John Cleese on the Origin of Creativity

British actor John Cleese is best known for his comedic tal­ent as one of the found­ing mem­bers of Mon­ty Python, which makes his intel­lec­tu­al insights on the ori­gin of cre­ativ­i­ty par­tic­u­lar­ly fas­ci­nat­ing. This talk from the 2009 Cre­ativ­i­ty World Forum in Ger­many is part cri­tique of moder­ni­ty’s hus­tle-and-bus­tle, part hand­book for cre­at­ing the right con­di­tions for cre­ativ­i­ty.

“We get our ideas from what I’m going to call for a moment our uncon­scious — the part of our mind that goes on work­ing, for exam­ple, when we’re asleep. So what I’m say­ing is that if you get into the right mood, then your mode of think­ing will become much more cre­ative. But if you’re rac­ing around all day, tick­ing things off a list, look­ing at your watch, mak­ing phone calls and gen­er­al­ly just keep­ing all the balls in the air, you are not going to have any cre­ative ideas.” ~ John Cleese

Cleese advo­cates cre­at­ing an “oasis” amidst the dai­ly stress where the ner­vous crea­ture that is your cre­ative mind can safe­ly come out and play, with the oasis being guard­ed by bound­aries of space and bound­aries of time.

Anoth­er inter­est­ing point Cleese makes is that know­ing you are good at some­thing requires pre­cise­ly the same skills you need to be good at it, so peo­ple who are hor­ri­ble at some­thing tend to have no idea they are hor­ri­ble at all. This echoes pre­cise­ly what film­mak­er Errol Mor­ris dis­cuss­es in “The Anosog­nosic’s Dilem­ma,” arguably one of the most fas­ci­nat­ing psy­chol­o­gy reads in The New York Times this year.

Curi­ous­ly, Cleese’s for­mu­la for cre­ativ­i­ty some­what con­tra­dicts anoth­er recent the­o­ry put forth by his­to­ri­an Steven John­son who, while dis­cussing where good ideas come from, makes a case for the con­nect­ed mind rather than the fenced off cre­ative oasis as the true source of cre­ativ­i­ty.

This video per­ma­nent­ly resides in Open Cul­ture’s col­lec­tion of Cul­tur­al Icons.

Maria Popo­va is the founder and edi­tor in chief of Brain Pick­ings, a curat­ed inven­to­ry of eclec­tic inter­est­ing­ness and indis­crim­i­nate curios­i­ty. She writes for Wired UK, GOOD Mag­a­zine, Big­Think and Huff­in­g­ton Post, and spends a dis­turb­ing amount of time on Twit­ter.

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Comments (12)
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  • Peliore says:

    Good ideas == craft
    Cre­ativ­i­ty == art

  • I real­ly don’t think Cleese and John­son are con­tra­dic­to­ry. I’d imag­ine that Cleese would agree that being at a place like Cam­bridge and hang­ing out with peo­ple like those who would go on to form Mon­ty Python is incred­i­bly stim­u­lat­ing. Like­wise, John­son would sure­ly say that hav­ing a good idea is not enough — you have to actu­al­ly put your butt in the chair and work on it. Both are absolute­ly nec­es­sary for cre­ative and ground­break­ing work — artis­tic and oth­er­wise. That’s basi­cal­ly the idea of a uni­ver­si­ty in a nut­shell — a lot of smart peo­ple in one place with time to just think.

  • I have been a fan of John Cleese and Mon­ty Python for more than 3 decades, and I enjoyed read­ing his pre­scrip­tion on cre­ativ­i­ty this morn­ing. I think espe­cial­ly for the­ater, and oth­er per­form­ing arts, cre­at­ing that “oasis” that he describes above is vital.

    In my own life­time, I remem­ber when actors and direc­tors just came to rehearsal and…rehearsed. When there was a break, we would just work on our lines, or try out some stage busi­ness with a scene, or work on some move­ment or voice work.

