John Cleese on Creativity

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On this "John Cleese on Creativity" page:

- a brief bio of Cleese

- the script of his Video Arts presentation on creativity

- what creativity isn't

- creativity and the open/closed modes

- what conditions favor the open mode that is the creative mode

- how to ensure you are not creative ;-)


This brilliantly intelligent English comedian, writer, actor and film producer is best known for his part in the Monty Python troupe and as the inimitable Basil Fawlty in Fawlty Towers. First a scriptwriter and performer, in the 1960s he joined the comedy troupe of Monty Python's Flying Circus, which was responsible for the famous sketch show and four Monty Python movies. 

In 1972 he co-founded Video Arts, to produce witty educational films, and has made many other appearances: two James Bond movies, two Harry Potters and voiced in three Shrek movies, without forgetting memorable performances on The Muppet Show in sketches he helped write.

In the mid-1970s he wrote and starred in the hugely popular Fawlty Towers, with his then-wife playing Polly.

Deeply interested in psychology and thinking, he collaborated with psychologist Robin Skynner on the books "Families and How to Survive Them" and "Life and How to Survive It".

He still makes appearances, tours and writes.


John Cleese: But What Makes Creativity?

John Cleese: You know, when Video Arts asked me if I 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. And I knew it would be particularly easy for me because I spent the last 25 years watching how various creative people produce their stuff and being fascinated to see if I could figure out what makes folk, including me, more creative.

John Cleese: Creativity and Donald MacKinnon

John Cleese: 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 Berkeley in the 70s by a brilliant psychologist called Donald MacKinnon, which seem to confirm in the most impressively scientific way all the vague observations and intuitions that I have had over the years. So the prospect of settling down to a quite serious study of creativity for the purpose of tonight's gossip was delightful and having spent several weeks on it I can state categorically that what I have to tell you tonight about what, how you can all become more creative is a complete waste of time.

John Cleese: Creativity Can't Be Explained

John Cleese: So I think it would be much better if I told jokes instead, you know, the light bulb jokes, you know? How many Poles does it take to screw in a light bulb? One to hold the light bulb and four to turn the table. How many folk singers does it take to change a light bulb? Answer – five, one to change the bulb and four to sing about how much better the old one was. How many Socialists does it take to change a light bulb? Answer – we’re not going to change it - we think it works.

How many creative art… – you see the reason why it is futile for me to talk about creativity is it simply cannot be explained. It's like Mozart's music or Van Gogh's painting or Saddam Hussein's propaganda - it is literally inexplicable. Freud, who analyzed practically everything else, repeatedly denied that psychoanalysis could shed any light whatsoever on the mysteries of creativity and Brian Bates wrote to me recently most of the best research on creativity was done in the 60s and 70s with a quite dramatic drop-off in quantity after then. Largely, I suspect because researchers began to feel that they had reached the limits of what science could discover about it. In fact the only thing from the research that I could tell you about how to be creative is the sort of childhood that you should of had which is of limited help to you at this point of your lives.

John Cleese:  What Creativity Isn't

John Cleese: However, there is one negative thing that I can say and it's negative because it's easier to say what creativity isn't. A bit like the sculptor who when asked how he had sculpted a very fine elephant, explained that he’d taken a big block of marble and then knocked away all the bits that didn't look like an elephant. Now here is the negative thing, creativity is not a talent – it is not a talent. It is a way of operating.

So how many actors does it take to screw in a light bulb? Answer – thousands, only one to do it and thousands to say I could've done that. How many Jewish mothers does it take to screw in a light bulb? Answer - don't mind me, I'll just sit here in the dark, nobody cares about me. How many surgeons…

You see, when I say “a way of operating”, what I mean is this - creativity is not an ability that you either have or do not have. It is for example - and this may surprise you - absolutely unrelated to IQ, provided your intelligence is above a certain minimum level, that is. But MacKinnon showed and investigating scientists, architects, engineers and writers that those regarded by their peers as most creative were in no way whatsoever different in IQ from there less creative colleagues.

So in what way were they different? Well, MacKinnon showed that the most creative had simply acquired a facility for getting themselves into a particular mood, a way of operating, which allowed their natural creativity to function. In fact, MacKinnon described this particular facility as an ability to play. Indeed he described the most creative when in this mood as being childlike, for they were able to play with ideas, to explore them, not for any immediate practical purpose but just for enjoyment, play for it’s own sake.

