In the middle of these extraordinary times, while we’re all stuck at home, we’re trying to stay productive, but we’re also trying to stay creative.
Now, what am I missing?
I’m here today with actor, screenwriter, producer, comedian, author, creative thinker John Cleese.
Who you may know as co founder of the Monty Python comedy troupe, among many other things.
He also wrote and starred in a fish called Wanda, which is one of my favorite movies.
I’m talking to him today in his role as an author on the subject of creativity, his new book.
Creativity a short and cheerful guide is just that.
I know that you’ll be happy to know that it took me less than an hour to read it.
All of us writers know that writing long is easy, but writing short is extremely difficult.
So thank you, john Cleese for joining me today for this conversation.
Very pleased you’re the first person to read it under an hour.
Everyone else says just over an hour, which is perfect because that’s all you have to spend.
Not really it’s you know, you can just borrow some buddies and then hand it back in one hour later.
You have some idea how to be creative but what you said just now reminds me of I think it was Mark Twain who once said, I’m sorry, this is such a long letter, but I didn’t have time to write a shorter one, which is wonderful remark.
Well, I had the time to write a shorter book because I’ve been thinking about this for so long.
Really the last, not exaggerating the last 55 years that I’ve sort of slowly put pieces together from what I read and from what people have been telling me and then I was able to simplify it and not put anything in there.
That was essential to understanding how you become more creative because if I had been a psychologist I would have put in information about people who travel a lot in their childhood are likely to be more creative, which is awesome.
Have no use to anyone unless they can move backwards in time.
So this is the bare bones I congratulate you for being the first person read it in less than an hour [LAUGH]
Well, I appreciate that you got right to the point and I have to say I went and looked at some of the videos you have been talking about it for a very long time and I found one that you did in 1991.
And I thought it was an oxymoron at first, but then I realized you were very serious, but how do you think about that?
And what I’d like to start by asking you is that you talk about creativity as not being anything to do with IQ.
It has nothing to do with talent, that it’s a mode.
Not a, the way that I would sum up your book in a headline which I may do for this piece is creativity is a process.
It’s not a destination.
Let’s talk about your thinking about basically.
First off, what is creativity to you?
It’s not something that is a lofty, giant Nobel Peace Prize winning thing.
So let’s talk about your definition of creativity.
I think is just being able to have better ideas.
In everything from flower arranging to quantum mechanics, there’s always a way of doing something better.
And a lot of what I have learned comes from the world of sports games.
And I just think anybody can use it.
If they wanted to come up with slightly better ideas.
I mean the problem is you can go on doing the same thing all the time, but you’re not really learning.
People think if they’ve done a job for 30 years that they really understand it.
The answer is they only understand it if they’ve been trying to learn.
But if they’d just been doing it every day and saying, see how good I am, then they’re never going to get better.
So this is a chance of figuring out better ways of doing things.
I mean, with your logical mind, you can figure out slight improvement.
You see what I mean?
But if you’re gonna come up with a really new idea, I think it’s gonna pop up through this creative process.>>Well then let’s talk about the process early on some of your lectures, you talked about the open mind versus the closed mind.
But in your book, which I don’t know it’s an expanded pamphlet or a novella.
Or even a very long PowerPoint presentation.
You talk about the tortoise and the hare, or that is your analogy for it.
So take us through what you mean the way of operating, the operating mode and how you describe it.
Well, yes, the ideas came from a lot of different the first actually came from California from Berkeley, a guy called McKinnon, who was an academic, news psychologist.
He was, an extraordinary guy used to help choose people that they would parachute.
Behind enemy lines during the war, and then he got interested in creativity but in the professions rather than in the arts and he particularly fascinated by architects because they have to be very practical as well as very good aesthetically and he just went to all the Most creative architects as defined by what their colleagues thought and said to them, what are you doing the morning right from the moment you get up to the time you go to bed and then he went to the non creative architecture there.
We didn’t tell them that, that was why [LAUGH] he was talking.
And he asked the same question and what Came up with two elements to the important one is that it was they had the ability to play.
Some people even as they get older and older and retain the ability to play which children have I mean, the kitten actually called it.
Childlike, and then I started thinking about it.
I thought well the reason that children can can play is in a childlike way is that the parents are minding the shop They don’t have lots of responsibilities and that came from another book called Homo Ludens.
Playing man, a Dutch historian who for some reason wrote this book and said that play has got to be absolutely separate.