    Today, all of those things still hap­pen, of course. But they hap­pen in a con­text of check­ing emails, send­ing or read­ing texts, ask­ing for inter­net con­nec­tions for their lap­tops, and so on. The­ater artists now seem to be con­stant­ly jug­gling their con­nec­tiv­i­ty. When was the last time you saw a 4‑hour rehearsal with­out at least one per­son check­ing their cell­phone? Is what­ev­er mes­sage on there (or not on there) tru­ly that impor­tant? Why can´t it wait?

    Our group, Ensem­ble Free The­ater Nor­way of Oslo, is cur­rent­ly in Chica­go doing a 12-week res­i­den­cy at the Green­house The­ater. Many of us can­not make local calls, like we do back in Nor­way; and many do not have a phone at all. Most every­one in the group wel­comes this dif­fer­enece, as we feel that we are on a kind of “retreat”, iso­lat­ed from dis­trac­tions, even though we are in the cen­ter of a rich­ly diverse the­ater com­mu­ni­ty.

    Our oasis, for now, is just not hav­ing the cell­phone.

    Like Cleese sug­gests, that cre­ative oasis is a state of mind, and can hap­pen in the mid­dle of the Windy City just as much as it can in the coun­try or an island.

    Bren­dan McCall
    Direc­tor, Ensem­ble Free The­ater Nor­way

  • If you re inter­est­ed to learn more about your sub-mind. search 4 Joseph Mur­phy,
    ramtha, and even greg braden & louise hay.

  • Leishalynn says:

    I dis­agree with John Cleese and oth­er men I’ve heard going on about the time and space that must be carved out of one’s life in order to be cre­ative. I’m a wife and moth­er and, like many oth­er female artists, I’ve had to be cre­ative as time and cir­cum­stance allow. I can’t not be inter­rupt­ed, that’s just how it is. The mas­cu­line arro­gance of turn­ing off the world and let­ting women run inter­fer­ence for them while they “think” is prob­a­bly why Mon­ty Python had no female mem­bers.

  • Cre­ativ­i­ty is giv­en free rein in the sub-con­scious mind, unfet­tered as it can be from con­ven­tions and rules. The dis­trac­tion of every­day pur­suits can detract from this through the cre­ation of clut­tered fod­der for the sub­con­scious. Whilst we do need an oasis of peace, there is no con­tra­dic­tion with the his­to­ri­an’s view. An inter-con­nect­ed mind focus­ing around the the­mat­ic issues can pro­vide rich fod­der for cre­ative insights from the sub­con­scious.

  • michel says:

    Dear maria popo­va,
    thank you for this pre­sen­ta­tion of John Cleese about find­ing your way to cre­ativ­i­ty. Just one pre­ci­sion : the talk was at the Flan­ders DC event for the World cre­ativ­i­ty forum in 2008, in Antwerp, Flan­ders, Bel­gium. That is why John Cleese makes an word play about flem­ish (i.e. actu­al­ly dutch as spo­ken in Bel­gium) and the sug­ges­tion to take with you an umbrel­la when you go to find your oasis in a bel­gian park . Greet­ings and txs one more time for all your efforts and con­tri­bu­tions

  • Wade says:

    Cleese’s descrip­tion of an “oasis” for stim­u­lat­ing cre­ativ­i­ty is his analy­sis of his own writ­ing process. I am ana­lyt­i­cal like him, and I’ve observed I do my best writ­ing when I’m not sit­ting at the PC with all its atten­dant dis­trac­tions, such as walk­ing to work, or in the show­er. I see it as “the body is busy, so the mind can be free”.

  • Roger Ellman says:

    I used to cre­ate a “mes­sage” dai­ly, for our trav­el com­pa­ny employ­ees to get them to expere­inec that space for a few moments (yes even just that!) before they start­ed work each day.
    The idea was to help them loose any idea of cor­po­rate ways and tone of voice and become them­selves again. It worked — they enjoyed the day more and they did bet­ter at their work. These dai­ly mes­sages I com­piled and I pub­lish them dai­ly on my web­site

    How­ev­er John Cleese rec­om­men­da­tions are all per­fect and spot on.
    Best wish­es, Cre­ate, Roger!

