Phillipe Petit crosses between the Twin Towers, August 7, 1974

How you can use Phillipe Petit’s secret for accomplishing great things

In 1974, the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center complex stood as the highest buildings in the world. On the morning of August 7, Phillipe Petit, a 24-year-old Frenchman, stepped off the edge of the south tower to walk the wire he had rigged between them.

This was not an official stunt. In fact, Petit referred to it as his “le coup, the artistic crime of the century” and spent six years planning. It all led to roughly 45 minutes spent on the wire, where he made eight passes back and forth between the buildings — including kneeling and lying down on his back — before walking off the other side to the waiting handcuffs of police.

The entire story was captured by Petit and his crew and was later turned into a documentary called “Man on Wire,” in homage to the description from the original police report. “Man on Wire” was completed in 2008 and won several prestigious awards, including the Grand Jury Prize from the Sundance Film Festival and the Academy Award for Best Documentary. The movie is terrific; I recommend you make an effort to see it.

I was reminded of Petit recently while watching a TED Talk he gave in March, ’12. As he described what it was like to take that first step from the edge of the building at the top of the world, I couldn’t help but think of how his words applied to every endeavor, every project, every effort we make.

Those of us who work at desks are not often faced with being on the edge, but there are certainly events that push us beyond our comfort zone and raise the blood pressure. Expectations, either internal or external, exert tremendous forces that must be dealt with in order to succeed. Here is how Petit describes these moments and how he quiets the “inner howl” that assails him. The words are his, the emphasis is mine:

On the top of the World Trade Center, my first step was… terrifying.

All of the sudden, the density of the air is no longer the same. Manhattan no longer spreads its’ infinity; the murmur of the city dissolves into a squall whose chill and power I no longer feel… I lift the balancing pole, I approach the edge, I step over the beam. I put my left foot on the cable. The weight of my body rests on my right leg, anchored to the flank of the building. I ever-so-slightly shift my weight to the left, my right leg will be unburdened, my foot will freely meet the wire.

An inner howl assails me: the wild longing to flee. But it is too late. The wire is ready. Decisively, my other foot sets itself onto the cable.

‘Faith’ is what replaces ‘doubt’ in my dictionary.

When he puts one foot on the wire, he has the faith — the certitude — that he will perform the last step. If not, he says, he would run away and hide.

You cannot have a project or goal if you don’t have faith. If not, it will be like ‘Oh, I hope, one day, you know, that success will fall from the sky and I’ll be there to receive it.’ It doesn’t work like that.

“There is no recipe, there is no algorithm, parameter or algebraic formula that I could give to say, “If you need to concentrate in duress or in an amazing moment in your life, do this or do that…” it all depends on who we are.

But I believe he has provided the formula: We have to know both where we’re starting and where we’re going, and we must have absolute faith that we’ll get there. If we do, taking that last step will be as certain as the first.

A how-to guide to have the most important conversation of your life

Photo: Corbis

Photo: Corbis

Even in this age of hyper-communication, where people are willingly sharing all kinds of things with each other on social networks, there is one area of our lives where we quiet down completely. On the one hand, it’s not surprising. The topic is uncomfortable and the potential for misunderstanding is large. On the other hand, it’s shocking, because this is one of the areas that almost everyone agrees that more conversation is absolutely necessary. The topic is end of life care.

If we honestly assess ourselves, I’m guessing your reaction to the topic was to immediately think about other ways to spend the next few minutes. But hang in there, stay with me: I’m going to give you the tools to make this as easy as discussing any other important issue.

First, some context. If you haven’t yet had to deal with a serious illness– yours or someone you love– it may be hard to understand why this issue is so important. If you have, then you’re likely among the 60% of people who think it’s “extremely important” that their family members aren’t burdened by tough decisions (yet 60% have not communicated their end of life wishes.) Or consider this: 80% of people say that if seriously ill, they would want to talk to their doctor about end-of-life care, but only 7% report having had an end-of-life conversation with their doctor. Finally, 82% of people say it’s important to put their wishes in writing, yet only 23% have done it. In other words, you too have probably avoided this tough issue and you’re definitely not alone.

