Step Up Create

September 21, 2021
E03 – Creative Book Club “Creativity” by John Cleese
The Step Up Create Podcast
The Step Up Create Podcast
E03 – Creative Book Club “Creativity” by John Cleese

Show Notes

This month our Creative Book club reads “Creativity: a short and cheerful guide” by John Cleese published last year. This episode is more of a word association game than a book review where we start with some of the ideas in the book, explore them and see what they make us think about. We cover the idea of training your creativity and balancing conscious striving to be more creative with letting your subconscious do its work.

Mentioned: The Pomodoro Technique, “The Practice” by Seth Godin 

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Original music written and performed by Jonathan D. Mellor licensed to Step Up Create S.L.

Hello everybody and welcome to the first of our creative book club, podcast, and my idea for this was basically because I didn’t want to give everyone else the idea that I was the main source of knowledge on creativity. I’ve had a lot of experiences, but I’ve never written a book on it, and there are 1000s of books out there that are really interesting around creativity, and sometimes I don’t read them all, so I thought what if we created a book club, where we would basically choose a creative book to read, and to think about discus, every month, and we would make a podcast out of it. 

So this is the very first one we haven’t actually had a book club meeting. I haven’t discussed this book with anybody else. And today it’s all about getting this thing rolling. So hopefully, in a future monthly book review podcast, we’re going to be able to get members of the book club on to the podcast, or at least I can use and cite some of their ideas about the book for today, it’s just me, so I’m going to be doing my best to make sure that that doesn’t make it a boring podcast, this time, and I’m trying to really have a bit of a talk with the book, if that makes any sense. Certainly in art therapy, there’s this idea of having a discussion with the work of art, and that’s when you kind of look at the work of art at the end and you see what it’s telling you, not on a kind of mystical way but just sort of what you realise from looking at it and so I’d like to take that approach really with looking at this book.

As I said this month, we are looking at, creativity, a short and cheerful guide by John Cleese, John Cleese for most of you probably doesn’t need any introduction at all, he is one of the writers in Monty Python and the performers in Monty Python, Fawlty Towers and is a British comedy institution, he was certainly someone who I looked up to when I was starting out and doing these scenes in drama or trying to be funny, is one of the guys who was really creating this free improvised comedy. At a time when it wasn’t really very normal. 

Now he’s 80 years old and he’s writing this book about creativity, he’s got a whole wealth of experience and stories which he shares with us in the book, I have to say the book is really short, so the book on the Kindle says that it takes about an hour to read but it does bring up some really interesting points. And I think one of the things that attracted me to it was basically what is written on the first page, I’m terrible for picking up books in bookshops and looking at the first page and really deciding from there whether to buy them, read them or whatever I suppose it’s slightly better than literally judging a book by its cover. 

Anyway, was this first page that really got my attention, and all he says is, by creativity, I simply mean, new ways of thinking about things. “Most people think of creativity as being entirely about the arts, music, painting theatre movies dancing sculpture, etc, etc. But this simply isn’t so creativity can be seen in every area of life, and science, or in business or in sport. Whenever you can find a way of doing things that is better than what has been done before, you’re being creative.” 

He goes on to debunk the myth that you’re born creative and therefore you can never get out of it which is something that I spend so much time in my classes, ending up helping people to get over this this idea that you are either creative or you’re not creative. So, this already the start of this book already got me interested because he’s kind of preaching to the converted with me on this because these are things that I really believe in that creativity is something that is necessary, and involved in everything that we do in life, and that also it’s something that is not a scarcity, it’s not something that’s given to some people like a talent, and that other people don’t have it, it’s something that we all have, we have to develop a different way of understanding creativity, we all have different ways in which we might contribute our particular character or psychological makeup will contribute to a creative process, whether that’s, that we’re really good at understanding a situation and distilling a lot of things down into a clear question or a clear problem to be solved, or whether that is being the crazy creative with loads of ideas and maybe no idea how to pull them down. 

Of course there are other people who are the engineers, the guys who need to be able to innovate in the problem so we’ve got the problem statement clearly innovating and coming up with solutions to that problem that critical thinking side we can’t have creativity without that, either. And of course we can’t have creativity without people who get things done. Most people find themselves reflected in one of these different creative profiles, so that’s not from the book, particularly the book goes in and sort of different thing around, creativity, and creative profiles but really sort of goes forward saying forget about this idea that, that you are creative or you’re not creative. 

