John Cleese on How Playfulness and Putting off Decisions Help us Be More Creative

John Cleese on the creativity

“I criticize by creation, not finding fault.”


There is a reason why we get some of our best ideas when we're in a dreamy state. Ideas bubble up from our consciousness as we are about to let go of the awake state with its often frenetic activities and busyness. He says:

I noticed years ago that when people (myself definitely included) are anxious they tend to busy themselves with irrelevant activities, because these distract from and therefore reduce their actual experience of anxiety.

To stay perfectly still is to feel the fear at its maximum intensity, so instead you scuttle around doing things as though you are, in some mysterious way, short of time.

John Cleese says creativity emerges when we make room for it. He says, “You've got to be quiet; you can't have a creative idea when you're rushing around, answering your cell phone, looking at your watch, sending off email. It's not going to happen.”

Thomas Edison had more patents than any other in American history. He used to work best in the space between wakefulness and dozing off. So he had a system whereby he would hold ball bearings in his hand as he was working and he would have a metal plate on the floor.

As he would fall asleep, he would drop the metal bearings into the plate and he would be startled awake. Then he would pick them up and start over again. Edison liked to stay in that dreamy state. That's when he got most of his ideas.

Growing up, John Cleese was quite good at mathematics and Latin. He got into Cambridge to study science and then switched to law. While he was studying to become a lawyer, he discovered could write sketches that made people laugh.

Cleese studied with psychology professor Brian Bates who said the best bit of research on creativity had been done in America at University of California at Berkeley by Dr. Donald W. MacKinnon in the late sixties.

MacKinnon was a psychology professor and he studied creativity in professions like journalism and engineering. He had a particular interest in architects because they must be good at being creative, but also be good at the technical stuff to keep the buildings up.

He found two huge differences between creative and non creative architects:

1./ creatives know how to play — their playing was almost child-like. When we observe children, they are completely absorbed into something, what they are doing, and there is no sense of time. Because they are interested in it for its own sake, not to solve something.

2./ creatives defer making decisions as long as they could — the whole idea of the efficient executive that makes decisions quickly is bullshit. When we have to make a decision the first thing we have to ask ourselves is when does this question need answering? Then we answer it at that time. We do this for two reasons, because we may get new information later, which is obvious, and also because the longer we leave it, the greater chance our unconscious may come up with better stuff.

Playfulness and putting-off decisions help us become more creative. The longer we can tolerate the sense of dissatisfaction with not ticking an item off a list, the higher our creative output. Of course, we live in the real world, so often we will need to provide an answer by a certain time. But for the things where we can wait, we are better off when we defer closing them down.

On using complementary skills, Cleese says, “There's no point having a team if its members are not different from each other.” In a team, people need to have different skills. For example, he says, if you put together a bunch of middle aged white men they will later tell you how great of a time they've had and then come up with nothing. Sounds like Congress, says the interviewer from Google.

In his book So, Anyway… John Cleese talks about his early life and education, and how they led him to choose a creative life. Among the many things he says about creativity is that constant change in scenery and habits from moving around help being about new views of the world:

Research has shown that constant relocation in childhood is often associated with creativity. It seems that the creative impulse is sparked by the need to reconcile contrasting views of the world. If you move home, you start living a slightly different life, so you compare it with your previous life, note the divergences and the similarities, see what you like better and what you miss, and as you do so, your mind becomes more flexible and capable of combining thoughts and ideas in new and fresh ways.

The book doesn't cover the popular Monty Python programs, which may make it a challenge for the many fans of the series looking for personal insights from Cleese. 

Although the book is not meant to be funny, there are several sections in the book that are quite enjoyable and even hilarious. A good sense of humor is important to deal with whatever life trows our way. In the book, he says:

A good sense of humour is the sign of a healthy perspective, which is why people who are uncomfortable around humour are either pompous (inflated) or neurotic (oversensitive). Pompous people mistrust humour because at some level they know their self-importance cannot survive very long in such an atmosphere, so they criticise it as “negative” or “subversive.”

Neurotics, sensing that humour is always ultimately critical, view it as therefore unkind and destructive, a reductio ad absurdum which leads to political correctness. Not that laughter can’t be unkind and destructive. Like most manifestations of human behaviour it ranges from the loving to the hateful. The latter produces nasty racial jokes and savage teasing; the former, warm and affectionate banter, and the kind of inclusive humour that says, “Isn’t the human condition absurd, but we’re all in the same boat.”

He's not terribly fond of British journalists:

British journalists tend to believe that people who become good at something do so because they seek fame and fortune. This is because these are the sole motives of people who become British journalists.

But some people, operating at higher levels of mental health, pursue activities because they actually love them.

“The worse you are at something, the less of a chance you have to know about it,” says Cleese. This explains a lot of things in life. To stop sabotaging ourselves, we need first to learn to recognize our ignorance. But also, “We don't know as much as we think we know,” he says.


John Cleese has been teaching creativity for a number of years. He says creativity is a way of operating in open mode.

Watch the video interview below.


In the interview, Cleese mentions Quiet: the Power of Introverts in a World that Can't Stop Talking by Susain Cain.