4 Lessons in Creativity from John Cleese

From FastCoCreate:

There’s a certain generation (or two) that owes its twisted, awkward, scorchingly black sense humor to John Cleese. Famous for his work with the Monty Python films and television series, the BBC comedy Fawlty Towers, as well as feature films like A Fish Called Wanda, the writer, actor, comedian and film producer knows from funny.

But he also knows a thing or two about wrestling the creative beast, which is the topic Cleese was invited to speak about at last week’s Cannes International Festival of Creativity. Addressing a group of attendees from the Havas Media group, Cleese brought a storytelling flair to the topic of the creative process, something he’s been discussing for decades through his educational video company Video Arts, sharing tales of writing mishaps and lessons learned from leading creative and scientific minds.

Through a series of stories, Cleese spoke of the importance of succumbing to the unconscious mind, two key traits possessed by highly successful creative people, the necessity of allowing for contemplative thinking, and why all of these together result in creative breakthroughs. He touched on the points raised in his much-discussed 1991 lecture, but rounded them out and introduced new ones (plus, this piece won’t take you 36 minutes to read). Here are those stories and video:

A STORY ABOUT YOUR UNCONSCIOUS SAVING YOUR ASS; OR LETTING YOUR IDEAS BAKE

Cleese began his talk recounting one of his epic writing sessions with longtime writing partner Graham Chapman. While the two wrote arguably some of the most seminal comedic sketches of their generation, the partnership was not without its glitches. Like the time Cleese wrote and then lost a piece of work–and how that turned out to be the best thing that could have happened.

“I was embarrassed that I lost our work, so I rewrote it from memory, straight off in a hurry. Then I discovered the original and the one I’d done very quickly was better than the original. I didn’t spend any time thinking about it, so how could it be better than the original?”

“The only thing I could think was that my unconscious had been working on the sketch and improving it ever since I wrote it. I began to see a lot of my best work seemed to come as a result of my unconscious working on things when I wasn’t really attending to them.”

“I’m not talking about the Freudian unconscious but the intelligent unconscious. We can’t control our unconscious but we can look to how we can create the circumstance in which it becomes easier for us to work with our unconscious.”

A STORY ABOUT THE HABITS OF HIGHLY CREATIVE PEOPLE; OR HOW TO PLAY AND DEFER

As well as identifying that ideas and breakthroughs percolate in the deep recesses of our brain, Cleese talked about some of the key, practical traits of truly creative people. In doing so he told a story of Brian Bates, a psychology professor at Sussex University. Intrigued by how the creative mind works, Bates chose to study the work practices of architects, because the profession required the combination of two brains in the creation of beautifully groundbreaking yet structurally sound buildings.

“He did a very simple test. He asked various architects to name who, in their opinion, were the most creative architects in the field. He then asked those creative architects to tell him what they do from the moment they wake up to the moment they go to bed. He then went to the uncreative architects–without perhaps explaining that’s why he was talking to them–and asked them the same thing. Then he compared the two. He discovered two differences, and neither was to do with intelligence.”

“The first thing he discovered is that the creative architects knew how to play. They could get immersed in a problem. It was almost childlike, like when a child gets utterly absorbed in a problem. The second thing was that they deferred making decisions as long as they could. This is surprising.”

“If you have a decision to make, what is the single most important question to ask yourself? I believe it’s ‘when does this decision have to be made’? When most of us have a problem that’s a little bit unresolved, we’re a little bit uncomfortable. We want to resolve it. The creative architects had this tolerance for this discomfort we all feel when we leave things unresolved.”

“Why would those two things be importance? The playfulness is because in that moment of childlike play, you’re much more in touch with your unconscious. The second is that when you defer decisions as long as possible, it’s giving your unconscious the maximum amount of time to come up with something.”

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