Presentation: The need for engagement in education (redux)
TEDxKyoto held Sept 16 (Update: videos now live)

Tips on how to be more creative by John Cleese

Assembling talking points, lists, and tedious outlines is a rather drab exercise that neither challenges your creative abilities or leads to a rewarding experience for you or your audience. But if you are going to do something different, if you are going to craft a talk that engages, illuminates, and even inspires, then the preparation is going to take creativity. This is especially true for the creation of a short-form presentation such as a TED/TEDx talk, or an Ignite or Pecha Kucha presentation, etc. In spite of much our formal schooling's efforts to mold us into compliance seekers rather than curious and intelligent creatives, we are still at our core creative beings. Creativity is in all of us—in fact it's who we are. And yet, regardless of our professions, we can benefit greatly from being even more creative. So how to do that? One way to start is to listen to the legendary John Cleese below and incorporate his tips into your daily work and life where possible. This speech is from 1991 and is as relevant as ever.


Can you learn to be more creative?
In case you don't have 30 minutes to watch this video,  I have summarized Cleese's thoughts here. Early on Cleese refers to the late UC Berkeley psychologist Donald MacKinnon (1903-1987), who Cleese says, reached many of the same conclusions scientifically that he arrived at over the years through experience. But Cleese also prefaces his speech with the idea that any talk about how to be more creative is futile since it's one of those things that just can't be explained. "It is literally inexplicable," Cleese says, albeit a bit tongue in cheek. Cleese says that while it's difficult to say what creativity is, he can at least shed light on what it is not. "Creativity is not a talent, it is a way of operating," Cleese said. "Creativity is not an ability that you either have or do not have. It is...absolutely unrelated to IQ." Dr. Mackinnon also found that, beyond a certain minimal level of intelligence, creativity and intelligence were not necessarily related. What makes some intelligent people more creative than other intelligent people it seems is that the more creative people are able to get themselves into a particular mood, according to Cleese (and Mackinnon's research). A mood or a state "that allowed their natural creativity to function." Mackinnon described this as an ability to play and even to be childlike. In this state people are able to explore and discover, even though there may not be any immediate practical purpose to their play. "Play for its own sake," Cleese stated, is the key.

Open & closed
Cleese says that we can describe the way people function at work in terms of two basic modes: open and closed — and creativity is not possible in the closed mode. The closed mode is the one we are in most of the time at work, running around busy in an "active...slightly anxious mode." The closed mode is not a bad thing, of course, and is often crucial for getting things done — but it is not creative. By contrast, the open mode, says, Cleese, is more relaxed, less purposeful, more contemplative, and more inclined to humor. "Humor," Cleese says, "always accompanies  a wider perspective." The open mode is more playful and curiosity can operate for its own sake since there is less pressure to get to a particular goal quickly. Play, says Cleese, "allows our natural creativity to surface."

Conditions needed to become more creative
Cleese elaborates on five factors that may lead to the open mode and thus at least improve conditions for creativity to flourish. They are Space, Time, Time, Confidence, and Humor. (Not surprisingly, these factors are often lacking in schools due to the regimented, institutional approach to most schooling around the world and the compliance-driven, beauracratic atmosphere that besets many large organizations.)

(1) Space. You can't be playful and creative in your usual environment with its usual pressures, Cleese says, since to cope with all the pressures you need to be in the closed mode. Therefore, you need to create a space which gets you away from the everyday stresses and pressures of your job. It needs to be a kind of fortress of solitude in which you will not be disturbed.

(2) Time. The space you create for yourself must be maintained uninterrupted for a specific amount of time. Cleese suggests 90 minutes as a minimum. It is difficult (impossible?) to get yourself in the open mode by giving yourself space, say, ten minutes here and fifteen minutes there — it doesn't work that way. Without a specific starting and finishing time, it is too easy to drift back into the closed mode of putting out fires and dealing with the everyday stress of reacting to problems.

