Lessons from John Cleese on Creativity

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One of my favorite movies dur­ing my high school years was Mon­ty Python and the Holy Grail. I was quick­ly hooked by the dry wit­ted and ridicu­lous humor and can’t tell you how many times I watched that movie. I even­tu­al­ly found my way to watch­ing sketch­es from Mon­ty Python’s Fly­ing Cir­cus and was equal­ly hooked. I recent­ly shared one sketch with my 6‑year-old son, and we just sat there bel­ly-laugh­ing with one anoth­er. While Mon­ty Python isn’t for every­one, I cer­tain­ly have appre­ci­at­ed it over the years.

John Cleese made his liv­ing being fun­ny. A num­ber of years ago, I came across a video of Cleese lec­tur­ing about cre­ativ­i­ty. It was not only a delight to watch, but it was also real­ly instruc­tive. I end­ed up shar­ing it with my whole team at Focus Lab. It was an oppor­tu­ni­ty to learn from some­one whose career depend­ed on know­ing how to step into and out of cre­ative flows. The video was lat­er removed but even­tu­al­ly showed back up. I was delight­ed to find it again recent­ly, and I thought I’d share it here along with some of my notes.

If your job requires cre­ativ­i­ty from time to time, you should give this a watch. It’s about 35 min­utes long and includes some of Cleese’s stan­dard dry humor to boot.

The most cre­ative pro­fes­sion­als always play with the prob­lem for much longer before they try to resolve it because they are pre­pared to tol­er­ate that slight dis­com­fort — anx­i­ety — that we all expe­ri­ence when we haven’t solved a problem.

Cleese presents many great ideas, some of which I cap­ture below, but there’s one in par­tic­u­lar I want to call out here. He sug­gests that it’s eas­i­er to be cre­ative if you’ve got oth­er peo­ple to work and play with. Cre­at­ing as a part of a team is huge­ly valu­able. In a brief nine sec­onds of the video, he gives exam­ples of phras­es you can use while work­ing with oth­ers. These are phras­es that are pos­i­tive in nature which encour­age the cre­ative flow, rather than stop­ping it in its track.

  • Would it be even bet­ter if…?
  • I don’t quite under­stand that. Can you explain it again?
  • Go on…
  • What if…?
  • Let’s pre­tend…

Watch­ing this video recent­ly was a nice reminder for me in terms of how I cre­ative­ly work with oth­ers on my team. Give it a watch and let me know what you think.


My Raw Notes

Cre­ativ­i­ty is not a tal­ent. It’s a way of operating.”

Cre­ativ­i­ty is not an abil­i­ty that either have or do not have.”

The research that Cleese ref­er­ences described the most cre­ative peo­ple as those who have the abil­i­ty to play. He even described their play as being child­like. It’s a will­ing­ness to explore with­out a need for imme­di­ate prac­ti­cal pur­pose, but just for enjoyment.

He describes a con­cept of an open” and closed” mode in work­ing. Cleese shares the sto­ry of the dis­cov­ery of peni­cillin and how oper­at­ing in the open mode was required for this dis­cov­ery. Lat­er he says that to be most effi­cient, we need to be able to switch between these two modes inten­tion­al­ly. And most impor­tant­ly, we need to avoid get­ting stuck in the closed mode.

There are cer­tain con­di­tions which do make it more like­ly that you’ll get into the open mode and that some­thing cre­ative will occur.”

Five fac­tors you can arrange to make your life more creative:

  1. Space — seal­ing your­self off; being undisturbed
  2. Time — cre­at­ing a spe­cif­ic peri­od of time; bound­aries where the open mode will end
  3. Time — lever­ag­ing the time you’ve cre­at­ed; giv­ing your mind as long as pos­si­ble to come up with some­thing original
  4. Con­fi­dence — know­ing that while you’re being cre­ative, noth­ing is wrong; the fear of mak­ing a mis­take kills creativity
  5. Humor — get us from the closed mode to the open mode quick­er than any­thing else; we need to embrace it rather than avoid it even if the sub­ject might be solemn

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

On com­par­ing his own work to that of oth­ers on his team:

My work was more cre­ative than his sim­ply because I was pre­pared to stick with the prob­lem longer.”

The most cre­ative pro­fes­sion­als always play with the prob­lem for much longer before they try to resolve it because they are pre­pared to tol­er­ate that slight dis­com­fort — anx­i­ety — that we all expe­ri­ence when we haven’t solved a problem.”

I love his sec­tion about know­ing when deci­sions need to be made and how you shouldn’t rush them. (21:08 – 22:32)

You can­not be play­ful if you’re fright­ened that mov­ing in some direc­tion will be wrong — some­thing you shouldn’t have done.”

I think it’s eas­i­er to be cre­ative if you’ve got oth­er peo­ple to play with. I always find that if two, or more, of us throw out ideas back­wards and for­wards, I get to more inter­est­ing and orig­i­nal places than I could have ever got to on my own.”

He goes on to talk about how play with oth­ers” should be pro­tect­ed against any­one in the group squash­ing ideas dur­ing this open” play time. This part starts at 28:19.

Cre­ativ­i­ty is like humor. In a joke, the laugh comes at a moment when you con­nect two dif­fer­ent frame­works of ref­er­ence in a new way. [Tells a joke.] We laugh at the moment of con­tact between the two frame­works of ref­er­ence. Hav­ing a new idea is exact­ly the same thing. It’s con­nect­ing two hith­er­to sep­a­rate ideas in a way that gen­er­ates new meaning.”

If you real­ly don’t know how to start, or if you’re stuck, start by gen­er­at­ing ran­dom con­nec­tions and allow your intu­ition to tell you if one might lead some­where interesting.”

He ends with steps in how to remove oppor­tu­ni­ty for cre­ativ­i­ty from those who report to you. It’s a fun way to be remind­ed of things not to do if you want to main­tain an envi­ron­ment and cul­ture of cre­ativ­i­ty. (33:20)

Published on September 23, 2020

Tags for this entry: creativity teamwork

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