This is a really well-crafted talk on creativity. In it, John Cleese cites academic research and his own personal experience to illustrate some very practical advice on how to become more creative.
I've been working recently on creating my own space/time oasis inspired by these ideas. To pay back a little I'd like to offer my notes as a quick-reference guide. I do this sometimes - it will give you a refresher on the talk without having to dive into a full transcript. Enjoy.
Creativity is not a talent
Unlike an affinity for drawing or problem-solving or maths, creativity is not a talent that you either have or don't have. It's a way of operating. It's a mood you get into when the conditions are right.
It doesn't matter what your skillset is, or your education. According to Cleese, the most creative people are simply those who have mastered the ability to transition to and from this mood at the most appropriate moments, and to hold it for periods of time.
The closed mode
Day in, day out, most of us spend our working hours in the closed mode. We all know the feeling - there's a lot to do and we have to get through it.
Embedded in the closed mode is a sense of importance. Even when ticking off items from a to-do list, there is a larger sense of importance in that we are making some kind of progress. There is a mild tension in this mode, a little anxiety that propels us forward from task to task.
There are several good things about the closed mode. It's productive. It's natural. It makes a lot of logical sense - we want to achieve so we plan and execute. We close off our minds to tangential curiosity, doubt, scenic routes and back alleys. We move forward.
The open mode
The open mode is a rarer place. It's relaxed, less purposeful, more contemplative - more like play. In this mode, we explore curiosity for it's own sake, unsure of where it may lead and we attain breadth as a result.
This mode is hard to achieve, especially when under pressure, and can be easy to break. It can be perceived as a mode in which we are not taking things seriously, however, we should remember that there is a difference between seriousness and solemnity.
This is the mode in which we are most likely to come up with something original.
The best of both worlds
One mode is not inherently better than the other. If we spend our time only in the open mode we are more likely to be original. If we spend our time only in the closed mode we will achieve.
If we are able to switch between modes at the right moments, we gain the best of both worlds - we achieve something original.
The key is the switch
Much of the presentation is spent explaining how to achieve the open mode and to utilise it. But before I go into that, I want to make something clear.
The argument as I understand it is not that you go into open mode, spend an hour, and then come out the other side with an well-formed insight and just carry merrily forward. Instead, at the end of your open mode, you will likely have considered ideas and at least be able to choose a direction to move forward which seems sound enough. You can get behind it, and do some closed-mode implementing to try it on for size.
The reward for having invested time in open-then-closed mode comes later. It's while you are driving, or while you are in the shower, or some moment when you are partially distracted by something mundane.
What you have done by going open and then closed is to feed your subconscious. Bounce around some crazy ideas, and then exercise one of them. A wide angle followed by a zoom lens. All that info goes into the soup of the unconscious, and as Cleese says, at some point your subconscious will reward you with a gift.
Going forward, you can find an appropriate rhythm for switching between open and closed modes, and the idea is you get a continuous flow of rewards. Sounds nice, doesn't it?
So - how to switch?
The assumption in this presentation is that switching from closed mode to open is much harder than switching from open to closed. That's probably true in most cases, and it certainly is for me. Sometimes it can take me a whole day to get to that mindset - but then that's why I'm studying this presentation, looking for ways to improve that.
According to Cleese, to get to open mode you need 5 things:
Clear a physical space of all the usual visual clutter. Get rid of the to-dos, reminders of the outside world, the 'accusatory piles' of things demanding attention (as my friend Judith Stein would say).
Clear out a window of about 1hr30 in your calendar. According to Cleese, it takes about 30mins to clear your way through all the temptations from your mental knowledge if your closed-mind world - so this leaves a good hour to be creative.
Within 5 minutes of the start of your space-time oasis, you will be starting to recount some of your closed-mind to-do list items. Stay the course. Dismiss those items and try to stay focused on your topic.
The temptation for some people is to drop out of the open mode as soon as the first reasonable idea has formed, and not give it the full 1hr30. This feels safe, as then we can get on with the task of implementation and get moving again, particularly if we are under pressure for results. However by dropping out early you are left with the likelihood that your idea may not be that original.
A quick addendum to that: If you are in the situation where time is unavoidably short, you have to choose. Do you want a well-executed but trite idea, or a rushed but original one? This is a genuine question - there may well be times that are fully appropriate for either approach.
The temptation for others is to stay in the open mode too long. This is good in that you leave the possibilities open, but bad in that you are not going to achieve as much. As Cleese suggests the real value is in the flow of new ideas from your subconscious - the discipline of regular mode-switching is more important than getting lost down a single rabbit-hole.
In day-to-day life we have a tendency to believe that we must always be right. That we must build, block-by-block on a solid foundation of stuff that isn't wrong.
But in the space-time oasis, there is no such thing as right or wrong. All ideas are good ideas so long as you are having them, and you can just follow the course your instinct takes you on.
#5. A 22-inch waist Humour
Well of course, if you are a comedian. Cleese describes humour as an essential part of spontaneity, that it is a vital part of all creativity. Maybe so but I think a little bias has crept into his thinking here.
As a Brit myself I always have dryness and sarcasm available at a moment's notice. I think the argument about humour here is good, but I also think the same could be said about many other emotions, and/or modes of operation.