John Cleese’s Brilliance on Creativity


John Cleese Creativity

John Cleese: “Creativity is an open, playful mode.”

John Cleese on Creativity, watch on YouTube

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.

Closed Mode

  • 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
  • purposeful
  • CAN get very stressed, even a bit manic

Open Mode

  • relaxed
  • expansive
  • 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.

  1. Space
  2. Timescheduled time away from your every day life, with a beginning and an end
  3. Timeduration of time that allows you to find the most original idea or solution
  4. Confidence
  5.  Humour


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.”

Picking Up Loose Threads


Two years ago I decided to switch from Blogger to WordPress. That’s all I did, basically. Decided. And then idea became just another Loose Thread Of My Life. Among many. Very many. The many reasons for that I’ll save for later.

An effort to update my (long overdue) professional website (Graphic Design, yay!) brought me in a roundabout way back to this WordPress site I started in 2012, with one lone post.

So many sites, so many passwords. Luckily I remembered the one I created for this one; shocking that I could, really. The brain has many small, dark corners where website passwords sit, mouldering, until you come and attempt to brush the digital dust off them. If you’re lucky, you can clear it off, and some obscure combination of letters and numbers allows you to open the door. So here I am.

I’m trying a new design/template for this WordPress site. A new visual blood transfusion. I don’t think it will be clear until I have a few more posts on it. But I’m going with this: a little bit of action is better than no action.

Taking My Happy Feet to WordPress

Fred Astaire with swirly colorful shapes dancing around him.

Fred and his feet, so happy they’re airborne.

I’ve been blogging on Blogger for a while, about 6 years. Now I’m hankering for a change, to WordPress where all the WordPressy kids are. I want to try to import my Happy Medusa at Blogspot over here, but still trying to figure out how to do that.

Edited: May 1, 2014. Imported my Blogger into this here WordPress site. Weren’t so hard, but all the images are teeny. I may have to re-upload.

Russians Led Me to My PG Wodehouse

The doctor in my mind wrote a prescription for me and the prescription was: Insert More Pelham Grenville into your life, daily, for several weeks.

I’ve been feeling droopy of late, lacking the ability to laugh at self, or to feel particularly chirpy about anything, let alone make a “Five Year Plan”. This, coupled with a decided lack of sleep, and waking in the night a regular occurrence, finds me, these days, with my knuckles dragging on the ground. As it’s the season when most things are coming alive, birdies are tweeting and gardens are growing, my state was irksome, to say the least.
The prescription was to re-read the very first P.G. Wodehouse book I ever read, preferably in the same paperback edition, for maximum impact. I knew that this book had made me laugh out loud, and laugh more than I had ever laughed reading any book ever. It was the one that confirmed me as a life long P.G. Wodehouse fan, particularly his Jeeves and Bertie series.
Problem was I had no idea which book it was. I’d borrowed the book from a friend at the time of reading. I knew it had a picture of someone in a boat, and a circular garden pavilion, and there was something about a hostile swan. But couldn’t for the life of me remember the name of the collection. And there are quite a few novels and short story collections.
Thank you internet! Yesterday an online search for clues brought me to this wonderful compendium of Wodehouse, from the Russian Wodehouse Society. Yes, from the Russians! The really helpful thing was their inclusion of photos of the actual book covers used over many years of publication. I found my book! It was right there: the boat, the pavilion, the swan. I think the swan, anyway, the book cover is a bit tiny.
It was with me the work of a minute (or several minutes) to locate a used copy of the book online, for practically nothing. And soon my prescription will be winging its way to me. Thank you, oh nameless and meticulous Russians for your love and dedication to one of the wonders of English literature: P.G. Wodehouse, and for leading me back to a delightful pleasure from my past.
It’s all the more charming that Russians have put this website together as Wodehouse liked to rib the Russian temperament regularly in his books. For example, this little excerpt from Wodehouse’s Monkey Business:

I have a tender heart (said Mr Mulliner), and I dislike to dwell on the spectacle of a human being groaning under the iron heel of Fate. Such morbid gloating, I consider, is better left to the Russians.

I look forward to a lot less morbid gloating in my future.

Not so Still Life With Canine

Dog heaven, aka, Cherry Beach, with ice floes breaking up

One of the best things about my new Life with Dog is the outdoors, the fact that I am outdoors. It’s walking and going places, in the fresh air, immersed in the landscape, whether I like it or not. And in the past, my usual inclination on a cold day was to not be outside.

Taylor Creek park, after a snowfall

This winter, however, has passed in parks, forests, fresh snowfalls, along wintry lakes with ice floes on the shore. I’ve seen beautiful skies, and sunsets. Lots of bad weather too, but the good outweighed the bad.

My dog, Izi, (Isadora) is still a puppy, just turned eight months, and she’s now more of a dog, assuming her dog shape: legs are long, and snout is long and pointy. She’s lost the cute bluntness of the puppy form, but stayed fairly small, which I’m happy about. I look at her sometimes and think: Don’t grow, please stay that size, you’re perfect now.

