked. The song combined with the text turned the experience into one of artful introspection an intellectual exploration. It’s a worthwhile idea that I’ve never seen done in a book before, and just one example of the many experiments he makes within the brief text.
The book is essentially a “self help” book, but the form of the text itself adopts the kind of joyful persistence he advises, contrasting with the businesslike tone of most such books. For Petit, solving problems and overcoming obstacles are things to be done for the sake of doing them, rather than for the external rewards they may bring. With each task achieved we are making our spirits wider, wiser, and more worthwhile.
Petit’s obsession with the realization of impossible dreams is infectious. I put the book down feeling wholly inspired.
No passage in the book communicated his intent more clearly to me than the story he told about a woman he saw cleaning the floor in a Bombay airport.
This woman was crawling on her hands and knees across the airport, picking up every bit of detritus, from cigarette butts to strands of lint, and then placing each handful into a trash receptacle. Petit watched her work at her task undisturbed for three straight hours.
The lesson he garnered from the experience as that no task was impossible. If we focus with absolute conviction upon the next minuscule task ahead of us, we will achieve any larger goal composed of those smaller objectives.
In that way, a woman can clean up an entire airport by hand; likewise, a man can fly across the ocean, break into a skyscraper, and walk a tightrope between them.
I put the book thinking about the things I have left to do to achieve my own impossible dreams. Following his advice, I let the larger obstacle fade away, and focused all of my attention and intention instead upon the next tiny task at hand, understanding that in achieving that tiny task I am moving steadily forward towards my larger mission.
I recommend this book enthusiastically to anyone that is trying to make a dream happen. It will leave you more inspired, a bit wiser, and more confident that the impossible really is only a few small, precise steps away.