John Cleese on Creativity: The Tortoise and the Harried

Written by Dr. U   

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The tortoise as a symbol for creativity? In this video John Cleese makes that case, and presents a remarkable amount of useful information on how to be more creative in a short ten minutes.

Cleese, now in his seventies, has had an exceptionally productive and diverse career as a comedian, writer, actor and film producer.

Don’t be fooled by his understated style and dry humor. He lacks pizzazzy visuals, grand gestures and emotional range, but he doesn’t lack substance. Cleese is a multidimensional expert offering excellent advice in small, potent doses. I recommend watching the video at least twice.

I include it here because being creative is a central theme for motivating yourself and others. Generating better ideas—and helping others to do so too—improves performance and inspires confidence. Cleese reminds us it’s supposed to be fun too.

1. Sleep on a Problem

Cleese mentions the technique of clarifying a creative challenge in your mind before going to sleep, and allowing your subconscious to work on it apart from the normal interference and interruptions of daily life. He says he often wakes to discover the problem is solved.

I’ve used this technique for years and find it very helpful. Define an important question, need or problem before going to bed, and direct your attention to it again immediately upon waking in the morning. Often interesting new thoughts are waiting.

I also find it helpful to do something similar when I have a lengthy period of time of “mindless” activity, e.g., on a long drive or while exercising.

2. Start Twice and Finish Stronger

As another variation on giving your subconscious room to work on a creative task, Cleese tells a story about how once he lost an entire script for a show, and was forced to rewrite it from memory. Later he found the original and compared them. The second one was noticeably better than the original. He attributes the difference to his unconscious mind continuing to work on it in the meantime.

This reminded me of a technique that Ben Franklin used for sharpening his ability to think and communicate clearly. He would read a passage from a book, or an article from a newspaper. Then he put it aside, took up a blank page, and strived without looking to re-write the passage or article, and improve it. He internalized the message, and challenged himself to add his own creative force to it.

This is similar to how the eloquent 19th Century British philosopher John Stuart Mill would write his essays and books. He would complete an entire first draft, then discard it entirely, and start again.

The point here is not just about writing, but about any creative task. It’s about using structured, thoughtful repetition as a means to clarify what you already think, and also to give yourself an opportunity to add new ideas, challenge assumptions, or find new connections.

3. Create Boundaries of Space to Avoid Interruptions

Cleese says that the most dangerous thing when trying to be creative is to be interrupted, because when the creative stream is broken, it is difficult to pick up where you left off.

Hectic work conditions and ubiquitous information devices make it challenging to get extended periods of time without intrusion.

Cleese says: “We don’t know where we get our ideas from. What we do know is we do not get them from out laptops.”

He is referring to the unconscious mind again as the source of creativity. For the unconscious mind to do its work most effectively, we need to create conditions that protect us against interruption.

4. Create Boundaries of Time to Enable Your Mind to “Play”

In addition to having a place to get creative, you need enough time.  Cleese mentions lengthy periods, but that varies from one person to the next. In my experience about 50 minutes of intense focus at a time works great. The point is to find the best timeframe that works for your schedule and creative style.

It’s interesting that Cleese doesn’t say this is about enabling your mind to “work” better.  He avoids the word “work” and emphasizes “play.”

Cleese repeats the word “play” as the concept for what your mind does during creative time, and I like the distinction. It’s a reminder that you’re creating the conditions for your mind to do something different than it does during the rest of the day, when you’re scrambling to get things done, handling the stress of multiple priorities and pressures from various people.

Being creative isn’t about multitasking. It’s the alternative to multitasking.  It enables you to do what multitasking can’t.

5. Free Your Inner Tortoise!

Here’s where the Tortoise comes in—Cleese uses the metaphor of a Tortoise for the creative mind, which needs the protection of time and place to come out of its shell. Cleese encourages us to “create an ‘oasis in your life’ in the middle of all your tasks and stress—a ‘tortise enclosure’ where your creative mind can come out and play.”

Find what works for you—if not on the job, then at home. If not at home, then a park, or café.  Whatever it is, find it, because a crucial way to work more effectively, is to let your Tortise play.

My thanks to Garr Reynolds, for bringin this video to my attention. Garr has a terrific blog I enjoy very much at He discusses principles of simplicity and design for making more effective presentations.

What do you do to foster creativity? Do you have techniques that work for you? Are you able to find ways to establish boundaries of space and time and “create an oasis in your life” for creative thinking? Any other thoughts? Add a comment below!

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