Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Intermediate Impossibles

Binary bonsai posted this video of a talk by John Clease, that is very relevant to something I'm writing for O (the 17th).  I'm posting it for reference linkage, but also I transcribed it for the inevitable time when it gets a take down notice.(Vimeo was taken down the day after I found it so here is a youtube until it gets taken down too.)

john cleese creativity in managment, transcriptions done by me.
You know when video arts asked me if I'd like to talk about creativity I said no problem. No Problem! Because telling people how to be creative is easy. It's only being it that's difficult. And I knew it would be particularly easy for me because I spent the 25 years watching how various creative people produce their stuff, and being fascinated to see if I could figure out what makes folk, including me, more creative. What is more, a couple of years ago I got very excited because a friend of mine that runs the psychology department at Sussex University Brian Bates showed me some research on creativity done at Berkley in the 1970's by a brilliant psychologist called Donald Mackinnon which seemed to confirm in the impressively scientific way all the vague observations and intuitions I'd had over the years. So the prospect of setting down for quite serious study of creativity for the purpose of tonight’s gossip was delightful and having spent several weeks on it I can state categorically that what I have to tell you about what.. how you can all become more creative is a complete waste of time. So I think it will be much better if I just told jokes instead (laughter)

You know the light bulb jokes, you know... How many Poles does it take to screw in a Light bulb? 5, 1 to hold the bulb 4 to turn the table. Uhm, how many folksingers does it take to change a light bulb? Answer 5. 1 to change the bulb and 4 to sing about how much better the old one was. How many socialists does it take to change a light bulb? Answer we're not going to change it we think it works. (laughter). How many creative arts ... Well you see the reason why it is futile for me to talk it about creativity is that is simple cannot be explained. It's like Mozart’s music or Van Gough's painting, or Saddam Hussein’s propaganda, it is literally inexplicable. Freud who analyzed practically everything else repeatedly denied psychoanalysis could shed any light whatsoever on the mysteries of creativity, and Brian Bates wrote to me recently most of the best research on creativity was done in the 60's and 70's with a quite dramatic drop of in quantity after then largely I suspect because researchers began to feel that they had reached the limits of what science could discover about it. In fact the only thing from the research I could tell you about how to be creative is the sort of a childhood that you should have had, which is of limited help to you at this point of your lives.

However, there is one negative thing that I can say. And it's negative because it's easier to say what creativity isn't. A bit like the sculptor who when asked how he had sculpted a very fine elephant said that he had taken a big block of marble and then knocked away all the bits that didn't look like and elephant. (laughter) Now here's the negative thing. Creativity is not a talent, it is not a talent. A talent it is a way of operating. So, How many actors does it take to screw in a light bulb? Answer, thousands. Only one to do it, but thousands to say I could have done that. How many Jewish mothers does it take to screw in a light bulb? Answer, don't mind me I'll just sit here in the dark nobody cares about... (laughter). How many surgeons... you see when I say a way of operating you see what I mean is this. Creativity is a not an ability that you either have or do not have. It is for example, and this may surprise you, absolutely unrelated to IQ. Provided you are intelligent above a certain minimal level that is. But Mackinnon showed in investigating the scientists, architects, engineers and writers that those regarded by their peers as the most creative where in no way whatsoever different in IQ from their less creative colleagues.

So in what way where they different? Well Mackinnon showed that the most creative had simply acquired a facility for getting themselves in a particular mood. A way of operating, which allowed their natural creativity to function. In fact Kinnon, Mackinnon described this particular facility as an ability to play. Indeed he described the most creative when in this mood as being childlike, for they where able to play with ideas, to explore them not for any immediate practical purpose but just for enjoyment. Play for its own sake. Now, about this mood. I'm working at the moment with Dr. Robin Skynner on a successor to our psychiatry book “Families and how to survive them” and we're comparing the ways in which psychologically healthy families function and then the ways in which such families function and with the ways in which the most successful corporations and organizations function. We've become fascinated by the fact that we can usefully describe the way in which people function at work in terms of two modes. Open and, closed. So what I can just add now is that creativity is not possible in the closed mode. Okay? So how many American Network TV Executives does it take to screw in a light bulb? Answer does it have to be a light bulb? (laughter) How many doorkee.... well let me explain a little bit, by the closed mode I mean the mode that we are in most of the time when we are at work. We have inside us a feeling that there's lots to be done and we have to get on with it if we're going to get through it all, it's an active probably slightly anxious mode. Although the anxiety can be exciting and pleasurable; it's a mode in which we're probably a little impatient, if only with ourselves. It has a little tension in it. Not much humor, its a mode in which we're very purposeful and it's a mode in which we can get very stressed and even a bit manic, but not creative.

