John Cleese on Creativity

October 24, 2012

I’ve just watched this incredible talk by John Cleese, a bit long but 100% worthy of your time.

Transcript here

John was one of the writers of the Monthy Python comedy show, as well as actor and director in several movies. Between “light-bulb jokes” and serious talk, he gives some great insights about how to work ourselves into what he calls the “open mode”, the mode where creativity happens.

Creativity is not a talent, is a way of operating.

  • Creativity is not an ability that you either have or do not have.
  • It is absolutely unrelated to IQ. Studies showed in investigating several professionals that those regarded by their peers as "most creative" weren’t different in IQ from their less creative colleagues.
  • The most creative had simply acquired a facility for getting themselves into a particular mood.

Working modes: open and closed.

John argues that we can usually describe the way in which people function at work in terms of two modes: open and closed.

Creativity doesn’t happen in closed mode.
  • The closed mode is where we are in most of the time when we are at work. It’s a mode where we are active, very purposeful and a little bit anxious.
  • By contrast, the open mode, is relaxed, expansive, less purposeful mode in which we are more inclined to humor and more playful.
It's a mood in which curiosity for its own sake can operate because we're not under pressure to get a specific thing done quickly. We can play, and that is what allows our natural creativity to surface.

We need both modes, in particular we need the ability to switch back and forth between both modes. We need to be in open mode while pondering with a problem and once we have a “creative” solution, we need switch to the closed mode to be able to implement it decisively and undistracted.

Getting into the open mode: the five conditions.

There are certain conditions that make it more likely to get into the “open mode”:

  1. Space

You can't be creative if you're under pressures, because to cope with them you've got to be in the closed mode.So you have to create some space away from those demands.

  1. Time
It's not enough to create space, you have to create your space for a specific period of time ... And it's only by having a specific moment when your space starts and an equally specific moment when your space stops that you can seal yourself off from the every day closed mode in which we all habitually operate.

Tip: you’ll need a minimum of one and a half hour, because it takes at least 30 minutes to go out of the routine and the closed mode and embrace the creative.

  1. Time

If you stick to the problem longer you’ll be able to find more creative solutions. Don’t take the first solution, stick with it and try to find other solutions, but beware of not making a final decision at all.

What I am suggesting to you is that before you take a decision, you should always ask yourself the question, "When does this decision have to be taken?" And having answered that, you defer the decision until then, in order to give yourself maximum pondering time, which will lead you to the most creative solution.
  1. Confidence

When you’re finally in open mode the only thing that can stop you from being creative is the fear of making a mistake. Playfulness is about being open to anything that can happen.

So you've got risk saying things that are silly and illogical and wrong, and the best way to get the confidence to do that is to know that while you're being creative, nothing is wrong. There's no such thing as a mistake, and any drivel may lead to the break-through.
  1. Humor

Humor is what gets us from the closed mode to the open mode in the fastest way. It is the essential part of spontaneity and playfulness necessary to solve problems in a creative way.Humor is an essential part of spontaneity, an essential part of playfulness, an essential part of the creativity that we need to solve problems, no matter how 'serious' they may be.

Creativity in groups.

It is easier to be creative if you’ve have got other people to play with ... But there is a danger, a real danger, if there's one person around you who makes you feel defensive, you lose the confidence to play, and it's goodbye creativity.
And never say anything to squash them either, never say "no" or "wrong" or "I don't like that." Always be positive, and build on what is being said ...

Creativity is like humor.

In humor, the laugh comes when you connect two common frameworks of reference. The moment of contact between to frameworks of reference.Connect two separate ideas in a way to create a new meaning, but not random connections, that’s easy, the connections are only meaningful if they generate a new meaning. You must use your intuition to detect which connections are interesting.

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