Five Steps to Making Creativity Possible

writing desk

“Telling people how to be creative is easy.  It’s only being it that’s difficult.” – John Cleese

What is Creativity?

Most often I associate creativity with inspiration, to be so affected by something or someone that creativity is born from it.  You probably know creative people or are familiar with creative people.  Were they inspired, or is their creativity innate?  When I think of creative people, most often I think of artists, poets, and musicians; or engineers, architects, and scientists.  In reality, creativity exists in all fields, not just the sciences and in the arts.

I often associate creativity with brilliance; with a combination of intelligence and talent.  But creativity is neither of those things.  When you think about creating something – a painting, a song, a poem, a blueprint, a novel, a concerto, a website, a blog post, or a solution to a problem at work – what are you doing?  Do you patiently think about the subject as long as time will allow?  Or are you trying to come up with a quick solution to a problem?  Are you trying to produce or create something original?  Just what is creativity?  Can creativity be explained?

Let’s start with a Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary (1981) definition:

Creativity:  1: the quality of being creative; 2: the ability to create

Hmm…that wasn’t very helpful.  (I realize I should probably get an updated dictionary, but the definition remains unchanged on Webster’s website.)

Creativity is a Way of Operating

When I started to research creativity, I found John Cleese (of Monty Python fame).  He is a student and a speaker on the subject of creativity.  Relying on the late University of California at Berkeley Psychology Professor, Dr. Donald McKinnon’s, theories about creativity, Cleese makes the following observations:

“Creativity is not a talent…It is a way of operating…It is not an ability that you either have or do not have…It is…absolutely unrelated to I.Q.”   So, it is not innate and it has nothing to do with talent or intelligence.

If that assumption is true, that two people of equal I.Q. can be given the same problem to solve, why is it that one person will come up with a decidedly more creative solution than the other person?  Could it be how playful you are willing to be?  According to Cleese:

“McKinnon showed that the most creative [people] had simply acquired a facility for getting themselves into a particular mood -  a way of operating that allowed their natural creativity to function…an ability to play…as being childlike…For they were able to play with ideas, to explore them; not for any immediate practical purpose, but just for enjoyment.”

Do you enjoy playing with ideas?  How do you approach problems and situations?  Cleese’s lecture (the source for this blog post) was directed toward business people, but these concepts are not limited to the work environment.

People Operate in One of Two Modes

Cleese says that people operate or function at work in one of two modes – open and closed.  Most of the time, people are in the closed mode; an active, slightly anxious mode; a mode lacking humor; in which we are very purposeful, and in which we can get stressed.  The open mode is more relaxed, expansive, less purposeful, and more contemplative; it is more inclined to humor and more playful.

“Creativity is not possible in the closed mode…We need to be in the open mode when we are pondering a problem, but once we come up with a solution, we must switch to the closed mode to implement it.”  Once you make a decision, you must follow through with it without doubt.  Then you can evaluate whether or not your plan was a success, and move forward from there.

It sounds like creativity allows for mistakes to be made.  Is that the type of culture we currently live in?  Are we encouraged in school or work to try something to see if it works?  There is very little wiggle room with standardized testing in education and deadlines in the workplace for experimenting with ideas.  Cleese states that most of us operate in the closed mode.  My opinion is that we aren’t usually given the freedom to do otherwise.

5 Steps to Creativity

“There are certain conditions which do make it more likely that you will get in the open mode, and that something creative will occur…You need five things:  1. Space; 2. Time; 3. Time; 4: Confidence; 5: Humor.”

Cleese says that you must create an oasis for yourself that consists of space and time for creativity to happen.  It is important that you have a time when you will not be interrupted.  Because it takes some time to actually relax and stop thinking about things that need to be done (about a half hour); you should allow at least an hour and a half.  After that, you need a break.  Of course, there are no guarantees that anything creative will happen, only that you are making it possible to get into an open “playful” mode, so that it might.