John Cleese: Creativity is a Mood

John Cleese: Now about this mood, I'm working at the moment with Dr. Robin Skinner, on a successor to our psychiatry book, “Families and How To Survive Them” and we're comparing the ways in which psychologically healthy families function and then, the ways in which such families function, the ways in which the most successful corporations and organizations function. And we’ve become fascinated by the fact that we can usefully describe the way in which people function at work in terms of two modes – “open” and “closed. So what I can just add now is that creativity is not possible in the “closed” mode.

Okay so how many American network TV executives does it take to screw in a light bulb? Answer – does it have to be a light bulb? How many doorkeepers…

Well, let me explain a little more… by the “closed” mode, I mean the mode that most of us are in, most of the time at work. There is lots to be done and we have to get on with it if we have to get through it all. It's an active, probably slightly anxious mode. Although the anxiety can be exciting and pleasurable, it's a mode in which we're probably impatient with ourselves, it has a little tension in it, not much humor, it's a mode in which we’re very purposeful and it's a mode in which we can get very stressed and even a bit manic. But not - creative. By contrast the open mode is a relaxed, expansive, less purposeful mode in which we’re probably more contemplative, more inclined to humor, which always accompanies a wider perspective and consequently more playful. It's a mood in which curiosity for its own sake can operate because we're not under pressure to get a specific thing done quickly, we can play and that is what allows our natural creativity to surface.

Let me give you an example of what I mean, when Alexander Fleming had the thought that led to the discovery of penicillin he must've been in the “open” mode. The previous day he'd arranged a number of dishes so that culture would grow upon them. On the day in question, he glanced at the dishes and discovered that on one of them, no culture had appeared. Now, if he’d been in a close mode he would've been so focused upon his need for dishes with cultures grown upon them that when he saw one dish was of no use to him for that one purpose he would've quite simply throw it away. Thank goodness he was in the open mode so he became curious about why the culture had not grown on this particular dish and that curiosity, as the world knows, led him to the light bulb, I'm sorry, to penicillin. Now in the closed mode an uncultured dish is an irrelevance. In the open mode it's a clue.

John Cleese:  Alfred Hitchcock and Being Open

John Cleese: Now one more example, one of Alfred Hitchcock's regular co-writers has described working with him on screenplays, he says, “When we came up against a block and our discussions became very heated and intense Hitchcock would suddenly stop and tell a story that had nothing to do with the work at hand. At first I was almost outraged and then I discovered that he did this intentionally. He mistrusted working under pressure, he would say we’re pressing we’re pressing. We’re working too hard, relax it will come” and says the writer, “Of course, it did finally always did.”

John Cleese: Being Open and Closed

John  Cleese: But let me make one thing quite clear. We need to be in the open mode when we're 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. For example, if you decide to leap a ravine, the moment just before takeoff is a bad time to start reviewing alternative strategies. When you're attacking a machine gun post, you should not make a particular effort to see the funny side of what you're doing.

Humor is natural to the open mode, but it's a luxury in the closed one. Now once we’ve taken a decision, we should narrow our focus while we're implementing it and then after it's been carried out we should once again switch back to the open mode to review the feedback arising from our action, in order to decide whether the course that we have taken is successful or whether we should continue with the next stage of our plan. Whether we should create an alternative plan to correct any error that we've perceived and then back into the close mode again to implement the next stage and so on.

In other words, to be at our most efficient we need to be able to switch backwards and forwards between the two modes. But here's the problem, we too often get stuck in the closed mode under the pressures which are all too familiar to us we tend to maintain tunnel vision at times when we really need to step back and contemplate the wider view. This is particularly true for example of politicians. The main complaint about them from their non-political colleagues is that they become so addicted to the adrenaline that they get from reacting to events that are (?) in our bases, that they almost completely lose the desire or the ability to ponder problems in the open mode. So, as I say, creativity is not possible in the closed mode and that's it! Well, 20 minutes to go.

So how many women’s libbers does it take to change a light bulb? Answer – 37, one to screw it in and 36 to make a documentary about it. How many psychiatrists does it take to change a light bulb? Answer - only one but the light bulb has really got to want to change.

