I’m always trying to find a way, when I’m teaching design classes, to help students find their own creativity: to help them with their design projects, to get over the fear of the blank page, and to get into that flow mode. In my online “creativity pointers” searching I came across this brilliant talk by John Cleese, available on YouTube. Not only are his ideas and delivery wonderful, but he gives specific, concrete ways to go about creative problem solving that are really useful. He’s obviously done years of research and thinking on creativity, and come up with simple but effective strategies for working creatively. I didn’t want to forget anything, so jotted down a few things that spoke to me. I kept stopping the tape to record gem-like bits, and basically ended up with a transcript of (most of) his talk. Here it is.
John Cleese on Creativity
“You know, when Video Arts asked me if I’d like to talk about creativity I said “no problem!” No problem! Because telling people how to be creative is easy, it’s only being it that’s difficult.
“I knew it would be particularly easy for me because I’ve spent the last 25 years watching how various creative people produce their stuff, and being fascinating to see if I could figure out what makes folk, including me, more creative. “What is more, a couple of years ago I got very excited because a friend of mine who runs the psychology department at Sussex University, Brian Bates, showed me some research on creativity done at Berkley in the 70s by a brilliant psychologist called Donald MacKinnon which seemed to confirm in the most impressively scientific way all the vague observations and intuitions that I’d had over the years.
“It’s easier to say what creativity isn’t. It’s not a talent. It’s a way of operating. It’s not an ability that you have or don’t have. It’s not dependent on intelligence or IQ.
“Donald MacKinnon showed that the most creative people were the ones who could get themselves into a particular mood—a way of operating, which allowed their natural creativity to function. He described this ability as the ability to play. To play with ideas, explore them, not for any immediate practical purpose, but just for enjoyment. Play for its own sake.
“There are two modes of functioning. Open and Closed.
- creativity is NOT possible
- the mode we are in most of the time
- feeling like “there’s lots to be done, and we have to get on with it”
- active, probably slightly anxious mode (although the anxiety can be exciting and pleasurable)
- a little impatient, if only with ourselves
- a little tension, not much humour
- CAN get very stressed, even a bit manic
- less purposeful
- more contemplative
- more inclined to humour
- curiosity for its own sake
- we can PLAY, and that’s what allows our natural creativity to surface
- we’re not under pressure to get a specific thing done quickly
“To be efficient we need to be able to go back and forth between the open and the closed mode.
“But here’s the problem. We often get STUCK in the closed mode.
“Creativity is not possible in the closed mode.
“How to get into the Open Mode.
“You need 5 things.
- Time – scheduled time away from your every day life, with a beginning and an end
- Time – duration of time that allows you to find the most original idea or solution
You can’t become creative when you are around your usual pressures. Seal yourself off. Make a quiet space for yourself where you will NOT be disturbed.
Time 1 – Scheduled
“It’s not enough to create space. You have to create space for a specific period of time. This means a beginning time and an end time. At least an hour and a half. (Explanation follows)
Combining the first two factors, you create an oasis of quiet for yourself by setting boundaries of space and of time. Creativity can happen, because play is possible when we are separated from every day life.
“Usually after you’ve pondered some problem for about 90 seconds you will start to have thoughts like, ‘Oh, I forgot, I’ve got to call Jim’ or ‘I must pop out and get a birthday present for so and so, and those plants need watering…And none of my pencils are sharpened, and I’ve got too much to do, so I’m going to start by sorting out my paper clips and I’ll make 27 phone calls and I’ll do some thinking tomorrow when I’ve got everything out of the way.’
Because, as we all know, 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.
So, when I say create an oasis of quiet, know that when you have, your mind will pretty soon start racing. But you’re not going to take that race seriously.
‘You’ll just sit there, for a bit, tolerating the racing and the slight anxiety that comes with that. And after a time, your mind will quieten down again.
“Now, because it takes some time for your mind to quieten down, it’s absolutely no use to arrange a Space-Time Oasis lasting only 30 minutes because just as your mind is getting quieter and you’re getting into the open mode, you’ll have to stop and that is very deeply frustrating. So you must allow yourself a good chunk of time. I suggest about an hour and a half. So that after you’ve gotten to the “open mode” you’ll have about an hour for something to happen. If you’re lucky.
Time 2 – Duration
(Paraphrase: Here he talks about how sticking with the pondering for a prolonged period rather than jumping at the first easy solution you find, as it allows you to eventually come up with more original solutions.It’s about persistence, and going further. ) Give your mind as long as possible to come up with something original.
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 experiment: “What happens if I do this? What would happen if we did that? What if?” The very essence of playfulness is openness to anything that may happen. The feeling that whatever happens, it’s OK.
“So you cannot be playful if you’re frightened that moving in some direction will be wrong: something you shouldn’t have done. You are either free to play, or you’re not.
“You’ve got to 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 breakthrough.
I think that the main evolutionary significance of humour is that it gets us from the ‘closed’ mode to the ‘open’ mode, quicker than anything else.
“Laughing brings relaxation, and humour makes us playful, but how many times have important discussions been held where really original and creative ideas were desperately needed to solve important problems but where humour was taboo because the subject being discussed was “so serious”. This attitude seems, to me, to stem from a basic misunderstanding of the difference between ‘serious’ and ‘solemn’.
“I suggest that we as a group could be sitting around discussing matters that were extremely serious – like education, our marriages, the meaning of life – and we could be laughing and that would not make what we were discussing not one bit less serious. Solemnity on the other hand—I don’t know what it’s for—I mean, what is the point of it? The two most beautiful memorial services that I’ve attended both had a lot of humour and it somehow freed us all and made the services inspiring and cathartic. But solemnity? It serves pomposity. And the self-important always know at some level of their consciousness that their egotism is going to be punctured by humour. That’s why they see it as a threat.
“And so humour is an essential part of spontaneity and an essential part of playfulness and an essential part of the creativity that we need to solve problems. No matter how serious they may be.
When you make a Space-Time Oasis, giggle all you want.
“Once you’ve created your Space-Time Oasis, the only other requirement is that you keep your mind gently round the subject you’re pondering. You’ll daydream, of course, but you’ll just keep bringing your mind back. Just like with meditation.
Because, this is the extraordinary thing about creativity, if you just keep your mind resting against the subject in a friendly but persistent way, sooner or later you’ll get a reward from your unconscious.
“Probably in the shower later, or at breakfast the next morning. But suddenly you are rewarded. Out of the blue a new thought mysteriously appears. If you’ve put in the pondering time first.”