By contrast, the open mode is relaxed, expansive, less purposeful mode in which we're probably more contemplative, more inclined to humor which always accompanies a wider perspective; and consequently more playful. It's a mode in which curiosity for it's own sake can operate, because we're not under pressure to get a specific thing done quickly. We can play, and that is what allows our natural creativity to surface. Let me give you an example of what I mean. When Alexander Fleming had the thought that lead to Penicillin, he must have been in the open mode. The previous day he had arranged a number of dishes so that culture would grow upon them. On the day of the discovery he glanced at them and he discovered that on one of them no culture had not appeared. Now if had he been in a closed mode he would have been so focused on his need for dishes with cultures grown upon them that when he saw that one dish was quite useless to him for that purpose he would have quite simply thrown it away. Thank goodness he was in the open mode, so he became curious about why the culture had not grown on this particular dish. And that curiosity, as the world knows lead him to the light bulb, (laughter) I'm sorry penicillin.

Now in the closed mode an uncultured dish is an irrelevance in the open mode it's a clue. Now one more example. One of Alfred Hitchcock’s regular co-writers has described working with him on screen plays. When we came upon a block and our discussions became very heated and intense Hitchcock would suddenly stop and tell a story that had nothing to do with the work at hand. At first I was almost outraged, and then I discovered that he did this intentionally. He mistrusted working under pressure, he would say "we're pressing, we're pressing. We're working too hard, relax it will come" and says the writer of course if finally always did.

But let me make one thing one thing quite clear. We need to be in the open mode when we're pondering something, but once we come up with the solution we must then switch to the closed mode to implement it. Because once we've made a discussion, we are efficient only if we go through with it decisively, undistracted by doubts about its correctness. For example, if you decide to leap a ravine the moment before take off is a bad time to start reviewing alternative strategies. When you're attacking a machine gunner position you should not make a particular effort to see the funny side of what you are doing. Humor is a natural component of the open mode, but it is a luxury in the closed one. No, once we've taken a decision we should narrow our focus while we're implementing it, and then after it's been carried out we should once again switch back to the open mode to review the feedback arising from our action in order to decide whether the course we have taken is successful, or weather we should continue with the next stage of our plan. Weather we should create an alternative plan to correct any error we perceive. And then back into the closed mode to implement that next stage and so on. In other words to be at our most efficient we need to be able to switch backwards and forwards between the two modes, but here's the problem we too often get stuck in the closed mode. Under the pressures which are all too familiar to us we tend to remain tunnel vision at time when we really need to step back and contemplate the wider view. This is particularly true example of politicians. The main complaint from their non-political colleges is that they've become so addicted to the adrenaline that they get from reacting to the events on an hour by hour basis, that they almost completely loose the desire or the ability to ponder problems in the open mode. So as I say creativity is not possible in the closed mode, and that's it.

Well 20 minutes to go, so how many women’s livers does it take to change a light bulb? Answer 37. 1 to screw it in and 36 to make a documentary about it. How many psychiatrists does it take to screw in a light bulb? The answer only one but the light bulb has really got to want to change.(laughter) Oh, there is one, just one other thing I can say about creativity. There are certain conditions that do make it more likely that you'll get into the open mode and that some thing creative will occur. More likely , you cannot guarantee anything will occur, you might sit around for hours as I did last Tuesday, and nothing zilch, bupkiss, not a sausage. Never the less I can at least tell you how to get yourselves into the open mode, you need 5 things. 1, space. 2, time. 3, time. 4, confidence. 5, a 22 inch waist. Sorry my mind was wondering (laughter) I was getting into the open mode too quickly. Instead of a 22 inch waist read humor, I do beg your pardon.