The key thing here is to train creativity or to understand that you can set up a system where your creativity gets better, like any other muscle in your body. So thinking of creativity as a muscle, rather than thinking of it as something that you have or you don’t have, I think is something that really helps. Most people to start to live a more creative life, one of the key things that Cleese is interested in throughout the book is the interplay between consciousness and unconsciousness and creativity. And this is an interesting idea because what he says is that both are necessary in order to create something we need to have that critical thinking we need to be able to understand the situation to apply some kind of order to get something done, but we also need to be able to be freer with our ideas, and that a lot of the time we don’t allow ourselves this kind of freedom, he in, when he’s talking about it relates the story of when he was in the Footlights the Cambridge University Theatre Club, and they were putting together different scenes, and the scene would be kind of stuck. And he’d go to bed, and the next day it would almost magically resolve itself doesn’t use the word magic. 

So, basically, he’s talking about two things I think I would translate them into the way that I talk about this kind of stuff, and I’m not trying to be on the same level as John Cleese, by the way, but just sort of translate them into something else. One is trusting the process. So this idea that you can be in a creative process, and you might not be really really focused all the time on the objective that you’re trying to reach, You’re not designing the perfect new car or whatever you’re working on at that time, you might be doing something else, this could be any kind of activity where you are thinking about things in a slightly different way. And this is something called decentering, which is talked a lot about in art therapy and facilitation so the idea that if you want to help someone with something like a trauma, you don’t go straight at that trauma, you get them to do something else to distance themselves from that focus in order to later come back and connect with it, so we’d sort of trust the the subconscious that it’s there that there is a focus that we don’t always have to be saying, and this is useful because whatever, and now we’re going to do this because of whatever, which is something that does happen to me when I’m teaching in business school, I find myself challenged to not put everything into context and say well we’re doing theatre now because it’s good for your leadership skills and let me tell you a bit more about your leadership skills. 

When I know, and we know from psychological research that it’s actually better to just let people experience what it’s like to do theatre for a while, and then they can connect it back through reflection afterwards. So this idea of trusting the process is one of the the key ideas I think that certainly, that’s what the book made me think about this trusting the process idea and it’s a lot lot harder than I would have ever thought. So, when I did my therapy masters. I really nearly spent two years trying to learn to trust the process when I’d already been saying I could trust the process but trying not to produce something for something for a certain amount of time or forever is really hard, and yet that allows us to come up with more innovative solutions, or allow our creativity to flourish in a different way. So that was one of the things. 

The other thing that came from this comment this this idea of balancing the conscious and the subconscious, is that this is something that I try and do, when I paint so I try and balance this idea of play, and intuitive painting, being able to just let things flow, play with the paint a little bit. Look at the textures, but try not to judge it, just trying to see what happens and then come in with some kind of discernment on. What do I like what do I not like what am I going to cover up what am I going to develop further How am I going to do that, how am I applying these different official parts of painting and drawing like you know value and contrast and all of this. So, this is something that I actually use. Really, obviously, when I’m painting. It’s something I use less obviously perhaps when I’m creating a podcast or designing a programme or a course, but it’s still there, still those moments of freedom and kind of let’s just see where this goes. And then next moments of really focusing down, and that’s come to me through practice rather than really knowing what I was doing. And this I think is what he was getting at, in terms of speaking about this conscious and unconscious approach to creativity and that necessity. At this point I should probably do exactly what Cleese does in the book, which is really carefully sight, Guy Claxton who wrote “Hare Brain Tortoise Mind” which Cleese goes on to say that it’s been quite an important influence in the way he approaches his writing, and this was the idea of balancing this fast moving, getting things done focus that we need probably in business and in life.

