I recently watched a documentary with my husband called ‘Man on Wire’ if you have seen this you will know it is about the French tightrope walker Philippe Petit who on August 7th 1974 set about walking on a tight rope suspended 450 meters in the air between the World Trade Centre towers in New York.
This was particularly hard for me to watch, as my stomach couldn’t quite deal with the enormity of his plight. But behind the scenes was an incredible story of a man who dreamed something beyond many of our comprehensions and then went about achieving it.
To summarise his unbelievable tale, whilst sitting in a dental surgery many years before, Philippe saw an article in a newspaper about plans to build some of the tallest buildings in the world. He tore the article out of the newspaper and slipped it into his pocket. From that moment onwards, he decided that he wanted to be the first man to walk between the two buildings on a tightrope.
As a leadership coach, for me, this is where the story becomes interesting. Over the last 9 years I have been privileged to support lots of amazing people to achieve their goals. But I think we can learn so much from Philippe’s story about the real ‘art’ of goal setting.
Dreaming a dream
All goals starts with a dream, a vision, something important that you want to achieve. In Philippe’s case, this was a particularly big one. One that most of us wouldn’t believe was possible. In the documentary you see Philippe drawing a picture of two huge towers with a wire running between the two and a small dot of a human positioned somewhere between the two buildings. He tapped into the conceptual part of his brain, giving his dream an image, thereby bringing his goal to life.
Creating a powerful image is hugely important to the goal setting process. The more flavour you can give to it, the more likely your dream will happen in that way. It certainly worked for Philippe.
Creating a plan
Philippe wasn’t just a brave man he was also smart, he clearly knew that he couldn’t just turn up one day and hope for the best. He created a plan and set himself lots of smaller tangible goals along the way. The first was to set up a tightrope in his garden, and then he practiced and practiced until he was ready for his next goal. During his journey he walked between the highest points of Notre Dame and Sydney Harbour Bridge each time making his goals a little more stretching.
Understanding the steps that you need to achieve en route to your dream are crucial, they not only help you to see the progress you are making, but also ensure that you stay on track towards the bigger prize. In Philippe’s case they were tangible and measureable, clearly they were a little bit risky too as one tiny error could have resulted in his demise.
Enlisting the support of others
Philippe’s girlfriend and friends at the time became his biggest team of supporters. He shared his dream with them and whilst each of them had their own concerns about the enormity of what he wanted to do, they stuck by him until the bitter end. He used the strengths of his supporters to help him calculate the risks of his plan each step of the way and remove any potential obstacles.
There was one scene in the documentary where he carried his girlfriend on his back across the tightrope in his back garden, and she in turn would do everything she could to put him off balance so that he could cope with the possible weather variables at 450 metres into the air.
He showed us the importance of enlisting the support of other people to help you achieve your goal. To support you, to hold you accountable and to utilise their strengths in areas that may not necessarily be a natural preference for you.
Passion and Perseverance
It’s true to say that dreams take time, they require hard work and effort to realise their full potential. In Philippe’s case he started his dream before the towers were even built but he didn’t see that as an obstacle. Philippe showed determination, his belief and his passion to achieve his dream demonstrates to us how important it is not to give up when things feel tough, but to keep going and concentrate on the end goal.
Being ‘In the Zone’
I can’t quite imagine the fear that Philippe must have been feeling once he took that first step into the somewhat stratospheric void that beckoned him. There is a rather beautiful moment however in the film when you notice a huge step change and he is completely ‘in his zone’. His smile almost stretches from one end of his balancing pole to the other! You’d also imagine that once he’d got to the other tower, he’d think job done, I can move on. What happened next though was actually rather beautiful, if not slightly uncomfortable to watch as he then started to ‘perform’ his art for an hour to crowds of supporters that had gathered to see a tiny dot of a man walking amongst the clouds.
Being ‘in the zone’ or to give its full title of the ‘zone of optimal functioning’ is when someone (often athletes) performs to his or her absolute maximum or has the perfect game. Its important to notice the impact of what it feels like when you when you reach this rather sensational moment. Usually we are tapping into our inner strengths, and when we work within our strengths we are more likely to be successful. So what we learn from Philippe is to understand which of our strengths are we going to use to reach our dream.
Its pretty hard for any of us to contemplate the euphoria that someone would feel having spent an hour performing on a tightrope between two of the tallest buildings in the world! But I’m guessing Philippe was pretty pleased with himself. I’ll let you watch the film for yourself to see how he actually celebrated, as it isn’t quite appropriate for this blog post!
But however we choose to celebrate achieving our dreams, it is critical that we do!
Whatever goals we choose to set we can learn so much from this rather incredible if not slightly crazy Frenchman. I really recommend you watch the film, but make sure you have a pillow nearby to hide behind just in case, like me, you feel a bit queasy!