John Cleese on Creativity

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There’s nothing I love more than a good brainstorming session. I frequently spend time tossing ideas around in my head, but there’s only so many angles these ideas can come bouncing back. I much prefer having a partner, or several, to throw me a curveball here and there, inciting me to react off the cuff.

The other day, my team and I had come across something within our app that could be better, or more self-explanatory. While throwing around solutions, my boss, who I will refer to as The Commander, tromped in, threw out a simplistic and very limiting “solution” and became anxious for us to get back to work, as if we were not already working. I couldn’t come up with a great way to get through to him the importance of arriving at a solution that would allow for us to expand our app without this feature becoming confusing or not making sense with the rest of this app… until my co-worker brought my attention to this lecture.

For those of you who don’t know, John Cleese is an English actor and script-writer most famous for his participation in the comedy troupe Monty Python, as well as his roles in James Bond, Shrek, and Harry Potter, among others.

This video is 35 minutes but dense with tips and tricks to really let your natural creativity flourish.  The original video has since been removed from YouTube; however, I managed to find a pretty decent clip and the rest I have summarized. Cleese explains that there are two modes: open and closed. People who are closed are very purposeful and decisive while those who are open are relaxed, expansive, open to humor and more playful. To be at your most creative, you must be in an open mode. However, once you’ve drawn a conclusion, in order to successfully implement it, you must switch to a closed mode. The ability to toggle between theses two modes is imperative for success. According to Cleese the process should continue, as one should then switch back to an open mode in order to reflect on what has been created and ponder if any changes or enhancements should be made, then back to closed mode to implement that.

He gives a guideline for working in an open mode, which requires 5 things: Space, Time, Time (yes, I said time twice), Confidence and Humor.

  • Space is achieved by secluded yourself (or you and your team), free from outside distractions.
  • Time: A specific start and end time should be set and you should give yourself about 90 minutes. When distractions come, let them gently float out.
  • Time: The second use of time is to prepare yourself to stick with the problem for longer. Know when you need the solution and allow yourself up to the last minute to play with the idea.
  • Confidence: Be open to whatever may happen. The fear of making a mistake is the greatest hindrance to creativity.
  • Humor: This gets us from a closed mode to an open mode more quickly than anything else.

During this play time, just keep your mind resting gently against the subject and you will be rewarded.

Cleese also gives us some helpful tips. Always be positive while playing with ideas as to not hinder the creative flow of others. A fact that captured my attention regarded the Japanese’ method of holding meetings. The Japanese let the people that are most junior give their views first so they can speak freely without the possibility of contradicting what’s already been said by someone more important.

In a joke the laugh comes when you connect two different frames of reference in a new way; having an idea is connecting two separate ideas in a way that generates new meaning. You can help to expand your mind to new ways of thinking by making connections that are deliberately crazy and using them as building blocks for something cohesive.

I love how this video outlines a process for creativity, which is often times thought of as an innate talent, and spells out a clear way for anyone to let their creativity grow. It’s not only informative, but its inspiring and really funny!

Toward the end, Cleese gives some satirical advice to those who dwell too often in the closed mode. I nearly thought The Commander had dubbed over the video. It is now at the top of my priority list to somehow convince The Commander to watch this. It’s a great lesson on how to better understand and boost creativity. However, holding his attention for 35 minutes might be be a feat I’m not willing to take on quite yet.

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Nice one.

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