John Cleese at University of St. Thomas

What Higher Education Can Learn from Monty Python

Photo credit: Mike Ekern/University of St. Thomas

Back in the days when John Cleese was developing sketches for Monty Python, he would often find himself reaching a point where he didn’t know how the sketch should end. So he’d put it aside for the night, go to sleep … and then wake up knowing exactly how to end the sketch.

“I could only conclude that my unconscious kept working on it overnight,” Cleese told a capacity crowd at the University of St. Thomas as part of its Schulze Entrepreneurs Series. Himself an entrepreneur (having cofounded Video Arts, which grew to become the world’s largest provider of business training programs), Cleese was speaking on creativity in business.

He says that from the ages 8 to 22, none of his teachers noticed his creativity. Which just goes to show that, as Cleese put it, “Creativity doesn’t have to be taught. It just has to be liberated, because our education system puts it in hibernation.”

Studying the creative process became a lifelong endeavor for Cleese, who has coauthored several psychology books and is a visiting professor at Cornell University. He says one of his most enduring finds was an 1890 book on creativity that assigned it three phases: preparation, incubation, and inspiration.

It’s the middle phase—incubation (“it evokes hens just sitting there, not doing much”)—that Cleese has been intrigued by most, because he believes that creativity actually happens in the unconscious. And to allow your unconscious to do its thing, you have to turn off your logical thinking and simply relax, play, dream, leisurely ponder, and so forth.

That’s because entrepreneurial thinking is both left-brain and right-brain—or using the imagery that Cleese prefers, “hare thinking” and “tortoise thinking.” Western thought has been dominated by logical, reasoned hare thinking. But setting aside space and uninterrupted time for tortoise thinking can free your unconscious to deliver inspired ideas.

Given all of the demands in today’s higher education marketplace, there is a great need to facilitate effective ideation and engage in “edupreneurial” thinking. So a culture that’s usually only associated with, say, the philosophy faculty should also spread (at least sometimes!) to the entire administration: “In business you can’t really sit around with your feet up these days … but you should,” says Cleese.