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You Too, Can be Creative! Actor/Comedian John Cleese Explains How to Unlock Your Unconscious Potential
The British born writer and performer comes to Trinity as part of Distinguished Lecture Series

By Russell Guerrero ’83

April 2009
Everyone is born with great creative potential, said John Cleese, the acclaimed writer/performer and founding member of the Monty Python’s Flying Circus comedy troupe.  The problem is that most people unlearn how to be creative when they go to school.  Mr. Cleese spoke on “The Importance of Creativity to a packed audience at Laurie Auditorium on Wednesday, April 15, as part of Trinity’s Distinguished Lecture Series.

During his presentation, John Cleese recommended two books for learning more about creativity.  The books were:


A Whole New Mind: Why Right-Brainers will Rule the Future by Daniel Pink.


Hare Brain, Tortoise Mind: How Intelligence Increases When You Think Less by Guy Claxton.

“I’ve been fascinated by it for years,” said Mr. Cleese, adding that creativity can be learned. “At school, it is pretty much unlearned.”  

To make his point, he cited a study in which kindergarten students were asked if they were creative. Every student raised their hand.  But by the time students reached the sixth grade and were asked the same question, not one student’s hand went up.

The key to unlocking creativity comes from the unconscious mind, said Mr. Cleese. “Every great breakthrough comes from the unconscious.”  

However, our culture favors the analytical side of the mind, the part of the brain which uses logic and reason for solving problems quickly and efficiently, he said. Unfortunately, an overreliance on this part of the mind can lead to a different set of troubles. “We are always trying to save time and we become anxious because of deadlines,” said Mr. Cleese.

Mr. Cleese offered several tips on how to ignite the creative spark:

  • Get a good night’s sleep when working on a project or problem.  Often the unconscious mind works best on a solution while you are not awake.

  • Avoid interruptions.  Interruptions are the most destructive roadblock to creative thinking.  Find a place and a time to think creatively without outside interference.

  • Do not get anxious if a solution does not come right away.  A highly creative person realizes that a more patient, less deliberative type of thinking is good for solving problems.

Mr. Cleese told the audience that playfulness is also important for creativity and that time for play should be separate from everyday life.

Trinity President John Brazil and John Cleese discuss creativity.

Once the unconscious mind starts working, Mr. Cleese said the results will be surprising. “What you will get is unarticulated ideas – vague notions and whims.  You will have no idea what will come up.” 

Mr. Cleese warned about analyzing the information too soon. “You have to give it time.  You have to wait until it begins to make sense.”

Finally, he said to repeat the process. “Take the information from your unconscious, see what works and what doesn’t, and then relegate it back the unconscious.”

Creativity was not the only topic Mr. Cleese talked about while at Trinity. 

The day before his lecture, he met with speech and drama students for an informal question and answer session in the Attic Theater.  Mr. Cleese answered questions about how he began his career, on working in movies, and who were his inspirations (Spike Milligan and David Frost were two).

He told the students he never improvised skits on the Monty Python show and instead wrote scripts for each comedy bit and making changes only during rehearsals.  He also said that he enjoys working with a partner rather than writing by himself. “The different sensibility takes you to a place where you would never get to alone,” he said.

The Trinity University Distinguished Lecture Series is made possible by an endowment gift from Mr. and Mrs. Walter F. Brown of San Antonio.


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