John Cleese’s Philosophy of Creativity: Creating Oases for Childlike Play

Though he became known for the phys­i­cal com­e­dy of char­ac­ters like the irate own­er of a dead par­rot, a min­is­ter of sil­ly walks, and the always buf­foon­ish Basil Fawl­ty, John Cleese is actu­al­ly a very deep thinker. This will prob­a­bly come as no sur­prise to fans of Mon­ty Python’s intel­lec­tu­al humor, but it’s still a treat to see him, out of char­ac­ter, get­ting seri­ous about ideas, even if he can’t resist the odd joke or ten. His sub­ject? Cre­ativ­i­ty. His forum? Well, in the video above, we see Cleese at the 2009 World Cre­ativ­i­ty Forum in Ger­many. In a 2010 guest post on this talk, Maria Popo­va of Brain Pick­ings called the event “part cri­tique of modernity’s hus­tle-and-bus­tle, part hand­book for cre­at­ing the right con­di­tions for cre­ativ­i­ty.” What does John Cleese have to say about cre­at­ing those con­di­tions?

By com­bin­ing anoth­er talk from Cleese from 1991 (below), we are able to piece togeth­er a Cleese phi­los­o­phy of cre­ativ­i­ty. He begins in his ’91 talk by telling peo­ple what cre­ativ­i­ty is not, and why lec­tur­ing on it is “a com­plete waste of time.” The rea­son? It can­not be explained. “It is lit­er­al­ly inex­plic­a­ble.”

Draw­ing on research from his friend Bri­an Bates, a psy­chol­o­gist as Sus­sex Uni­ver­si­ty, Cleese claims that those con­sid­ered more cre­ative do not dif­fer in any sig­nif­i­cant way from their equal­ly intel­li­gent and tal­ent­ed peers, and there­fore, they do not pos­sess any spe­cial skills or abil­i­ties that would qual­i­fy as “cre­ativ­i­ty.” As a one­time stu­dent of the sci­ences at Cam­bridge, Cleese has a high regard for data and obser­va­tion, and in each of these talks, he applies a sci­en­tif­ic method to his sub­ject.

What, then, has he learned from observ­ing his own work habits and look­ing at the research? What can he pos­i­tive­ly say about cre­ativ­i­ty? For one thing, it is not a skill or an apti­tude, it is a “mood,” one Cleese describes as “child­like” in that it aids one in the abil­i­ty to play. Cleese makes a sim­i­lar point in his 2009 talk at the top, empha­siz­ing that acquir­ing this mood is dif­fi­cult but not impos­si­ble. As all artists know, gen­uine cre­ative insights occur when ratio­nal thought ceases—during dream­states or moments of absorp­tion so intense that self-con­scious­ness, anx­i­ety, and the needling cares of the day drop away. As Cleese put it at the World Cre­ativ­i­ty Forum, “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.” This explains why the offices of com­pa­nies like Google are full of toys, why the work­days of the Mad Men “cre­atives” often resem­ble preschool, and why artists’ work spaces tend to be so intrigu­ing to peer into. They are, as Cleese terms them, “oases” from the pun­ish­ing pace of the worka­day world.

In Cleese’s con­sid­ered opin­ion, such oases, both phys­i­cal and men­tal, are the pre­con­di­tions for child­like won­der to over­ride adult rou­tine ways of think­ing. Of course as Cleese and his hard-work­ing co-cre­ators also show us, a great deal of grown-up dis­ci­pline is required to bring cre­ative ideas to fruition. The trick, Cleese says, is in mak­ing the space to engage in child­like play with­out rely­ing on child­ish spontaneity—he rec­om­mends sched­ul­ing time to be cre­ative, giv­ing one­self a “start­ing time and a fin­ish time” and there­by set­ting “bound­aries of space, bound­aries of time.” Of course, this kind of mind­ful struc­tur­ing is some­thing only a mature adult mind can do. See­ing this grown-up side of Cleese gives us a new appre­ci­a­tion for the con­sis­tent­ly child­like char­ac­ters he’s cre­at­ed over the years, and for the role of con­scious atten­tion in safe­guard­ing and nur­tur­ing uncon­scious insight.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

David Lynch Explains How Med­i­ta­tion Enhances Our Cre­ativ­i­ty

Mal­colm McLaren: The Quest for Authen­tic Cre­ativ­i­ty

Mihaly Czik­szent­mi­ha­lyi Explains Why the Source of Hap­pi­ness Lies in Cre­ativ­i­ty and Flow, Not Mon­ey

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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  • leonardo says:

    Cleese’s 1991 talk on cre­ativ­i­ty in one of the most inspir­ing I’ve ever heard. And by the way, not only on cre­ativ­i­ty, but also on team­work, and even­tu­al­ly on enjoy­ing the part of life we spend on work.nI would have like to hear it back in 1991… But bet­ter late than nev­er

  • Ludo Segers says:

    I sus­pect (strong­ly) that John Cleese is address­ing a Bel­gian (Flem­ish) audi­ence in this video.

