John Cleese on Creativity

by Andrew

John Cleese on Creativity – YouTube.

Excellent speech, given by Mr. Cleese at a conference called “Video Arts” some time ago. Unfortunately there is no video description, so I can’t tell you more about the video’s context than that. What I can tell you, is that this is an excellent speech and you should watch it the next time you have a little more than a half-hour to invest into it. Also, very good source of ‘lightbulb joke’ material. 😉

Highlights, because I have to write things down if I want to really remember them:

  • People’s minds operate in one of two modes at any given time: Closed and Open. Closed minds are focused on a given task or scenario. Open minds are receptive to new inputs and free to consider alternatives.
  • When in Open mode, one can consider the different possibilites. Cleese gives the example of the man who discovered penicillin. He had laid out cultures in petri dishes to grow over night, and came back the next day to find that one of the dishes had no cultures. Had he been thinking in Closed mode, he would have said to himself “I wanted this dish to have a culture in it, and it does not, so I’m going to throw it out.” But because he must have been in Open mode, he pursued instead the question “Why does this dish not have cultures in it?”
  • There are 5 things that can help make it more likely that you get into an Open and Creative mode or mood:
    1. Space
    2. Time
    3. Time
    4. Confidence
    5. Humor
  • Space – You can’t become ‘playful’ if you are under pressures. ‘Seal yourself off’ from those, for a specific time. It is easy to do little, trivial things than big, important things that are not urgent. Sit until the mind’s racing passes and you’re quiet again.
  • Time – Play must begin, and then end.  Cleese recommends at least 30 minutes to quiet down, and then an hour to think. He also recommends not much more than that, nor to do this too often (maybe twice a week or so). You’ll need a break.
  • Time again – How to use the oasis you’ve created. Be prepared to tolerate the slight discomfort that comes from not having the best solution yet, so that you can sit with the problem longer and discover the ‘most creative’ or ‘best’ solution. It is better to decide slow and well than fast and poorly. Before making any decision, determine when it needs to be decided by, and then take as much time as available to decide.
  • Confidence – Nothing will stop you from being creative more effectively than the fear of making a mistake. “Whatever happens, it’s okay!” Give yourself the freedom to believe that, while you’re being creative, there is no ‘wrong’ idea, no mistakes to be made. Experiment!
  • Humor – Nothing will get you into the Open mode faster than humor. Talked also about the difference between seriousness and solemnity. You can talk about very serious subjects and punctuate with humor. But when solemnity is demanded, such as in a business meeting, it is largely because the egos of those in authority can be punctured by humor, and so they see it as a threat.
  • Allow your mind to be Open, but gently ‘around’ the subject. Creative thoughts will spontaneously come to you if you invest the time in pondering.
  • Creativity can be encouraged by inviting others to be creative with you. The exception to this is if someone around you makes you feel defensive, as you will lose the confidence you need. Likewise, do not squash others’ creativity and confidence.
  • Creativity is like humor. In humor, the joke comes when two frameworks of reference come together. Creativity, likewise, yields new ideas when two previous ideas are connected in a new way. “Intermediate Impossibles” – those crazy ideas that don’t make sense, but which can lead to a crazy idea that is great.
  • How to stop creativity (given in Satire):
    • Allow no humor.
    • Treat humor as subversive
    • Cut everyone else down to size and undermine confidence
    • Demand that everyone must be active at all times
    • Do not allow them enough time to be Open