 With this kind of more thoughtful, reflective side. And again this links back to stuff that I’ve been saying recently on my YouTube channel and just kind of really thinking about this idea of making time for reflection, not so much to develop our creativity, necessarily, but because we need it in order to make sense of life, and what we’re going through. So, we may travel the world, or at least before COVID We used to travel the world may travel the world and have some amazing experiences, and we might share that with some people, but we don’t make sense of everything we’ve done, or we don’t quite often we don’t even really make sense of some of the key points of that, think back to a great holiday that you’ve had, or when you were younger and you went backpacking or something like that. I’m sure there are plenty of instances where it was amazing to be meeting people in a different environment. For example, for me, I went to Guatemala in 1999, and I was 21, and this was the first country I’d ever been to that wasn’t a first world country. It really blew me away, and in so many different ways, it wasn’t the sort of the poverty, it was just this realisation of of it not being not being anything like home right, and there were just still lots of people that I shared that with, and so in hindsight I guess I would have really liked to have sat down and made some sense of this trip when I got back. Of course I didn’t. I was 21 I had things to do, I had to go back to university I was just finishing and you know I told some stories about it I had the Guatemalan mass and just had some interesting things to talk about, but I didn’t make full sense of it, like many of us don’t.

And I kind of see myself reflected in that today, although I do try very hard to get these moments for reflection and so this is about, not just creativity for creativity sake, but how reflection can really bring something extra to your life, and allow you to understand what the point of it is, I guess we’re all looking for a purpose, we talk about the millennials as a whole. Yeah, they all need a purpose, we need a purpose, but I think most people need to have some kind of purpose need to feel that their life was worthwhile and that that’s part of this idea of leading a creative life. So one of the ways of doing that is to take time to reflect, which is sort of what Cleese is saying here, again, I am reading things into this book I am taking some of his ideas and trying to share a little bit, the way that makes my mind connect them with other things. So, this is not a book review, as it were, it’s kind of, how is his book on creativity making me think more about my creativity and what I know about creativity, just to get that straight, 

So just to bring this back to the actual book, please says, in a rather poetic part this book is written nicely by the way it’s, you can tell it’s written by someone who loves writing and who cares about how he uses the language. He says here, the language of the unconscious is not verbal, it’s like the language of dreams, so we want to be able to harness somehow this to have dreams without forcing it to go down a particular route, and what he suggests is that most adults have forgotten how to play, and that that is one of the limitations or one of the things that is kind of making us less creative. So, this is also something that I’ve done some work around and maybe in a later podcast, we’ll look at the importance of play in creativity. It’s something that I have learned myself, both through having children and also who, having had this wonderful gift of theatre. From an early age and I say gift not as in a gift as in a talent, but a gift to be connected or to have been have discovered theatre, and for it to be okay to do silly things, and just having that part of improvisation or whatever else running alongside my normal life, which I talked about in the first episode has really helped me to keep that play alive, and there have been moments I’ll admit that it hasn’t really been there, where things have been kind of much more serious I’ve been trying to hit the goals and move forward and and not play. And those have been the moments where I’ve been the least happy. And also, I think I’ve been the least creative, even in sort of corporate roles where creativity wasn’t required but it was very very useful. 

So that’s the kind of wrap up what he says about consciousness and unconsciousness, this idea of trying to get more creative, how can we as adults get more creative. He doesn’t give as much information on that, but we can discover that for ourselves so we’ll come back to that in a later episode. What he then goes on to talk about is about delaying decisions for as long as possible. And this is connected to some research that he cites about architects and how some architects were very much more creative than others, and one of the reasons they found for this was that they knew how to play. And the other reason was that they were able to delay these decisions for as long as possible, and he suggests that the idea here is that is something to do with resilience, this is my word again, not his. He says it’s it. These are people who are able to tolerate the vague sense of discomfort that we all feel when some important decision is left open. So instead of immediately closing it down, leaving it there. Why, because as he says there are two benefits to leaving something open for a while, and that is you might get new information, and you might get new ideas. Now I know that I, if I can make a decision on something relatively quickly, get out of the way, take it off my list. I’m a sucker for that, and I hope I do that fairly consciously in that I think about which of the decisions requires more information or more creativity and which of them don’t. And then And then, I believe, don’t or may quite quickly, and maybe regret them later but, you know, at least it’s done and we’re moving forward. So, I’m not saying that’s the way you should live according to him, getting used to this discomfort is something that helps people to create more and be more creative. So this makes me think about this idea of getting frustrated in the middle of a creative process. 