Okay Let's take space first, you can't become playful and therefore creative if you're under your usual pressures, because to cope with them you've got to be in the closed mode. Right? So you have to create some space for yourself away from those demands, and that means sealing yourself off. You must make a quiet space for yourself where you will be undisturbed. Next time, it's not enough to create space you have to create space for a specific period of time. You have to know that your space will last exactly until say 3:30 and at that moment your normal life with start again. It's only by having a specific moment when your space starts and an equally specific moment when your space stops that you can seal yourself off from the everyday closed mode we all habitually operate. I never realized how vital this was until I read a historical study of play by a Dutch historian called Johan Huizinga and in it he says play is distinct from ordinary life both in locality and duration. This is it's main characteristic, it's secludedness, it's limitedness. Play begins and then at a certain moment it is over, otherwise it's not play. So combining the first two factors we create an oasis of quiet for ourselves by setting boundaries of space and of time.

Now creativity can happen, because play can happen when we're separate from everyday life. So, you've arranged to take no calls, you've sat down somewhere comfortable you've taken a couple of deep breaths and if your anything like me after you've pondered some problem you want to turn into an opportunity for about 90 seconds you find yourself thinking "Oh, I forgot I've gotta call Jim oh and I must tell Tina I need the report on Wednesday and not Thursday which means I must move my lunch with Joe and Damn I haven't called St Paul’s about getting Joe's daughter about getting an interview and I must pop out to get Will's birthday present and those plants need watering and none of my pencils are sharpened, and I've got too much to do so I'm going to start by sorting out my paperclips and then I shall make 27 phone calls and I'll do some thinking tomorrow when I've gotten everything out of the way" (laughter) Because as we all know, it is easier to do trivial things that are urgent then it is to do important things that are not urgent. Like thinking; and it's also easier to do little things we know we can do than to start on big things we're not so sure about.

So when I say create an oasis of quiet, know when you have that your mind will pretty soon start racing again but you're not going to take that very seriously. You're going to site there for a bit, tolerating the racing the slight anxiety that comes along with it and after awhile your mind will quieten[natch] down again. Now, because it takes some time for your mind to quieten[natch] down it's of absolutely no use arranging a space-time oasis lasting 30 minutes, because just as your getting quieter and getting into the open mode you'll have to stop and that is very deeply frustrating. So you must allow yourself a good chunk of time. I'd suggest about and hour and a half, then when you've gotten to the open mode you'll have about an hour left for something to happen. If your lucky, but don't put a whole morning aside. My experience is after about an hour and a half you need a break. So it's far better to do an hour and a half now and an hour and a half next Thursday and maybe an hour and a half a week after that then to fix one 4 and a half hour session now. And there’s another reason for that and that's factor number 3.

Time, yes I know we just did time, but that was half of creating our oasis now I'm gonna tell you about how to use the oasis you've created. Why do you still need time? Well let me tell you a story. I was always intrigued that one of my Monty Python colleagues who seemed to be, to me, more talented than I was did never produce scripts as original as mine. And I watched for sometime, and then I began to see why. If he was faced with a problem and fairly soon saw a solution, he was inclined to take it. Even though he knew, I think, the solution was not very original where when I was faced with a similar situation although I sorely was tempted to take the easy way out and finish by 5 o'clock I just couldn't. I'd sit there with the problem for another hour and a quarter and by sticking at it would in the end almost always come up with something more original. It's that simple, my work was more creative than his simply because I was prepared to stick with a problem longer. So imagine my excitement when I found that this is exactly what Mackinnon found in his research. He discovered that the most creative professionals always played with a problem for much longer before they tried to resolve it. Because they where prepared to tolerate that slight discomfort, and this is anxiety, that we all experience when we haven't solved a problem. You know what I mean, if we have a problem and we need to solve it, until we do we feel inside us a kind of internal agitation, a tension or uncertainty that makes us just plain uncomfortable. And we want to get rid of that discomfort, so in order to do that we take a decision. Not because we're sure it’s the best decision but because taking it will make us feel better. Well the most creative people have learned to tolerate that discomfort for much longer. So just because they put in more pondering time their solutions are more creative. Now the people that I find it hardest to be creative with are the people that need all the time to project an image of themselves as decisive. And who feel to create this image they need to decide everything very quickly and with a great show of confidence. Well this behavior I suggest sincerely is the most effective way of strangling creativity at birth. But please note I'm not arguing against real decisiveness, I'm 100% in favor of taking a decision when it has to be taken, and then sticking to it while it's being implemented. What I'm suggesting to you is that before you take a decision you should always ask yourself the question “when does this decision have to be taken?” And having answered that, you defer that decision until then. In order to give yourself maximum pondering time with will lead you to the most creative solution. And if while you're pondering someone accuses you of indecision say “Look baby cakes I don't have to decide till Tuesday, and I'm not chickening out of my creative discomfort taking a snap decision before then, that's too easy.” So to summarize the third factor that facilitates creativity is time, giving your mind as long as possible to come up with something original.

