top of page
  • Writer's pictureAmy

Creativity: a short and cheerful guide by John Cleese

Thoughts and tips on what creativity is and how to cultivate it.

First off.

Let me first say that if you read at all and you are interested in learning how to be more creative, don’t read this post. Yes, this post will only take you 4 minutes to read. But the original book will literally only take you 1 hour to read. It’s very short, concise and humorous.

But if you put off reading at all costs, please by all means, keep reading my shortened version. I am writing this post for my benefit as a reference and because it resonates with me so I want to share it with you.

What is Creativity?:

1) “By creativity, I simply mean new ways of thinking about things.”

2) “Creativity can be seen in every area of life-- in science, or in business, or in sport. Wherever you can find a way of doing things that is better than what has been done before, you are being creative.”

3) “Another myth is that creativity is something you have to be born with. This isn't the case. Anyone can be creative.”

Thoughts on Where Creativity comes from:

We have all experienced when you can’t remember a name and then it pops into your head hours later without you thinking about it. Also consider all the things you do without thinking about them such as driving, eating or tying your shoes. There are things that our unconscious mind can do better than our logical mind.

“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… So I began to realize that my unconscious was working on stuff all the time, without my being consciously aware of it.”

The problem with the unconscious: “It is unconscious. You can’t order it about or hit it with a stick. You have to coax it out in all sorts of strange and crafty ways.”

So when we are in touch with our unconscious, it sends us hints and gentle nudges, and that’s why we have to be quiet.”

When you are using your unconscious mind to be creative you’ll come up with fuzzy, undefined ideas. Let them develop a bit but eventually you’ll use your conscious logical mind to evaluate the quality of the idea. But in the first place we have to cultivate circumstances that will allow our minds to wander uninterrupted.

Cultivating Creativity:

Cleese refers to an experiment that was conducted around architects to determine what made a creative architect. The 2 things that stood out between the group of creative architects and the group of uncreative architects were:

  1. “The creative architects knew how to play”

  2. “The creative architects always deferred making decisions for as long as they were allowed”

Playing :

When you are playing you are relaxed and free. You don’t have to be anxious and you don’t have to get it right.

“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.”

You can avoid interruptions by setting boundaries around your space and time. A closed door and an allotted time to work can help protect your thoughts from distraction. Even when you protect yourself from outside distractions, there will be the distracting thoughts of your mind. So get a place to write them down so you can deal with them later.


When you defer decisions you may 1) get new information 2) get new ideas.. And therefore you can make a better decision if you are able to make yourself wait.

“Creative people are much better at tolerating the vague sense of worry that we all get when we leave something unresolved.”


Basic tips. He lists 11. Here are my top 4:

1. Look for inspiration in others. Find an idea from someone else and borrow it as a jumping off point (no copying obviously). “If you find the notion of borrowing like this a bit dodgy, look up a fellow called Shakespeare. He stole all his plots, and then wrote rather creatively.”

2. Keep going. Some fields require lots of education before you can be creative in them. You’ll need years of experience before you are thinking of new ways to do medicine for example. But in the arts: “beginners sometimes have a freshness in their approach that later fades away.” It’s typical for someone to come into the arts fresh and then as they master the trade their ideas become conventional. The greatest minds continue to nurture and trust their unconscious mind. “Playing…keeps you fresh.” Playing can look like enjoying something else like gardening, playing an instrument or baking.

3. Coping with setbacks: “when the juices are not flowing, don’t beat yourself up and wonder if you should retrain as a priest. Just sit around and play, until your unconscious is ready to cough up some stuff. Getting discouraged is a total waste of your time.”

4. Get your panic in early. Use your panic to help you start, it gives you energy. You can face the difficult parts when you reach them.


My favorite take away from this book is the idea that our unconscious mind is the one that is doing the creative leg work. Most of my ideas come to me 1) when I'm about to fall asleep 2) when my mind is wandering.

If we can find ways to harness our unconscious mind than we can glean more ideas. It also releases us from the pressure of "just sit down and find a solution." It often won't work like that. If I want my unconscious to start mulling something over I will intentionally think about it with my conscious mind in the hopes that when the time comes I may have unconsciously come up with a solution.

I also try to defer decisions as long as possible because that idea will develop and grow over time. If I don't need to act on it right away, I might as well wait.


bottom of page