How to Be Creative in 5 Steps with John Cleese

creativity fun

By charity elise on etsy

What is the secret to being creative?

Is it something you can learn? Is it something you are born with? Is it something you can practice? Is it something you can do on demand?

These are questions that plague artists of all kinds. We worry that we’ll never be creative, or – if we’ve had a creative breakthrough – that we’ll never be creative again.

I worry. You worry. Famous writers and artists worry. We all worry.

BUT … we don’t have to.

I spent part of this morning watching a video of John Cleese presenting on the topic of creativity. (Hat tip to @anna_elliott for her post on Writer Unboxed featuring a link to the video.) Cleese’s presentation is nearly forty minutes long, but SO worth the time. I really (really) would love for each of you to watch it because I think it will make you feel relaxed and excited about being creative (instead of anxious and freaked out). But, I totally get that you may not have a spare forty minutes lying around, so I’m writing this post to share some of my favorite bits from Cleese’s talk.

Ready? Here goes:

Creativity, According to John Cleese

“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’s what allows our natural creativity to surface.”

Cleese talks about two “modes” of being: open and closed. As you might guess, the open mode is the one in which creativity comes out to play while the closed mode is the one in which we put nose to grindstone.

7:45 – How Being in the Open Mode Helped Discover Penicillin

Cleese tells how Alexander Fleming’s curiosity about an unexpected result was critical to his eventual discovery of penicillin. Instead of simply being annoyed and disappointed that a particular culture did not grow as planned, Fleming followed his curiosity in order to answer the question, “Why?” (Or, in this case, “Why not?”) By keeping an open mind, Fleming was able to see and follow an important clue. Had he been in closed mode, he would have dismissed the missing culture as a failure – within the context of his expectations – and missed an important discovery.

8:55 – How Hitchcock Used Irrelevance to Beat Block

Cleese tells another story – this one about Alfred Hitchcock. Apparently, when he and his co-writers came up against a creative block on a screenplay, Hitchcock had a habit of telling irrelevant stories. This often made his co-writers frustrated until they realized it was an intentional way of lessening the pressure and helping the team relax so they could find a creative solution.

9:34 – Creative Work Requires Both the Open and Closed Modes

Though we tap into our creativity in the open mode, we do need to be able to step back into the closed mode in order to get work done and apply the fruits of our creativity to our work. Once we have come up with a creative solution, we need to commit to seeing that solution through. We need to close the doors on additional brainstorming and so forth in order to take action.

John Cleese’s 5 Steps to Getting into the Creative Open Mode

Cleese then shares what he considers to be the five requirements for increasing your odds of getting into the open mode and being creative:

  1. Space – You need to remove the pressures and demands of your daily grind, seal yourself off, and hang up the “Do Not Disturb” sign.
  2. Time – You need to set a specific start and stop time in order to create an oasis from everyday life – to set your open mode or “play” time apart from everyday life. At 15:22, Cleese makes special note to leave yourself extra time to settle in and switch gears by describing a scene that we’ve all played out upon sitting down to be creative. Very funny. Not to be missed.
  3. Time – Yes, he lists “time” twice. In this second instance, Cleese focuses on the importance of taking as much time as you can to solve your creative problem. Don’t just latch onto the first solution that presents itself – dig deeper. We are tempted to accept the first solution because it’s our quickest way out of the uncomfortable space in which we have not yet solved the problem, but if we hold on a little longer, a better and more original solution is usually just around the corner.
  4. Confidence – The biggest obstacle to creativity is fear. We are afraid of making a mistake, of looking silly. This is why creativity is best fostered in an environment of play – because when you are playing there are no wrong answers. There are no mistakes. Everything is an experiment and anything can happen. As Cleese says, “Any drivel can lead to the breakthrough.”
  5. Humor – Finally, Cleese contends that humor is essential to creativity. He says that it is the quickest way from the closed mode to the open mode. So … stop taking yourself (and everything) so seriously!

The rest of the video includes some additional suggestions on how to keep your mind “gently around the subject” and engage in successful creative play with other people and find new ways to connect disparate frameworks and references in order to generate creative solutions. But, I’ll let you watch those yourself:

Jamie Lee Wallace is a writer who also happens to be a marketer. She helps her Suddenly Marketing clients discover their voice, connect with their audience, and find their marketing groove. She is also a mom, a prolific blogger, and a student of the equestrian arts, voice, and trapeze (not at the same time). Introduce yourself on facebook or twitter. She doesn’t bite … usually.

Image by Charity Elise on Etsy

33 thoughts on “How to Be Creative in 5 Steps with John Cleese

    • It’s great, isn’t it, Laura? So informative and also so entertaining and funny. Cleese is a class act all the way. Did you know his original training was as a scientist?

    • His name is John Cleese – he’s a British comedian probably best known for being (I believe) one of the founding members of Monty Python. Brilliant guy.

      • Sorry, Jamie, I was being facetious.

        I’ve probably seen pretty much everything Cleese has made, from Monty Python to Fawlty Towers to his Postbank Commercials in the Netherlands.

    • HA! No problem. I LOVE Fawlty Towers, too – probably one of my all-time favorites. It’s one of those shows you can watch over and over and still enjoy it.

    • It’s an interesting peek into Hitchcock’s creative process, right? So interesting that his work – which was so intense – was born out of a process that involved random storytelling and “play.”

    • He is one of a kind and a class act … not to mention brilliant. 🙂
      Glad you enjoyed it. Thanks for coming by!

  1. Reblogged this on Lori Ericson, Author and commented:
    Creativity is hard to grasp sometimes and other times it flows like hot lava. This is a good post on the issue of trying to keep it flowing. The blog is by Jamie Lee Wallace, an inspiring blogger on writing and marketing.

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  5. Reblogged this on davidtrowsdale and commented:
    This footage has really helped me to understand the importance of allowing ourselves to have the time to be creative, to play and ponder, in order to create new and meaningful connections between our ideas. Important reflections indeed!

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