John Cleese: Nobody Has Any Idea at First

We shy away from creative thinking or endeavors for a few possible reasons, a common one of which is fear; fear of failing, of being ridiculed, or of wasting time and money.

We don’t pursue writing a New York Times best selling book because we wouldn’t even know where to start. We don’t attempt to pick-up painting or music because that’s simply not who we are. Or we don’t try a new way to do what we do every day because, well, what we’ve done before has always worked so why change that now?

Who knows what would happen if we allowed ourselves a bit more creative freedom and courage. If we tried new things for the sake of trying them, or if we diligently chased after our passions or dreams with the same gusto we chase after easy entertainment and familiar settings.

In-fact: a common saying in creative circles is that what makes the creative greats in history so great wasn’t their talents or their fortune, but rather their ability to simply take action.

As one example: If you want to write a best seller, the theory goes, you first need to start writing. Easy as that, right? Of course, what comes after the writing matters too, and will be faced with equally frightening uncertainty. But in those instances you must take action yet again: keep writing, contact publishers, make friends with editors and book cover designers. Before you know it you might just have a best selling novel on your hands. Maybe not, but maybe you will, who can ever really say?

In his superb book, So, Anyway…, writer, director, and actor John Cleese gives us some assurance:

“Very very few people have any idea what they’re talking about.”

John goes on to explain that, for anything in life, you and I are just as uncertain about what we’re doing as those we idolize or otherwise look up-to. He writes: “Every now and again you learn another rule until eventually you know enough to play properly.”

How true! The fear of doing something wrong, of failing, of sheer uncertainty about how to go about it, should not prevent us from doing it. Nobody knows how to do anything the first time (not Einstein and his first paper, nor Picasso and his first masterpiece, certainly not me the first time I sat down to write a blog post).

We should not pursue the ideal result or the complete fantasy package when we first pursue any endeavor. Instead: we should embrace our uncertainty and take a first step towards what we dream, whatever first step that may be for us as individuals.

Uncertainty and fear don’t need to prevent you from pursuing your creative self, because everyone encounters those obstacles. It’s what the successful do in those moments that can inspire us to do the same: take action.

Read this next: What’s more important for creatives?

Five words, one tip for creative thinking

Clear your mind. Change perspective.

Two things with a tremendous impact on your ability to think creatively. In most cases, there is no better order of operation.

Clearing your mind – through meditation, exercise, sleep, or taking a break – allows you to break your usual thinking cycles that lead you to the same ideas and solutions. If you’re feeling creatively stuck or unmotivated, clearing your mind will help.

Changing perspective – by experiencing something new, physically changing perspective, introducing constraints, or conversing with a friend (or stranger) – helps to overcome your biases that lead you back into your routine thinking cycles. What good is clearing your mind if you’re simply going to fall back into your regular mode of thinking?

If I had to give advice on how to be more creative using only five words, these would be it.

Clear your mind. Change perspective.

Photo by Nickolai Kashirin.

To be creative is to stay hungry

There’s an old saying that goes: “If you give a man a fish, you feed him for a day. If you teach a man to fish, you feed him for a lifetime.”

But if you give someone who is hungry right now the option to either go learn how to fish or to take the fish you already have, they will almost always pick the easier option.

Creativity is the same way.

You and I are fortunate to live in a time where most things just work. Particularly if you’re reading this: life isn’t too shabby. You have access to the Internet, so there’s that, which also means you likely have access to warmth and shelter.

For many of us we have luxuries too: automobiles with air-conditioning, supercomputers that fit in our hand, complex meals that can be “cooked” in just a few minutes by a machine sitting in our kitchens, on and on the list goes.

For those who fit into this category, we are the ones being asked whether we’d like to learn how to fish, or simply eat the fish being presented to us. That is to say: when everything is being handed to us, why would we choose to question anything, to find alternatives, or to dream of new and wondrous things?

Creativity requires that we don’t simply accept everything being handed to us. Instead: creativity means we must take the time to stop and think about what is going on around us, why we do the things we do the way we do them, and if there might be better or more magical things out there waiting to be discovered.

The artist paints to create a new reality, not merely to accept the one he or she has been given. The inventor designs ways for life to be lived, sometimes that makes it easier and sometimes not. The poet gives a sharp eye to the humanity of life, dotting each attribute many of us tend to overlook simply because we can’t be bothered to do so.

To be creative is to not simply accept everything around you for the way it is. You must look at everything closely, always questioning, always dreaming of better and different ways to do, think, feel, taste, hear, and experience. It’s from that constant curiosity and exploration that the best ideas bloom.

As Steve Jobs once famously quipped:

“Stay hungry. Stay foolish”

Read this next: Tayarisha Poe: You’ve got to be dumb and stubborn to get good

Photo by Jamison Wieser.

Making time to think about making time to think

Writing helps us to ground our ever-flowing thoughts. Walking is a great way to provoke insightful thinking. Doodling allows us the opportunity to visually explore thoughts as they come and go.

What all of these acts have in common is that they allow us to think deeply. I say “allow” because it seems that there is hardly any opportunity to really think these days. We’re bombarded with communication, stress, and stimulation. We have the television or radio endlessly droning in cafes, the ever-building burden of responsibilities, and the incredible pressures to compete with everyone and anyone for attention and opportunity.

When we are given just a few moments to simply think – to finely tune-in to what is going through our head at any given moment – we are doing what we do best, yet rarely have an opportunity to do well.

This, I think, is a crucial element in being able to think creatively: setting aside the time to simply think. Whether it’s doodling in a meeting, free-writing on a Saturday, meditating for 15 minutes in the morning, or visiting a museum to sit in quiet and ruminate about the work in front of you.

These things matter if we want to be creative, as they allow us to take control of our thoughts, to guide them, rather than letting them flow unconstrained, distracted, and weighed down.

If you want to be creative, you have to set time aside to think. It doesn’t matter how you do it, or really for how long, just that you do it.

Read this next: The ways writing helps improve your thinking

Photo by Scott Smith

When you work on side projects


When you work on side projects you not only get to explore talents and topics you might otherwise not get to explore, you learn things about yourself and the world outside of your immediate field of vision.

Even if what you work on after hours isn’t profitable, or polished and perfect, or something you want to spend your entire life doing, you can learn a lot about who you are and how you work by working on side projects.

I could say more about it, but instead I’ll direct you to this short video of Tina Roth Eisenberg discussing the power of side projects.

Quote from Creative Confidence.