Creativity, An Open and Closed Case?

Devine inspiration of Human Trait?

John Cleese, Creativity and Management, 1994



John Cleese.jpg

John Cleese claims that creativity is not a special talent. It’s something that can be learnt and encouraged, so long as the conditions and the environment are right.

For him, creativity is closely related to a sense of humour. That’s understandable, not just because he’s an ex-Python, but also because humour involves an amount subversiveness and associative thinking. Essential qualities for creativity. Humour is always best when it generates new meaning from innocent observations, particularly about the human condition.

Defining what creativity is has always been difficult. Often intangible and mysterious, some people seem to possess it in abundance, whilst others seem to be left behind.

 

Historically, creativity was something that was divinely inspired. It came from outside ourselves, and only a few lucky individuals who were “chosen” to be the conduits of its power. Creative energy was literally a bolt from above which inspired creative action. Creative people were driven to take action usually to create “Art”.

This began to change with the industrial revolution where people were seen as the creators of their own destinies and fortunes. Man (and Earth) no longer at the centre of the universe. Creativity was the domain of a God-given gift. You were either born with talent or you weren’t. Some people had it in abundance and others were lacking any creative will or energy. Creativity didn’t involve any “choice” or education. Skills could be developed and could enhance your “talent”, but creativity was something you were born with. To some extent we still carry this view today. We often think of talented or gifted people as lucky, luck to be born with a gift. Perhaps it’s true, perhaps some brains are wired in a particular way so that they see the world differently. Nevertheless, we still haven’t defined what creativity actually is and how we recognise it.

In more recent times our view has skewed towards an idea that we are all latently creative, just that some of us have found ways to tap into our creative pool more easily than others. I do think that creativity is a quintessentially human quality. We just get unlearnt. We close our minds to open and unencumbered ways of thinking and as a result we forget how to be curious, playful and associative.

It may be also that I have a very broad view of what creative thinking actually is and what it is not. Most of us, when faced with a problem, will try to find ways to solve it. When one way doesn’t succeed, we try another and then another until we reach the desired outcome. We only fail when we don’t try to find different, and therefore creative, solutions to problems. Where we deny our naturally creative spirit is when we give up, when we stop being curious to find new solutions or stop being open enough to recognise a serendipitous situation.

“Open thinking” is one of the key modes that Cleese explores in this talk. Without open thinking we become anxious and impatient. We become more focussed on implementation than on being playful. Whereas in an Open mode of thinking we can be relaxed, curious, contemplative and playful. Because we focus so hard on results, we may tend to miss the necessary time needed to ponder a problem or situation, to look at alternatives and therefore different solutions.

Playfulness is a key attribute of a creative mind. Experimentation, although sometime rigorous in its procedures, is an example of the mind asking “what if?” devising a theory and finding a strategy to “prove” that theory. However, experimentation isn’t limited to the lab or workshop. It’s an essential part of how we learn. Heuristic experiments are how we learn to walk, to ride a bike, to drive a car. Ships navigate on a constantly adjusted bearing in order to arrive at their destination. Social and peer pressure often persuade us that quick formulaic solutions are better and keep us moving forward. Exams are easy to measure, but more often than not teach us what to think, not how to think.

Obviously, creative thinking is useless, in that it doesn’t go anywhere, if it isn’t followed by a strategy and action. What that means is moving backwards and forwards from Open to Closed thinking.

Cleese points out that there are some basic conditions that help to get your mind into the Open mode. It may be worth comparing this with the seminal work by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi called “Flow: the psychology of Happiness” and “Creativity; The psychology of discovery and invention”.

Flow is the state of mind (perhaps better to say “mindfulness”) where you are receptive, focussed and relaxed, where attention and concentration and fully absorbed and in-the-moment. Time fades into the background. When your mind is in this state you are at your most creative. Recent studies from neuroscientists such as David Eagleman in the “Runaway Species”, suggests that it is your subconscious, working in the background, that does all the creative and associative thinking. Thinking about problems whilst you’re not consciously thinking about them. That would explain why we so often get our best ideas when we’re doing something else.

There are 5 basic conditions Cleese identifies.

1.    Space: find a place where you can be quiet and not under your normal pressures. This should become your sanctuary for quiet contemplation. In his book “Why Nations Fail”, Daron Acemoglu and James A. Robinson explain the effect of environments on not just individuals but on communities as well.

 

2.    Time: Allot a specific time when you wish to focus on one thing. It may be worth mentioning here Garry Keller’s book “The One Thig”. Focus only on things that more you closer towards your goal. He gives us the focussing question “What’s the one thing I can do such that by doing it everything else will be easier or unnecessary”. Set time aside.

 

 

3.    Time: Make your time an Oasis of quiet. Do not get distracted by small trivial things that are unimportant to the progress of your project. Don’t take the easy way out, play with the problem. Cleese suggests giving your mind as long as possible to ponder the problem. Don’t tolerate discomfort (because you will feel it) and don’t make decision to quickly.

 

4.    Confidence: Play, Experiment, try What-If experiments. Do not fear Failure, be Open. Carol Dweck in her book “Mindset, changing the way you think” speaks about having a “Fixed” or a “Growth” Mindset. In essence, Fake-it-till-you-make-it. You can change your mindset by simply (sometimes not so simply) changing your daily habits and routines by adopting the mindset you want to become.

 

 

5.    Humour: Cleese says that Humour relaxes us and teaches us to be playful. Humour moves us quickly from a Closed mode to an Open mode. Laughter makes the subject less Serious and therefore more fun. I’m also a big fan of storytelling. Stories are how we make meaning out of things. Humour has a similar potential in that it can make meaning by associating two random things to make a new meaningful whole.

Without any doubt relaxing and keeping your mind “gently” around the problem to be solved is a great way to get your mind into the right state. But it’s also necessary to turn up and to be present. There’s no point in waiting for inspiration to arrive, you have to be there and that means putting in the time. James Clear in his book Atomic Habits would say that we must make creativity a habit and the way to do that is to turn up to do the work regularly. Assuming, of course that you have set up the right environment and allocated the right amount of time.

I’m not sure that we have a better definition of Creativity, but what we do get is a sense of how to make it happen. For me creativity is a state of mind, a way of behaving and a way of approaching a problem by oblique methods. Finding that mental state of “flow” where time recedes and you are completely in the moment is where the feeling of creativity is most obvious. It maybe in very small things that involve total engagement, like climbing or running, but t can also be when you’ve put in the time and effort, got nothing, put the problem aside, thought about something else and the solution miraculously pops into the foreground. Trusting and believing in that process, where the subconscious seems to do the work without your help, are sometimes the most satisfying.

Creativity is not about creating “art” it’s about thinking in a more open and playful way and solving problems in ways that surprise you.