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.

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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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