Confessions of an Outlaw: Finding Focus
Philippe Petit calls himself something of a Luddite. We live in a world in which we are slaves to our gadgets. His brand of art calls for a level of focus not possible when tethered to a device.
Philippe Petit has performed on the high wire more than eighty times around the world. He is famous for his 1974 high-wire walk between the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center in New York City. Petit is also a magician, street juggler, visual artist, builder, lecturer, and writer. 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.
Petit's latest book is titled Creativity: The Perfect Crimes. His World Trade Center act is the subject of the 2015 biographical film The Walk directed by Robert Zemeckis and starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt.
Philippe Petit: I don’t have much respect for the century that we live in. I mean I actually I live in the 18th century or maybe in the Middle Ages. Because I see people generally speaking, you know, dragging their feet on the pavement, not listening, not smelling, not looking, but being slave to little gadgets, you know, little thing that they look at. Instead of asking somebody where is the church, you go to a little machine in your palm that will tell you. So I think slowly of course I am a, you know, a Luddite, but I think slowly because of all those great gadgets that simplify our lives we also become slaves of them and we dull our senses and our sensitivity.
If I teach a kid how to saw a piece of wood or how to make a mortise, a little pocket in which a tenon will go which is the base of all furniture and post and beam barn building. And if I put a simple chisel and a mallet in the hand of that teenager knowing that those instruments existed 4,000 years ago and the people who build the pyramid or who build the temple of Greek had them in their hand and nothing much has changed, you will see that there is an automatic focus. I would call it a human focus that comes into consideration. The task is so simple.
You are cutting a piece of wood with one simple cutting edge and a little bit of power from the mallet and you‘re not scattered, you’re not receiving messages from 20 friends and then exploring, you know, what people think, what they have done and having rules of how many characters to send a little message and having time also preventing you from being who you are. So I think it’s our way of living today a little bit that prevents us from being focused. We are being called to be unfocused. I mean I don’t have a watch. I don’t have jewelry. I certainly don’t have a cellphone. I am an imbecile of course, but maybe that helps me to focus on what I want to do. And when I walk on a wire you can imagine that the focus has to be so intense that a millimeter mistake, which is not permissible, will not happen. So I would say abandon a little bit of your gadgets. I mean try to live one day without your cellphone, you know. Go home and light candle, you know. Don’t open electricity. Go back in a time where every farmer was building his or her barn, you see. Did you ever in your life go to a well and pull a bucket of water and save it because it’s so precious. So it’s a little bit — again I of course, you know, I exaggerate, but I think we should rebecome human and our human focus will come back.
High-wire artist Philippe Petit doesn't own a cellphone, doesn't own jewelry, doesn't wear a watch. These are all distractions that would draw his focus away from his art. And when you're walking a wire and a millisecond's loss of focus results in tragedy, perhaps eschewing gadgetry is the way to go.
Petit explains how an occasional foray into being a Luddite will allow you to reconnect with your raw humanity.
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