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Seven Insights from “Creativity: A Short and Cheerful Guide."

Former Knall/Cohen/Pence Group “Most Interesting People in the World” speaker Rory Sutherland hosted the conference “Nudgestock” on behavioural strategy last week. He interviewed legendary British comedian John Cleese about his new book “Creativity: A Short and Cheerful Guide."

Why Read: It’s short. The book is more like an article (this should be more common!), and only took about 30 minutes to read. Cleese thinks it’s “all killer no filler”; his best insights on the creative process. Both Cleese and Sutherland argue that creative thinking is going to be increasingly important in business and life alike. Here are some key quotes and related insights.

1. The power of the unconscious, especially in the period around sleep:

JC (John Cleese): “This is how I began to discover that, if I put the work in before going to bed, I often had a little creative idea overnight, which fixed whatever problem it was that I was trying to deal with. It was like a gift, a reward for all my wrestling with the puzzle. I began to think to myself, “It can only be that while I’m asleep, my mind goes on working at the problem so that it can give me the answer in the morning.”

JC: “Then think of one of the greatest scientists of all time, Edison, the man who invented the light bulb. He found that he got his best ideas in that funny no man’s land between being awake and being asleep. So he used to sit in a comfy armchair with a few ball bearings in his hand and a metal bowl underneath. When he dropped off to sleep his hand relaxed, the ball bearings fell on to the plate and the noise they made woke him up. He’d then pick up the ball bearings again and sit back and get into that same drowsy, dreamy frame of mind that he’d just been in.”

JC: “And the language of the unconscious is not verbal. It’s like the language of dreams. It shows you images, it gives you feelings, it nudges you around without you immediately knowing what it’s getting at.”

TM: I recall Edison’s quote: “Never go to sleep without a request to your subconscious.” You might be very surprised what happens.

TM: I am consistently staggered by the universal way that “boundaries” or phase changes are the source of emergence or creativity. The transition from waking to sleep. The balance of familiar and new in the MAYA principle. The tension between “loonshots” and “franchises” in innovative organizations. The resolution of a conflict or paradox.

2. Write what you know and copy what you love.

JC: “I think this basic rule applies everywhere: you are most likely to be creative in an area that you already know and care about.”

JC: “Begin with simple stuff, such as…Who are you writing for? You might be writing for academics, in which case you don’t have to be interesting. Or for people who have a limited attention span, in which case you have to be very interesting. Then, you can ask yourself whether the audience will easily accept what you’re saying, or whether they might be resistant. If so, you’ll have to persuade them, and not just tell them.”

TM: I recall the story of writer Ken Wilber who decided he liked Alan Watts’ style. So he literally took all fourteen of Watts’ books and copied them verbatim. The idea was to get a sense of the cadence and substance. Once you have laid down a foundation in an area, you will be more receptive to insights in that field. Your mind goes on working in the background.

TM: One of my all-time favourite quotes is from designer Yohji Yamamoto: “Start copying what you love. Copy copy copy copy. At the end of the copy you will find yourself.”

3. Importance of play and discomfort.

JC: In discussing the MacKinnon creativity study of good vs bad architects: “The conclusion he came to was that there were only two differences between the creative and the uncreative architects. The first was that the creative architects knew how to play. The second was that the creative architects always deferred making decisions for as long as they were allowed.” [More on this famous study here, from the masterful Maria Popova at Brain Pickings].

JC: Great geniuses have tended to “play” across disciplines: “Feynman spent a lot of time playing the drums. The great mathematician John Conway spent much of his time playing games.”

TM: Play is emergence - another boundary phenomenon - exploration within a safe container. I believe it’s a wildly important concept I’ve discussed here.

JC: On the ability to delay the creative process: “It simply means they are able to tolerate that vague sense of discomfort that we all feel, when some important decision is left open, because they know that an answer will eventually present itself.”

JC: “Never make decisions too early: Well, it would be foolish, because if you can wait longer, two incredibly important things may happen. You may get new information. You may get new ideas.”