John Cleese: Conditions for Open Mode

John Cleese: Oh! There is one, just one, other thing that I can say about creativity. There are certain conditions which do make it more likely that you'll get in to the open mode and that something creative will occur - more likely, you can't guarantee anything, you might sit around for hours as I did last Tuesday and nothing. Zilch. Bupkiss. Not a sausage. Nevertheless, I can, at least tell you how to get yourselves into the open mode. You need five things – One, space. Two, time. Three, time. Four, confidence. Five, a 22-inch waist. Sorry, my mind was wandering, getting into the open mode too quickly… Instead of a 22-inch waist, we need humor. I do beg your pardon.

Okay let's take space first… you cannot become playful and therefore creative if you're under your usual pressures because to cope with them you have to be in the closed mode, right? So, you have to create some space for yourself away from those demands and that means sealing yourself off. You must make a quiet space for yourself where you will be undisturbed. Next, time. It's not enough to create space, you need to create your space for a specific period of time. You have to know that your space will last until exactly say 3:30 and then at that moment your normal life will start again. And it’s only by having a specific moment when your space starts and an equally specific moment when your space stops that you can seal yourself off from the everyday closed mode in which we all habitually operate. And I never realized how vital this was until I read a historical study of play by a Dutch historian called Johan Huizinga and in it, he says, play is distinct from of ordinary life, both as to locality and duration. This is its main characteristic, it's secludedness, it's limitedness, play begins and then any certain moment it is over. Otherwise it's not play.

So, combining the first two factors we create an oasis of quiet for ourselves by setting boundaries of space and of time. Now creativity can happen because play is possible when we're separate from everyday life. So you arranged to take no calls, you’ve close your door, you've sat down somewhere comfortable, you taken a couple of deep breaths and if you're anything like me after you've pondered some problem that you want to turn into an opportunity for about 90 seconds you find yourself thinking… “Oh I forgot, I've got to call Jim. Oh, and I must tell Tina that I need the report on Wednesday not Thursday, which means I must move my lunch with Joe and damn I haven't called (?) about getting Joe's daughter and I must pop out this afternoon to get Will's birthday present and those plants need watering and none of my pencils are sharp, and I've got too much to do so I’m goin to start by sorting my paperclips and I shall make 27 phone calls and I'll do some thinking tomorrow when I've got everything out of the way…”

John Cleese: A Question of Space and Time

John Cleese: Because, as we all know, it's easier to do trivial things that are urgent then 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, then 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 again but you are not going to take that very seriously you 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 arranging a space time oasis lasting 30 minutes because just as you're getting quieter and getting into the open mode, will have to stop and that is very deeply frustrating so you must allow yourself a good chunk of time. I’d suggest about an hour and a half then after you've gotten into the open mode you have in about an hour left for something happen - if you're lucky. But don't put a whole morning aside, my experience is that after about an hour and a half you need a break so it's far better to do an hour and a half now and then an hour and a half next Thursday and then maybe an hour and a half a week after that and then to fix one 4 1/2 hour session now. And there's another reason for that and that's factor number three. Time. Yes, I I know we just done time but that was half of creating our oasis now going to tell you about how to use the oasis that you've created. Why do you still need time?

John Cleese: A Monty Python Story

John Cleese: Well, let me tell you story… I was always intrigued that one of my Monty Python colleagues seem to be, to me, more talented than I was, did never produce scripts as original as mine. And I watched for sometime, and then I began to see why. If he was faced with a problem and fairly soon saw solution was inclined to take it. Even though, I think, he knew the solution was not very original. Whereas if I was in the same situation, although I was sorely tempted to take the easy way out and finish by 5 o'clock, I just couldn’t. I’d sit there with a problem for another hour and a quarter and by sticking at it, would, in the end, almost always come up with something more original. It was that simple. My work was more creative than his simply because I was prepared to stick with the problem longer.

