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4 Lessons In Creativity From John Cleese

The legendary writer and actor has also become a well-known student of and speaker on creativity and how to cultivate it. He recently enlightened a group of ad types about the best ways to put yourself in a creative state of mind.

There’s a certain generation (or two) that owes its twisted, awkward, scorchingly black sense of humor to John Cleese. Famous for his work with the Monty Python films and television series, the BBC comedy Fawlty Towers, as well as feature films like A Fish Called Wanda, the writer, actor, comedian and film producer knows from funny.

Live at Cannes 2012

But he also knows a thing or two about wrestling the creative beast, which is the topic Cleese was invited to speak about at last week’s Cannes International Festival of Creativity. Addressing a group of attendees from the Havas Media group, Cleese brought a storytelling flair to the topic of the creative process, something he’s been discussing for decades through his educational video company Video Arts, sharing tales of writing mishaps and lessons learned from leading creative and scientific minds.

Through a series of stories, Cleese spoke of the importance of succumbing to the unconscious mind, two key traits possessed by highly successful creative people, the necessity of allowing for contemplative thinking, and why all of these together result in creative breakthroughs. He touched on the points raised in his much-discussed 1991 lecture, but rounded them out and introduced new ones (plus, this piece won’t take you 36 minutes to read). Here are those stories.

A story about your unconscious saving your ass; or letting your ideas bake

Image: Flickr user Liliana Fuchs

Cleese began his talk recounting one of his epic writing sessions with longtime writing partner Graham Chapman. While the two wrote arguably some of the most seminal comedic sketches of their generation, the partnership was not without its glitches. Like the time Cleese wrote and then lost a piece of work—and how that turned out to be the best thing that could have happened.

"I was embarrassed that I lost our work, so I rewrote it from memory, straight off in a hurry. Then I discovered the original and the one I’d done very quickly was better than the original. I didn’t spend any time thinking about it, so how could it be better than the original?"

"The only thing I could think was that my unconscious had been working on the sketch and improving it ever since I wrote it. I began to see a lot of my best work seemed to come as a result of my unconscious working on things when I wasn’t really attending to them."

"I’m not talking about the Freudian unconscious but the intelligent unconscious. We can’t control our unconscious but we can look to how we can create the circumstance in which it becomes easier for us to work with our unconscious."

A story about the habits of highly creative people; or how to play and defer

Image: Flickr user Ben Bunch

As well as identifying that ideas and breakthroughs percolate in the deep recesses of our brain, Cleese talked about some of the key, practical traits of truly creative people. In doing so he told a story of Brian Bates, a psychology professor at Sussex University. Intrigued by how the creative mind works, Bates chose to study the work practices of architects, because the profession required the combination of two brains in the creation of beautifully groundbreaking yet structurally sound buildings.

"He did a very simple test. He asked various architects to name who, in their opinion, were the most creative architects in the field. He then asked those creative architects to tell him what they do from the moment they wake up to the moment they go to bed. He then went to the uncreative architects—without perhaps explaining that’s why he was talking to them—and asked them the same thing. Then he compared the two. He discovered two differences, and neither was to do with intelligence."

"The first thing he discovered is that the creative architects knew how to play. They could get immersed in a problem. It was almost childlike, like when a child gets utterly absorbed in a problem. The second thing was that they deferred making decisions as long as they could. This is surprising."

"If you have a decision to make, what is the single most important question to ask yourself? I believe it’s ‘when does this decision have to be made’? When most of us have a problem that’s a little bit unresolved, we’re a little bit uncomfortable. We want to resolve it. The creative architects had this tolerance for this discomfort we all feel when we leave things unresolved."

"Why would those two things be importance? The playfulness is because in that moment of childlike play, you’re much more in touch with your unconscious. The second is that when you defer decisions as long as possible, it’s giving your unconscious the maximum amount of time to come up with something."

A story about how to achieve productive thought; or how to think like Einstein

As is the trend with talks about creative thinking, Cleese made a point of illustrating that creativity is not the domain of the "creative class." He told the story of how Einstein and other lauded scientists and Nobel laureates describe their breakthroughs as visions.

"Now I want to read you two things. We tend to think of physics as being the hardest of sciences, and I want to read what one or two people say about their creative process. Consider this passage from Einstein: ‘The words of the language as they are originally spoken don’t seem to play any role at all in my mechanism of thought. The elements of my thought are certain signs, or more or less clear images, which in my case are of a visual and sometimes of a muscular type. The combination of these different images in productive thought is what enables me to make progress before there is any connection with logical construction in words or any other sign that could be communicated to others.'"

"When Einstein is thinking he could not describe to anyone in words what’s going on in his mind. And if you press too hard, nothing comes of it."

"Guy Claxton, the author of Hare Brain, Tortoise Mind, says there are two kinds of thinking: one dependent on reason and logic, and one that’s less purposeful, it’s more playful, leisurely, and dreamy. In this mode, we are mulling things over, almost meditative, pondering a problem versus earnestly trying to solve it. He says allowing the mind time to meander is not a luxury. You need the tortoise mind, such as Einstein described, as much as you need the hare brain."

"The hare brain loves clarity; it wants everything to be expressed in a very simple, straightforward clear way. Tortoise mind doesn’t expect clarity; it doesn’t know where the illumination is going to come from. The language of the unconscious is images. That also means a lot of times when you’re being very creative you can feel very confused. You don’t know where you are or where you’re going. And you can tolerate that and continue to defer the decision. Because you’re taking your time in tortoise mind, if you have a question, you’re much more likely to get interested in the question."

