Many years ago, I had a job interview where the first question one of the interviewers asked, after all the standard greetings and introductions, was, “It says here on your resume, that you’re ‘creative’, how do you be creative?” I admit to being a bit taken aback. How do you be creative? You just sort of are… I guess. I don’t know, I never really thought about it before. Creativity is creativity, right? It’s difficult to quantify. Knowing that wouldn’t be an acceptable answer in this situation, I explored a bit deeper and said, “I just have a unique way of looking at the world, not just in terms of the usual creative expressions like art, music, dance and design, but in everyday situations like problem solving.” I sat back in my chair, smiling and doing an imaginary celebratory Tiger Wood’s style fist pump in my mind – nailed it! The interviewer, unphased, leaned forward and said, “Yeah, but how?” with the emphasis on the last word. I didn’t have anything left. That was my best answer. I don’t remember what I said next, but I did not get the job and his question has stuck with me for many years.
It wasn’t until recently that I came across a video online that helped me clarify a method for being creative. In the video, John Cleese, of the British comedy troop Monty Python fame, elaborates on a method he uses to be creative and the difference between a mind in the closed mode and one in the open mode. The closed mind is for more analytical tasks, but the open mind is where creativity takes place and Mr. Cleese outlines five steps to help get you there.
In order for your mind to be truly in the open mode, you need to isolate yourself from the demands of your “normal” life. It’s those demands that will bring you back to the closed mode. Whether it’s a comfy chair in your home office, your bathroom or an empty conference room at work, you must make a quiet space for yourself where you will not be disturbed. Yes, I know, that’s easier said than done, but it will be worth it in the long run.
Now that you have a space set aside for creative thinking, you need some time. Mr. Cleese recommends setting aside an hour and a half. Any less time and you won’t have much time in the open mode after clearing your mind of the thoughts of everyday life. I’m going to quote the speaker directly in this case as he has an excellent way of phrasing his point;
“You find yourself thinking, ‘Oh, I forgot I’ve got to call Jim. Oh, and I must tell Tina that I need the report on Wednesday and not Thursday, which means I must move my lunch with Joe, and darn, I haven’t called St. Paul’s about getting Joe’s daughter an interview and I must pop out this afternoon to get Will’s birthday present and those plants need watering and none of my pencils are sharpened and, right, I’ve got too much to do so I’m going to start by sorting my paperclips and then I shall make twenty-seven phone calls and I’ll do some thinking tomorrow when I’ve gotten everything out of the way!”
It’s funny because it’s true! Even when you set aside a specific time period to do something, it can take a while to filter out everything else. If you budget an hour and a half, you can take as long as a half hour to clear your mind of these thoughts and get a good hour in of creative thinking.
I know what you’re thinking, “Two times? Surely this is a mistake!” I can assure you, it is no mistake – and don’t call me Shirley. (It’s only just now that I realized this joke works much better when spoken than when written. Oh well, I’m going with it.) Not only should you schedule time for the creative process as mentioned above, but you should also give your mind as much time as possible to come up with something original. Don’t just settle for the first idea that comes to mind. This might cause some arguments or complaints, but Mr. Cleese advises that if a decision on a particular issue is not required until next Tuesday, don’t make it until next Tuesday. Don’t put off thinking about it until then, but put the necessary time in to make sure you arrive at the best solution. Don’t cheat the creative process.
Remember in middle school when the teacher would divide the class into groups to work on a project? One of the last things they’d say before setting each group on their assigned task was usually something like, “Remember class, there’s no such thing as a bad idea.” That’s essentially the idea behind this step. You must be open to anything that may happen and be willing to risk being silly, illogical or wrong. You should not feel like your ideas are being repressed. In the words of Mr. Cleese, nothing stops creativity faster than the fear of saying something wrong. Therefore, while you are being creative, nothing is wrong.
5. A Shrubbery (Oh, I’m sorry, that’s Humor. The fifth step is Humor. My notes are a bit messy, sorry about that.)
If the fear of doing something wrong is a road block to creativity, humor is the express lane. Nothing gets us from the closed mode to the open mode quicker than humor. You might be thinking that there are decisions and topics where humor might not be appropriate, but Mr. Cleese stresses the difference between something that is serious and something that is solemn. Humor relaxes us and is an essential part of the spontaneity that leads to an open approach to problem solving no matter how serious the topic.
There you go, John Cleese’s five steps to getting in the open mode and being more creative. But don’t be concerned if you followed those steps and still haven’t arrived at a creative solution to your problem. You’ve done the work, chances are it will come. It might not be until the next morning in the shower, or while you’re at the pet store purchasing a parrot or just doing a silly walk down the street, but it will come. So, thanks to Mr. Cleese, I’ll be more prepared when someone asks me how to be creative and the question will not taunt me a second time.