From ordinary life, you can’t play if you’re surrounded by interruptions and responsibilities.
And then I read a book called handbrake taught his mind by guy called Guy Claxton and I realized that it was all about a slower, quieter, more Must have what almost meditational way of thinking, instead of that very quick, sharp, rapid, slightly anxious form of thinking that we are in most of our professional lives as we get older.
So I began to see that you could only Play if you created a space to play, where you in a funny kind of way you recreate what children were lucky enough to have, in other words, no interruptions, no responsibilities.
And so you just need to find a space where you’re not going to be interrupt.
And then you need to give yourself an hour and a quarter an hour and a half, just to play because the first 15 or 20 minutes, all you can think of, is the things you should be doing.
Instead of just But then the mind slowly settles as I say a little bit like what is philosophy you know the glass of cloudy water.
If you just sit there the cloudiness eventually sort of drops Seconds and you get a bit clearer.
And then you can just stop playfully not beating your brains out with a furrowed brow but just stop playing around with whatever idea it is interesting you at that time might be a sketch or it might be a better way to Run an office, it doesn’t matter.
So I looked through all of your notes and reduced your formula for how to play to spit and you’ve said this space, time, time, confidence and humor.
So we talked about space, get yourself in a room or in a refrigerator box or whatever it is.
[INAUDIBLE] Start off because interruptions kill creativity like nothing else.
Okay, then set yourself an hour an hour and a half so that you’re not overly guilty about taking the time and
That’s good but it also it’s good just to give you a bit of time to settle into the graded mode.
[CROSSTALK] You see, okay,
Then when it starts where you then have an hour of actually playing which is what you need that that amount of time because it’s a big chunk anyway, so you want to once you’re in a creative mode, you might get at least an hour’s worth it While you can set a timer on your iPhone or whatever your devices [LAUGH] to give you that okay and then you need the time to let your mind loosely wander, not be Thank you.
Just keeping it around the subject and the knowledge that you met you drift off just like you’re doing meditation but it gives keep coming back to it my old friend no longer with us bill Goldman, who got two screenplay, Oscar said that he used to refuse writing a scene.
He just write a very short description of the scene five or six words and put it on the top of the typewriter.
So when he was just sitting there imagining every now and again he go, Yeah, and he would come back a bit like meditation people coming back to the breath.>> Well and you talked about confidence and as a parent, when you’re giving kids crayons, there is no wrong in art.
Yeah.>>You got to cancel playing.
You’re not doing that right.
People tell adults that missed which is maybe why they lose The interest or engagement and wanting to make mistakes.
So I think that in our educational system, there’s an awful lot of emphasis about getting it right.
You see what I mean?
It’s sort of learning things and no, that’s wrong.
mnpg use of what said he got a question when he was a Kid name a Russian composer and he wrote Rachmaninoff and the teacher said, No, it’s Tchaikovsky.
It’s that kind of attitude.
And when I wrote a brother, which he does, let’s say on time when I was 15, I thought it was really quite good because the whole essay, a whole LSA consisted of me giving excuses why I hadn’t had time to write the essay.
it was quite
Yeah very clever.
Nobody said hey please is interesting or you got a little bit of talent.
They all said No, please, this isn’t a proper essay.
So it’s not that he’s bullied us.
It’s just that it’s gently squeezed out of us.
Sorry, I’ve got a mosquito is that generally it’s just gently squeezed out of us until we just think in terms of we just got to get it right all the time.
And that’s terribly damaging.
Well, it’s, it limits how we think about the world.
And it leads to, as I say, creativity is a process, not a destination, and it makes it all about the destination, right?
Somebody once said to me, you know, if you’re sad, you have sad thoughts.
If you’re angry, you have angry thoughts and all that and it’s just about.
Being getting in a creative mood so that you have creative thoughts.
What about humor?
What is the component of humor that comes into play here?
Well, what happens is I’m so sorry.
I’m sitting here and I Wasn’t very creative.
Again immediately is driving I better let it bite me.
Sorry, where was I?
Well, you were humorously explaining to us what the purpose of humor is.
Yes, well, I think that when human beings are relaxed and spontaneous then human just arises without anybody trying to make it happen, it’s just the natural stage of humans that they’re humorous and relaxed and they’re laughing a lot.
