3 lessons everyone ought to know on creativity from John Cleese


December 29, 2020

A couple of weeks ago I had the delight of watching a masterclass by John Cleese on creativity.

For those of you who don’t know who John Cleese is, he is a comedian, actor, screenwriter and one of Britain’s national treasures..

John Cleese & The Ministry of Silly Walks

You may remember him from such sketch shows as Monty Python and Fawlty Towers. But if you’re a fan of late 80s films like me, then you will forever associate him with ‘A fish called Wanda’ – what a brilliant film!

The point is, he is very very creative (you have to be if you’ve gone anywhere near improv and sketch shows), but, crucially, he wasn’t born that way. In fact, he stumbled into creativity and he spent the webinar inviting us to do the same.​

I wanted to share some of my key takeaways because I get a lot of clients coming through my door that either don’t believe they’re a creative (creatives-in-denial, as I call them) or who are creatives, but think they’re not good enough. Everyone is creative. But not everyone believes this. School have a lot to answer for (see Ken Robinsons’ TED talk – ‘Schools kill creativity’ – which is one of the most watched TED talks of all time) and so do parents who encourage us to give up our passions and pursue a ‘real’ job.

But I’m not here to unpack either of those. I’m here to share 3 golden nuggets from John Cleese in the hopes that they will inspire you to own up to and embrace your creativity.

1. There were no creatives in the 1940s & 1950s

“When I was at school in the late forties and the fifties, no teacher ever mentioned the word creativity. Just think how extraordinary that is.”

Imagine going to school, the place that supposedly prepares you for life, and creativity isn’t mentioned? Then you enter the world of business and all they’re asking is for innovation….lol. Innovation is just creativity in business terms.

If the education system doesn’t teach creativity, or talk about it. If it doesn’t nurture it or encourage it, what message does that send? It tells us the education system doesn’t think it matters. It places no value on creativity. No wonder a lot of creatives have trouble placing a value on themselves and charging what they’re worth!

Obviously schools have moved on from the 50s, but they’re still not placing as much importance on creativity. Like I said, I get a lot of creatives-in-denial.

So this is my message to you:

Forget what happened at school. You for sure, 100%, have creativity inside you.

How do you find it? Go play and it will come to you. As demonstrated by point #2..

2. Follow your tribe and you may just find your creative genius

The second astounding thing Cleese shared was that he studied all sciences in sixth form (end of high school for US) and went on to study law in Cambridge!! Law?!

One of the UK’s top comedians didn’t study drama, literature or the arts. He studied law!

How many parents want their kids to study law so they get a safe job so they make lots of money so they’re happy? Cleese is a very happy man and a rich man and not one penny came from being a lawyer or following the safe path. Instead, it was a chance meeting at uni that led him to his true calling.

“The first time I discovered I was a bit creative, it came as a surprise.”

He shared with us how he came across a very nice group of people in his days in Cambridge. They were a group called the ‘Footlights’ and they put on sketch shows and musical pieces. They stood out to Cleese because they were the nicest people he’d come across in Cambridge.

“For some reason – maybe because they had a sense of humour – they weren’t stuck up, or show-offs, or in any way impressed with themselves.”

He wanted in. But to be in, he had to write some sketches. So with no prior experience, with no view of himself as a creative, he sat down and wrote a few sketches and got accepted.

Lots to take away from that point on not feeling like an imposter just because you didn’t get formal training, on not beating yourself up if you have an unused university degree, but if I had to pick one main takeaway it would be this:

Give something that brings you joy a shot.

Or as John Campbell (the man who brought us The Hero’s Journey and is also the man I probably quote the most) says:

“Follow your bliss and the universe will open doors where there were only walls.”

3) Delay is a big part of creativity

Cleese shared two stories on this point which I’ve grouped under delay.

Story #1.

He noticed how he would sometimes be writing a sketch in the evening and he would get stuck. As much as he tried to solve the creative block, he couldn’t, so he’d eventually give up and go to bed. Then in the morning, he would make a coffee, return to the desk and almost immediately have a solution to this block.

“I began to realise that my unconscious was working on stuff all the time, without my being conscious of it”

Creativity isn’t all about coming up with ideas quickly. So please don’t measure your creativity by how you perform in brainstorming meetings! Ideas need time and space to develop. It’s good to give them time to marinade. And don’t forget, you’re not in it alone. The good old magic of the subconscious is on your side when you clock off.

Story #2.

Cleese shared a psychology experiment that made an impression on him. Donald MacKinnon, an ex-spymaster, was fascinated by creativity in non-artist jobs like engineering and architecture. He did a study on the latter asking architects, who were considered to be the most creative ones in their profession, about their day. He also asked the less creative architects about their day. There were only two main differences between the two groups:

1. Creative architects knew how to play

2. Creative architects always deferred making decisions for as long as they were allowed.

Ooof! Some powerful and interesting points. I wonder what it’s making you think?

Play is a big part of the creative process.

They put off making decisions because they knew that sometimes ideas came in at the last moment. Although it was uncomfortable, they sat in the uncertainty of the creative process. They made space and time for it. They weren’t procrastinating. They knew that the creative process is a process. It takes time.

So maybe you’ve been asked to come up with an idea at work or by a client, and you panic because nothing amazing comes to you in the first 24 hours. Well be like John Cleese. Go take a play break or a nap and trust that you have creativity within you that will pop out. Sometimes when you least expect it.

If you’re interested in more John Cleese wisdom he has the cutest book out now called ‘Creativity: A short and cheerful guide’ and I can attest that it delivers on both cheerfulness and compactness.

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