Most people, it seems, have trouble knowing where to start. We’re concerned that our loved ones won’t agree or even understand how we could feel a certain way. The key, says Ellen Goodman, co-Founder of The Conversation Project, is simply talking about it. And the best place to begin is at your kitchen table– not an intensive care unit– with people you love, before it’s too late.

Why is this important?

Imagine, for a moment, being seriously injured or ill, unable to speak for yourself, or facing the end of your life. Who do you want standing at your bedside, speaking for you, making tough decisions about your care– perhaps even disagreeing with other family members or medical professionals about how you should be treated? Now that you have that person in mind, do they know how you feel? Do they know what’s important to you, how you want to be treated?

Or maybe you’re in a position to make these decisions for someone else… do you know their wishes?

In either case, The Conversation Project believes that the key is communication. They’ve put together a ‘starter kit’ with a list of questions to first ask yourself to be sure that you understand your own feelings on the issue. The starter kit is available online and as a downloadable file. The questions are simple but thought-provoking.

Once you’ve completed the preparation, the next step can be the hardest: you have to talk with someone, tell them what you think, how you feel, and ensure that they are brave enough to adhere to your wishes in the midst of a challenging, emotionally-charged situation. Starting this conversation will be the most difficult step. It’s hard to bring these issues up (I’ve found that it’s tough writing about it, even in an abstract sense.) But having this conversation can be liberating for you both. It will give you the peace of mind that someone will be prepared to make your wishes known, and you will have the information you need to reciprocate. What could be better than having full confidence that you’re doing exactly what your loved one would prefer at that crucial juncture?

The starter kit is really the crux of The Conversation Project. This 10-page document will equip you to have this conversation with all of the important people in your life and will prepare each of you for the acceptance necessary to make it work. Following the conversation, the starter kit provides some valuable next steps: documents you should have on hand, further clarifying questions to deal with specific cases, and more.

If you’re still on the fence about whether this is important, consider one more item: 70% of people would prefer to die in their homes. The reality is the exact opposite: 70% die in a hospital, nursing home, or long-term care facility. Wherever you are on the spectrum, whatever your wishes for your own care, however you’d like to be treated, make your wishes known. The Conversation Project can help you do just that.

[Note: I realize this isn’t something that rises to the top of your mind when you think of things that need to be done, especially if you’re ranking them by magnitude of enjoyment. It’s tough; I get it. But it truly is important. If you still need convincing, spend a few minutes with Judy MacDonald Johnson as she tells her story.]

A Tale of Two Teams, Two Coaches, and One Missed Opportunity

Coach Jeff Traylor with Marshall working with Marshall players

Marshall softball players Antanai Coleman, left, and Taylor Stigger try on catching gear with the help of Roncalli junior varsity coach Jeff Traylor in the spring of 2010. (Photo:

By now, you’ve likely heard of the girls’ basketball game played Tuesday night between Bloomington South and Arlington here in Indianapolis. By the final buzzer, the score was 107-2 in favor of Bloomington South and, in my opinion, a great opportunity was lost.

First, I should point out that I love winning. I think it’s great, as well as one of primarily objectives of playing a sport. But it’s not the only objective, and probably not the most important. There’s sportsmanship. Being part of a team. Learning to work together and depend on each other. Building confidence and acumen. All of these are more important than winning. I think all of these faded into oblivion on Tuesday when one coach’s desire to win trumped everything else.

So on Tuesday night, when it became glaringly apparent that the game was going to be a rout, what should the coaches have done? Specifically, what should Larry Winters, the Bloomington South coach have done? In his own defense, Winters has said that he wasn’t trying to run up the score. Winters told Nat Newell of The Indianapolis Star, “I didn’t tell my girls to stop shooting because that would have been more embarrassing [to Arlington]. We were not trying to embarrass them.” Well, you missed the mark on that one, Coach.

