John Cleese on how to set up a space-time oasis for creativity

I thought I’d share this article and video with you, where John Cleese explains some of the essential things he has found are necessary to creativity.

John Cleese on the 5 Factors to Make Your Life More Creative | Brain Pickings.

Although it’s longish at 13 minutes, JC is a remarkably captivating speaker, and in this case on a subject close to my heart, so if you have time, it’s well worth a watch.

His points can be summarised as follows:

  1. Space (“You can’t become playful, and therefore creative, if you’re under your usual pressures.”)
  2. Time (“It’s not enough to create space; you have to create your space for a specific period of time.”)
  3. Time (“Giving your mind as long as possible to come up with something original,” and learning to tolerate the discomfort of pondering time and indecision.)
  4. Confidence (“Nothing will stop you being creative so effectively as the fear of making a mistake.”)
  5. Humor (“The main evolutionary significance of humor is that it gets us from the closed mode to the open mode quicker than anything else.”)

There were a couple of other points which he raised which did rather ring a bell with me also. One was that it is so much easier to do trivial, urgent things now (like making phone calls), rather than important, non-urgent things (like thinking).

The other was that it does sometimes take time to progress beyond what is the most obvious solution, and creative people are perhaps more comfortable with not having fully resolved something for a longer period of time.

Reflecting on creativity in general, I was wondering how true it is when some people state, “I’m just not a creative type.” Is creativity perhaps just a habit of thought? I have often suspected so, particularly when highly intelligent people say this.


I was also reflecting on whether or not we have a fixed capacity for creativity at any one time. How full is your creativity bucket? I’ve suspected from time to time that I am a bit faddish in my interests, but now I do begin to wonder if it’s not just that I have a limited amount of, well, time, obviously, but also creative potential at any one moment.

I’m a pretty decent multi-tasker, which means I’m also a great procrastinator, but I can only really be fully creativity engaged in probably two things at once. When I say fully engaged, I don’t mean on a minute-to-minute basis, but rather on the longer time scale of the back burner. As one of those things is sometimes my work, the other might be writing, or painting, or dance or music, but it’s unlikely to be all of them at once. The thought alone is exhausting!

I’d love to hear your thoughts, both on John Cleese’s  suggestions for creativity, and also how your own creativity works. 🙂


14 thoughts on “John Cleese on how to set up a space-time oasis for creativity

  1. If Cleese says it, it must be true! I want to touch upon numbers 4 and 5 which I think I can actually say something about. Confidence is important: expressing yourself is hard and so is learning to understand that what you say is important to someone. A lot of people don’t do things they really want because they prefer not failing and excusing themselves with all these horrible things that could have happened but, as it often is, things are not as usually as bad as we think. And I think humor is important. Taking yourself too seriously or thinking of yourself as too important makes things much less fun for everyone especially your audience and I often find the things that are much better to fuel creativity appear when you are relaxed, calm, happy or having fun and when it comes down to it, creativity is about suffering and having fun with that suffering.

    • Hi Eric,
      Firstly, thanks for dropping by! 🙂
      I agree with you that lack of confidence can lead people to make excuses not to do things which are a bit on the edge, but your point about learning to understand that what you say is important to someone – it’s funny, but I actually feel that’s in some ways a separate issue. I have a fair degree of creative confidence, but that’s confidence in myself that I can have a bash at something, and not be afraid of doing it incorrectly. But as to whether what I create is worthwhile to anyone else? Not sure. I can only hope so! But approval isn’t a necessity to my creations.
      I definitely agree that creativity is greatly enhanced when you can have fun with it, but I’m not sure everyone has to suffer to be creative. In fact, perhaps the more fun you have with it, the less you suffer? I realise that a lot of the great artist have suffered for their art, but I’m not sure it’s compulsory. I’d be interested to hear your thoughts on
      this further.

      • Of course, I must say it was very late at night when I was writing this and I didn’t even remember it (haha). I certainly agree, you shouldn’t have anyone’s approval but yours and that’s what’s important. Maybe I should have written that is important to someone even if it’s just you.
        And the thing about suffering, I guess I was exaggerating a little. What I meant with is the whole process that often seems darker than it should like staying up late at night creating without getting any sleep even though you have something important to do the next day, being unable of something to write or do even though you know you have to, feeling uncomfortable with a piece you think it’s not good enough, etc. Anyway, this kind of things drive some people to madness and some are able to perfectly handle it. The great thing about creativity is that it can be expressed in many different ways and by very different people.
        Thanks a lot for answering, Kasia, I’ve been reading some of your posts and I find them interesting.

