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July 2012

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


Presentation: The need for engagement in education (redux)

Below is a ustream version of a short talk I did in the spring at TEDxOsaka. This repeats a lot of the stuff I (and many others) am always hammering on regarding school and the lecture approach to teaching.

What's the use of lectures?
Lecture_coverI mention Dr. Bligh's book in my presentation; I recommend the book. Bligh shares his vast experience as a college professor and supports his ideas and suggestions with good evidence. I wish we could all but get rid of the college lecture hall, but that is not going to happen soon. Still, there are things we can do to engage students that increase the effectiveness of the large classroom. Bligh highlights why the traditional style of a one-way, passive, teacher-knows-all approach to teaching does not work well and offers many tips for improvement. I also touched a bit on the approach advocated by Eric Mazur. Here's a longer video of Dr. Mazur explaining his approach.

Related links
Lecture Fail (Chronicle of Higher Education)
Article: 60% find lectures boring (only 60%?)
Interesting data on ineffective lectures
Tips for staying awake in boring lectures
Videos to help you rethink education, learning and school
The need for connection & engagement in education

Ken Burns on the power of story

Legendary documentary Ken Burns says that the best stories are about "One plus one equals three." A good story is more than simply the sum of its parts. There is something beyond the words and the data and the images. In this short film below by Tom Mason and Sarah Klein, Ken Burns givens a very candid and brief look into what he thinks story is all about. There is not just one way — one formula if you will — for describing what good story and good storytelling is. It's complicated and professional storytellers will give you different answers. However, there is a lot of good stuff in this very short film that should inspire you to think deeper about your own storytelling ideas and techniques in your own work. For example, Burns touches on the idea of truth in documentary storytelling. But as he says, there are many truths. This is a sentiment echoed by the work of Robert Mckee as well who has said “What happens is fact, not truth. Truth is what we think about what happens.” The film itself is a good example of what is possible with just first-person interview footage and positive manipulation of the material.

"We all think that an exception is going to be made in our case and we're going to live forever. Being a human is actually arriving at the understanding that that's not going to be. Story is there to remind us that it's just OK."  — Ken Burns

Storytelling that grabs the heart as well as the head

Map_japanLast week we took the Shinkansen as far as Sendai, and then spent several days driving a rental car 300 km up the winding coastline of Eastern Japan, visiting several of the towns which where hardest hit by the March 11, 2011 tsunami. You can read reports and look at the data to get a sense of the massive undertaking rebuilding the towns along the coast will take, but going to actually visit towns like Ishinomaki, Kesennuma, Rikuzentakata, Ofunato, Miyako, and several other smaller coastal villages was a genuine eye opener and reality check for us. Most of the time we were there, my wife and I did not know how to verbalize our reaction to what we saw. So we were silent. The scale and enormity of the damage was hard to comprehend. Even though I was looking at it with my own eyes, a part of me could not believe it. Then it dawns on you pretty quickly that the complete devastation to buildings and infrastructure is nothing compared to the deep and invisible pain and emotional suffering that people must cope with everyday. 

Ishinomaki_east   Ishinomaki_school
ABOVE Snaps I took a couple of days ago in Ishinomaki. The photo in the right is of Kadonowaki elementary school. The image on the left is in front of the school looking east toward the Pacific. This used to be a crowded urban area before the March 11, 2011 tsunami. (Click photo for larger view.)

Then and now: storytelling through first-person interviews
Just after our return to Nara Saturday, I discovered this short (14-min) film by Japan resident Paul Johannessen. In this short film I think Johannessen captures something that we were sensing ourselves when we were in Ishinomaki last week, but we couldn't verbalize what we were feeling. You might look at this film and just see it as a string of first-persion interviews with some compelling visuals interlaced, but I think it is much more than that.This is a good example of evocative storytelling through first-person interviews. Storytellers like famed documentary filmmaker Ken Burns like to say that a good story is an example of "1+1=3." That is, an experience for the listener/viewer that is in the end greater than the sum of its parts. Although this is a simple and short film, I think it passes the "1+1=3" test. Burns also says in this clip that story is about "being drawn to the things that grab your heart as well as your head." The arrangement and flow of the interviews and the style of the film do indeed grab your heart as well as your head. Of course, the story is not complete—this story is very much still evolving. And so it is too with our own stories. You don't always have to put a period at the end of the last sentence or wrap your story up in a pretty bow. After the film is finished, you want to know more. The lack of a clear ending I think is precisely one of the key messages of the film. The answer to the question of "What shall we do now?" asked in this film is evolving day to day in hundreds of towns and villages and for thousands and thousands of people all over Japan. I highly recommend that you spend the 14 minutes to really watch this film below.

It's Not Just Mud

SeasideI grew up in Seaside Oregon, directly on the other side of the Pacific from Ishinomaki. Our house was right on the beach. When I was a child we had a few emergency tsunami evacuations to the hills; at least one tsunami caused some minor damage. In those days we thought tsunamis in Oregon could be only relatively small and originating far away, allowing several hours time to evacuate. Now we know this is not the case. Recent scientific discoveries, much of it involving useful historic data from Japan, tells us the Cascadia fault just off the Oregon Coast is a very real seismic threat to the entire region, including a massive tsunami similar to the one which destroyed so many lives in Tohoku. My hometown of Seaside, Oregon is particularly vulnerable. Seeing so much destruction on the Tohoku coast, I obviously pondered what a similar event would do to the Oregon coast. Part of the reason we spent so many days on the Eastern Japan coast was to educate ourselves better in hopes that we can help spread the word to folks in Seaside to take the threat very, very  seriously. There is an effort in the Seaside School District to build new schools in the hills of Seaside, safe from the tsunami threat. This is just one thing that must be done (schools are currently near the beach), but it will take a herculean sales job to convince people to come up with the money it will take for a threat that seems like an abstraction unless you really see what a large tsunami can do.  The great pain inflicted upon Ishinomaki and other towns, including the tragic loss of so many children, is unbearable even to imagine. At the very least the lessons from Japan—the most prepared country in the world regarding earthquakes and tsunamis—should be used to save as many people as possible in Japan and around the world when future events occur.