When I heard this story, I was immediately reminded of what happened back in  2010 when the Marshall softball team showed up to play Roncalli High School in a junior varsity game. Rick Reilly, in reporting for ESPN, described the scene:

After an inning and a half, Roncalli was womanhandling inner-city Marshall Community. Marshall pitchers had already walked nine Roncalli batters. The game could’ve been 50-0 with no problem.

Yes, a team that hadn’t lost a game in 2½ years, a team that was going to win in a landslide purposely offered to declare defeat. Why? Because Roncalli wanted to spend the two hours teaching the Marshall girls how to get better, not how to get humiliated.

It’s no wonder. This was the first softball game in Marshall history. A middle school trying to move up to include grades 6 through 12, Marshall showed up to the game with five balls, two bats, no helmets, no sliding pads, no cleats, 16 players who’d never played before, and a coach who’d never even seen a game.

One Marshall player asked, “Which one is first base?” Another: “How do I hold this bat?” They didn’t know where to stand in the batter’s box. Their coaches had to be shown where the first- and third-base coaching boxes were.

At this point, Roncalli coach Jeff Traylor (a great guy from a great family), offered to forfeit. Reilly continues:

Yes, a team that hadn’t lost a game in 2½ years, a team that was going to win in a landslide purposely offered to declare defeat. Why? Because Roncalli wanted to spend the two hours teaching the Marshall girls how to get better, not how to get humiliated.

“The Marshall players did NOT want to quit,” wrote Roncalli JV coach Jeff Traylor, in recalling the incident. “They were willing to lose 100 to 0 if it meant they finished their first game.” But the Marshall players finally decided if Roncalli was willing to forfeit for them, they should do it for themselves. They decided that maybe — this one time — losing was actually winning.

This is certainly unusual and it’s a great outcome. But it’s not the end of the story:

That’s about when the weirdest scene broke out all over the field: Roncalli kids teaching Marshall kids the right batting stance, throwing them soft-toss in the outfield, teaching them how to play catch. They showed them how to put on catching gear, how to pitch, and how to run the bases. Even the umps stuck around to watch.

“One at a time the Marshall girls would come in to hit off of the [Roncalli] pitchers,” Traylor recalled. “As they hit the ball their faces LIT UP! They were high fiving and hugging the girls from Roncalli, thanking them for teaching to them the game.”

In the midst of all of the talk about sportsmanship being dead, take a moment to go to ESPN and read the whole article. I promise you’ll feel better.

Still, this leaves us in a bit of a quandary with Arlington. By losing to Bloomington South by 105 points, what lessons were learned? Sportsmanship? Team work? Compassion? Predictably, the pundits are weighing in none-too-kindly on Coach Winters, and you can add my name to their ranks. He certainly misjudged the situation and missed an opportunity, but I don’t think it’s enough for us to just point our fingers, place some blame and move on.

On the other hand, I don’t think we should work to change the game, either. A “mercy rule” doesn’t exist in basketball and probably shouldn’t. We’ve all seen teams come back from huge deficits to win.

But here’s a thought… In a town where we have these two polar opposite examples of how to behave for the good of the sport and the kids involved, I’m wondering if we can’t use this as an opportunity to raise these Arlington kids up. In a town where our Indiana Fever just won the WNBA Championship, I’m wondering if there might be an opportunity for those players to adopt this Arlington team. Can some personal attention, some coaching, some hard-won wisdom by some of the game’s greats (Tamika Catchings, Katie Douglas, Tammy Sutton-Brown, Jessica Davenport…) end a 22-game losing streak? Maybe. Maybe not.

But winning isn’t everything, and a little personal attention and mentoring is just what this team needs right now.

Forgiveness by Alice Walker

I came across this a couple of days ago and was so struck by the first stanza… I just had to share it.

Looking down into my father’s
dead face
for the last time,
my mother said without
tears, without smiles,
without regrets,
but with civility
“Goodnight, Willie Lee, I’ll see you
in the morning.”

And it was then I knew that the healing
of all our wounds
is forgiveness
that permits a promise of our return
at the end.