John Cleese: Creativity and Discomfort

John Cleese: So imagine my excitement when I found that this was exactly what MacKinnon found in his research. He discovered that the most creative professional always played with the problem for much longer before they tried to resolve it. Because they were prepared to tolerate that slight discomfort and anxiety that we all experience when we haven't solved a problem, you know what I mean, if we have to problem and we need to solve it, until we do, we feel inside us, a kind of internal agitation, attention or uncertainty that makes us just plain uncomfortable. And we want to get rid of that discomfort so in order to do so we take a decision. Not because we're sure it's the best decision but because taking it will make us feel better. Well, the most creative people have learned to tolerate that discomfort for much longer and so just because they put in more pondering time their solutions are more creative.

John Cleese: The Problem of Decisiveness and Crativity

John Cleese: Now, the people I find it hardest to be creative with are the people who need all the time to project an image of themselves as decisive. And they feel that to create this image they need to decide everything very quickly and with a great show of confidence. Well, this behavior I suggest sincerely is the most effective way of strangling creativity at birth. But please note, I'm not arguing against real decisiveness. I'm 100% in favor of taking a decision when it has to be taken and then sticking to it while it's being implemented. What I'm suggesting to you is that before you take a decision you should always ask yourself the question, ‘When does this decision have to be taken?’ and having answered that, you defer the decision until then. In order to give yourself maximum pondering time, which will lead you to the most creative solution and if while you're pondering somebody accuses you of indecision say, “Look, baby cakes, I don't have to decide ‘til Tuesday and I'm not chickening out of my creative discomfort by taking a snap decision before then that's too easy.” So, to summarize, the third factor that facilitates creativity is time. Giving your mind as long as possible to come up with something original.

John Cleese: Creativity and Confidence

John Cleese: Now the next factor, number four, is confidence. When you're in your space time oasis, getting into the open mode, nothing will stop you being creative so effectively as the fear of making a mistake. Now if you think about play, you’ll see why. True play is experiment. What happens if I do this? What would happen if we did that? What if? The very essence of playfulness is an openness to anything that may happen. A feeling that whatever happens, it's okay. So you cannot be playful if you're frightened that moving in some direction will be wrong, something shouldn't have done. I mean you're either free to play or you're not. As Alan Watts puts it, ‘You can't be spontaneous within reason’. So 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.

John Cleese:  Creativity and Humor

John Cleese: And now, the last factor, the fifth, humor. Well, I happen to think the main evolutionary significance of humor is that it gets is from the closed mode to the open mode quicker than anything else. I think we all know that laughter brings relaxation and that humor makes us playful. Yet how many times have important 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 seems to me, to stem from a very basic misunderstanding of the difference between serious and solemn. Now I suggest to you, that a group of us could be sitting around after dinner discussing matters that were extremely serious like the education of our children or our marriages or the meaning of life - and I'm not talking about the film - and we could be laughing and that would not make what we were discussing one bit less serious. Solemnity, on the other hand, I don't know what it's for. What is the point of it? The two most beautiful memorial services that I've ever attended both had a lot of humor 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 at their egotism is going to be punctured by humor. That's why they see it as a threat and so dishonesty, pretend that their deficiency makes their views more substantial when it only makes them feel bigger.

John Cleese: Creativity and Playfulness

John Cleese: Now, 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 the matter how serious they may be. When you set up a space time oasis, giggle all you want and there, ladies and gentlemen, are the five factors which you can arrange to make your lives more creative. Space, time, time, confidence and Lord Jeffrey Archer.

So now you know how to get into the open mode, the only other requirement is that you keep your mind gently around the subject you’re pondering. You’ll daydream, of course, but you 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 than later you will get a reward from your unconscious. Probably in the shower later or breakfast 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.

So how many Cecil Parkinson's does it take to change a light bulb? Answer – Two. One to screw it in and one to screw it up. How many how many account executives does it take to screw in a light bulb? Answer - Can I get back to you on that? How many Norwe-… Oh, sorry. How many Yugosl-… How many multi… How many Dutch… I'm out of jokes.

John Cleese: Creativity and Others

John Cleese: Oh, one thing, looking at you all reminds me. I think it's easier to be creative if you’ve got other people to play with. I always find that if two or more of us, throw ideas backwards and forwards, I get more to more interesting and original places than I could've ever gotten to on my own. But there is a danger, a real danger, if there is one person around you who makes you feel defensive, you lose the confidence to play and its goodbye creativity. So always make sure your play friends are people that 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's being said, ‘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.’ Try to establish as free an atmosphere as possible.

