John Cleese on Creativity (part 3)


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.

After his presentation of how to enter the open mode, John Cleese shows how to maintain the open mode, how to collaborate with a team to foster creativity, how the Japanese use the open mode in their meetings, how the concepts of creativity and humor are bound together, and finally a tongue-in-cheek presentation on how management can successfully strangle at birth any possibility of creativity in their organization.

11. Maintaining the focus in open mode

While you are in the open mode, you must keep your mind gently around the subject you are pondering. You may daydream and wander away, but just keep bringing it back as you would in meditation. The amazing thing about creativity is, if you just keep your mind resting against the subject in a friendly but persistent way, sooner or later you will get a reward from your unconscious—maybe in the shower later, or at breakfast the next morning. Out of the blue, a new thought mysteriously appears—if you’ve put in the pondering time first.

NOTE:   In a different talk on the subject of creativity, John Cleese goes into more detail on how, if you work on a problem in the evening just before going to sleep, you are more likely to be rewarded by your unconscious with a solution to the problem the next morning.

12. Creative collaboration and the open mode

It is easier to be creative if you’ve got other people to play with. If two or more people throw ideas backwards and forwards, you get to more interesting and original places than you can ever get to on your own. But there is a danger: if there’s one person around you who makes you feel defensive, you lose the confidence to play and it’s goodbye creativity. So always make sure your play friends are people whom you like and trust. 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 said. You should say things like the following:

  • “Would it be even better if …”
  • “I don’t quite understand that—can you just explain it again?”
  • “Go on …”
  • “What if …”
  • “Let’s pretend …”

13. Japanese and the open mode

Try to establish as free an atmosphere as possible. Sometimes Cleese wonders if the success of the Japanese isn’t partly due to their instinctive understanding of how to use groups creatively. Westerners are often amazed at the unstructured nature of Japanese meetings. But maybe it is because it is that very lack of structure, that absence of time pressure, which frees them to solve problems so creatively. And how clever of the Japanese to plan that unstructuredness, insisting that the first people to give their views are the most junior so that they can speak freely, without the possibility of contradicting what’s already been said by somebody more senior.

14. Creativity and humor

In a joke, the laugh comes at a moment when you connect two different frameworks of reference in a new way. For example, there was a woman who was doing a survey of sexual attitudes. She stopped an airline pilot, and asked him, amongst other things, when was the last time he had sexual intercourse. He said, “1958”. She was surprised at this remark, and asked him about it, “well, it’s only 2110 now.” (Laughter in the audience.)

The joke comes at the moment of contact between two frameworks of reference; in this case, the way we express what year it is and the 24-hour clock. Now having a new idea is exactly the same thing. It is connecting two hitherto separate ideas in a way that generates new meaning. Connecting two ideas together isn’t difficult; you can connect “cheese” and “motorcycles”, “moral courage” with “light green” or “bananas” with “international cooperation.” You can get a computer to make a billion random connections for you, but these new connections or juxtapositions are significant only if they generate new meaning.

As you play, you can deliberately try inventing these random juxtapositions and then use your intuition to tell you whether any of them seem to have any significance to you. That’s what the computer can’t do; it can produce millions of random juxtapositions, but can’t tell whether any of them smells anything interesting. And of course you will produce some juxtapositions which are absolutely ridiculous. In that case, good for you! Because Edward de Bono, who invented the notion of lateral thinking, specifically suggests in his book “Po: Beyond Yes and No” that you can try loosening up your assumptions by playing with deliberately crazy connections. He calls such absurd ideas “intermediate impossibles.” He points out that the use of an intermediate impossible is completely contrary to ordinary logical thinking where you have to be right at each stage. It doesn’t matter if the intermediate impossible is right or absurd; it can nevertheless be used as a stepping stone to another idea that is right. It’s another example of how when you’re playing, nothing is wrong.

So if you don’t know where to start, or if you’ve gotten stuck, start generating random connections and allow your intuition to tell you if one might lead somewhere interesting.

15. How to stop creativity in your employees

In the final part of his talk, John Cleese talks about how to stop your subordinates from being creative, which is the real threat. No one appreciates more than Cleese does what trouble creative people are and how they stop decisive, hard-nose bastards from running businesses efficiently.  If you encourage someone to be creative, the next thing is they’re rocking the boat, coming up with ideas, and asking questions. Now if you don’t nip this kind of thing in the bud, you’ll have to start justifying your decisions by reasoned argument, and sharing information the concealment of which gives you considerable advantages in your power struggles.

So here’s how to stamp out creativity in the rest of the organization and get a bit of respect going:

A. Allow subordinates no humor

It threatens your self-importance, and especially your omniscience. Treat all humor as frivolous or subversive, because subversive is of course what humor will be in your setup as it’s the only way that people can express their opposition. This is because if they expressed their opposition openly you’d come down on them like a ton of bricks.

So let’s get this clear: blame humor for the resistance that your way of working creates; then you don’t have to blame your way of working.  Solemnity is no laughing matter!

B. Criticize everything

Keeping ourselves feeling irreplaceable involves cutting everybody else down to size. So don’t miss an opportunity to undermine your employees’ confidence.  A perfect opportunity comes when you’re reviewing work that they’ve done. Use your authority to zero in immediately on all the things you can find wrong. Never ever balance the negatives with positives: only criticize, just as your schoolteachers did.  Always remember that praise makes people uppity.

C. Constantly press the accelerator

Demand that people always be actively doing things. If you catch anybody pondering, accuse them of laziness and/or indecision. This is to starve employees of thinking time, because that leads to creativity and insurrection. Demand urgency at all time, use lots of fighting talk and war analogies, and establish a permanent atmosphere of stress, of breathless anxiety, and crisis. In a phrase: keep that mode closed! In this way, we no-nonsense types can be sure that the tiniest, microscopic quantity of creativity in our organization can all be ours. But let your vigilance slip for one moment, and you could find yourself surrounded by happy, enthusiastic and creative people whom you might not be able to control ever again.

As a result of this talk, I bought a separate diary or journal which I am dedicating to the “open mode”.   I have been keeping a journal ever since college days, but I have been using mine recently mainly as an organizational and inspirational tool.   After listening to John Cleese’s speech, I remembered how I used to capture the open mode in my journal, and decided to buy another new journal just for the open mode.   We’ll see where it takes me!

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