  2. “And 5, a 22 inch waist.” Hahaha, I knew he’d say something silly at that point, I was just waiting for it!
    This was a really interesting video though, some good thoughts on creativity. I particularly agree with humour – I have always wondered why I love humour, love comedy, and why my favourite books are all quite funny. I think of why Catch 22 is the only book to make me howl with laughter but also to bring me to tears, and I think it’s because it spends three quarters making me laugh, and when the tragedy hits at the end I am completely disarmed, opened up, and I end up feeling the sadness and anger completely and head on. I often find when I am doing anything creative I will at least begin with something funny – likewise when I am talking to people, or teaching my students (nothing wins a bunch of teenagers over to your side than a couple of well timed jokes, to make them realise you are human after all).
    Likewise I also think confidence is a big issue for a lot of people – I know so many creative people who are perfectionists, but to the point that they do fear they’ll make a mistake or it won’t be good enough. At the end of the day for me, I just surge forward creating something thinking it will be awesome, and when I’m done, then I look back and think “oh, that was a bit rubbish. Okay, try again…”
    Very interesting, thanks for sharing this! 🙂

  3. I’m at work at the moment so will watch this later, but I get the general idea.

    One thing that a business consultant once told me was that as a manager, there’s nothing wrong with occasionally taking a little time out to do nothing except *think*. Except we don’t, as a rule, because there are always emails to answer or queries to resolve or spreadsheets to complete. And I think that applies as much out of the office as it does in the office. In my own position I’ve been encouraging my direct reports to be creative about the way they tackle their job and the tasks they have to perform, because coming up with new and innovative procedures and techniques is as valid a means of creativity as painting, writing or composing. Some people don’t actually *want* to do this, but they could rise to the challenge if they so desired – they’d just rather get on with things the way they are.

    But people can still surprise you. My wife, for example, maintains she can’t write or play the piano like me, but she’s brilliant at coming up with recipes and designing fantastic cakes. So to those who say “I’m not a creative type”, I’d answer “It depends very much on what you actually want to create”.

    Procrastination is my biggest enemy. I could do so much more if I really wanted to but there is always something else to get finished first (and having three children to get to bed every evening does tend to wipe you out a bit). I think that if I was in the position where my livelihood depended on being creative, I’d do it, but that’s never happened…

    • Hi! I think having three kids to get to bed doesn’t really count as procrastination – that’s important! I totally agree with you on all the small stuff getting in the way though, and I find it’s that plethora of stuff which also creates the greatest stress: that enemy of creativity.

      Good on you for encouraging your staff to be creative in what they do. So many managers just want it done the way they like, and it can be quite stifling and brain numbing for people I think.

      I visited Africa last year, and it was actually a great lesson in taking time out. There was a period of about 3 hours in the middle of the day when it was just too hot to do anything, and so we messed about – sat in the shade, watched the trees, read. Such a good opportunity to think. i wonder if we would all be more genuinely productive if we did so, rather than rushing around chasing our tails?

  4. I think that everybody’s creative, some people have just never had it nurtured so they don’t realize it, or they were told that being a “thinker” is weak and therefore they’re ashamed of it. I remember as a child I was constantly told byt teachers and my family NOT to let people know that I was creative and intelligent because they would dislike me for it – nobody wants to know when they’re not the smartest person in the room, so to speak.

    For me, it comes down to time, time, time… I’ve got a very active and creative brain – I am constantly telling myself very long and surprising stories, but finding the time to purge them from my brain onto a piece of paper is the real challenge.

    • People told you being a ‘thinker’ was weak? Holy cow, there are some weird people out there.
      I know just what you mean about time – if they ever do invent a time machine, it would be great if it didn’t so much take us back and forth through history, but maybe just created little stasis bubbles when we could get some real stuff done. It would give new meaning to the phrase “Time out.” Hmmm. Maybe there’s a story in that…

      • Not just people – My parents! They always told me to not let people know how smart I was or else I’d get beat up and nobody would want to play with me. When I was eight the school wanted to put me into the Gifted Program, and my parents said no because they didn’t want me to turn into a nerd or be ostracized from my friends. Seriously. I cried about it for weeks (because I knew I was a nerd, and because I hated my ‘friends’).

        I love that time-machine idea! I need one of those! If ever we meet, we can c-write the story together! That would be fun!

  5. I agree everyone is creative. People end up expressing it in different ways – like you said by dancing, painting, or through music – all the great things in life! That creativity does need to be cultivated though. Unfortunately, the thing that really seems to fuel my creativity is getting away from the computer.

    • What really seems to fuel mine is time away from my work computer! Unfortunately, one has to eat….and my creativity in the other fields just isn’t going to put bread on the table.:(

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