by Josh Jones, Open Culture: http://www.openculture.com/2013/09/john-cleeses-philosophy-of-creativity-creating-oases-for-childlike-play.html
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, 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.
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
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.
Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness