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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