Izi on forest path in Greenwood Conservation Area

Taking the dog out, as much as it sometimes feels like the last thing I want to do, gets me out, and away from the laptop. There’s one focus: I’m constantly on the lookout for playmates at various dog parks I haunt. She loves other dogs. A trip to the park with no other dog who’s a pup or still has puppy energy is a letdown, as playmates help burn off that crazy puppy energy. As they say, “a tired puppy is a good puppy.”

“I am too still cute,” says Izi.

She’s grown. The difference between walking into a dog park with a puppy on the end of a leash and a dog on the end of a leash is noticeable. Puppies generate instant oohs and ahhs. Izi doesn’t inspire that any longer. She’s not a fashionably cute dog, like the Goldendoodles or Labradoodles you see everywhere. She’s a dog dog: a generic-looking classic dog. She’s beautiful in her dog way, but no longer cute.

Where she was once the puppy being overwhelmed by the bigger dogs, she can even intimidate little pups now, with her enthusiastic playing. Sometimes she growls as she play fights. She pulls out all the stops to look fierce, bares her teeth. A couple of small dog owners have looked at her and pulled their dogs away. Where did this scary dog come from? It’s over the top play-fighting, something that would have put me off too, in my days pre-dog. I’d think, “Are these dogs ready to kill each other?” Apparently its normal dog playing behaviour–the way a kid in a playground growls like a scary monster, chasing another one in a game. I remember doing it myself as a kid, vocalizing to make the game more authentic. Scary, but it stops in an instant. One second she’s growling, the next second, she’s looking down at the ground to inspect a stick, an extremely interesting stick.

Izi, being eaten by GoldenDoodle
The two combatants will sit side by side to watch a new dog approaching the park. Yay, here come new friends to play with, to steal balls from.
Oh, the ball stealing. The agony of that. But that’s a whole other post.

I’m an Immigrant in the Land of Dog

It appears I have a dog. How did this happen? It was a coup de foudre standing on the outside of a kennel looking in at 9 bouncing six week old puppies. They belonged to my neighbours in the country. He wanted to spay his Chocolate Lab and decided to let her have one litter before he did. I’ve seen 101 Dalmations, but really I was kind of shocked to think a fairly little dog would give birth to nine!!!! puppies.

This one looked right at me and jumped up against the side of the pen. I knew she wanted to jump into my arms. It was like she had searched her whole life for me and finally found me! How could I resist that call to action??? Can puppies hypnotize people? I think they can. I picked her up and she melted into my body, smelling like something not all that nice, Eau de Puppy Crate. Sawdust and remnants of whatever else. But I didn’t care, she was so warm and just collapsed into me. After a couple of minutes of holding her my brain started working on its own saying crazy things like, “I want to have this puppy.”

Finally we went back home, leaving her there, with her littermates and mother. My son and I fantasized about what we would do with a puppy, what we would call her, what our lives would be like if we had her.
Julian instantly thought of a name, one which I thought was fairly appalling. Kubokan. I said, I don’t think so. Too long.* But no other name popped into my head. We went for a walk in a conservation area, crossed a suspension bridge, and talked about the puppy thing. I said, look at that trail. If we had the dog, we could go walking down that trail, with her.

We went back to the city, 150 miles away from puppy temptation. We sort of forgot about the dog. But two weeks later I drove back out, and as I got in the car I suddenly thought, I wonder if I’ll be coming back with a dog? My neighbour dropped by to talk about some stuff, he does maintenance for me at my place. I said, do you still have the puppies? I figured the one I liked, the smallest, the prettiest, the cutest, couldn’t possibly still be there. He said there were three left. I arranged to come over and see them later that morning. Just to see them. Walked over and there she was. A little bigger, but still that same little face. Black, with butterscotch eyebrows. Too cute. She seemed to know who I was. Picked her up and it was game over.

That small rational piece of my brain did kick in slightly and I said, “I’d like to take her. But I don’t know if it will work out at my place in the city. It’s small. Real small. And I have the cats. I don’t know how she’ll manage with the cats. So, I can take her for a trial, as long as I can bring her back if it doesn’t work out.” My neighbour said, fine.

I’m still not totally sure how it’s working out, but after almost 2 weeks of being a puppy owner I’ve had my heart melted, and my nerves fry repeatedly. Over and over and over again. One minute I think I can do it and the next minute it’s, “No, what was I thinking? This is insane. She’s gotta go back.”

You see, I am an immigrant in the Land of Dog. Never had a dog. Never looked after a dog. Never really ever known a dog. Not well. I’ve always been a cat person. I’ve even been a little scared of dogs my whole life. Except for the ones that look like stuffed animals. Which is the kind of dog I’d been hankering after–off and on for the past few years. Just in an internet-browsing sort of fantasy way.

But I guess this is one of those Life Happens to You While You’re Busy Making Other Plans kind of thing. I could still decide not to keep her, I guess. The bloom is off the rose for my son, definitely. He’s wanting things to go back to the way it was, pre-dog. But as each day goes by, I’m getting a little better at learning this new dog language. I’m still on Ellis Island, and I’m waiting in line. Hoping for the best.

* Her name is now Isadora: Izzy.