Now the next factor 4 is confidence. When you're in your space time oasis getting into the open mode nothing will stop you being creative so effectively as the fear of making a mistake. Now if you think about play you'll see why. To play is experiment, what would happens if I do this? What would happen if we did that? What if the very essence of playfulness is an openness to anything that may happen. A feeling that whatever happens it's okay. So you cannot be playful if you're frightened that moving in some direction will be wrong. Something you shouldn't have done. You are either free to play or your not. As Alan Watts puts it, you cannot be spontaneous within reason! So you've got to risk saying things that are silly, illogical or wrong. And the best way to get the confidence to do that is to know that while you're being creative nothing is wrong. There is no such thing as a mistake and any drivel may lead to the breakthrough.

And now the last factor, the 5th, humor. Well I happen to think that the main evolutionary significance of humor is that it gets us from the closed mode to open mode quicker than anything else. I think we all know that laughter brings relaxation and that humor makes us playful, yet how many times have important discussions been held where really original and creative ideas where desperately needed to solve important problems, but where humor was taboo because the subject being discussed was so serious. This attitude seems to me to stem from a very basic misunderstanding of the difference between serious and solemn. Now I suggest to you that a group of us could be sitting around after dinner, discussing matters that are extremely serious like the education of our children, or our marriages or the meaning of life and I'm not talking abut the film. And that we could be laughing and that would not make what we where discussing one bit less serious. Solemnity on the other hand I mean I don't know what it's for. What is the point of it? The two most beautiful memorial services I've attended both had a lot of humor. And it somehow freed us all and made the services inspiring and cathartic. But solemnity it serves pomposity, and the self important always know at some level of their consciousness that their egotism is going to be punctured by humor and that's why they see it as a threat. So dishonesty and pretends that their deficiency makes their views more substantial when it only makes them feel bigger. (mouth fart, laughter)

No humor is an essential part of spontaneity and playfulness, an essential part of the creativity that we need to solve problems no matter how “serious” they may be. So when you set up a space time oasis giggle all you want. And there ladies and gentlemen are the 5 factors that you can arrange to make your lives more creative. Space, time, time, confidence and Lord Jeffery Archer. (laughter) So now you know how to get into the open mode, the only other requirement is you keep your mind gently round the subject your pondering. You'll daydream of course, but just keep bringing your mind back just like with meditation. Because this is the extraordinary thing about creativity if you just keep your mind resting against the subject in a friendly but persistent way, sooner or later you will get a reward from your unconscious. Probably in the shower later, or breakfast the next morning suddenly you are rewarded out of the blue a new thought mysteriously appears, if you put in the pondering time first. So how many Cecil Parkinsons does it take to screw in a light bulb? Answer 2 one to screw it in on to screw it up. How many account executives does it take to screw in a light bulb? Answer can I get back to you on that? How many Norwegian, How many Yugoslavia, How many Monl.. How many Dutch.. I'm out of Jokes.

Oh one thing, looking at you all reminds me. I think it’s easier to be creative if you've got people to play with. I always find if two or more of use throw ideas backwards and forwards I get to more interesting and original places than I could have ever got to on my own. But there is a danger, a real danger if there is one person around you who makes you feel defensive, you loose the confidence to play and then its goodbye creativity so always make sure your play friends are people you like and trust. And never say anything to squash them. Never say, no or wrong or I don't like that. Always build and play on what's been said.
Would it be even better if?
I don't quite understand that could you just explain it again?
Go on, what if?
Let's pretend.
Try to establish as free an atmosphere as possible, and you know if sometimes I wonder if some of the success of the Japanese isn't due to their instinctive understanding of how to use groups creatively. You know westerners are often amazed at the unstructured nature of Japanese meetings. But maybe it just that very lack of structure that absence of time pressure that frees them to solve problems so creatively. And how clever of the Japanese to plan that unstructuredness[natch] by for example insisting that the first people to give their views are the most junior so that they can speak freely without the possibility of contradicting something that has already been said by someone that more important. 4 minutes left... Ah, how many Irishmen... Sorry, sorry.

