John Cleese’s trick to thinking more creatively

4 min read
Eli Woolery
  •  Jan 28, 2021
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Designers are all too familiar when divergent thinking comes up against convergent thinking. Maybe in a meeting they’ll toss an idea out—based on their discipline to think divergently, or dream up possibilities—and just a few seconds later a business partner or developer will chime in with convergent thinking, analyzing their ideas with reasons something won’t work, be it budget constraints or feasibility concerns.

But English actor, writer, and comedian John Cleese has another framework for coming up with and refining good ideas. It’s known as “open mode” and “closed mode” thinking, and it’s a solid case for why the best ideas come through play, not purpose. John, who co-founded the Monty Python comedy troupe, dropped by the Design Better Podcast to talk with us about his new book Creativity: A Short and Cheerful Guide. 

As for the modes of thinking, he explains that closed-mode thinking often goes like this: You decide and immediately implement it. You don’t pause and analyze whether it’s a good decision before acting on it. Afterwards, you can have a post mortem and think, “If we did it again, what could we do better?”

On the flip side, open-mode thinking is more nuanced.

“Open mode is listening to feedback from the world and listening to your own thoughts and feelings and saying, well, how do I feel about this?” John says.

The corporate world tends to skew towards closed-mode thinking. (“Everybody wants clarity and clarity quickly,” he says.) But John thinks there’s room for open-mode thinking there, too. You just need to practice becoming more comfortable with unpredictability.

“One of the characteristics of creative people is that they can live in confusion and quite enjoy it.”

Once you’ve let go with having to be clear about everything, you may be surprised that ideas come to you out of nowhere. For example, John once went to bed without managing to find a punchline for a sketch, only to wake up the next morning and have the missing line seem so clearly obvious to him, he was surprised he hadn’t already come up with it.

“You can’t order your unconscious around,” John says. “You can’t control it and hit it with a stick. You have to know how to work with it.”

Want to hear more of John’s unique perspective?

Learn how John’s childhood influences the way he approaches creativity, as well as the way he uses writing to explore ideas on the Design Better Podcast.

Listen to the full episode here

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