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.

Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.