— Cultural Sources of Newness

Climb and climb again

Tonight I had the choice: to continue reviewing an interesting article a colleague has written about ethics in the Big Four accounting firms, or to listen to the man sitting next to me in Roissy airport? I am on my way to Nantes, and he is on his way back from having climbed a hotel in Havana, for which the approval of the Castro family had to be obtained. Whether or not the French Spiderman, Alain Robert, can be credited with having generated newness with his urban climbing, and if so, when did his escapades attain that attribute, will have to be analysed some day.

I push my computer aside, ask questions, listen, and wonder—what can I learn from his story?

Alain Robert climbs the world’s tallest buildings, goes to jail in many countries, wins court battles and regains his freedom. He started climbing mountains when he was 12. The idea of taking on urban settings came in his 20s. Now he is in his 50s and still going strong. Last week Cuba, now he has a few days’ break in Montpellier, then he flies to the Middle East (or did he say Asia?) next Wednesday, and he has 5 climbs in China coming up soon.

The urban climb is exciting, he says, because of the whole range of experience it brings: he says it is amazing to be courted by the rich and the powerful one day, and then to be talking with fellow-inmates in the local jail the next day. His climbs are contentious, so his exploits make headlines around the world and they are recorded in the courthouse for juries and judges to decide on his fate.

He tells me that he studies the building beforehand, and he has Plan B in all cases—if necessary he climbs with suction cups, but he finds that mode to be “not aesthetically pleasing,” although people still love to watch. He takes “calculated risks” (now that is a relative concept if I have ever heard one!) and he prefers not to do “boring” climbs, but sometimes it is worth the money anyway.

In addition to climbing, he inspires people in companies and business schools with his speeches. He mentions that the organizers of events at which he speaks are impressed by the fact that the members of the audience are not multitasking with their phones and computers, they are really listening to him.

I ask: Does it matter to him which countries or companies pay him to climb or to speak? Not really. Being associated with Alain Robert might damage a company’s brand if they do not want to be associated with someone who has gone to jail for his defiance of gravity, but as far as he is concerned, they cannot damage his brand.  Does he have competitors? Not directly, he is unique, but a company might choose another risk-taker instead, like a yachtsman who has braved the wildest ocean storms.

I want to know: how does he choose his climbs? Does he give different speeches today than 5 or 10 years ago? I don’t really get answers to my questions, but rather pictures and stories of his escapades. What stimulates me in these images is his commentary on the thousands of people massed below his tiny figure on a huge building. I ask whether he feels they want to experience his last fall? No! He feels their support, they want him to succeed!

What intellectual heights would we academics be capable of scaling if we felt that reviewers and evaluation bodies in their thousands were cheering us on to greater risks, greater successes? These are questions I could not avoid, given that I was reading a paper a journal had rejected and my task was to help reignite the young researcher’s courage to revise and resubmit her work.

Alain Robert admits he does experience fear—but only before the climb. While he is climbing, he is completely focused, there is no interference, just him, the challenge, and the support he feels from the fascinated crowds who have come to watch. He has survived falls that leaves surgeons puzzled: he should have died 7 times already. Why have we made submitting an article in academia feel like such an existential risk? As individuals we could learn to handle that fear differently. As members of the academic system, we should learn how to create more cheering masses–or at least committees–to spur colleagues on to believe they can develop (and publish) great ideas.