I saw Man On Wire for the first time in February; I’d read a snippet somewhere about this being the story of the man who tight-rope walked between the two World Trade Center towers in 1974. And at a certain level, that’s exactly what this movie is about. It’s exquisite. The tight-rope walker, Philippe Petit is almost a caricature, his vision and ambition equal parts boundless and focused. I’ve seen the movie three times now, and each time it’s more revealing.
What viscerally strikes me is how it tells the story of starting up a company. This is all about having an idea so audacious it’s almost not believable to someone who hasn’t drunk your kool-aid, yet. It’s about staying focused on the one reason why you will succeed and not the 10,000 reasons why you will fail.
Man On Wire reveals four super-compelling principles that underscore what it’s like to be in a startup, and if you haven’t been in one, it’s a wonderful way to get a sense for what it feels like to be there:
- A meticulously constructed plan, discarded. Philippe Petit spent six years planning this act, including building scale models of the towers’s roofs, constructing a tight-rope the same length as the towers in a field, and on and on. And guess what? The day of the “coup” huge elements of the plan had to be thrown out, the real world just didn’t cooperate. This is “why the numbers in your operation plan are wrong” writ larger than life.
- Repeated visualizations of the outcome. This is one of the critical mechanisms to ensuring you’re focused on why you will succeed. Philippe from the moment he learned of the Towers construction, visualized walking between them. For years and years visualized walking that wire, how he would do it and succeed. This is critical when you only get one shot at an opportunity, like he had.
- Significant emotional toll. Getting something done that’s ambitious, with a visionary leader means you will do things that are difficult and way outside your comfort zone. You will find out who the chicken killers are, who can be relied on and who can’t, and most importantly what you can rely upon yourself for. It’s messy and painful, and you will be different as a result of this experience.
- The fear of not succeeding. Philippe’s obsession was on success. Startups are all about being laser focused on why you will succeed, and your only fear is success NOT happening. I just can’t say this enough. People who are afraid of failure may very well get great things done, but just not at startups.
For me the most piercing and fiercely honest confession of the entire movie is when Philippe describes the moment when he committed himself to walking that wire. A simple shifting of weight from the foot resting on the tower to the foot resting on the wire. Silent and internally deliberate.
Compare/contrast this with the article in this April’s Outside Magazine about why people participate in risky sports, and profiles BASE-jumper Ted Davenport. Neuroscientist Russell Poldrack asserts that there are three ingredients to risk taking: desire for adventure, relative disregard for harm, and acting on your desires without fully thinking them through. That last factor strays way, way too far into the landscape of recklessness and separates Philippe from Ted. There was nothing reckless about Philippe Petit. Deliberate, honest, ambitious, meticulous.
So see this movie for the reasons I outline above. Also, let yourself ask the other questions. Like “how can someone afford to spend six years planning this”? How “real world” is that? We’re not getting the full story here, but it sure is enjoyable.
Before your Netflix delivery arrives watch Philippe break Stephen Colbert out of character on the Colbert Report, and you’ll hear Philippe describe that moment when he shifted his weight onto the wire. Mesmerizing.