John Cleese on Creativity

Posted by on Mar 25, 2013 in design, misc
John Cleese on Creativity




When I first watched this video I found it most encouraging and enlightening. I posted it on FaceBook because that really is the easiest and fastest way to share things on the web, but the more I have thought about it, the more these ideas deserved exploring.

We at Set in Stone have been witness to the ability of creativity to improve lives; in big life trajectory ways and in simple small day to day ways. All too often creativity is seen as a talent that you either have or you don’t, but this is simply not true. And until this video we found these ideas difficult to articulate. But now John Cleese not only confirms our thinking but shed much more light on our own experiences. Because these thoughts lie at the heart of how we orient our lives and business, we are excited to share this video. John says that creativity is not a talent, “it is a way of operating.” Creativity is a skill that can be developed. It is still mysterious and not fully understood and is really a bit different for every individual, but it is something that we can foster, encourage and become comfortable with. This exercise of growing, learning and getting comfortable with the process is our passion.

John talks about having two modes of operation: a closed and an open mode. As you can guess real creativity happens in the open mode and real productivity happens in the closed mode. This is interesting because it implies that you can not be productive and creative simultaneously. At first I disagreed with this notion, but the more I considered my experiences, the more I saw the truth. We must become adept at moving from one mode to the other at the appropriate times to achieve the greatest results. “We need to be in the open mode when pondering a problem — but! — once we come up with a solution, we must then switch to the closed mode to implement it. Because once we’ve made a decision, we are efficient only if we go through with it decisively, undistracted by doubts about its correctness.”Creativity (open mode) shows/creates the way and productivity (closed mode) gets us where we are going. The wisdom lies in knowing when to do what. Some only want to stay in the open mode and some only in the productive mode; the results are either developing ideas that go nowhere (regardless how good they are) or slugging ahead in the usual ways until we fail. With the latter, we are often left wondering why it didn’t work. Creativity gives us vision and hope. He then goes on to say that play is essential for creativity. And this is where some of the business minded start to become skeptical. Play is not work, which is true, but play can be productive, and the ability to play is the ability to be creative. But this really is another blog post completely.

John then goes on to discuss five conditions that can make it more likely to get into the open mode: Space, Time, Time, Confidence, Humor


The first of these factors is space. You can not become playful/creative if you are in the midst of you daily responsibilities and challenges. So you must create a space/permission for yourself to lay those things down and get into an open mode. This is a quiet space for yourself in which you can be undisturbed and sealed off from daily concerns.


The second condition is time; a specific amount of time. Something like an hour and a half or so. Having a set amount of time allows you to set down your daily concerns and really give yourself over to the open mode. If this time did not have a specific starting and ending, this laying down of responsibilities would be impossible.


We have to settle in and dedicate the necessary time to a problem. This extended time can be uncomfortable and even frustrating, but by persevering we come up with much more creative, substantive, and original solutions. We can not accept the first solution that comes along. We can’t even accept the second, third, fourth, or fifth for that matter. We need to get comfortable being uncomfortable and just stay there until THE solution becomes apparent. I dare say there is a direct relation between the amount of time spent in this uncomfortable place and the success of an idea. (As a side note, creative solutions quite often offer up new problems that also require creative solutions. It may start to seem like a rabbit hole not worth venturing into, but this is the process of creativity.) Give “your mind as long as possible to come up with something original.”


Once we have established our space and time for creative pondering, nothing will squash creativity quicker than being afraid to make a mistake. This is the one the gets me the most, and it is a killer. Creativity (and playfulness) is the freedom to experiment; to see what will or could happen. This necessitates that there will be “failures”, but that is recognized as being all part of the process toward success.


Finally, humor can play the very valuable role of taking us to that place of openness. It is humor that allows freedom from fear of failure, ego, and allows the very spontaneity and creativity we need.


So these are the five factor John Clease deems deems necessary to make an environment conducive to a creativity and I for the most part have to agree. He continues on to say that after all of this, you still need to keep your mind gently around the subject in question. This starts to utilize the powerful subconscious processes of our mind. This is why solutions, or at least the beginnings of solutions come when we are in the shower or on runs. “Sooner or later, you will get a reward from your unconscious… suddenly out of the blue a new thought mysteriously appears, if you’ve put in the pondering time first.”
So in the end, I hope we are convinced that creativity can be learned and practiced; that it is not something you either possess or do not. This was just a quick rundown of this video and is really worth watching, maybe even a couple of times. I hope all of this is interesting and encouraging.

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