If they are feeling spontaneous if they are not feeling stressed, and that’s what we’re trying to create that kind of mood and if you’re in a small group, trying to have ideas together then again What do you have to do is to have it get people have to have a sort of trust in the people that they’re working with, so that they can say something without having first of all to.
To check your work if I say this will people think I’m stupid, you got to go past that point.
And that’s why I say that when you’re in a creative mode, there’s no such thing as a mistake.
Now later on when you’ve had an idea and developed it And played with it, then you bring in your critical mind to see whether it’s a good idea or whether bits of it are good and bits not so good.
But you mustn’t bring that critical mind in too soon or you’ll never get started.
I often feel a bit sorry for English graduates, who might start writing their first novel and they write the first sentence it always says It’s a bit like William Faulkner, you know?
And then they write the next sentence and they say, no, that’s DHRS.
In other words, you might, if you start bringing that critical mind and in the very beginning, that’s gonna kill you, you got to be able to play and know that it doesn’t matter if you make a mistake, just like Kids in the playground.
And so that’s your analogy.
tortoise is the open mind, be relaxed, take your time chill, like wander and then want to be creative because the fast mode that we’re in most of the time they have brains that will take care of most everyday things.
As an editor who oversees a lot of writers, I live in the world of deadlines and I love your approach to deadlines.
So let’s talk about deadlines.
I think it’s terribly difficult to really create Create if you’re under time pressure.
And that’s why in my observations of British presses, I could never understand why they were so drawn to cliche.
And the answer is it cliches.
You see what I mean?
If you come up with a cliche, it just saves time.
And when you’re dealing with time crush you go into stereotypical ways of thinking.
So you’ve got to try and get rid of that time pressure, and I once had a chance to meet.
The guy wrote, China Town, one of the greatest films of all time, Robert Town and I said but when you’re doing rewrites when something’s gone wrong with the movie and you got to reshoot a scene the next day he I said, How do you stay loose so he said I just forget that I’m have time limitation now I don’t know how to do that.
Just have not to have time limitation or else that pushes you into stereotypical thinking.
And never, never make a decision before the deadline right use all of that.
That time.>> I mean you have to figure out when to take a decision and that’s a real world thing.
You know, you got to take it this afternoon.
Not until November.
But that’s real world.
Well, once you’ve figured out when you got to take it, why take it before it, Because you might get new ideas and you might get new information.
So what are you rushing it for?
And the answer is a lot of people don’t like leaving things unresolved.
And the other thing which I mentioned earlier but didn’t go into that Robert McKibben found, about the creative people as they were much better.
Tolerating, leaving things unresolved because people want clarity and creative people are quite good at being with confusion sort of saying, Well, I don’t really know at this point, but that’s okay.
I don’t have to.
And you also talk about something that I love which is that your brain whether you think so we’re not keeps working on problems even after you think you’ve solved them.
And you shared a story about Losing a script and rewriting it.
Can you share that story?
I wrote a script with Graham Chapman and then I lost it and I was embarrassed because I knew he’d be angry with me and I’m very vague.
I’m the professor.
You absent minded Professor without qualifications for being a professor.
And so I wrote it out from memory and then I found the original When I compared the two and the one I’d written out for memory was quite a bit better.
It was just neater and crisper and the wording was more precise and more.
You know, what’s that thing that Alexander Pope said brevity is the soul of wit.
It just had that wiki a neat.
Quality to it and I thought but how about why I wasn’t trying to improve it.
I was just trying to remember it.
So my mind my unconscious mind must be working on it even after I’d finished writing the first writing it the first time and I think that the key idea in all of this which we hardly mentioned.
It’s really original stuff comes from the unconscious.
And it’s only in a mood of relaxation play, that you could hear the little promptings from the unconscious and if people think it’s a bit woolly, you know, clean.
It’s a bit woolly isn’t it?
You know that.
Who’s the go vendor?
The light bulb is this mosquitoes driven him.
[LAUGH] What was his name?
Used to sit there when he wanted to have ideas and he used to sit there in an armchair with a little Ball bearings in his hand, this metal plate.
And he’d sit there because he thought he got his best ideas just in that sort of hinterland between being fully awake and being asleep.
And the idea was that if he actually fell asleep, he dropped But ball bearings they’d hit the plate making noise wake him up again it pick up the ball bearings again.
So this guy had more patterns than anyone in the world got his best ideas when he was in that slightly dopey stated Einstein describing his own methods said a couple of things he said First of all, when he was thinking he could not describe to anyone else in words what it was that he was thinking it was just going on.