Well look the very last thing I can say about creativity is this. It's like humor. In a joke the laugh comes at a moment when you connect two different frameworks of reference in a new way. Example, there's the old story about a woman doing a survey into sexual attitudes who stops an airline pilot and asks amongst other things when he last had sexual intercourse, he replies 1958. Now knowing airline pilots the researcher is surprised and queries this well the airline pilots replies well it's only 2110 now. (laughter)

We laugh eventually at the moment of contact of two frameworks of reference, the way we express what year it is and the 24 hour clock. Now having an idea, a new idea is exactly the same thing. It's connecting two hereto separate ideas in a way that generates new meaning. Now connecting different ideas isn't difficult, you can connect cheese with motorcycles or moral courage with light green or bananas with international cooperation. You can get any computer to make a billion random connections for you, but these new connections or juxtapositions are significant only if they generate new meaning. So as you play you can deliberately try creating these random juxtopositions and then use your intuition to tell whether any of them seem to have significance for you. That's the bit that the computer can't do. It can produce millions of new connections, but it cannot tell you which one of them smells interesting. And of course you'll produce some juxtapositions which are absolutely ridiculous, absurd. Good for you! Because Edward de Bono who invented the notion of lateral thinking, specifically suggests in his book “Po, beyond yes and no” you can try loosening up your assumptions by playing with deliberately crazy connections. He calls them such absurd ideas intermediate impossibles. And he points out that the use of an intermediate impossible is completely contrary to ordinary logical thinking in which you have to be right at each stage. It doesn't matter if the intermediate impossible is right or absurd, it can never the less be used as a stepping stone to another idea that is right. Another example of how when you're playing nothing is wrong. So to summarize, if you really don't know how to start or you've got stuck, start generating random connections and allow your intuition to tell you if one might lead somewhere interesting. Well that really is all I can tell you that won't help you to be creative. Everything. And now in the two minutes left I can come to the important part and that is how to stop your subordinates becoming creative too; which is the real threat. (laughter)

Because believe me no one appreciates better than I do what trouble creative people are and how they stop decisive hardnosed bastards like us from running businesses efficiently.

I mean we all know we encourage someone to be creative the next thing is their rocking the boat coming up with ideas and asking us questions. Now, if we don't nip this kind of thing in the bud, we'll have to start justifying our decisions by reasoned argument, and sharing information the concealment of which gives us considerable advantages in our power struggles. So here's how to stamp out creativity in the rest of the organization and get a bit of respect going. 1, allow subordinates no humor, it threatens your self-importance and especially your omniscience. Treat all humor as frivolous and subversive, but humor will be subversive in your setup as it’s the only way people can express their oppositions since if they express it openly you're down on them like a ton of bricks. So let’s get this clear, blame humor for the resistance your way of working creates then you don't have to blame your way of working. This is important, and I mean that solemnly, your dignity is no laughing matter.

Second, keeping ourselves feeling irreplaceable involves cutting everyone else down to size. So don't miss an opportunity to undermine your employees’ confidence. A perfect opportunity comes when you're reviewing work that they've done. Use your authority to zero in immediately on all the things you can find wrong. Never, never balance the negatives with positives. Only criticize just as your school teachers did. Always remember praise makes people uppity. 3rd, demand that people should always be actively doing things. If you catch anybody pondering accuses them of laziness and or indecision. This is to starve employees of thinking time because that leads to creativity and insurrections. So demand urgency at all times and use lots of fighting talk and war analogies and establish a permanent environment of stress and breathless anxiety and crisis. In a phrase, keep that mode closed. In this way we no nonsense folks can ensure that the tiny, tiny microscopic, quantity of creativity in our organization will all be ours. But, let your vigilance slip for one moment and you find yourself surrounded by happy enthusiastic and creative people who you might never be able to completely control ever again. So be careful. Thank you and good night. (applause)(laughter)


  1. It was still up, so I watched and read along. Great job on the transcription. I noticed a few errors, but nothing that would detract from the message of the piece.

    Cleese is right on so many points. One of my favorites is the childlike aspect. I still keep invisible friends around and that's perfectly a-ok in his book of creativity.

    I also stay in the open mode too long. It's good to get offline and organize my thoughts.

  2. Awesome, thanks for taking the time to transcribe it so that the message can last past the yout00b censor police.

  3. This is great. I used it to write a summary of his speech: