John Cleese on Humor and Creativity

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Back in 1991, John Cleese gave this brilliant lecture, a compact course in enabling creativity. (It was posted on YouTube in April 2012 and subsequently widely blogged.)

As he explains, “creativity is not a talent, it is a way of operating”. He contrasts “closed” versus “open mode” thinking and explains (from 4:45) that creativity is not possible in closed mode – the mode we’re in at work: Active, tense, anxious, purposeful, trying to get things done, sometimes stressed and a bit manic. By contrast, open mode is relaxed, expansive, not purposeful, more humorous, playful and curious, because we’re not under pressure to  get anything done. There is a time for each mode: developing ideas and reviewing concepts in open mode, and then deciding and carrying out a plan of action in closed mode.  To be most effective, therefore, we need to be able to switch back and forth between the two. The trouble is that we often get stuck in tunnel vision when we would really need to step back. This, he says, is the most typical complaint about politicians, namely that they are too addicted to the adrenaline of responding to events to retain the ability to ponder in open mode. And humor, he says, is a key switch to open the door into open mode.

John Cleese indulges his listeners with very practical and useful tips on how to make time and space for creative work. This I think would make an excellent listening exercise for students, combined with the assignment of summarizing his instructions in their own words. He also explains de Bono’s creativity technique of generating random connections, or “intermediate impossibles”, which, allowed to co-exist peacefully and patiently, can then serve as stepping stones to discovering something new.

It’s at 32:25 that he launches into full-fledged “open mode”:

“And now, in the two minutes left, I can come to the important part, and that is how to stop your subordinates from becoming creative, too, which is the real threat. Because, believe me, no-one appreciates better than I do what trouble creative people are, and how they stop decisive, hard-nosed bastards like us from running businesses efficiently. I mean, we all know: We encourage someone to be creative,… the next thing, they’re rocking the boat, coming up with ideas and asking us questions. Now, if we don’t nip this kind of thing in the bud, we’ll have to start justifying our decisions by reasoned argument, and sharing information, the concealment of which gives us considerable advantages in our power struggles. So: Here’s how to stamp out creativity in the rest of the organization and get a bit of respect going here:

1. Allow subordinates no humor. It threatens your self-importance, especially your omniscience. Treat all humor as frivolous or subversive. Because subversive is, of course, what humor will be in your setup, as it’s the only way that people can express their opposition, since if they express it openly, you’re down on them like a ton of bricks. So let’s get this straight: Blame humor for the resistance that your way of working creates; then you don’t have to blame your way of working. This is important. And I mean that solemnly: Your dignity is no laughing matter!

2. Keeping ourselves feeling irreplaceable involves cutting everybody else down to size. So don’t miss an opportunity to undermine your employees’ self-confidence. A perfect opportunity comes when you’re reviewing work that they’ve done. Use your authority to zero in on all the things you can find they’ve done wrong. Never, never balance the negatives with positives. Only criticize, just as your school teachers did. Always remember: Praise makes people uppity.

3. Demand that people should always be actively doing things. If you catch anybody pondering, accuse them of laziness and/or indecision. This is to starve employees of thinking time, because that leads to creativity and insurrection. So: Demand urgency at all times, use lots of fighting talk and war analogies and establish a permanent atmosphere of stress, of breathless anxiety and crisis. In a phrase, keep that mode closed. In this way, we no-nonsense types can be sure that the tiny, tiny microscopic quantity of creativity in our organization will all be ours. But let your vigilance slip for one moment and you could find yourself surrounded by happy, enthusiastic and creative people whom you might not be able completely to control ever again!
Thank you, and good night!”

Note to self: Allow myself more time and space for the open road – erm – mode.


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