John Cleese on how to be creative

John Cleese's 35-minute lecture on creativity is warm and funny and humane. I find myself disagreeing rather strongly with his central premise, though: Cleese advises giving yourself 30 minutes to sit quietly before being creative, letting all the nagging voices in your head quieten before you try to be creative. I've really found that by having good priority management -- the kinds of to-do lists recommended in Getting Things Done -- means that when distractions arise, I can put them into a queue for later treatment and clear my mind to work. That said, the advice on being unserious, on working together without shooting down each others' ideas, and so on, is fabulous.

John Cleese on Creativity (Thanks, Andreas!)


  1. Cleese is the undisputed leader of The Ministry of Silly Walks. I will gladly believe everything he says…no problem. Great talk!

    During his main time with Monty Python and ever since, Cleese has been known to do “How To” and inspirational corporate films and videos. I believe he even did a “How to Drive” film once for the British government. Cleese’s CV spans far before the Python years.

  2. I saw this earlier when featured on IO9, and as he was talking about creative “space-time bubbles” and whatnot, I just thought back to the stories about how another very creative and very British fellow, one Douglas Adams, was always rushing in a panic to finish the scripts for the original Hitchiker’s Guide to the Galaxy radio program in time for recording. He seemed to thrive not on the “space-time bubble” method of inspiration but rather in the “stressed out deadline approaching” method (at last as far as I can recall from the introduction to the book of HGttG radio scripts I had 20 years ago). 

    As a professional (non-creative) writer myself, I think looming deadlines can generate some creative solutions to problems, although probably more along the lines of quick, pragmatic solutions rather than the perfect solution.

  3. Keep a notebook of some sort, electronic or paper. Write down every good thought you have. 99% of your thoughts will look stupid after 6 hours, but the few that don’t, save. Read old thoughts from time to time and use them to free associate new ideas, sort of like that set of cards Eno uses.

    GTD is a good idea but has nothing to do with creativity. Everybody should be doing it whether they are dumb as a bag of cement or not. The best part of GTD is the task “sort”, that is, sorted by priority, by date and by LOCATION. With phones now having location oriented features, there is no excuse not to have your phone pop up suggestions of things to do, based on your task lists, as you cruise around, instead of spending your life going somewhere to do something then, for no explicable reason, backtracking to do something else.

  4. I agree with Cory here — I think for a lot of people, creativity tends to hit whenever it hits. Setting aside space for it where you can dedicate yourself to creativity can result in writers/artists/creativity block, but I think the underlying element is really that when you’re trying to do something creative, you need to be able to focus.

    Arguably, that’s true for any serious work, though. You have to be able to prioritize and work through things whether it’s creative writing or a rote dinner. For Cleese, he does that by isolating himself from distraction first, which works well for him, but I’m sure he still can’t “force it.”

    1. I took most of Cleese’s points to be about clearing away time to think, brainstorm and work (play?) with others to arrive at unique “creative” solutions. 

      I’m all about the 30 minutes to settle down. I’ve been that way my entire life no matter the subject at hand; university studies, music, writing, photography, concepting and problem solving involving creative solutions all have required a time to steer my mind away from the mundane and into a space where creative thinking can happens. 

      The biggest aha moment for me was the bit about Hitchcock and how he would deliberately diffuse heated situations when creativity needed to be at its peak. “We are pushing too hard.”

      This video has made my weekend. Fantastic find.

  5. Without watching this video (I don’t have 35 minutes right now) I am reminded of the video of Elliot Smith explaining how to write a song.  Paraphrased, he pretty much says “To write a song, you write a song.”  It’s completely off his radar that most people just don’t have the tools in their head like he does.  From the comments above me, it sounds like Cleese is able to explain it more universally.

  6. Most creative people (songwriters, book writers, etc.) will tell you that in the end it’s basically just a lot of hard work.  That’s on being creative in your own time and space.

    Being creative in the live sense is different.  That requires a certain mindset which may be found through meditation for some or turning up the radio and jumping around for others.  It depends on the individual.

  7. Cleese’s advice would work for me.  I get creative by turning off my conscious, planning self and just letting go.   (Of course, that way you never know what you get until you start.   A little hit-and-miss, I admit.)

    The point about GTD is a good one, but GTD doesn’t work for everyone.   For me it’s great for work but lousy for home.

  8. We had a high power RF switching system that was overly complex and ugly that had been done by a third party as part of a package. In addition there was no way to bypass many failure modes. My objective was to greatly reduce the number of switches and associated control logic and provide extensive bypassing options. After months of doing countless sketches I was getting nowhere. I was trapped in the same closed mode as the original designers.
    While on vacation I dreamt about the design but in my dream I looked at the outputs back toward the inputs and saw several possibilities that had eluded me and that was the breakthrough I needed. I was able to meet my objective.

  9. Let all the nagging voices in your head quieten.

    Then suddenly it comes to you:  “Crunchy Frog”.

  10. My guess is that Cleese’s advice wouldn’t work for everyone, because people do have different approaches to being creative.  In the end, if your livelihood depends on it, and you need to be creative at the drop of a hat, then I’m sure you’ll use whatever works.  His process would work for me as well.

    To do lists do absolutely nothing for me, but they work for some.  Organizing your thoughts is certainly helpful, so writing down snipits of ideas over the course of the day, or for me, and recording melodies before they disappear into the abyss of my mind, are the best ways to seed creativity.

    1. Cleese is absolutely right regarding me. I am fortunate that I can spend a huge amount of my time in the open mode, and I’ve learned to actively nurture it. I much prefer being there to the closed mode. In particular, on holiday I spend a week in that state. It’s fantastic and actually necessary for my creative process (as an engineer).

    1. I think that is the thing most commenters above miss. Cleese seems to mean creativity as in coming up with creative solutions to the problem/task at hand. Implementing them takes another sort of creativity, craft, confidence and stamina, and certainly for me the pressure of a deadline. But the time Cleese means to set aside for creativity is wandering time, giving your mind space to dance around the subject. It will present a solution not neccesarily at that same time, but having been intimate with it may bring a more creative solution to the task at a later time. More creative than the first thing that pops in mind if you disallow for wandering time – even though that first thing can be very creative.

      At least that’s what I got from it. Fair advice. Tolerate the anxiety that comes from postponing a decision, allow for wandering time, but stick to the solution once you’ve created it, and implement it with craft.

  11. Setting aside times when you can be quiet and reflect sounds a little like meditation. Shhh….. don’t say that word….. It’s better if we call it just…creative time…. ;) I think he makes a good point. Also sounds like he has given it alot of thought and analysis.

    1. I’m not sure you need to be quiet. You just need to not be distracted from the process. I can have very productive time discussing with other people that complement my thought process.

  12. I believe keeping some time to ‘do nothing’ contributes more to stabilize and think about your interests and about finding your interests. Internet is it’s main enemy.

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