John Cleese on Creativity (part 1)


John Cleese of Monty Python fame gave a talk for Video Arts on creativity at the Hotel Grosvenor House in London.   The video can be found on YouTube.   I listened to the lecture and am presenting below a summary of the talk.

1. What is creativity? It is not

–a talent or innate ability

–correlated with IQ (above a certain minimal level)

However, as John Cleese puts it, a negative definition is only of limited use. It’s like asking a sculptor how he sculpted an elephant, and hearing the reply, “I took a big block of marble and hacked away all the bits that didn’t look like an elephant.”

2. Early studies of creativity—Donald MacKinnon

To look at the historical research on creativity, John Cleese consulted Brian Bates, former Chairman of Psychology at the University of Sussex. He told him about the work of Donald MacKinnon, a professor at the University of California at Berkeley who was an expert on the creative process, who formulated controversial theories on creativity in the 60s and 70s.

Donald MacKinnon studied scientists, engineers, architects and writers who were regarded by their peers as being more creative. They had acquired an ability to get into a way of operating which allowed their natural creativity to flourish. This ability to play or to become childlike allowed them to explore ideas, not with any immediate practical purpose, but just for the sheer enjoyment of it.

3. Open mode vs. closed mode

John Cleese wrote a book with Dr. Robyn Skynner called Families and How to Survive Them, in which they explored the habits of psychological healthy families. They did a sequel called Life and How to Survive It in which they took the lessons learned in their earlier book with regards to families and used it to foster psychological healthy relationships within corporations and other organizations.

He and Dr. Skynner looked at the work of Donald MacKinnon and realized that people work in two modes: open mode and closed mode. Creativity is possible in the open mode, but not in the closed mode. Here’s a comparison between the two:



Relaxed Anxious
Expansive Focused
Playful Purposeful
Humorous Not much humor

4. Examples of open mode

Alexander Fleming who discovered penicillin had arranged Petri dishes the previous day so that culture would grow upon them. Upon noticing that on one of the dishes, no culture appeared, rather than throwing it away, he started to wonder why, and this led to the discovery of penicillin. He must have been in the open mode when he made the discovery. In the closed mode, an uncultured dish would have been an irrelevancy; in the open mode, it became a clue.

Alfred Hitchcock, when working with co-writers on a screenplay, if there was some sort of block and the discussion became heated or intense, he would say, and then suddenly start telling a story that at first seemed to have nothing to do with the work at hand. One of the co-writers in describing this said at first he was annoyed because it seemed that Hitchcock was avoiding the problem, but in reality, he was helping solve it by getting the conversation to steer towards the open mode. Hitchcock would say, “we-re pressing; we’re working too hard. Relax, it will come.” And the co-writer said, of course, it finally always did.

5. Cycling between open mode and closed mode

In practical terms, one must use both the open mode and the closed mode in order to effectively create and implement ideas. How does this process work?

In the diagram below, the green boxes representing the open mode and the yellow boxes representing the closed mode:

In the first part of the process, one uses the open mode to ponder and create a solution.

In the second part of the process, one must switch to the closed mode in order to implement it. Here is where one needs to narrow one’s focus and act decisively towards one’s purpose.

After the solution has been tried out, then you go to the third part of the process, where you review with an open mind the feedback arising from the decision. Once you’ve looked at the solution, you can then go to the fourth stage, and use the closed mode to make a decision to either a) accept the solution or continue with the next stage of one’s plan, or b) to create a plan to correct any error perceived. This will start the cycle again.

It is important to distinguish the two modes: being in the closed mode when you should be in the open mode it not good. The example he uses is that it is normally a bad idea when you take a running start at the edge of a ravine and are about to leap over, to suddenly start reviewing alternate strategies.

Likewise, it is a bad idea to be in the open mode when you should be in the closed mode. The example he uses is that when you’re focusing on attacking a machine gun turret, you should not be putting any mental effort into seeing the funny side of what you’re doing.

6. Getting stuck in closed mode

The problem according to John Cleese is that we too often get stuck in the closed mode. Under pressure, we tend to maintain tunnel vision at times when we really need to step back and contemplate the wider view. This is particularly true of politicians. They become so addicted to the adrenaline of dealing with problems that come up almost on an hourly basis that lose the desire and/or ability to ponder problems in the open mode.

In the next part of his speech, John Cleese talks about the five elements that go into fostering the open mode.    The discussion of these five elements begins in the next post.

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