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John Cleese: Creativity, Imagination & Tortoise Enclosures #CMWorld


The incisor growth rate of an average beaver is 32 feet per year.

The hatchet fish is the only creature with eyes on its wrists.

And now for something completely different…

John Cleese–actor, comedian, and 1/5th of Monty Python–started his presentation with the preceding two useful facts. Having armed the audience with knowledge, he proceeded to disarm us with his wit and wisdom.

“If you listen to what I’m going to say,” he began in earnest, “I guarantee by the end of this you will be more creative than you are now.” It was a bold statement, but entirely believable (far more so than the hatchet fish claim) from the man who gave the world the Ministry for Silly Walks and the Dead Parrot Sketch.

Mr. Cleese credits Guy Claxton’s book Hare Brain, Tortoise Mind for the basis of his theory of creativity. The idea is that we have a quick-thinking, logical part of our brains which is good for solving logistical or mathematical problems. But we also have a slow-thinking, contemplative mind that can work out complex problems, and produce creative work.

Create a Safe Space for Contemplation

It’s important to give your contemplative “tortoise mind” the space and time it needs to work. He calls his creative space his “tortoise enclosure,” where he can free himself from interruptions and distractions to let his creative unconscious roam free. Whether it’s a broom closet or a park bench, find a space separate from where you normally work.

Generate Ideas in Creative Mode

Once you’re in your tortoise enclosure, let your mind roam free. The first thoughts you will have, of course, will be all the mental housekeeping you have been putting off. Just make a reminder of these random to-dos so you can address them later. As Mr. Cleese put it, “if I have a thought pop into my head, like ‘call Bob,’ I’ll write it on a note for later, and then it’s out of my head.”

Once the dust settles, you can generate ideas. The trick is to create without evaluating–that part comes later. While you’re in your tortoise enclosure, let your thoughts go wherever they want to take you, without thinking of what is practical or sensible.

Evaluate in Logic Mode

When you’re ready to leave the tortoise enclosure and go back to the work at hand, that’s the time to use your logical, quick-thinking “hare brain” to evaluate your ideas. See what looks promising, what needs to be refined, and what you can chuck out the window.

Mr. Cleese goes through several sessions of generating ideas and refining them, alternating between contemplation and evaluation until only the best ideas are left standing.

Forge New Mental Pathways

The tortoise enclosure makes you more creative by helping you think outside of your established mental grooves. Neuropsychologist Donald Hebb said, “Neurons that fire together, wire together.” In other words, the more you follow the same mental path, the harder it is to strike off into the underbrush. Using your tortoise mind allows your brain to roam free without the hare brain snapping it back to your established thought processes.

So the next time you feel stuck with a complex problem that demands a creative solution, Mr. Cleese recommends taking a trip to your tortoise enclosure. When it comes to creativity, slow and steady really does win the race.

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