    • Gina B. says:

      Yes, he is. What they got wrong was the year. It was the 2008 forum (not the 2009 one), which took place in Antwerp, Bel­gium, in Novem­ber 2008.

  • kevroy says:

    Okay, so actors cast and play­ing their parts on Mad Men counts as actu­al cre­ativ­i­ty? Are you nuts?nAs a chef, my deep cre­ativ­i­ty when writ­ing new menus or par­tic­u­lar dish­es had no child­like play­ful­ness to it. I was angry and depressed, not “play­ful”. I used deep rea­son­ing when I cre­at­ed a new dish. True, I was in fact not in the kitchen jug­gling balls when I need­ed to come up with some­thing new, I was sit­ting on my porch con­cen­trat­ing deeply, my brain work­ing like a lab­o­ra­to­ry rat try­ing to get out of a maze. I real­ized that the courage to think in new direc­tions, teas­ing things apart and recom­bin­ing them, think­ing about fla­vors and tex­tures, rea­son­ing out steps and basic tech­niques to achieve a desired result, always yield­ed some­thing cre­ative. nI believe, for myself at least, cre­ativ­i­ty is tied to depres­sion, train­ing, and pri­or expe­ri­ence in a giv­en task.

    • rogerbix says:

      Remind me to nev­er eat at your restau­rant, because it sounds like you’re utter­ly mis­er­able, and I’m guess­ing that comes across in the food.

      • kevroy says:

        Real­ly. nHow about grilled tuna steak lard­ed through with gin­ger pick­led in rice wine vine­gar and hot pep­per, set on a bed of cele­ri­ac and but­ter emul­sion, dressed with leeks stir-fried in wal­nut oil and crushed salt-cured lime. nMaybe seared calve’s liv­er with port and veal stock reduc­tion, caramel sim­mered quince and Roque­fort lace.nNo? Maybe a nice slice of grilled mush­room con­fit and goat cheese “cheese­cake” terrine.nOr, seared foie gras with cin­na­mon tar­ragon vinai­grette and chest­nut brioche. (Made with chest­nuts boiled in cream in place of the butter.)nI don’t find Cleese fun­ny or even vague­ly amus­ing. In fact his work seems forced, self-con­scious and stilt­ed to me.nThere is some evi­dence that cre­ativ­i­ty and depres­sion are linked.

  • I believe the val­ue in Cleese’s dis­cus­sion is one of process. Under­stand­ing his process and the path of oth­er cre­atives that he’s worked with is enor­mous­ly ben­e­fi­cial for us all to dis­cov­er a way for­ward in allow­ing our inner most cre­ativ­i­ty to emerge. nI enjoyed his ref­er­ence to child-like qual­i­ties and helps to explain why I expe­ri­enced a jump in cre­ativ­ty when my grand chil­dren were born and when I immerce myself in their world. nGreat dis­cus­sion of dis­cov­er­ing our own inner process.

  • Rebecka Vigil says:

    I believe the inter­net is a awe­some source of inspi­ra­tion, BUT with that being said, I also believe we loose our own nat­ur­al cre­ativ­i­ty if over­done. I do believe we don’t look in our nat­ur­al sur­round­ings as we did before we were all glued to our elec­tron­ics. I am going to try Johns way, it makes sense to me.

  • Edward Fahey says:

    I have learned to work this into my cre­ative sys­tem. I can work for hours and hours on a book dur­ing the day, but I MUST hit a stop­ping point where I have tak­en that scene as far as I can. Then I float around for a cou­ple of hours doing phys­i­cal things in case some floater idea hap­pens to hit. Then — before I go to bed — I plant unde­vel­oped seed ideas to car­ry through those cre­ative times of sleep, and it is these that I start the next day’s work with. — I have also learned to trea­sure when my lap­top eats a scene because I know the recon­struc­tion will be rich­er and deep­er than the orig­i­nal.

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