John Cleese on Creativity (part 2)

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.   

This part goes into detail about how you enter the open mode in order to foster creativity.

7. Fostering the open mode—the first two elements: space and time (endpoints)

There are certain conditions that make it more likely that you will get into the open mode and that something creative may result. You can’t guarantee that something creative will result; it is more of a happy accident when it occurs. You can, however, make yourself more accident prone, as it were.

There are five elements you need to enter the open mode:



1. Space Create space for yourself away from demands that accompany the closed mode. Seal yourself off where you will be undisturbed.
2. Time (endpoints) You need to create your space at a specific beginning time and a specific ending time in order to create an atmosphere which is closed off from the closed mode in which we normally operate.
3. Time (duration) You need to create sufficient time within which to allow truly creative solutions to emerge.
4. Confidence Allow yourself to play and suppress the fear of making a mistake.
5. Humor Use humor to become more spontaneous and creative.

John Cleese never realized the true importance of the first two elements until he read an historical study of play by the Dutch historian Johan Huizinga in which he said, “play is distinct from ordinary life both as to locality and duration. This is its main characteristic, its seclusion, its limitedness. Play begins and at a certain moment, it’s over—otherwise, it’s not play.” Combining the first three elements you create a place where creativity is possible by setting boundaries of space and of time which is separate from everyday life.

8. Fostering the open mode—making the transition

After you’ve arranged to take no calls, and sat down to ponder whatever problem it is you are trying to turn into an opportunity, you may find after about 90 seconds that your mind starts procrastinating going the open mode by presenting you with a parade of all the things that you must attend to. It is easier to do trivial things which are urgent than it is to do important things that are not urgent. It’s easier to do little things we know we can do rather than to start on big things that we’re not so sure about.

You need to tolerate the racing of the mind and slight anxiety that comes with the mind switching over from the closed to the open mode. After a time your mind will quiet down.

9. Fostering the open mode—the third element: time (duration)

Because it takes some time to enter the open mode, it is no use to arrange an oasis of time for the open mode that lasts only 30 minutes because just as you enter the open mode, it’s time to go back to the closed mode. You must allow yourself a good chunk of time; John Cleese recommends an hour and a half. Allow yourself a half hour to enter the open mode, and an hour for something to happen (if you’re lucky), but don’t put a whole morning aside. After about an hour and a half, you need a break. It’s better to do three hour-and-a-half sessions spaced throughout the week rather than to try to do a single four-and-a-half hour session on a single day.

Why do you need an hour and a half? To illustrate the necessity of using a sufficient amount of time, John Cleese told the story about a fellow writer from Monty Python who was more talented than he was, but who would not produce scripts as original as his. If he was presented with a problem, he would take the first solution that came to mind, although the solution may not have been that original. Cleese on the other hand if he were faced with a problem and saw a solution, would continue to write after that point, sometimes as much as an hour-and-a-quarter longer. In the end, he would consistently come up with more creative solutions than his colleague because he spent a longer time working with the problem.

He said he was excited to find that his experience was corroborated by the findings of Donald MacKinnon, who found that the most creative people were prepared to play with a problem much longer before they tried to resolve it. They were prepared to tolerate that slight discomfort that we all experience when we have not been able to resolve a problem.

We feel inside a sort of internal agitation at the prospect of not having solved a problem, a tension that makes us uncomfortable. So in order to get rid of that discomfort, we make a decision–not because we sure it’s the best solution to the problem, but because taking the decision will make us feel better. The most creative people have learned to tolerate that discomfort for much longer. So just because they put in more pondering time, their solutions are more creative.

The people who John Cleese finds hardest to collaborate with in a creative endeavor are those who need to project an image of themselves as decisive, and who feel that, in order to create this image, they need to decide everything very quickly and with a great show of confidence. Cleese finds behavior to be the most effective method of strangling creativity at birth.

Cleese is not arguing against real decisiveness; he is 100% in favor of making a decision when it has to be taken, and to sticking to it while it is implemented. Before you make a decision, however, you should always ask yourself the question, “when does the decision have to be made?” Then you defer the decision until then in order to give yourself maximum pondering time in order to create the best solution.

If somebody accuses of you of indecision while you are pondering, realize that don’t have to make the decision yet, and don’t chicken out of your creative discomfort by making a snap decision before then. So, summing up the third factor, give your mind as long as possible to come up with something original.

9. Fostering the open mode—the fourth element: confidence

When you are in your space-time oasis getting into the open mode, nothing will stop you from being creative so effectively as the fear of making a mistake. If you think about play, you’ll see why. To play is to experiment, “what happens if I do this?” The essence of playfulness is being open to anything may happen, the feeling that “whatever happens, it’s okay.” You cannot be playful if you are frightened that moving in some direction will be wrong, something you shouldn’t have done. You are either free to play or not. As Alan Watts put it, “you can’t be spontaneous within reason.” So you have to risk saying things that are silly, illogical, and wrong. 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; any drivel may lead to the breakthrough.

10. Fostering the open mode—the fifth element: humor

The main evolutionary advantage of humor is that it gets us from the closed mode to the open mode quicker than everything else. We all know that laughter brings relaxation, and that humor makes us playful. But how many times have discussions been held where really original and creative ideas were desperately needed to solve important problems, but where humor was taboo because the subject being discussed was so “serious”.

This attitude stems from a very basic misunderstanding of the difference between “serious” and “solemn”.

Cleese suggests that a group of us could be sitting around after dinner and discussing matters which are extremely serious, like the education of our children, our marriages, or the meaning of life (and he is not referring to the film), and we could be laughing. That would not make what we were discussing one bit less serious. On the other hand, Cleese doesn’t know what solemnity is for. What is the point of it? The most beautiful memorial services he has ever attended had a lot of humor, and it somehow freed them all: it made the services inspiring and cathartic. But solemnity only 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 is why they perceive it as a threat. And so dishonestly they pretend their deficiency of humor makes their views more substantial, when it only makes them feel bigger.

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. So when you set up a space-time oasis, giggle all you want. So these are the five elements which you can arrange to make your life more creative, space, time (endpoints), time (duration), confidence, and humor.

In the last part of his speech, John Cleese elaborates on the link between humor and creativity, and how the lack of humor associated with solemnity can “strangle creativity at birth”.   He concludes with a tongue-in-cheek discussion of how a leader can destroy any possibility of creativity in the organization.    This was entertaining as well as very informative.

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