We’re very familiar with John Cleese as the English comedic genius from the Monty Python films (and James Bond and Shrek and Harry Potter), but little did we know that he’s also a genius when it comes to outlining how to be creative. In a 1991 lecture we found on one of our favorite sites Brain Pickings, Cleese outlined five factors that improve conditions to be creative. We’ll always gladly accept more advice on how to find inspiration, and this particular tiresome Monday is no exception.
The first factor Cleese highlights is space. He distinguishes open space from closed space to start, noting that open space is when our mind is free from everyday demands and responsibilities, and closed space is when we must cope with usual pressures of everyday existence. To be in an environment that nurtures creativity, one must find an open space, whether that is turning off technology, or going to a quiet, undisturbed place. You must be away from your demands in this space.
Next, it’s imperative to create specific time boundaries, a beginning time and an ending time for when you will be in the aforementioned open space. Cleese quotes Dutch historian Johan Huizinga, “play is distinct from ordinary life both from locality and duration.” You must specifically set time aside to tackle problems creatively, or to think about a problem differently. It must be predetermined time that you have scheduled into your busy life. Cleese says to create an oasis of quiet. Turn off the cell phone, turn off the computer, turn off the television. Be still, be quiet, be thoughtful.
The third factor is a repeat of the second: time. Here Cleese says it’s important to schedule a proper amount of time to stay in this oasis. Thirty minutes is not enough time, he argues, because when you finally get to your open space your mind will wander and be full of thoughts: I need to call this person, I have to send an email to her, I have to remember to pay that bill, etc. It’s “easier to do trivial things that are urgent than important things that are not urget, like thinking,” Cleese says. Eventually your mind will quiet down, but it might take nearly a half hour for that to happen. Cleese recommends committing an hour and half, at the very least, to your quiet oasis, for you might have to be patient and wait for the real creativity to begin.
Furthermore in regards to time, Cleese urges you to wait to make a decision (or ‘take’ a decision, in his Englishness) until the very last moment possible, so you can think about the problem for as long as possible. He argues that most people make a decision as soon as possible because they feel uncomfortable and anxious when a decision is pending. He encourages you to avoid making a decision simply to make yourself feel better; hold out as long as possible so better, more original ideas have a chance to enter your mind.
Next, Cleese discusses the importance of confidence in the creative process. He implores us to avoid succumbing to our inherent fear of making mistakes when we’re in our space/time oasis. In fact, he argues that mistakes don’t exist in this space, so consider everything as a possibility. You cannot be playful if you think you’re going to be wrong, he says, so banish that from your thought process. Nothing is wrong, everything is possible, and no idea is mistaken.
Lastly, Cleese makes a very interesting, often neglected point when discussing creativity, and that is to keep humor involved. He says that in our closed mode we are serious and stoic, but in our open mode we should be playful and relaxed. Playfulness and relaxation come from humor and laughter, so both of those elements should be present in our open mode. Cleese argues we need to employ humor to solve difficult problems because it opens our mind and relaxes our thoughts, letting ideas stream in and out more fluidly.
Take some of Cleese’s poignant advice to heart when brainstorming for your presentation. Create for yourself an open space, an oasis of quiet. Schedule time to visit that quiet space and see what amazing, inspiring, creative solutions you come up with.