John Cleese on Creativity

I recently re-watched this excellent talk by John Cleese (of Monty Python) on creativity. The best parts are after the 10 minute mark, and I suspect many people give up before then. His ideas reminded me of Edward De Bono’s Six Thinking Hats, since they both emphasize modes and frames of mind.

Here’s the video with my notes and choice excerpts below:

Five factors:

  1. Space to be undisturbed
  2. Time (for play to take place in space)
  3. Time (persisting in uncertainty)
  4. Confidence (to be truly serendipitous)
  5. Humor (to aid moving from closed to open)

These are his main points, influenced heavily by the work of his friend Dr. Donald W. Mackinnon. Cleese specifically advocates taking 90 minutes to create space and time. It takes him about 30 minutes to calm down and open his mind, leaving an hour of creative time working on something.

The (flawed) romantic view of creativity is it’s a thing, but really it’s a process:

“Creativity is not a talent. It is a way of operating.”

The quote below evolves into a  funny riff at 14:50 that’s worth watching:

“It’s easier to do trivial things that are urgent than it is to do important things that are not urgent, like thinking, It’s also easier to do little things we know we can do, than  to start on big things we’re not so sure about”

He reflects on the counterintuitive ‘work’ element of creativity. The myth of epiphany makes this seem wrong, since it assumes creativity is a thing and not a process. Persistence is something involved in how to be good at anything:

“One of my Monty Python colleagues who seemed to be more talented than I was never produced scripts as original as mine. And I watched for some time and then I began to see why. If he was faced with a problem and saw a solution he was inclined to take it even if he knew it was not very original.  Whereas if I was in the same situation, while I was sorely tempted to take the easy way out, and finish by 5 o’clock, I just couldn’t. I’d sit there with the problem for another hour and a quarter and by sticking at it, would in the end, almost always come up with something more original. It was that simple.

My work was more creative than his simply because I was prepared to stick with the problem longer. So imagine my excitement when I found this was exactly what MacKinnon found in his research. He discovered the most creative professionals always played with the problem for much longer before they tried to resolve it. Because they were prepared to tolerate that slight discomfort, as anxiety, that we all experience when we haven’t solved it.”

In the talk he explains closed vs open modes of thinking. Most work cultures are (necessarily) dominated by  closed thinking. It’s no surprise most people in power are fond of displaying decisive powers:

“The most creative people have learned to tolerate (that) discomfort for much longer. Just because they put in more pondering time there solutions are more creative.”

Most work cultures are political and repressive with fear of offending people. Despite the rhetoric for “be creative” if there are penalties and instant judgements creativity is impossible:

“The people I find it hardest to be creative with are the people who need, all the time, to project an image of themselves as decisive. And who feel to create this image they need to decide everything very quickly with a great show of confidence. Well this behavior I suggest sincerely is the most effective way to strangle creativity at birth.”

 “You cannot be spontaneous within reason [-Alan Watts]. You have to risk saying things that are silly, illogical or wrong… any drivel may lead to the breakthrough”

This last quote is pure awesome:

“There is a confusion between serious and solemn..  Solemnity, I don’t know what it’s for. What is the point of it? The two most beautiful memorial services I’ve ever attended both had a lot of humor. And it somehow freed us all and made the services inspiring and cathartic. But solemnity serves pomposity. And the self important always know at some level of their consciousness that their egotism is going to be punctured by humor, and that’s why they see it as a threat. And so dishonestly pretend that their deficiencies makes their views more substantial, when it only makes them feel bigger… ptttttth.

Humor is an essential part of spontaneity, an essential part of playfulness, an essential part of the creativity we need to solve problems no matter how serious they may be. “

16 Responses to “John Cleese on Creativity”

  1. Calum

    Kind of ironic that Cleese hadn’t actually done anything creative for quite some time before that talk, and certainly hasn’t since.

    1. Scott

      Hey – if you can write the dead parrot sketch and play 7 different parts in The Holy Grail, you get a pass for life in my book.

  2. Sean Crawford

    Well Calum, Cleese keeps touring with his own stage production: who is to say he isn’t creatively tweaking it all the time? I easily found this fact in wikipedia, where I also found he was 73.

    I’m sure most of us at that age will have very shrunken horizons, and be unable to contemplate creating anything, let alone a traveling stage show…. At that age I will probably stick with the food of my youth, telling people I won’t try anything I can’t pronounce.

    Of course, Calum, you and I can say we’ll be the exception to old age, just as we can now say we are above average drivers.

    1. Scott

      I sense a lack of creativity in all this talk of creativity!

      1. Paul

        Must be time to play …

  3. Mike Nitabach

    Awesome! Thanks for finding this!

  4. Jen Mills

    Great video to connect your followers to! A good reminder to keep humor at your side, and not to judge your creative ‘dribble’, just to play until something fits. No matter how many times I hear advice like this, it never hurts to hear it in another form yet again. Keep up the reminders Scott!

  5. Scott

    “A writer takes earnest measures to secure his solitude and then finds endless ways to squander it.” Don DeLillo

    1. Malcolm Scrimger

      Is it true in this day of blogging that if you write it people will come and read it? I have done some blogging on technical subjects like astronomy and Ham Radio but have found there is a limited readership. I am now contemplating moving towards the humanistic side of writing with the subject of erotic literature. I keep wondering if I will find a following on that one. :-)

  6. Robert McCorkle

    This is a great article. Finding it easy to do the unimportant reminds me of “The 7 Habits Of Highly Effective People” by Stephen Covey Sr. He talks about time management and how being in the quadrant that is important but unurgent is where we need to be. I also like Allan Watts, the man was brilliant. If he was still alive I would buy him a beer. Here is another article I thought was interesting. Thanks again for your work.

  7. Aaron

    I remember seeing this talk last year, and his emphasis on taking/making time to be creative was really interesting. I always tended to subscribe to the “mythology of epiphany,” thinking that really creative people are just on all the time, rather than think they haven’t just put in the time to master the process.
    Too bad the video isn’t available anymore.

  8. Stormy

    I sometimes wonder if the Muse of Inspiration is not an angelic young virgin but a 500 lb transvestite in spandex. Humor or shock treament is needed to break down your creative barriers. Too many get stuck in the idea of process when in reality creativity comes in whatever form it prefers and when it wants. The key is to ready to grab it when ut sticks its big boobs in your face.



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