Thursday, April 19, 2012

On Creativity, part 1

I happened across a video the other day, a lecture that John Cleese (of Monty Python fame) was giving on "how to be creative." I've watched through all 36 minutes of it twice now, and you can find the video here if you want.

His findings, taken from both scientific studies and personal experiences, really hit home for me. I wanted to summarize the video in a two-part post. In this part, I want to touch on the idea of "play", and the concept of open vs. closed mode (and how both are important).

  • Creativity is not a talent, it's a way of operating.
There is no link between IQ and talent, and creativity is often thought of (incorrectly) as something only some people are good at. Some of us are allowed more time or space to be creative, but all of us have the ability. The more creative among us are better at getting into the mood of play - playing with ideas - not for any immediate practical purpose but just to enjoy.
  • Open Mode vs. Closed Mode.

Creativity is not possible in the Closed Mode (CM). It's the mode most of us operate in at work, when things need to get done, we're active, slightly anxious (in a good way sometimes), probably a little impatient (with ourselves), a little tense, not very humorous, purposeful, easily stressed, and even manic.

By contrast, the Open Mode (OM) is relaxed, expansive, less purposeful, more contemplative, more inclined to humor, more playful, and allows curiosity for its own sake.

Alexander Fleming did a study where he set out dishes for cultures to grow on overnight. In the morning, he discovered all but one of the dishes had culture growth. In a Closed Mode, he would have only had use for dishes with culture growth and discarded the one dish with none. But because of his Open Mode of thinking at the time, he became curious at the dish without culture, which ultimately led to the discovery of Penicillin.

  • Closed Mode is not always a bad thing.

The OM is what we need to ponder a problem, but once we have a solution, we should switch to the CM. We don't want to be distracted by doubts as is possible in the OM when we are trying to implement something. It's akin to running towards a large chasm to get across in one leap, and having doubts just as you begin to jump...

To implement the best of both worlds, we should switch back and forth between modes. OM to ponder, then CM to implement. Then back to OM, to review whatever feedback you now have, then back again to CM, repeating the process as necessary.

Too often, we get stuck in CM, leading us to tunnel vision when we should really step back and take a wider view.

One criticism of politicians is that they are addicted to the adrenaline that they get from reacting to events on an hour-by-hour basis. They have lost the ability to ponder a problem in the OM. I would say this is not limited to politicians, but something that can affect just about anyone. It's easy to see that one would feel productive by staying in a reactive mode, but it comes at the expense of both one's creative muscle and the creativity of those around them (which I'll touch on more in part two).

In the next part, I'll talk about how he breaks down the ideal conditions for the Open Mode, working with others, and how absurdity can be a useful tool. Of course, if you have the time and inclination, you can skip my next post and just watch the video! I highly recommend it, but you should still read the blog, too. :)

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