In 1972, Monty Python comedian John Cleese and Yes Minister co-writer Antony Jay founded Video Arts, a video company specialising in soft-skill training programs.
Today, much of Video Arts’ content bares little resemblance to the first videos produced 46 years ago. Naturally, most has been updated to reflect modern workplaces, recent scientific findings, or to make it more engaging to the audiences of the 21st century.
There is one video, however, that remains as relevant and appealing now as when it was made in 1991.
That video is Creativity in Management, a presentation by Cleese that transcends its presumed target market in order to dispel one of the key myths surrounding its topic.
Cleese notes that, as the 70s came to a close, research into creativity all but came to an end. Science, it was decided, had said all it could say on the matter, so why waste any more time on it? It’s a consensus which the scientific community have never publicly sought to readdress, which is perhaps why Cleese is only a minute into his speech when he announces “I can state categorically that what I have to tell you tonight about how you can all become more creative is a complete waste of time”.
The audience laughs, but here’s the thing: he means it.
What follows is not an exploration of what creativity is, but what creativity it is not.
“Creativity is not a talent”, declares Cleese.
“It is not a talent. It is a way of operating.”
To tap into creativity does not require a high IQ, an unusual amount of free time, or a particular kind of personality. All that is required, according to psychologist Donald Mackinnon, is an ability to play.
By that, what he means is a willingness to consider ideas not for the sake of practicality, but for their own sake.
One of the examples Cleese uses is Alexander Fleming. Fleming was working on a project that required growing bacterial cultures on petri dishes. One day, he realised that in one of the dishes, no culture had grown.
A less creative mind might have called the dish a failure and thrown it away. Fleming was different though. He wanted to understand why no bacteria had grown.
The result of his curiosity was penicillin.
There were a range of factors that influenced Fleming’s ability to play with the idea that examining the culture-less dish might prove beneficial. For everybody else, Cleese highlights five conditions that make it easier to tap in to our creativity:
Finding a quiet area free of stress and distraction. Sometimes easier said than done, but at the same time, it’s as straight forward as it sounds.
Dedicating a period of time in which to play in this space. Worse than exterior distractions are interior excuses that we allow to take us out of the space. By claiming a point in each day to relax and focus on our creativity, and sticking to it, we resist the temptation to waste our time on something else.
No, that’s not a typo.
To create is difficult. If we do not respect that, and let the process take its course, we are bound to take unoriginal shortcuts in search of easy solutions. That’s what Cleese noticed working alongside one of his Monty Python colleagues whose skits were never as innovative as Cleese’s, even though Cleese considered him to be more creative.
Dive into the discomfort that comes from creating something great, and do it with…
As philosopher Alan Watts remarked, “you can’t be spontaneous within reason”.
Your best creative ideas are rarely your first ones. That means you’re going to take risks, and they’re not going to work out. Often. It doesn’t matter how creative you are, or how long you’ve been working on an idea.
But that doesn’t make you a failure. As long as you accept it and carry on, you’re on the right path.
It doesn’t matter whether you’re writing a children’s book, or brainstorming the idea that will save your business from bankruptcy – humour often falls by the wayside when we’re creating.
But why should it? Little is more relaxing and tension-breaking than a laugh. It encourages spontaneity, freedom, and connection, three valuable fuels for the fire of creativity.
All of this only serves to allow you to be creative. It is not creativity itself. To create, to innovate, to redefine your work and your world? That part is up to you to figure out.