Legendary funnyman John Cleese once taught a dojo full of students how to defend themselves against an attacker wielding a banana. (“First you get him to drop the banana. Then you eat the banana, thus disarming him.”)
He once demanded a refund from the pet store that sold him a dead parrot.
And then once, decades later, he took to the stage in Belgium and did something more remarkable than those classic skits put together.
He explained creativity.
Hidden amid the vacuous, albeit largely innocuous, dross of YouTube, those videos of epic fails by amateur daredevils, of bullies being “pwned” by nerds, of cats pooping into toilets, is 10 and a half minutes of understated brilliance. Cleese—older, grayer, and more jowly than you may remember from Monty Python’s Flying
Circus or A Fish Called Wanda—calmly paces back and forth, and methodically, almost matter-of-factly, deconstructs the construction of all things clever.
It’s must viewing for anyone engaging in anything imaginative. In our world, that would include game developers, engineers, graphic artists, copywriters, marketing strategists, sales executives, C-suite visionaries, etc., etc., etc.
Cleese may be long in the tooth, but fortunately for us in Generation ADD, he’s not long in the tongue. Cleese’s Treatise, in fact, is broken down into three easy steps. Well, steps, anyway. Easy, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. See for yourself:
Step One: What’s The Big Idea?
Where does Cleese, the mastermind behind masterpieces like The Life of Brian and Fawlty Towers, get his ideas?
“From a Mr. Ken Levinshor, who lives in Swindon,” he tells the audience. “He sends them to me every Monday morning on a postcard.”
The laughs come in waves as more and more people catch on to the deadpan humor.
“And I once asked Ken where he gets his ideas from,” Cleese continues, “and he gets them from a lady called Mildred Spong, who lives on the Isle of Wight. He once asked Mildred Spong where she got her ideas from, but she refused to say.”
Turns out such thoughts—and the inspiration behind them—are here, there and everywhere. Just like God, if the Bible is to be taken literally. Or “The Electric Slide,” if its lyrics are to be taken literally. They incubate and percolate in the subconscious mind, and then are conjured, as if by magic, into what we write, what we design, what we engineer.
“We don’t know, and this is terribly important, where we get our ideas from,” Cleese says. “What we do know is that we don’t get them from our laptops.” Translating that last comment from British sarcasm to American English tells us that imagination is not a spectator sport.
Want to unleash your maximum creative power? Then make like Magellan and explore. Live. Interact. Experiment. Get that damn iPhone out of your face.
Step Two: Space And Time
“If you’re racing around all day, ticking things off on lists, looking at your watch, making phone calls and generally keeping all the balls in the air,” Cleese tells the audience, “then you are not going to have any creative ideas.”
Nothing constipates the innovative reflex more so than multi-tasking. Responding to texts. Turning on the ballgame for background noise. Nibbling on a little Facebook clickbait. Checking Instagram to see what Kim Kardashian is wearing. And what she’s not wearing, for that matter.
All these, and more, stifle the rhythm of creativity. The starting and… Stop. Ping. And the. Starting. Again. This may be the cadence we’ve grown to accept in our family and business lives, but it is to innovation what cheese and peanut butter is to intestinal peristalsis.
It binds you into a knot.
“The most dangerous thing when I was trying to write anything was to be interrupted,” Cleese says, “because the flow of thought that I had was not immediately picked up after the interruption.”
Step Three: Sleep On It
Early in the presentation, Cleese—a budding scientist before blossoming as an entertainer—educates the audience on a pattern that has endured throughout his career.
“Whenever I was writing a script at night and I got stuck, or I couldn’t think of an ending, I would go to bed,” he says. “And when I woke up in the morning, not only was the solution to this problem immediately apparent to me, but I couldn’t even remember what the problem had been.”
He claims, as others have as well, that while your body and your conscious mind are resting, your subconscious mind remains furiously at work. And it’s trying to untangle whatever knot you couldn’t when you were awake.
You smelling BS? Then reflect on your own experiences. Ever have something important to tell someone, but then in the moment, you forget what it was? And no matter how hard you struggle or strain or rack your brain, you can’t remember it?
And then, two hours later, when you’re stuck in traffic listing to the ’80s station, it comes back to you. Why? Because your subconscious is like a casino: It’s always open.
To further his point, Cleese shares a similar experience where he lost a script—something he was quite proud of—and had to reproduce it from scratch. To his surprise, the rewrite was a marked improvement over the pre-write.
“And I realized that the explanation for this was after I had finished writing the original, my unconscious mind must have continued working on it, even though I was not aware that was happening,” Cleese says. “So that when I came to write it out again, it was better.”