John Cleese on creativity and how to unleash your tortoise brain

If you haven’t seen this video of John Cleese explaining his theory of creativity, it’s well worth watching.

The ‘tortoise theory,’ as I’ve labelled it, comes from Cleese’s many years of creative work and observations of his own struggles and successes in creating new work. The idea is that your creativity acts like a tortoise—poking its head out nervously to see if the environment is safe before it fully emerges. Thus, you need to create a tortoise enclosure—an oasis amongst the craziness of modern life—to be a safe haven where your creativity can emerge.

In the video, Cleese offers some fascinating anecdotes about his own creative process and how he came to hold the tortoise theory. He was originally accepted into Cambridge as a science student, and explains how his science background led him to a habit of observing his own creativity in an attempt to understand the process.

Creating a tortoise enclosure for your creativity not only requires effort, but also the understanding of how to do so. These five practical tips will help you get started, but I would strongly recommend taking Cleese’s approach as well, and observing your own working habits and the results you get in different situations.

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Give your tortoise brain its own time slot

Setting aside time is one of the major points Cleese touches on. As he says, your thoughts need time to settle before your creativity will feel safe and start to emerge.

Setting a regular time for creative thinking is a good way to train your mind to relax. Eventually, your regular ‘thinking time’ will become a safe haven—a tortoise enclosure—for your creativity.

If this is not a feasible option, you can still create a safe environment for your creativity–you’ll just need more time for your thoughts to settle. Without the safety net of regularity, your tortoise brain will be looking for assurance that it’s safe to come out and play.

Minimizing distractions as much as possible can help send signals of safety to your tortoise brain. If you set aside a whole hour of thinking time, make sure you turn off or move away from any kind of alarms or notifications that might go off during this time, and ask colleagues or your assistant not to disturb you until your time is up.

Give your tortoise brain its own space

A separate space is another important indicator to your creativity that it’s safe to come out. Removing yourself from your work environment—i.e. your ‘busy’ space—to a free, creativity space sends a signal to your brain. And if you do this consistently, your tortoise brain will learn to recognize the place as a safety zone for creative thinking.

Send signals

Time and space can both send signals to your tortoise brain. If you move to a new environment and set a time limit for yourself to play and think creatively, your tortoise brain will eventually work its way out and help you think. Using time and space in consistent ways—spending the same amount of time, starting at the same time of day, using the same room or area each time—will make these signals more clear to your tortoise brain, and more effective.

Other signals that can help might be a particular position—maybe standing instead of your usual seating position—, listening to the same music, or using a certain set of tools. The more regular these signals are, the more easily your tortoise mind will learn to recognize them as indicators of a safe enclosure where creative thinking can occur.

Leave your tortoise brain alone

Another point that Cleese touches on is the effectiveness of sleeping on a problem. He recalls observing a dramatic change in his approach to a creative problem after having left it alone. He not only awoke with a perfectly clear idea on how to continue his work, but the problem itself was no longer apparent.

The trick here is to trust enough to let go. Thus far, you’ve been working to encourage your creativity to trust you, as you’ve developed and indicated a safe tortoise enclosure for it to inhabit.

Now, it’s time to trust your tortoise.

By carefully defining the problem you want to solve—whether you simply think about it, write it out or actually begin to work through it—you are giving your tortoise brain something to work on.

Then comes space and time.

By leaving your tortoise alone and engaging your conscious brain in other tasks, (i.e. sleeping) you are providing exactly what it needs to work away in your subconscious, without your pesky thoughts getting in the way. You’ll probably be surprised to see how much work has been done without you knowing it when you return to the problem after a good night’s sleep.

Give up and start over

One of the most practical aspects of Cleese’s talk also seems the most ridiculous in terms of implementation.

He regales a time when he wrote a sketch that he was particularly proud of, but sadly lost the work before it was performed. Having been so fond of the sketch, Cleese forced himself to write it out again from memory—spending much less time on it that he had initially. He subsequently found the original and was curious enough to compare the two. What he found upon comparison was that the hastily written second copy—created entirely from memory—was much better than the original.

Cleese had inadvertently given his tortoise brain time and space to work in the subconscious part of his mind. Even though he felt the sketch was finished after writing the original version, his tortoise brain had continued to develop it so that when he began again from scratch it was much better.

Discarding our work and starting again from scratch may not always seem—or be—possible. When it is, though, it’s another useful way of employing your tortoise to work in your subconscious brain. I actually tried this with another blog post today and was happily surprised with the result.

If you’re in a creative field, you’ll know how difficult it can sometimes be to come up with great ideas under pressure. If you don’t understand how your own creative process works, there’s little hope of improving this situation, either.

Take notice of the way you work and see what provides the best results. Set aside time and space to create a safe tortoise enclosure for your creativity. Send clear signals to your tortoise brain, or go away and sleep on the problem.

I’m comparing your creative brain to a tortoise. It sounds ridiculous, I know. But hey, I got the theory from John Cleese. You wouldn’t argue with him, now would you?