Thoughts on creativity from John Cleese

"By creativity, I simply mean new ways of thinking about things." - John Cleese

I picked up John Cleese’s newest book, Creativity: a short and cheerful guide, on a whim. I’ve started blogging about creativity, so it seems like a handy thing to read a book about the topic from a master comedian, right?

The subtitle “a short and cheerful guide” does not overpromise. At just over 100 pages, and sparsely typeset, I read it in about 20 minutes. Cleese has a certain efficiency of words that cut straight to the heart of the matter, as in the useful definition of creativity in the book’s opening line:

“By creativity, I simply mean new ways of thinking about things.”

About the book

The thesis of the book is that creativity can be found in many areas in life, and it’s possible to “teach people how to create circumstances in which they will become creative.”

Although succinct, the book reads as if Cleese were speaking it. The only things breaking up the text are the chapter markers – this is not a book with easy-to-follow subheadings, lists, or pull quotes. It does have cute lemurs, though!

My takeaways

1. The unconscious brain will keep working creatively.

Cleese reflects on his experience of trying to write something during the day, struggling, then waking up in the morning with a great idea. He asserts that his unconscious brain was still working away at the problem while he was sleeping, so it would be ready to deliver the creativity in the morning.

I can relate to this – I often have great ideas in the shower, or when I’m walking. There’s something about these unconscious, autopilot activities that allow the brain to wander and for ideas to percolate.

2. There are two different modes of thinking: the hare brain and the tortoise mind.

This idea, that Cleese explores in his book, differentiates the conscious brain and the unconscious brain further. The hare brain is the one that consciously thinks, and the tortoise mind is the unconscious, playful side of the brain. I’ve also heard this being referred to as lizard brain and monkey brain.

Creative people, in this theory, are more in touch with their tortoise mind. They know how to play, and also defer making decisions for as long as possible. Why defer decisions? Because if you delay making a decision until the deadline, you leave space for new information and new ideas:

“Creative people are much better at tolerating the vague sense of worry that we all get when we leave something unresolved.”

When engaged in play, you’re not trying to avoid making mistakes. You’re just being spontaneous, and seeing what happens. It’s experimentation.

3. Interruption is the greatest killer of creativity.

This is bad news for those of us who are currently spending a lot of time at home with small children who are learning remotely, aka me. Not a day goes by that I don’t lament the creativity that could have been, had my days not been full of interruptions!

Cleese notes that while interruptions might be external (kids, work, etc), they also may come from inside. If you’re constantly worried about making a mistake, for example, it can be paralysing to creativity.

He also likens distractions to the challenges faced when meditating. Meditation is a way of practising what happens when the mind is distracted. Being able to notice those distracting thoughts and not get hung up on them is the work of meditation.

In closing

I enjoyed the book, though I’m not sure how much I really took away from it that will affect my own creativity. I tended to just agree with everything that he said, which isn’t a terrible thing, but also doesn’t make for many actionable insights.

The book ends with a series of short (even for this book) hints and suggestions for encouraging creativity. I was interested to see that many of these overlapped with my own thoughts.

For instance, Cleese suggests looking for inspiration from other artists, embracing failure, making mistakes early and iterating on them, and the importance of brevity when trying to say something quite specific.

Hence the 100 pages.

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