He couldn’t describe it.
He said sometimes, part of my decision making is muscular.
Musk your feelings of musk.
And I don’t know what that feels like.
But I mean when you consider these great minds we’re having all these little promptings from their unconscious.
It’s like when they did a very good test on people’s ability to recall Chinese ideograms they showed a group these ideograms and they came back a week later and they said we’re gonna show you some more and you saw some last week.
Tell us what you saw last week and they.
As you get was impossible to remember but then they repeated the experiment so to say to people tell us which ones you saw last week, they said, tell us which ones you kind of like.
When you look at some of them you think like that was not such a nice shape.
And then they discovered that the ones that they liked were the ones they’d seen the previous week.
So that’s the unconscious.
He doesn’t say, hey, you saw that last week.
It says, hey, that’s nice.
You see what I mean?
So what the messages from the unconscious are really quite vague and they’re not neatly printed out on a little strip of paper.
Well, I have to admit I had never heard that story of Edison.
Most people associate the stories with him about the light bulbs and the failure and he made 1000 ways not to make a light bulb right.
That’s how we ->> Worried about making mistakes because he said everything wasn’t a mistake.
It was another act of learning.
People think yeah once some journalist is supposed to have said what do you how do you feel about making mistakes?
Every time he made a lot but that didn’t work.
He learned something new and that’s the attitude we need to have.
There’s no such thing as a mistake.
well we’re living through a rather an extraordinary time for many reasons.
And there’s a global pandemic that has many people locked up in their homes, looking at their computers, binge watching, playing on their phones.
So assuming that you’re lucky financially and from a health perspective to take a moment and.
Think about creativity.
We have a lot of tech in the world we have social and crowdsourcing platforms.
So if you could put out a call to the world to crowdsource a creative idea, what would it be?
What would you like us [UNKNOWN]
I would like to say to your particular audience, that technology is fine, but it must not stop us thinking
A lot of scientists, they get so excited about feeding stuff in their computer and then seeing what the computer tells them.
That’s not really thinking on the film set my particular bug is that they Use radio mics and every other take they are coming up and adjusting the radio mic in your attic.
Excuse me, john.
I say why don’t you use an old fashioned boom.
And they look at me as a boom I say yeah, the the radio mic was invented for wide shots where you can’t get a boom in So why you use it when you can get a boom and you see and they don’t kind of Well, because the greatest failure of technological thing is to think we have this technology and therefore we must use it.
A wonderful book written by a man called postman P-O-S-T-M-A-N.
I forgot his first name.
He was a professor of communications and it’s called Technopoly.
And it’s all about the downside of technology which is not to say it’s not an attack on technology but it’s saying this is what you got to watch out.
If you’re dealing with a lot of technology.
You have to Look at how you can trick yourself into thinking that you don’t have to think anymore and thorough David Thoreau said about technology that is an improved way to an unimproved end.
The more you’re into technology.
It’s like scientists the great problem a scientist is they’re not interested in the philosophy of science.
So they tend not to examine their own assumptions, which is Terrible.
They want to go on this doing science.
So people in technology should always be thinking of what are the limitations of technology.
So your crowdsource project would be for us to step away from our technology actually
step away from it, but be very critical about what it can do for us and what it.
Can’t do for us.
So do the opposite of what the scientists do the thing.
What are our assumptions?
Well, I think you hit the nail on the head there with the idea that here in Silicon Valley, some of the more creative thinkers I’ve certainly met my career.
Technology is not an end.
It’s a means to an end.
And if you don’t know what the end is, you’re lost.
That’s very good.
And I think that’s the, everyone has a hero and I have several, and I think that Richard Fineman.
The physicist, his attitude was lovely and somebody.
He I read a quote from him recently and he said, he said something like, I rather live in a pleasant world of not really understanding anything properly.
Then living in a world where I pretended to myself I understood everything.
I just think the looser we are and the more interested we are looking at our own assumptions, then the more likely we are to finish up the right place.
Now you’ve got to leave room for magic.
Well, the magic comes from the unconscious.
Well, thank you, John Cleese and your mosquito for joining us today.
And talking about creativity.
Now, I think you magic to mount is that was very annoying because there’s nothing you can do about them you know unless you have one of those big flip jobs.
Anyway, that was great fun.
I hope people enjoyed it.