Do you know this guy shown above? Think hard and I’ll bet you’ll get it. The man and his talent are icons. And he represents the creativity bottle itself. He was a master of creative thinking techniques.
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Yet John Cleese is both an inspiration and somewhat of a mystery. His legend, unfortunately, has obscured much his story’s true value. He was, in many ways, an exceptional talent. He, like many talented creatives, managed to see the world through a different lens and helped others to do so as well.
Although obviously intelligent, he showed no special early aptitude. His extraordinarily talent and creativity was very much the product of a method and it is one which we can all follow.
“Creativity is not a talent. It is a way of operating.”
Much has been said about how creativity works, its secrets, and what we can do to optimize ourselves for it.
I recently re-watched his fantastic 1991 lecture on creativity and like always, seem to takeaway something new each time. He offers a recipe for creativity, delivered with his signature blend of insight and comedic genius. Specifically, Cleese discusses the concept of being open and closed and outlines “the 5 factors that you can arrange to make your lives more creative”.
Creative thinking techniques … open & closed
To get a full grasp of Cleese’s model for creativity you need to understand the interplay of two modes of operating — open, where we take a wide-angle, abstract view of the problem and allow the mind to ponder possible solutions, and closed, where we zoom in on implementing a specific solution with narrow precision.
He concludes 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.”
We need to be in the open mode when pondering a problem — but! — once we come up with a solution, we must then switch to the closed mode to implement it. Because once we’ve made a decision, we are efficient only if we go through with it decisively, undistracted by doubts about its correctness.
Most work cultures are necessarily dominated by closed thinking. It’s no surprise most people in power are fond of displaying decisive powers:
“The most creative people have learned to tolerate (that) discomfort for much longer. Just because they put in more pondering time there solutions are more creative.”
Cleese goes on to caution against a trap in this duality, one particularly hazardous in politics:
To be at our most efficient, we need to be able to switch backward and forward between the two modes. But — here’s the problem — we too often get stuck in the closed mode. Under the pressures which are all too familiar to us, we tend to maintain tunnel vision at times when we really need to step back and contemplate the wider view.
This is particularly true, for example, of politicians. The main complaint about them from their nonpolitical colleagues is that they’ve become so addicted to the adrenaline that they get from reacting to events on an hour-by-hour basis that they almost completely lose the desire or the ability to ponder problems in the open mode.
Creative thinking techniques business … the 5 factors you need for creativity
“You can’t become playful, and therefore creative, if you’re under your usual pressures.”
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 pressures of your job. You need a kind of fortress of solitude in which you will not be disturbed.
“It’s not enough to create space; you have to create your space for a specific period of 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 almost impossible to get yourself in the open mode by giving yourself space, say, ten minutes here and fifteen minutes there.
“Giving your mind as long as possible to come up with something original,” and learning to tolerate the discomfort of pondering time and indecision.
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 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.
“Nothing will stop you being creative so effectively as the fear of making a mistake.”
To play is to experiment and try new things, and this necessarily leads to making 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.
Humor and the creativity bottle
“The main evolutionary significance of humor is that it gets us from the closed mode to the open mode quicker than anything else.”
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.”
Cleese concludes with an awesome explanation of the premise and promise of his recipe for creativity:
This is the extraordinary thing about creativity: If just you keep your mind resting against the subject in a friendly but persistent way, sooner or later you will get a reward from your unconscious.
What creativity is not
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.”
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. A mood or a state “that allowed their natural creativity to function.” 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.
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.
The lecture is worth a watch in its entirety, if only to get a full grasp of Cleese’s model for creativity as the interplay of two modes of operating — open, where we take a wide-angle, abstract view of the problem and allow the mind to ponder possible solutions, and closed, where we zoom in on implementing a specific solution with narrow precision. Along the way, Cleese explores the traps and travails of the two modes and of letting their osmosis get out of balance.
As Robert Weisberg pointed out in his excellent book, Creativity: The Myth of Genius, great creative thinking arises out of rather ordinary thought processes. Genius is, of course, helpful, but not essential and many of those that are considered geniuses have fairly normal IQ’s.
So the secret to unlocking creativity is not waiting for divine inspiration, but through knowing your field, defining problems well, and persistently putting Cleese’s 5 factors to work for you.
Creativity comes from combining ordinary things in extraordinary ways.
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Mike Schoultz is the founder of Digital Spark Marketing, a digital marketing and customer service agency. With 40 years of business experience, he blogs on topics that relate to improving the performance of your business. Find them on G+, Twitter, and LinkedIn.
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More reading on creativity and innovation from Digital Spark Marketing’s Library:
How You Can Improve Creative Thinking Skills by Adding Constraints
The Small Business Crash Course on Creative Business Ideas
Does a Paradox on Innovation Design and Creativity Exist in Business?