JC: “The general principle is this: the bigger the leap, the longer the creative period is likely to be.”

TM: A topic for a future piece - but the ability to tolerate paradox and sit in creative tension is a hallmark of genius. Einstein himself said: “It's not that I'm so smart, it's just that I stay with problems longer”

4. Create a specific space for play and thinking

JC: “The greatest killer of creativity is interruption. It pulls your mind away from what you want to be thinking about. Research has shown that, after an interruption, it can take eight minutes for you to return to your previous state of consciousness, and up to twenty minutes to get back into a state of deep focus.”

As Rory Sutherland writes in Alchemy: “Given the modern open-plan office and our obsession with responding to e-mails as quickly as possible, it might be embarrassing or even damaging to spend 20 minutes staring blankly into space. However, without this time to disengage, it is harder to practise mental alchemy.”

Rory mentioned an essay from Paul Graham on this called Maker's Schedule, Manager's Schedule. “Each type of schedule works fine by itself. Problems arise when they meet. Since most powerful people operate on the manager's schedule, they're in a position to make everyone resonate at their frequency if they want to. But the smarter ones restrain themselves, if they know that some of the people working for them need long chunks of time to work in.”

5. The cadence of creativity

JC: “First, they produce original work as they learn their craft; second, when they’ve mastered their craft, they begin to express their mature ideas in their best works; third, there’s a tailing-off of their powers, as their insights become more familiar.”

TM: My 2 favourite authors have explicitly talked about this interplay. Joseph Campbell wrote:

“You go to work and study an art. You study the techniques, you study all the rules, and the rules are put upon you by a teacher. Then there comes a time of using the rules, not being used by them. Do you understand what I’m saying? And one way is to follow…and I always tell my students, follow your bliss”

Iain McGilchrist talks about the need for real world experience to originate in the brain’s right hemisphere, to be moved to the left for processing, but then returned to the right for synthesis into its global context. The musician hears a piece of beautiful music, deconstructs it into notes and learns it painstakingly, then eventually performs it intuitively.

In the MacKinnon architect study, Maria Popova noted that a common denominator was that “across all fields, creative breakthroughs required a solid foundation of preexisting expert knowledge.

6. The importance of forgetting/removing old information.

JC: “The anthropologist Gregory Bateson once said, “You can’t have a new idea ’til you’ve got rid of an old one.”

JC: “Kill your darlings- if you have a passage you want to trim: “A good writer will jettison it. A less good writer will hang on to it, so hindering the transition of the story to its new form. I’ve noticed that younger writers tend to cling to their darlings.”

TM: As we’ve discussed before - in an age of information superabundance, a lot of the value of information is now what you choose to filter out. “To attain knowledge, add things every day. To attain wisdom, remove things every day.” - Lao Tzu.

7. Don’t be prematurely certain

JC: “As a general rule, when people become absolutely certain that they know what they’re doing, their creativity plummets. This is because they think they have nothing more to learn. Once they believe this, they naturally stop learning and fall back on established patterns. And that means they don’t grow.”

JC: “The trouble is that most people want to be right. The very best people, however, want to know if they’re right.”

JC: “That’s the great thing about working in comedy. If the audience doesn’t laugh, you know you’ve got it wrong.”

I wrote about the process of cognitive flexibility last weekend. I love the idea from physicist David Bohm that the value of a dialogue was the ability to see all perspectives and determine what the truth was.

“The object of a dialogue is not to analyze things, or to win an argument, or to exchange opinions. Rather, it is to suspend your opinions and to look at the opinions – to listen to everybody’s opinions, to suspend them, and to see what all that means.”

Finally: 4 questions for great writers:

If you are an experienced writer, and you show people your work, there are four questions you need to ask:

  1. Where were you bored?
  2. Where could you not understand what was going on?
  3. Where did you not find things credible?
  4. Was there anything that you found emotionally confusing?

I hope that was interesting.


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