John Cleese: The Japanese and Creativity

John Cleese: And, you know, sometimes I wonder if the success of the Japanese isn't partly due to their instinctive understanding of how to use groups creatively. You know, Westerners are often amazed at the unstructured nature of Japanese meetings but maybe it's just that very lack of structure that absence of time pressure that frees them to solve problems so creatively. And how clever of the Japanese sometimes to plan that unstructuredness, for example, insisting that the first people to give their views are the most junior so they can speak freely without the possibility of contradicting what's already been said by somebody more important.

Four minutes left. Ah! How many Irishmen… Oh, sorry, sorry, sorry.

John Cleese: Creativity and Crazy Connections

Well, the very last thing that I can say about creativity is this – it's like humor. In a joke, the laugh comes at a moment when you connect to different frameworks of reference in a new way. Example - there's the old story about a woman during a survey in sexual attitude who stops an airline pilot and asks him, amongst other things, when he last had sexual intercourse and he replies 1958. Now knowing airline pilots the researcher is surprised and queries this, well, says the pilot it's only 2110 now. You laugh eventually at the moment, the moment of contact between two frameworks of reference the way we express what year is and the 24 hour clock. Now having an idea, a new idea is exactly the same thing. It’s connecting two separate ideas in a way that generates new meaning. Now connecting different ideas isn't difficult you can connect cheese with motorcycles or mold courage with light green or bananas with international cooperation. You can get any computer to make a billion random connections for you but these new connections or juxtapositions are significant only if they generate new meaning. Right, so, 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 significance for you. That’s the bit the computer can't do. It can produce millions of new connections but he can't tell which one of them smells interesting. And of course you’ll produce some sort of juxtapositions which are absolutely ridiculous, absurd. Good for you! Because Edward (?) who invented the notion of natural thinking specifically suggests in his book, “Poe, Beyond Yes and No”, that you can try loosening of your assumptions up by playing with deliberately crazy connections. He calls such absurd ideas intermediate impossibles and he points out that the use of an intermediate impossible is completely contrary to ordinary logical thinking in which you have to be right at each stage. It doesn't matter if the intermediate impossible is right or absurd, it can nevertheless be it used as a steppingstone to another idea that is right. Another example of how, when you’re playing, nothing is wrong.

In Conclusion...

So to summarize if you really don't know how to start or if you've got stuck, start generating random connections and allow your intuition to tell you if one might lead somewhere interesting.

Well that really is all I can tell you that won't help you to be creative, everything. And now in the two minutes left, I can come to the important part and that is how to stop your subordinates becoming creative, too, which is the real threat. Because believe me no one appreciates better than I do what trouble creative people are and how they stop decisive hard-nosed bastards like us from running businesses efficiently. I mean, we all know we don't carry someone to be creative and the next thing is they’re rocking the boat, coming up with ideas and asking us questions. Now if we don’t nip this kind of thing in the bud, we’ll have to keep justifying our decisions by reasoned argument. And sharing information, the concealment of which, gives us a considerable advantage in our power struggle. So here's how to stamp out creativity and the rest of organization and get a bit of respect going. One, allow subordinates no humor, it threatens your self-importance, especially your omnipotence. Treat all humor as frivolous or subversive because subversive, is of course, what humor will be in your set up as it's the only way people can express their opposition since it express it openly, you down on them like a ton of bricks. So, let’s get this clear, blame humor for the resistance for the way of working creates and then you don't have to blame your way of working this is important. And I mean that solemnly, your dignity is no laughing matter.

Second, 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, never balance the negatives with the positives, only criticize just as your school teachers did. Always remember, praise makes people uppity.

Third, demand that people should always be actively doing things, if you catch anyone pondering, accuse them of laziness and or indecision. This is to starve employees of thinking time because that leads to creativity and insurrection.

So, demand urgency at all times and use lots of fighting talk and war analogies and establish a permanent atmosphere of stress, of breathless anxiety and crises, in a phrase - keep that mode closed.

Now and this way we know nonsense types can be sure that the tiny, tiny microscopic quantity of creativity in our organization will all be ours. But let your vigilance slip for one moment and you could find yourself surrounded by happy, enthusiastic and creative people who you might never be able, completely, to control again so be careful. Thank you and good night. Thank you.

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