Again, this is what it’s making me think about rather than what the book says, I take a lot of students and participants through creative processes often in areas that they are not very comfortable in for example business students, and I have them create a work of art. And what we usually see in a creative process is that somewhere in the middle, there’s a lot of frustration, and especially when this is something that you, you know, didn’t ask to do particularly you being made to do, and you are also not good at it compared with the thing that you thought you’d be doing that you’d be good at so I see a lot of frustration, a lot of resistance that comes up in the middle of these creative processes and sort of got to thinking about my own creative processes, how does that happen for me, and I think it’s totally the same thing so I’ll get somewhere in the middle of a creative process, and just get absolutely fed up with it and want to give up. But there’s something that usually keeps me going, unless it’s really shit and then I’ll just get rid of it and screw it up or paint all over it and start again. Usually there’s something that keeps me going, even though I’m not enjoying it, and that kind of resilience, I think is something that’s really important in being creative, getting more creative, and also living this creative life what I’m not trying to say is that we should all be super happy the whole time. In fact, there’s a lot of research on happiness, that says that, you know, if you’re happy all the time, then you’re not happy because your baseline is so high. How could you possibly be aware that you’re happy because you’re not, you’re not changing at all so we’re looking for small pockets of happiness, rather than sort of 100% happy all the time. Completely paraphrasing that research. If I find it I’ll put it in the show notes for you, 

He’s talking about this idea of deferring decisions of going a little bit slower, which is, is interesting. In the book please picks us up again later, when he’s talking about giving some tests. The second part of the book is about tips on how to be more creative and it’s not just kind of a list of, you know, Do this, do this exercise, whatever it’s it’s much more holistic or higher level. And let me tell you some of them, is he says something about sticking to what you know, which I may or may not be agree with, but we’ll come back to it to be kind to your emerging ideas by not being overly critical of them at the start, dangers of over overconfidence killing you’re doing. So getting rid of those ideas that you love but somehow don’t fit with what you’re doing. And also this idea of anyone can train themselves to be creative so coming back to that idea. So, what he says in terms of consistency and perseverance and this is something that has come up again and again and if, if we read, pretty much any book on creativity, there is generally something about this idea of being consistent, persevering, keeping some kind of stretch that makes you keep moving forward and keep trying, and I certainly find that with a lot of the stuff that I’m doing. I mean, even to put this in a, in a sort of business context, if you think about all this content creation for social media. 

This is something that is so important that it’s inconsistent, it’s both a consistent effort on my part is kind of trying to get it to be a habit, rather than just something I occasionally do, and it’s just keeping on persevering learning by doing, keep moving forward and this is the same thing that I saw in painting. Last year I did 100 Day projects where I did one small critic painting per day for 100 days. And one of the things I learned from that was how important a daily practice can be. So, whether you’re writing and please, by the way, does focus quite a lot on writing in this that’s his preferred creativity writing and acting but mostly talks about writing, but this is completely applicable to many other creative pursuits as I said, it’s, it’s applicable to building your personal brand it’s applicable to leadership and it’s applicable to painting as well. So, these talks here about the necessity of making blocks of time in order to write in this case. And I think that works for some people but maybe not for everybody. So there’s a really important part in creativity about self knowledge and self awareness, and thinking about what works for me. So, sometimes we just can’t get an entire day, I have two small kids, there’s no way I can get eight hours together to focus on one creative project I used to do it like that and I’ve completely had to adapt. So sometimes it’s the external thing and sometimes it seems to internal as well. There are some people who work better in half an hour slots, and you can check out stuff about the Pomodoro Technique which, you know there’s a lot of research around working in short bursts of energy and then having a break, and then working in short bursts of energy again. 

So building on what Cleese says he says make blocks of time and I would say, yes, but first of all, figure out what works for you. So it may be that your creativity flourishes your writing or whatever, after you’ve had a walk, put that walk in, as, as important as the writing part of it, it’s not a weakness, it’s like kind of warming up when you go for a run. If you don’t warm up before you. You either get hurt or you can’t run as fast, so the same thing can happen with creativity, we need to warm up a little bit and that warm up might be a walk in the countryside, it might be a swim. It could be reading a book, it could be drawing or painting or whatever, and then jumping into the focus that you’re, that you’re going to put on it and other people might find they don’t need that they need half an hour come in sort out and leave so I’d say, developing a practice is important, and there’s an e book around that that was published recently by Seth golden called the practice I think it is. But anyway, he talks about this practice being more important than actually the the artwork or whatever it is you’re creating. I think there’s a balance there. But anyway, this idea of consistency and practice is really important in creativity, and it’s something that, that Cleese really highlights here. 

