Cleese Teaches Secrets of Content Creativity; Now That's Completely Different

John Cleese was far-and-away the highlight of Day 2 at Content Marketing World (aka #CMWorld) in Cleveland yesterday. And the competition was fierce: Kristina Halverson’s opening keynote was terrific (I promise to post on it later), and the Barenaked Ladies blew the roof off the dump last night. Who knew there were so many more verses to the Big Bang Theory theme song? (This version is from Comic-Con 2010.)

But in an educationally awesome day, John Cleese was awesomely awesome. Is it not enough that he competes (and probably wins) as funniest guy on the planet? He’s got to be smartest, too?

Among his opening riff of jokes was one that’s hard to get in print. In explaining why the talk made him nervous, Cleese pointed out that, “All 3,200 of you are content marketeers.” (Hint: his emphasis was not on the expected syllable.) Wild laughter. “And I don’t want to make you discontent, but …” More wild laughter.

Cleese immediately segued (non-sequitur’d?) into his talk on creativity. He even offered a guarantee that after he finished giving his speech, we would all be more creative than when he started. No one asked for their money back at the end.

Given his career, it makes sense that Cleese would get interested in the nature of creativity, the creative mind, and the creative process. And because he’s a Cambridge man, he was able to access some leading thinkers and researchers. They turned him on to the global body of advanced work on the subject.

To oversimplify (and drain out Cleese’s brilliantly integrated humor), scientific research reveals that the difference between masterfully creative people and every-day Joes comes down to two key characteristics:

1.      The creative ones know how to play.

2.      And they defer decisions – they take much longer to make up their minds.

“Play” in Cleese’s sense, of course, is a bit more sophisticated a concept than kids playing dress up, or whatever. Or maybe it isn’t. It’s mostly about allowing yourself enough time for your unconscious mind to get in on your creative act. (Cleese was quick to point out that he wasn’t talking about Freud’s version of the unconscious mind, which is vicious and nasty and not likely to help you create anything useful at all.)

His first example drew from personal experience, one that I and maybe all of you share. He talked about working on a Python sketch once where he just couldn’t figure out how to solve the ending, and beat his mind against the problem for hours before giving up and going to bed. When he woke up the next morning, he sat down and banged out what he thought was the perfect ending in about two minutes. Clearly, he says, his unconscious mind had worked out the problem while he was asleep. Cleese calls this the overnight phenomenon, and says he has experienced it often.

Hare Brain, Tortoise Mind: How Intelligence Increases When You Think Less, a book by researcher Guy Claxton that comes with Cleese’s high recommendation, explains the scientific research behind this thinking. It is full of examples (which Cleese shared yesterday) of famous scientists, like Einstein and Edison, who were known to sit for hours and think, eventually achieving a sort of meditative state in which their unconscious mind apparently was able to share some secret.

Cleese calls this escaping from your own mind, and a “tortoise enclosure” (“a safe place for your tortoise mind”). It reminds me of all the times I am interrupted while I’m deep “inside” some research report or white paper I’m writing; I snap, say something I regret later and always end up apologizing for being an ass. Now I know I was in my tortoise mind!

In dozens of painstaking (and funny) examples, Cleese builds up an unassailable, and nuanced, understanding of this creative tortoise mind. I’ll only share one example: Edison used to sit in a comfy chair with metal ball bearings in his hand and a metal bowl beneath it. And he would think about whatever problem he was trying to solve that day, and if he dozed off and his hand relaxed the bearings would fall into the bowl and jerk him awake. Edison believed his best insights came not while asleep, but in that meditative, relaxed state just as you begin to sleep, and invented this process to capture it.

Cleese’s talk ended on a joke, of course – but a very pointed one. He spoke plainly about how the noise of the modern electronic world, combined with its relentless pressure to perform (right now!), was a mortal enemy of the meditative state required by the tortoise mind.

“So good luck.”