John Cleese on Why Creativity Takes Time

Credit: Adam Jones

Some time ago, I discovered a post on Brain Pickings called, “John Cleese on the Five Factors to Make Your Life More Creative.” The post features a one minute long YouTube clip from a thirty-six-minute talk John Cleese gave. I loved the video so much that I sought out the full speech. Buried in the middle was a story that I have, many times since, recounted to friends, family, and colleagues about why creativity takes time.

I’ve since looked for a text version of the talk so I could copy and paste the text to friends. I couldn’t find one, so I decided to transcribe my favorite part myself. I hope you all enjoy it as much as I have, and if you do, I hope you’ll share it.


Let me tell you a story. I was always intrigued that one of my Monty Python colleagues, who seemed to be — to me — more talented than I was, did never produce scripts as original as mine. And I watched for some time and then I began to see why. If he was faced with a problem and fairly soon saw a solution, he was inclined to take it, even though — I think — he knew the solution was not very original. Whereas, if I was in the same situation, although I was sorely tempted to take the easy way out, and finish by 5 o’clock, I just couldn’t. I’d sit there with the problem for another hour and a quarter, and by sticking at it, would — in the end — almost always come up with something more original. It was that simple. My work was more creative than his simply because I was prepared to stick with the problem longer.

So imagine my excitement when I found this was exactly what McKinnon found in his research. He discovered that the most creative professionals always played with the problem for much longer before they tried to resolve it. Because they were prepared to tolerate that slight discomfort and anxiety that we all experience when we haven’t solved a problem. You know what I mean, if we have a problem, and we need to solve it, until we do we feel inside that there’s this kind of of internal agitation or tension or uncertainty that makes us just plain uncomfortable. And we want to get rid of that discomfort. So in order to do so we take a decision. Not because we’re sure it’s the best decision, but because taking it will make us feel better. Well, the most creative people have learned to tolerate that discomfort for much longer, and so just because they put in more pondering time their solutions are more creative.

Now, the people I find it hardest to be creative with are the people who need — all the time — to project an image of themselves as decisive and who feel that to create this image they need to decide everything very quickly and with a great show of confidence. Well this behavior, I suggest sincerely, is the most effective way of strangling creativity at birth. But please note I’m not arguing against real decisiveness. I’m 100% in favor of taking a decision when it has to be taken, and then sticking to it while it’s being implemented. What I’m suggesting to you is that before you take a decision, you should always ask yourself the question, ‘When does this decision have to be taken?’ And, having answered that, you defer the decision until then — in order to give yourself maximum pondering time, which will lead you to the most creative solution. And if, while you’re pondering, somebody accuses you of indecision, say,

‘Look, Babycakes, I don’t have to decide ‘till Tuesday, and I’m not chickening out of my creative discomfort by taking a snap decision before then. That’s too easy.’”

👉 You can find the full video here.