  • James D Mannan says:

    John­son seems to be address­ing what i might refer to as “macro-cre­ativ­i­ty” while Cleese is address­ing a more per­son­al expe­ri­ence of cre­ativ­i­ty. Seems to me apples and oranges.

  • Joza says:

    Leisha­lynn, your state­ment that “Mon­ty Python had no female mem­bers” is not cor­rect. Please research Car­ol Cleve­land. This brought her to the atten­tion of the pro­duc­tion team of Mon­ty Python’s Fly­ing Cir­cus. She appeared in 30 of the 45 episodes in the series. Some­times referred to as the “oth­er Python” or “the sev­enth Python” or even “The Female Python”, though she thinks this is too much (the Pythons them­selves per­formed and wrote their own mate­r­i­al). She played an arche­typ­al blonde bomb­shell. Stage direc­tions for her first sketch described her as “a blonde bux­om wench in the full bloom of wom­an­hood”. Pri­vate­ly called “Car­ol Cleav­age” by the oth­er Pythons, she called her­self the “glam­our stooge”. Cleve­land starred in all four of the Mon­ty Python films, includ­ing the dual roles of Zoot and Din­go, twin lead­ers of the maid­ens in the Cas­tle Anthrax, in Mon­ty Python and the Holy Grail. Her moth­er, Pat Cleve­land, appeared in Mon­ty Python on sev­er­al occa­sions, once as a men­tal patient with an axe embed­ded in her head.

  • Joza says:

    Some­times I won­der when speak­ers dis­cuss an idea if it works in all envi­ron­ments. John Cleese is an awe­some come­di­an, and talks about a cre­ative process based on his learn­ing and expe­ri­ences. I would assume that his cre­ativ­i­ty leaned more towards enter­tain­ment. I enjoyed learn­ing about his process. How­ev­er, the last 15 sec­onds of the pre­sen­ta­tion he briefly men­tions the prob­lem of pre­sent­ing these cre­ative ideas.

    What about the steel work­er, the accoun­tant, the judge, the gov­ern­ment work­er; are these envi­ron­ments con­ducive to allow cre­ative ideas? Will John C’s ideas of cre­ativ­i­ty work in their envi­ron­ments? No mat­ter what the busi­ness, should­n’t we under­stand how our busi­ness­es are recep­tive to cre­ativ­i­ty? No mat­ter what process we use to for­mu­late ideas (great or not so great) we have to under­stand our envi­ron­ment when it comes to pre­sent­ing our cre­ative ideas.

    Lets’ com­pare the enter­tain­ment busi­ness to a gov­ern­ment busi­ness. Let’s start by answer­ing the ques­tion, “what busi­ness would be more recep­tive to cre­ativ­i­ty; enter­tain­ment or gov­ern­ment”? Since I don’t have actu­al data I’m going to assume that based on the nature of the enter­tain­ment busi­ness, the enter­tain­ment busi­ness is more will­ing to allow cre­ativ­i­ty to flour­ish.

    So based on this infor­ma­tion I would assume that pro­vid­ing cre­ative ideas in the enter­tain­ment busi­ness may be more suc­cess­ful than the gov­ern­ment busi­ness because of the busi­ness cul­ture of accept­ing cre­ative ideas. So if you make cre­ative mis­takes in the enter­tain­ment busi­ness you might not be inclined to be dis­cour­aged with pro­vid­ing more ideas. On the oth­er hand, the gov­ern­ment work­er may be more dis­cour­aged based on the recep­tive­ness of accept­ing cre­ative ideas.

    My Point; It’s not just black and white. In cer­tain indus­tries you may have to be more tac­ti­cal in pre­sent­ing your cre­ative ideas. In some cas­es to get the cre­ative ideas placed in prac­tice you have to strip your­self from the idea. You have to make the own­er of the idea the per­son who will approve it to place it in prac­tice. And in many cas­es the orig­i­nal own­er of the idea is not will­ing to give up own­er­ship. That’s why it’s impor­tant to estab­lish a recep­tive envi­ron­ment for gath­er­ing ideas with­in an industry/business.

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