Content Marketing World continues to roll out the entertainment bigwigs: Following last year’s killer performance by actor Kevin Spacey, who spoke about storytelling, this year septuagenarian comedian John Cleese tackled the topic of creativity.
“I don’t know what content marketers are or what makes a marketer content,” Cleese quipped, putting the accent on the second syllable, to the CMWorld audience in Cleveland, this week. “One thing I do know about is creativity, and I can guarantee to you that if you listen to what I’m going to say, then by the end of the next 30 minutes you’ll be more creative than you are now.”
Having spent decades laughing at his on-screen antics, the 3,000-plus strong audience hung on every word as Cleese shared his insights into the physical places, and mental spaces, necessary for creativity to thrive.
The Power Of Play
“Creative people know how to play—like children, they get totally absorbed in what they are doing,” Cleese said, citing various psychological designed to explain and demonstrate the origins of creativity.
According to Cleese, this capacity to playfully focus on a challenge enables creative people to tap into a part of their subconscious that is closed when we engage in rational thought.
"Play has got to be separate from ordinary life,” he continued. “You can't play in ordinary life because there is too much else going on. To play you have to relax your vigilance, you have to create yourself a space where it's safe to do that. In these boundaries of space and time you can tap into your unconscious. That's why play is so powerful—because it lets you access a part of you that is normally closed.”
Sleep On It
Citing examples of scientists and philosophers, Cleese explained how many of the most creative people in history found ways to tap into a semi-conscious state. He encouraged creative people to take the time to ponder solutions rather than respond quickly.
Cleese admitted he didn’t realize he was creative until he was well along studying, first, science and, then, law, at Cambridge. It all began when he began writing comedy and skits with Graham Chapman, later his partner in crime with Monty Python.
“When I first began writing scripts, at the end of the evening I just couldn’t get on with it, and couldn’t figure out how to end a scene,” Cleese said. “So I’d go to bed, and while I was asleep my mind was working on the problem, so when I woke up the answer would be there. I call it ‘the overnight phenomenon,’ in that I realized that, while I slept, my unconscious was doing something creatively to help me. It’s sort of an intelligent unconscious.”
Whether it’s sleep, a comfortable chair, or meditation, Cleese recommended people find ways to remove distractions if they want to open their minds to creative thought.
Changing Your Mind
Although play and deep thinking are both fundamental to creativity, Cleese pointed out that many social norms encourage us to focus on problems in a fast-thinking, analytical way, rather than taking the time to tap into a deeper unconscious state.
“There are two ways of thinking—the precise, purposeful analytical way of thinking, and the slower way that gets into our subconscious,” Cleese said. “We’re taught to think fast at school, which is fine when there are simple challenges, but when you have unformulated problems, like trying to make people cooperate, it’s appropriate to contemplate the issues more deeply.”
The good news is that it’s possible to learn how to be a more creative thinker by practicing patterns of thought that foster creativity—by removing distractions, meditating, sleeping, or even staring into a fire.
“By practicing these slower thought techniques, you can tap into your natural creativity and break out of the thought patterns that have been hard-wired into place,” Cleese said. “As soon as you’re under pressure, you’ll switch back into the logical mind, which is why you need to find times and places where you won’t be interrupted.”
To do that, he suggested, you have to create boundaries of space and time—an enclosure that allows you to get into a meditative state of mind. “Get away from interruptions and see what happens. Let all the crap in your mind settle and then see what funny little ideas or feelings come along. Little promptings come through, and then you begin getting ideas,” he said. What the unconscious gives you is not always clear—it’s subtle, the comic explained, “but creativity does seem to come from the unconscious.”
Switch Between States
Ultimately it’s the ability to switch between states of deep contemplation and more agile, analytical thinking that makes creative people not only come up with great ideas, but assess and implement them in real life.
“The quiet thinking will give your ideas time to emerge, but don’t think all the ideas are going to be good ideas—some will be terrible,” Cleese said. “And that’s where the fast-thinking analytical brain will help you pick the really good ones and turn them into reality.”
“Doing this gets harder and harder in our day and age,” he concluded. “But good luck anyway.”