The other thing he is sort of says is this idea of being playful and allowing yourself to be playful just coming back to that idea of play. There are so many people that I come across certainly and particularly in business, that have kind of stopped themselves from being playful, and unless they have like young kids who basically forced them to play. They’ve sort of let that go away and it’s not there and I think especially with COVID where we no longer have that kind of, Oh, I’ll meet up my with my friends in a more informal environment and we might end up doing something I love this kind of happens but not as much as it used to, and that was a form of play and a form of creativity, I’ve said this to other people but I mean it’s not very scientifically proven, but I think having a few beers with your friends and telling some stories of stuff that’s happened to you, is a pretty good creative exercise, and so I’m adding that to my list of things like Netflix, watching Netflix that make me feel better about stuff that I do better terms of going through some of his recommendations, he is talking about playfulness he’s talking about. Being aware of the circumstances that you are creating in which you will become more creative so for me this is about taking responsibility for your own creativity. 

So rather than sort of saying oh it’s something I was born where they can’t do anything about it. I wish I could draw but I can’t. It’s going and say well you know what, in order to be creative. I need this kind of circumstance I need to set up this practice, I need to allow myself this space to go to the gym, I need to whatever it is you need to do in order to make that space for whatever type of creativity, you’re working on, but just that step of becoming aware of what that is, you need is hugely important, and I totally agree with him on what he says there about, you know, creating these circumstances, and, and he says, understand the conditions you need in order to nurture it. So, standing what works, not how it works, because we don’t know we’re talking with the link back to that idea of the unconscious, we’re not especially interested in knowing how it works. It’s nice to have an idea of, you know, if I go out and get drunk. I’m not going to be particularly creative the next day but maybe if I go to bed and I’m thinking about a creative idea, something comes up overnight. Well, that’s sort of understanding the conditioning. And this idea of balancing play, and focus. So to go back to the ideas of dangers of overconfidence. I think that’s to do with maybe putting an idea out there too soon, rather than revising it a little bit more going into a little bit more depth, killing your darlings,

This is a really difficult one, you think you’ve got an amazing idea and you really really want it to be in there I remember quite a few years ago I wrote a pantomime and and directed it as well, and written a script for it and the script was really long. I did studies, writing when I did my undergraduate degree, but I wasn’t very good at it. So I sent it to some friends who were also in the theatre group to kind of cut it down a bit, and they cut out my pantomime, Chinese dragon, which I thought was like the most amazing idea and I really wanted to have this Chinese dragon and I wanted it to have a story around it. And all of this, they cut it out and there’s a note on it saying, Look, I know you want the dragon, but it’s just too complicated, it needs to go. And for me it was really hard to accept and I think the second draft I did I drafted it in again in a simpler form, and they were like yeah you know what I still don’t like it and actually no I can’t remember if there was a pantomime Dragon, because I just really wanted the pantomime dragon. Anyway, that was all about killing my darlings and they were very careful about how they did it. That was easier to have someone else help me do that and that’s why books get edited, and things like that, in terms of creativity things that you create yourself like this podcast for example, might be some things that could come out of this, rather than me just talking randomly but anyway I will take that as a learning by doing challenge. So, to sum up, I’d recommend that you read this little book, feels a bit like that I’m diminishing the importance when I say little is actually a little book, it’s worth read it’ll get you thinking around creativity it got me thinking around creativity, so give it a read. And this was the first creative book club, podcast, I know it’s been a bit weird. I’ve hope you’ve managed to follow my train of thought it’s kind of like a look inside my head a little bit about how things connect together. I hope it made sense and I look forward to seeing you in a month’s time where hopefully it’ll be a lot more structured and therefore easier to follow. Bye for now. So if after this you would like to help me out and help yourself out by joining our free creative book club, Please head over to and you can sign up next month’s book is messy by Tim Hartford and more details on that, and when we’ll be talking about it on the web.

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