Get updates via e-mail:

« Playing to Win in Badminton | Main | A Discussion of Balance »

John Cleese on Creativity

John Cleese gives us an excellent lecture on his notions of what creativity is. 


I completely agree with Cleese on all counts, which is to say my experience lines up exactly with what he's saying. Creativity is a frame of mind that can be cultivated and practiced. It's ruined by some kinds of people, so be sure to kick them out. It's a shedding of that "closed mode," as he says, for a while. You need the closed mode to get things done, but you need the "open mode" to get the wacky ideas that eventually turn into the actually good ideas.

I think the thing that strikes me as most true of all is the part about sticking with something, and putting in more time. That goes against the stereotype, as we might imagine really creative people instantly have amazing ideas. In my experience though, it takes a huge amount of persistence to solve creative problems. When others give up or take a kind of mediocre way out, you should instead keep at it and at it. He suggest 1.5 hours at a time though I think you can actually do much longer stretches than that once you've developed the mental stamina for it.

The other kind of time is just as important, the time you "aren't working on the problem," yet your unconscious is. In project management, this is sometimes expressed in "number of showers." For example, if we can choose to pay for 20 people to work for a 2 months on a project or for 10 people to work 4 months on it, an advantage of choosing 10 people for 4 months is that every person involved will take twice as many showers. Good ideas happen in the shower.

And while we're talking about showers, Paul Graham has spoken about that subject too. He's interacted with more startup companies than just about anyone and he once mentioned that when a startup goes into fundraising mode, they tend to get way worse at making whatever it is they're making. He said at first glance that's because if they spend X time on fundraising work and planning, they are spending X less time on making the product. But that's NOT it, he says. It's that they think about fundraising in the shower. What you think about in the shower is often what your unconscious mind has been grinding and grinding away at. So if that very valuable resource (your unconscious mind) is thinking about how to get more money, then it's not supplying you with the creativity necessary to make good products.

Thanks to John Cleese for articulating what creativity is, or isn't. I think this message is especially valuable for those people who "aren't creative," because it explains that you can solve that by setting up the right situation for yourself and getting into the right frame of mind. You can be creative.

Reader Comments (10)

Yeah, this matches up with my experiences and with the observations of many in the game industry on the need to iterate more quickly.

The cycle of, "(open) find possible elements to test -> (closed) get test results -> (open) review results and feedback"
is the basis of creating any product. The quality of it is largely a function of how many iterations of that cycle you complete.

I also liked his addressing of those who rely on theorycraft alone to claim that something isn't even worth considering, worth testing.

July 26, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterbrized

I love the shower metaphor, because it's not just a metaphor, but literally true. I have thought of some of my best solutions to problems in the shower on multiple occasions. I've cut a shower short because I needed a piece of paper right now to write something down. I also have something to write just beside the bed, so I can make a note if something important comes up. It doesn't always work: Once, I wrote down what I believed to be an incredibly good plot idea which I had in my dream. In the morning, half of my notes were not readable, and the other half didn't make any sense at all.

Funny, how the human mind works.

July 27, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterKdansky

One thing he didn't mention but that is extremely important in my own experience, is getting sufficient sleep. I have never seen someone who was sleepy come up with anything good.

July 27, 2012 | Unregistered Commentergarcia1000

I suspect that creativity has more to do with quantity of ideas than quality of ideas. Game designer Mark Rosewater said in one of his columns that only 90% of the ideas he comes up with are useless. Perhaps the "talent" aspect of creativity is in being able to generate, evaluate and filter ideas quickly.

July 29, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterCharles Zheng

Thanks for the article. I guess I'm a perpetrator for trying to be serious just to increase my ego, it really pays to be yourself anyway. I didn't know John Cleese was such a scholar, I always saw him as a comedian, didn't even know his name before I watched the video.

The whole unconscious problem solving tactic was used by the mathematician Poincare, and I bet countless others who are less documented. That is why he only spent 4 hours a day doing mathematical research, two hours in the morning and two in the afternoon, so his brain could work on the problem while he was running errands in the day. Also, he didn't want his research to get in the way of his sleep.

Writing this makes me wonder how Archimedes tackled problems, the guy almost discovered Calculus over a thousand years before Leibnitz and Newton. And wasn't his eureka moment in a public bath?

But yeah, good stuff.

July 29, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterObiyer

@Charles Zheng- There are a few different creative processes documented out there, and most of them have you getting into "Open" mode in some manner or another, and typically, once you get into open mode, there is an ideation phase, where you attempt to generate a quantity of solutions to your problems rather than quality, then as you head back into closed mode, you start to narrow down your solutions to the most fruitful ones. So, yes, being able to generate a quantity of solutions is one skill that helps with creativity. The other major skill which comes to mind is being able to understand the problem. The better you understand the problem, the more likely you'll narrow in on the ones that are actually better

July 29, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterHairyMezican

Thanks for posting this video Sirlin. What an inspiration to have someone who has been in the public eye talk like he knows how to focus not only give a rundown of how to be creative and master closed systems, but to also to execute it in such a way that the finished product serves at least as an example at most a case study for what he's promoting. Sorry for the lack of grammar ;P

August 1, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterIdealius

I sadly have nothing to add but: Thank you Sirlin, the "Shower" and "mind focusing on fundraising" are really good things to keep in mind and consider for many similar occasions.

August 2, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterYagamoth

I don't get the shower thing. Why is is it better when 10 people in 4 months have the same number of ideas as 20 people over the course of 2 months could have? I.e.: 10ppl * 4mth = 20ppl * 2mth = 40 [some unit directly correlated to the number of showers].

Well, I guess that's just how management does math -- or do the other 20 just not take showers? ;)

August 2, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterEgeaze

@Egeaze: it's not the total number of showers that's important, it's the number of showers per person. The people aren't interchangeable cogs in this scenario, but rather opportunities for inspiration. In practice, it's a curve, not a line.

Which is just a contrived way of saying ``all else being equal, let the ideas simmer in the unconscious longer rather than shorter''.

August 12, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterChad
Comment in the forums
You can post about this article at