Here is a brief description of each of the five steps:

1. Space.  The idea of space means that you need to get away from your usual pressures.  You must make a quiet space where you will be undisturbed.

2.  Time.  Time refers to a specific moment when your space starts and a specific moment when your space stops.

These first two steps have to do with setting boundaries.  Once you have established boundaries of space and time, then what?

3.  Time – again.  Ponder and defer.  This has to do with how to use the time you have created for your space-time oasis.  This is about thinking, and allowing your unconscious mind to work.  McKinnon discovered that creative people stuck with a problem and the discomfort of not having a solution.  They tolerate the tension of not having a solution for a longer amount of time than less creative people.  They don’t feel the need to come up with a quick decision.  It seems this is has to do with pondering and deferring the decision until it must be made.  Give you mind as long as possible to come up with something original.

4. Confidence.  Nothing will stop creativity like the fear of making a mistake.  You cannot be playful if you are frightened of being wrong.  You have to take risks.  “When you’re being creative, nothing is wrong” (as in right versus wrong).

5. Humor.  It gets us from the closed mode to the open mode faster than anything else.  Humor is an essential part of creativity, no matter how serious a problem you might be trying to solve.

Once you are in the open mode, you must keep gently bringing your mind back to the subject at hand.  Keep your mind resting against the subject in a friendly, but persistent way.  Put in the pondering time.


Can creativity really be that easy?  Create an oasis.  Sit and ponder.  Defer decision making until the last possible moment.  Don’t be afraid of making mistakes.  Laugh!

I don’t know about you, but I rarely never sit in one place for an hour and a half to just think and contemplate.  My husband is very creative.  He is a great ponderer, and I often grow frustrated while he takes time to examine a problem or situation and give it his full consideration.  I never really thought about how this relates to creativity.  In my misguided ideas about creativity, I think I believed that creativity just happens; that original ideas spontaneously materialize in one’s mind.  You know, some people are creative and others are not so lucky.  I hadn’t really given thought to the process; that in order to be creative, it is important to construct a personal oasis of space and time, to shut out the pressing and seemingly urgent responsibilities of daily life and allow your unconscious to become open.  Creativity is a way of operating.

I don’t think that this theory of creativity is the last word, but it is an interesting concept that differed from my own thoughts about creativity.  *

© Robin Tjernagel


Source – John Cleese’s 1991 Lecture on Creativity (36 minutes):

Another Cleese video on Creativity (10 minutes):

John Cleese’s Business Website:

*I wrote this piece a while ago for my first blog. I am republishing it here, while I try to write a poem and take photos for this week’s Poetry Prompt and photo prompt Pixelventures at WDBWP.

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  1. This is an interesting article, Rob. I’ve found it hard to write while we’ve been in a RV for a year and a half unless I go to a coffee shop or local library – so I agree that space is an important one. If I were alone in the RV it would be perfect – for writing anyway. And I have to ponder, but I do it while I’m doing other things; riding my bike, walking, doing the dishes, laundry, showering. You know – those mindless activities. Oh and dreaming – sleeping – I have to have a pen and small notebook on my tiny little RV nightstand because a lot of my inspiration comes, just the right sentence, connection, etc – while I’m drifting off or walking up.

    And humor is so important – but one I often forget. I shouldn’t take myself or my craft so damn serious. It should be fun. It should be enjoyable. Or else, why do it?

    • I used to get a lot of inspiration taking walks in the city. Sometimes listening to music or reading will inspire something.

      Now, my desk is set up in the bedroom, so I just close the door and hope for the best. My greatest distraction is my dog, Strider. When my door is closed, he barks. If he gets in, he lets me know he wants something by sitting and staring. Oh..and panting – loudly!

      I sometimes keep a notebook and pen by the bed. I hate to turn on the light, so those notes are often difficult to read, and at times, I write on a page that has already been used :)

  2. I can relate to the idea of having time and quiet to create. I also find it is helpful to clear my desk of other stuff too.

  3. Pingback: Reflection | ROB'S REAL LIFE

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