(3) Time. You have now used space and time to create an oasis of quiet, but it is also key that you not take the easy way out just to get the problem solved. Cleese believes, and Donald MacKinnon reached a similar conclusion, that the more creative people are willing to tolerate the discomfort of not solving the problem quickly in order that they may discover a much better and more original solution. The more creative people, then, put in more pondering time. The aim should be to give yourself the maximum pondering time possible while still being decisive once your solution is reached.

(4) Confidence. To play is to experiment and try new things, and this necessarily leads to making, for a lack of a better term, mistakes. We must remain open to trying anything without fear of it not working out. You cannot be playful if you are frightened of being wrong. "Nothing will stop you being creative so effectively as the fear of making a mistake," Cleese says. You must have the confidence to be free to play. Realizing that there is no such thing as "a mistake" while you are experimenting and pondering in the open mode will help you be more creative.

(5) Humor. Humor gets us from the closed mode to the open mode "faster than anything else," Cleese says. Laughter creates relaxation and humor widens our perspective. The problem is, people confuse serious with solemn. We can be quite serious indeed while still using humor to examine, ponder, and even discuss very import issues. Laughter does not necessarily make what you are working on any less serious. On the other hand, solemnity, says Cleese does nothing more than serve pomposity and egotism of those who are threatened by the freedom and creative thinking that can be generated by humor. "Humor is an essential part of spontaneity, and an essential part of playfulness — an essential part of the creativity that we need to solve problems, no matter how serious they may be."

In the spirt of factor five above, please enjoy this skit called The Argument Clinic from Cleese's early work with Monty Python's Flying Circus in 1972. This is still one of my favorite bits. We used to watch this at our Philosophy Club meetings in my college days at OSU.

Final points
While you are in the open mode, you must keep your mind around your subject, Cleese says. You can daydream, but you need to gently keep bringing your mind back to the problem. "If you just keep your mind resting against the subject in a friendly but persistent way, sooner or later you will get a reward from your unconscious." If you put in the pondering time first, this reward may come as what feels like a sudden insight from nowhere or an epiphany. Cleese says that it can be very rewarding to create a space and time to play with others on a problem as well. However, it is important that your partner or small group members not create an atmosphere that is defensive. In closing Cleese touches on the ideas of random connections and intuition, and the ideas of Edward DeBono and "intermediate impossibles" that lead to more creative thinking. Finally Cleese offers amusing advice on "how to stop your subordinates from being creative."

Recent interview with John Cleese on creativity.
Below Cleese touches on creativity and "slow" and "fast" thinking.

Presentation: A few minutes with John Cleese on creativity



Christina Vasbo

Great way to tell how to become creative. And finally, how to avoid getting creative people in your company. Ha ha nice humor. The English humor is very similar to Danish humor. I can see that clip is from Denmark with Danish subtitles. Really good post.

Phil Sorentino

WOW! As a Humor Consultant for 31 years, this is among the best stuff ever! Thanks
PS Put Phil Sorentino in your YouTube search and enjoy!

Julie Muller

I'm so happy to see that creativity can be detailed in this way. Creativity and humor have literally saved my working life! As a Business English teacher, I've taught some very stoic groups. Last year I was in Sudan teaching the Chinese. When they realized that one can laugh and have a good time while learning a lot of English, they relaxed and did the same. They came into the classroom everyday with a smile on their faces. Humor and creativity - it saves lives!!

Kris Reeds

Great video, I have a big problem with creativity and somehow this video is really a great help, thanks for sharing.


For me,indeed space and time are the most important things for creativity. Give me enough time and freedom, I can do almost any thing.

Verify your Comment

Previewing your Comment

This is only a preview. Your comment has not yet been posted.

Your comment could not be posted. Error type:
Your comment has been saved. Comments are moderated and will not appear until approved by the author. Post another comment

The letters and numbers you entered did not match the image. Please try again.

As a final step before posting your comment, enter the letters and numbers you see in the image below. This prevents automated programs from posting comments.

Having trouble reading this image? View an alternate.


Post a comment

Comments are moderated, and will not appear until the author has approved them.

Your Information

(Name and email address are required. Email address will not be displayed with the comment.)