"One other important distinction between the two is that hare brain always treats perception as not being important, when in fact how you perceive things is enormously dependent on your emotional state. And when you’re more relaxed and focused, you’re much more likely to be more aware."

A story about anxieties and interruptions; or how to remember Chinese ideograms

Means "Sincerity"

The tension between impulsive action and contemplative thinking is a very real one, particularly in this real time, over connected world. But, says Cleese, don’t let that get in the way of giving yourself time for deeper, unconscious thought.

"Now I want to explain about getting into tortoise mind. The enemies of tortoise mind are anxiety and interruptions. The moment you get anxious or interrupted you go back into hare brain. What you have to do is give yourself a place where you’re not going to be interrupted for about an hour, because it takes time for your thoughts to settle. You have to create boundaries of space and then you have to create boundaries of time. You need to give yourself the time to let these ideas come up because it deals in the confusion and images and very subtle things."

"This is how extraordinary the unconscious is. A researcher once got a bunch of people and showed them a bunch of Chinese ideograms. He asked them back a week later and said he was going to show them some they saw the week before and some they didn’t see. They were hopeless at identifying the ones from the week before. He tried it again but this time asked them to tell him the ones they liked best. When they picked the ones they liked, they were the ones they’d seen the week before. So the unconscious has this extraordinary knowledge; the trouble is it doesn’t come up very clearly. That’s why you have to give it time. That’s why when you start on something that’s fundamentally creative, don’t bring the old critical mind in too quickly. Let the thing fall, find out when it is. And then, by all means, bring hare brain in to evaluate them, because you’ll get ideas, but not all of them will be good."

Add New Comment


  • James Chanbonpin

    Cleese is amazing, and you put this article together masterfully also. This treasure that we have hiding in our minds...and the best way to access it is to not try at all.. Thank you for sharing!

  • Spend for Africa

    Great article!  For me, I often have my best, most creative solutions to complex problems after I have had a chance to sleep on the issue over night.

  • Carolinamaria

    A room of one's own...Virginia nailed that. Conversely, isolation can be deadly. Hang out, goof off and have a space to work in, if possible. Done some of my writing in a public place (with no one I know about) to distract me. Distractions can sometimes make the story/song/solution move along or twist. Best bet, don't read all the how-to books or go to those workshops. Mozart composed while drinking wine.

  • Royce Emley

    John Cleese is absolutly correct! As a creative director I have my best ideas come after I give the subconcious 5 ideas to mull over without making a decision on one it then merges them into one visualy clear concept. Great artical that I can agree on!

  • Guest

    Why is Rae Ann being credited with the authorship of this article? It's 95% Cleese quotes. 

  • Rae Ann Fera

    Fair comment Guest and Brad. But perhaps 'editorship' is a better way of looking at this. To give you insight into the process, with stories like these it's less about me writing the story, but rather refining, honing and editing someone else's brilliant words into something that's easily understandable and valuable to readers. This is drawn from an hour-long session Cleese gave that included many other elements. In deciding how to craft this piece it was evident that no one can say what Cleese says better than himself so I chose to give his words the freedom and attention they deserved, in a way that made narrative sense for readers. I hope this gives you a window on how this came to be.. and thanks for taking the time to read and comment! Rae Ann

  • Derek Webb

    -- Cleese often used a 'Child-Like Mind Set' when referring to your creative moments.  I'm usually much more creative when I'm drunk.  Does that mean I was an intoxicated child?

  • Jose Palomino

    Any time I have an excuse to apply some smart lessons from John Cleese, I'm going to do it! Cleese reminds us of the importance of letting go (or, in his words, letting our unconscious mind take over), allowing ourselves time to play, why we need to keep things clear and straightforward, and creating boundaries and space for our minds to think - among some other great anecdotal lessons.

    I'm reminded of the the necessity of vacations - of taking breaks in order to boost productivity and creativity. So in the spirit of the summer, remember to take a break, play a little, and keep those creative, entrepreneur juices flowing -- and maybe even watch a Monty Python rerun!

  • Cesar Lupercio

    Para el Latino el proceso de creatividad no deriva tanto del INCONSIENTE  si no de la IMPROVISACION que en muchas ocasiones por falta de recursos tenemos que explorar nuevas formas.  

  • Marcia Hubert

    I admire how well Cleese articulates something so abstract as the thought process (or perhaps 'letting go' of a thought process) of creativity.  I refer to it as letting things 'marinade' before making a decision.  Creativity is becoming a lost art in society these days.
    I agree with the Suleman....we need John to make more movies!

  • Suleman

    Why o why did this man stop making films? He must be the funniest Englishman on the planet, and he should do his bit for his country in these recession-hit times by starting to write and make films again, i.e. use his creativity in a way that would uplift millions.

  • Tommi Henriksen

     Mostly due to his depression, and not being able to work for long periods, hence his number of Cameos and bit parts since Wanda

  • Dori Knoff

    Bravo. I so agree with you. Its in the low times we need creative humor the most.

  • Brandon Wittwer

    Lovely article.  An unequivical explanation answering the question: "How can I be more creative?".  That moment of settling into and finding a groove that isn't hare brained but just flowing.  That sensation is wonderful.  Working as a programmer in a cubicle farm, it's hard to find the peace and attention at times, but when I do, I hit the ground running with code pouring from me.  I guess I never thought of that sensation as being "creative", but the structures are coming from somewhere not in my analytical mind, but somewhere else. 

    Loved this article.  Tweeted.